why corporate sustainability strategists must usher in a new era of collaborative reporting and open data

Can sustainability reporting in its current form really drive the radical insight, collaboration and behavioral change that we so need?

As the Economist reminds us in a recent report (‘Data, data everywhere’, February 27th, 2010), “The point of open information is not merely to expose the world, but to change it.”

At SustainAbility, we work with companies on disclosing and communicating sustainability-related information – corporate sustainability reporting – because we believe it can be an effective way for a company to develop a sustainability strategy, hold itself accountable, and engage stakeholders. But like many observers over the last decade, we think there is a lot left to be desired.

Companies know they’ve reached a crossroads. The leading reporters are experimenting with new platforms, channels, and forms of assurance. These are all good developments – but they don’t feel like enough.

And it’s not because a lot of smart and passionate people aren’t thinking about making sustainability reporting more valuable. There is something structurally wrong – but what?

Turns out it’s the US and UK governments leading the charge on accountability – by harnessing the power of ICT and social media to make government more transparent (promote accountability), participatory (strengthen decisions by tapping into society’s expertise), and collaborative (engage staff, citizens, non-profits and businesses in the government’s work).

The day after he took office, President Obama signed the Open Government Memorandum calling for “a new era of collaborative democracy and open government.” His is the first US administration to appoint a Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra.

In the UK, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee is working with Prime Minister Gordon Brown to open up government databases, and Conservative leader David Cameron is giving talks at TED on his Open Government and Transparency Plan.

There are three big themes in Obama’s open government plans that have implications for next-generation corporate sustainability reporting.

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Data intermediaries

  • Atul Gawande Q&A in the New Scientist on his new book, The Checklist Manifesto. “The World Health Organization asked me to work out how to reduce deaths in surgery. We have the tools – specialisation and technology. But why do we continue to fail when we have trained surgeons who have access to technology? So I started thinking that the trouble must be with complexity – the complexity of what we know exceeds an individual’s ability to deliver results correctly and safely. In other complex fields, such as aviation, they use checklists.”
  • Minority Report “Tom Cruise as conductor” gesture-based interface comes to life. “The old model of ‘one human, one machine, one mouse, one screen’ is passe.”