At long last Part 3 of the Geneva Files has arrived! If you haven’t already read the rest of the saga you can find the earlier posts here.
In part 2 of this series on my time in Geneva I shared the experience of applying to be a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum; a process that took about 6 months in total and culminated in my acceptance onto the programme over Christmas. Of course, this entire application was happening in the background while I got on with the job I was sent to Geneva to get done. What exactly did that involve? Well that’s what this post is all about.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I was sent to Geneva to be the project manager for something called Project MainStream, a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum. The aim of the initiative is to choose a material (plastics for instance) and bring together a group of the biggest companies in that industry to work together to overcome challenges that are simply too big or too complex for any individual business, city or government to overcome alone. Pretty ambitious I’m sure you’ll agree.
When I inherited the project it had just had major success with the launch of a headline-grabbing report, at Davos in January 2016, within which was the mind-blowing revelation that, if we keep going as we are there will be more plastics than fish (by weight) in the world’s oceans by 2050.
Buoyed by this success the decision was taken to focus the attention of Project MainStream in a new direction, one that hadn’t been very much explored: organic material. The aim – and my job – for the second half of 2016 (it had taken a few months to spin the plastics work into its own initiative and decide on the new focus) was to recruit a group of global businesses that deal with organic materials and to research and write a paper, to be launched at Davos 2017, highlighting the need for a much bigger (and better funded) piece of research.
I threw myself in whole-heartedly. I pulled together lists of companies that work in industries relating to organic material: agricultural, food processors, fertiliser manufacturers, waste management, biotechnology companies, etc. We had a good starting group – who had been involved in the plastic work – but we needed more. I went through the list contacting companies to explain the project and get them signed up, if not to join the consortium then at least to be interviewed or share data for the research. I drew up project plans and overview documents to share with potential funders and consortium members. I flew around Europe presenting at conferences and symposiums to recruit new members. I contacted academic experts to set up and conduct interviews. I read report after report after report trying learn all that I could about anaerobic digestion, biorefining, composting, macro-nutrients, micro-nutrients, land degradation and more. What I was learning went into the paper that was slowly coming together. I was relentless. I was largely working alone. And I was coming apart at the seams.
The rings under my eyes got darker and darker. I skipped breakfast to get an extra 30 minutes of sleep every morning and then worked past midnight every night. Weekends were spent either in bed or on the couch watching Netflix with a laptop open responding to overdue emails.
There were other, subtler, signs that I wasn’t coping. I missed a flight because I left my bag (which had been between my legs!) behind on the train and had to chase it to the next station. I nearly missed a second flight when I just forgot to get off the train at the airport, only realising I’d made the mistake two stations later. I spontaneously burst into tears at a work function while in conversation over a beer with two colleagues. Okay that last sign was not so subtle…
Nevertheless, I plowed on. “They must have sent me to Geneva because I can deal with this kind of pressure!“, “This is just what responsibility feels like!“,”You’ve got to prove that you can do this!” I told myself time and time again. The nights got even later and the rings even darker, but finally December arrived and the Urban Biocycles paper was sent to the printers ready to arrive in Davos.
Speaking of Davos, as a secondee at the World Economic Forum I was also involved in the preparation for their flagship January event. Writing the research paper and applying for the fellowship just weren’t enough for me! Oh, and somehow during all of this I met my girlfriend. But I’ll save those two stories for later.