Oslo

The Norwegian word lldsjel is not a term that most people, especially foreigners, will find easy to roll off their tongue; but for Norway’s society, it holds great cultural import.

Literally translated into the words “fire soul”, lldsjel describes a person, usually a mentor or leader, who is driven for a cause — sometimes doing it without compensation. Understanding this term alone provides a sneak peak into how some Norwegians approach their tasks or jobs, and why Norway is one of the leaders in accomplishing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which aims to promote 17 sustainability mandates, such as inequality and economic growth, that will prosper society holistically.

Norwegians hold great reverence for their country’s landscape, what with its breathtaking waters, mountainous regions and vast forests. In the last few decades, the “fire souls” of the country have sought to develop infrastructure and champion causes that will not only bring pragmatic benefits to society, but also ensure the wellbeing of each individual and their harmonious coexistence with their environment.

And so at Oslo Innovation Week 2018, e27 was granted the opportunity to be flown in to attend talks by various Norwegian and other Scandinavian thought leaders and entrepreneurs, and see what the world can learn from the hyper-driven leaders of sustainable development.

Urban planning

It’s simple to just plant a whole lot more trees or designate areas for greenery — as it is with many artist impressions of future “green” cities. But really, building a sustainable society is more than that; urban planning has to be completely reimagined from the ground up.

Planners have to look beyond the physical space and look at various trends that constitute the evolution of society. For example, the concept of the traditional nuclear family with large households is changing, and more societies are going car-lite. So, why plan for the construction of spaces that continue to cater to this modernist framework as if they are immutable?

Most developed cities are planned with a certain, specific, future realised in the mind already — that’s the consequence of centralised planning. But the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of uncertainties that can happen, and a lot more variables that might be unaccounted for.

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There needs to be more participation and more democracy when it comes to the reimagining cities. There needs to be a paradigm shift in mindset. See city planning as reality planning instead of merely solving technical issues. There also needs to be more license for experimentation and co-creation for different variations of future realities as opposed to running through perfectly-laid out plan.

Some initiatives that were discussed were fairly radical. One of them is Copenhagen’s “The Borderland” (a variation of United States’ Burning Man festival, where various technological and cultural concepts are tested in a middle of a desert). Then, there is the Sisters Academy, a boarding school that “promotes sensuous learning for the future” (pretty far out, I know).

But something more down-to-earth would be Copenhagen’s Goldmine Project: It has built a 500 sqm recycling centre, allowing companies to buy and sell recycled products. This helps to maximise the lifecycle and redistristribution of resources — a business practice that is also known as the “circular business model”, which aims to minimise wastage of resources.

Mobility

The design of cars may have undergone several changes, but what has been consistent since its invention is that drivers have to manually operate the car to get from point A to point B.

The next phase of the car’s evolution, fully autonomous cars, will be its most revolutionary upgrade yet. But self-driving technology isn’t some silver bullet that will eradicate all the drawbacks of today’s transport framework. There are a few different approaches that governments and institutions can adopt. So before we introduce this technology en masse to the public, is it important to study the potential effects on society — especially when it involves a change of this magnitude.

According to Norwegian economist Øystein Berge, there are 3 possible scenarios that will herald in the era of autonomous cars.

The first scenario is that the proliferation of autonomous cars will open access for private car usage and ownership to more groups of people. Kids may be able to use the cars to get from home to school and back by themselves; disabled and more elderly folks will be able to drive themselves without assistance. For the more able-bodied people, autonomous cars will free up time and energy for them to accomplish other tasks.

In this scenario, assuming autonomous cars are priced at an affordable range, ownership of private cars will skyrocket — and this will lead to more congestion on the roads, and more public resources need to be channeled towards building roads, not to mention the accompanying infrastructure such as traffic lights, speed cameras, etc. Definitely not the most ideal future for the environment and society.

The second scenario is where autonomous cars will be provided by private companies as a form of mobility-as-a-service. This can include ride-sharing services, on-demand door-to-door transport services. The price mechanism of these services should ideally incentivise individuals to ditch private cars.

The third scenario, which is similar to second one but takes more extreme measures, involves a total ban of all private cars. Autonomous cars will become an integral part of the public transportation system. This way, instead of building new roads, governments can maximise the usage of existing roads and infrastructure. This is ideal not just for the environment but for society in general — a machine, when programmed correctly, is less likely to make an error than human drivers. This would lead to fewer accidents on the roads.

In this scenario, it is even possible to remove less-used roads to make room for more green infrastructure such as canals.

It certainly is not a far-fetched future. Already, we are seeing the indicators of this future reality through the ubiquitousness — and the immense financial success — of ride-hailing services such as Grab and DiDi. In Helsinki, Finland, there is platform called WHIM, which offers users unlimited rides via public transportation, taxis, and city bikes for a flat subscription fee of 500 euros (US$600) per month. When such services integrate autonomous vehicles into their offerings, we can expect private car ownership to decelerate.

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Another increasingly popular — and more cost-friendly — mobility service is bike-sharing. How do you create a sustainable ecosystem for public bikes in the city?

First leveraging big data, bike-sharing companies can maximise bike fleet usage and ridership by analysing how and where users are riding the bikes to, breaking down patterns of usage by age and even gender.

For example, Oslo City bikes discovered that their most popular routes was actually a short route between the train station and the financial centres. It was able to build a profile of business users who chose to ride bikes — even over short — distances so they could shave off travelling time, even if it meant just a half a minute. Oslo City bikes also issues bike rides to companies, who only pay for the rides when employees take them.

Beyond that, there are also other segments of the business that were overhauled to hit sustainability goals. Initially, Oslo City bikes mulled using trucks to let bicycle technicians travel around the city to repair bikes. But trucks are not environmentally friendly, and they are also bulky, making it difficult for them to navigate through smaller streets.

So what Oslo City bike did was fit small repair stations onto bikes that technicians can travel around on. This model is more efficient and takes up less space. As for the technicians themselves, the company initially brought in students to take up these jobs. But soon, they realised it was not scalable, as the students took up the jobs as part-time gigs during school and left as soon as their final examinations were completed.

So Oslo City bike turned to former convicts, many who would have received mechanical training while in prison. The company also engaged a temp agency who recommended senior citizens, many who, while retired, may want to work at a less demanding job to pass time.

Even the bicycle stations themselves have sustainability built right into them: They are constructed using recycled aluminium parts from decommissioned cars.

Micro-mobility services, like bike and scooters, can help bring sustainable transportation faster than autonomous vehicles, which still requires years of R&D. The go-to-market is much faster. And of course, cities need to adapt their planning to accommodate these modes of transportation.

Conclusion

Sustainability is not only good for business — it is good business. By placing UN Sustainability Goals (SDG), companies are creating long term for society, for the planet, and for shareholders.

As society experiences high economic growth and employment rates, people are now able to think more about the environment and how the impact of their behaviour and habits upon it. This attitude is most prevalent among millennials. According to a Morgan Stanley report last year, 61 per cent of millennial investors made a sustainability -oriented investment in the year before.

Investment funds are increasingly enriching their portfolios with Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) funds; Pension funds are increasingly integrating sustainable finance criteria — the demand for green financial products will only increase in the future.

As a company founder or team leader, would you be willing to step up and imbue the “fire-soulness” into your employees and colleagues, so that you can play a part in helping create a sustainable economy, environment and society?

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This article was first published on e27, on September 28, 2018.