06/18/2012 12:52 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

The Revolution in Rio

The U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio can be the take-off for the next industrial revolution driven by business and civil society. The conference can mark a change in leadership from a political top down process to a bottom up movement.

On the 20th of June, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development can celebrate a sure success. The day marks the end of a week's intensive meetings between thousands of business leaders, institutions, NGOs, universities, etc. Through hundreds of sessions, they have presented and discussed concrete solutions to the biggest challenges of our time: How to transition the world society to a sustainable economy -- and on the 20th of June, their efforts will be put into perspective. Thus, Rio is without comparison the biggest and most important business summit about sustainability we've ever seen.

At Copacabana Palace, a hundred examples of what is possible within sustainability are presented with the initiative Sustainia 100. Sustainia100 is one hundred best practice cases from 56 different countries gathered to illustrate how we already possess realistic and groundbreaking solutions to even the most complex problems.

It is no coincidence that action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger is leading the Sustainia100 initiative together with three active contributors to the sustainability agenda; the mother of the Rio process, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Chairman for the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri and finally the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard. Nor is it a coincidence that the initiative is launched the day before the political negotiations begin. In the shades of the many long and tough political negotiations to reach climate agreements, businesses and institutions all around the globe have worked hard at finding new answers to the big challenges. But the effort has been scattered and without seeing the bigger picture. Sustainia 100 is an attempt to ensure correlation and overview of the development -- hereby describing the frontrunners.

A new leadership

At the same time, it reflects a new process and a change of roles in the process of completing the transformation from today's industrial society to tomorrow's sustainable society. Rethinking the traditional top-down political process, Rio will demonstrate the strength and the perspective in a broad bottom up movement. Whether or not Rio becomes a success, is not determined by what politicians can agree on -- since the possibility of reaching a global agreement about a sustainable economy has pretty much been deemed impossible in advance.

Rio+20 could mark a new leap forward and a new distribution of roles to the key players. Bearing this in mind, Rio+20 could go down in history as one of the international events which made a difference for the world society.

However, success has in reality been long on the way and describes a logical and natural process, which began 20 years ago with the first conference in Rio. Under the chairmanship of Gro Harlem Brundtland, sustainability became an important issue on the world's agenda. This event didn't start any revolutions but resulted in more international meetings between experts and the most environmentally aware businesses, politicians and opinion leaders. However, the seeds were planted and the agenda was revitalized in 2006 with the publication of the Stern Review and again in 2007 with IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report. Both reports describe in clear terms, climate changes as a burning platform that is challenging our civilization and our way of life. They furthermore contributed to the build up to Cop 15 in Copenhagen and enabled a broad, global discussion about the need for a joint response to global warming.

Drivers of change

The breakdown of the negotiations in Copenhagen was a huge setback for this development -- a setback reinforced by the financial crisis, which abruptly moved the public focus from melting icebergs to the banking industry and the survival of the western economies. One would think that the sustainability agenda died out due to lack of interest in the subject -- but quite the opposite. The following two conditions have increased the interest for sustainability:

1) The business world has acknowledged that climate changes and an increasing shortage of important natural resources present both a threat and an opportunity for their way of conducting business. Energy efficiency has in itself become a crucial competitiveness factor. At the same time, the chase for finding solutions to global challenges has in itself become a big and expanding market.

2) The financial crisis became a wake-up call awakening a strong focus on our overspending of money in order to maintain our overspending of material goods. This has left deep marks with many people and increased our interest for simple living, where we are forced to rethink what quality of life really means. This trend is moving slowly, but will in the following years create a different understanding of what sustainable values are.

Rio+20 can become a catalyst for these two conditions, thereby achieving results that will overshadow the political outcome. This is where success has already been achieved. A review of the different programs for Rio+20 illustrates how comprehensive and widespread the sustainable agenda is. This kind of interest has also been present at other summits/conferences of this caliber -- but the business summits and their themes are the ones that send new and more precise signals.

Take for instance U.N. Global Compact's Corporate Sustainability Forum, which will gather over 2,000 business leaders to about 100 sessions, which all relate to concrete challenges. A subsequent conference organized by The International Chamber of Commerce, World Business Council for Sustainable Development and U.N. Global Compact is pursuing the same track and has about 500 business leaders attending 20 sessions -- all discussing essential challenges that businesses are to solve. The themes and participants signal a strong focus on action.

Mobilizing bottom up

That was the good news. The bad news is that the many sessions and initiatives are spread out and discussed in closed rooms. Hence, it is difficult to obtain an overview of how far the world's gotten in the transition towards a sustainable economy. And what does it look like? What kind of life can we prepare ourselves for? Sustainia will aim at answering these questions. Sustainia is founded by Monday Morning in cooperation with a group of international businesses and institutions with the main purpose of gathering the best bricks -- best practices -- and building the sustainable society of tomorrow. It is the story of what can be done in the next ten years if we use the best available and sustainable technologies.

It is this joyous message, Rio can send to the world and which the business world and civil society can bring to the politicians when they begin the negotiations the next day. But the message is about more than that. As much as the Rio+20 will demonstrate how far we've gotten with developing solutions, as much will it also demonstrate that the attempts at reaching global agreements is no longer a viable option. The top down process must be abandoned -- or significantly downgraded -- in favor of stimulating the bottom up development that Rio+20 in reality is an exponent for. In order for the bottom up movement to succeed, the politicians and the business and science world need to keep the public involved with a convincing and attractive narrative of the future. This, especially, is Sustainia's mission.

Revolutions usually begin bottom up and gain ground with time. That a revolution should be initiated in Rio wasn't part of the plan, but 10 years from now, when we meet at Rio+30, Rio+20 could very well be looked back on as the event that triggered the revolution and changed the world. Thus, all the conditions for a surprising success at Rio are present.