Gehl: Innovating for the SDGs
Many know that Denmark is a world leader in design and architecture. One of these leaders is Gehl, a global design consultancy with offices in San Francisco and New York as well as Copenhagen. We caught up with Jeff Risom, partner and Chief Innovation Officer at Gehl, to talk about how they’re hoping to use the SDGs to shape their business.
Of the 21 companies in DI’s project From Philanthropy to Business, Gehl is part of the group of companies that’s going for some of the most ambitious targets – namely to do new service and product innovation using the SDGs as a starting point. Whilst some companies might look at the need for clean water, for example, as a business opportunity to provide low-cost sustainable water solutions, Gehl is trying to integrate a more comprehensive approach to sustainability so that they can help their clients navigate the SDGs in everything from city planning to transport design and even consumer products.
SDGs can help to find new customer segments
"We believe that sustainability is increasingly important, not only for our current clients, but also for a whole range of new clients we don’t yet work with,” Jeff says on a sunny summer morning on the balcony of their 5th floor offices on Vesterbrogade. “As a values-based, mission-driven company that has always sought to make cities more livable, we are working with a range of new clients outside the urban planning space, and early experience shows that sustainable design is an increasingly important part of human-centered design."
Building for Tomorrow’s Customers
Jeff described a recent meeting with a large transportation client. One of the junior associates recommended using the SDG indicators – 230 qualitative and quantitative measure of progress towards the Global Goals – as the KPI framework for their project. “The other two associates in the room were slightly older, and slightly more skeptical,” Jeff says. “The oldest two in the room didn’t even know what the SDGs were!” For Jeff, this was a perfect illustration of how awareness and attitudes towards sustainability are changing through the generations, and how companies like Gehl need to prepare themselves for the future, now.
“This client is actually a publicly funded institution that makes very, very long term bets. Their funding for 2035 has just been approved. So we’ve been able to help them design for the future. When they tell us, ‘our customers don’t really care about sustainability,’ we tell them that they’d better design for sustainability, because tomorrow’s customers will care. Futhermore this approach is a way to reduce risk and uncertainty by promoting the type of culture that will shape future customers demand. ”
No Quick Fixes for Sustainable Business
Jeff notes that their participation in the DI SDG project has helped them lead these discussions more confidently, but that the ‘2030 Vision’ recommended by DI’s project approach is still a work in progress. DI’s project advocates for big, bold, long term goals to help provide strategic direction and prioritization and communicate clearly and simply in a way that is meaningful both for the business and for customers. DI member Ørsted’s commitment to ‘A world that runs entirely on green energy’ is a great example of the kind of big, bold goal that we advocate. This technique, known as ‘back-casting,’ from the future, also helps companies big and small to work incrementally in small steps towards a bigger, transformative purpose.
For Gehl, the challenge for a 2030 Vision is perhaps bigger and more complex than for some other project participants who are in production or use of natural resources, as they’re seeking to transform the service offering itself. But Jeff believes that through listening carefully to their clients, staying true to their core capacities, and learning from the other participants, they’ll get there.
We do think that the opportunities – even at city level – are enormous. For example, why can’t cities develop an ‘AirBnB for unused city spaces and assets,’ so that empty city warehouses could be leased to micro-breweries or other small businesses, thereby using space and building more efficiently and reducing the need to build new structures?” It’s just an example, but also points to the way that technology, sustainability, and efficiency have a natural affinity Jeff Risom
Jeff acknowledges that the challenges are significant, both for Gehl’s clients but also for Gehl’s managers and employees. “There’s no doubt that the SDGs call upon us to think differently to co-create and to remake the long-term vision as to how they’re solving problems. The same applies to us.”
But for Jeff, the risks of inaction are high, and the opportunities for mastering the SDGs are huge. “We know that this is a huge opportunity for Gehl, and if we don’t invest in these skill sets in a way that delivers real value to our clients, someone else will. But in the end we’re most motivated and inspired by the ability to contribute to a sustainable planet in a way that Jan Gehl could recognize.”