Can Societal Change Trigger Positive Adaption?

Ross Thornley
August 28, 2019
August 28, 2019

Staying ahead of the curve is not just about responding to change, but predicting and influencing it. The reality is that it’s not only technology that is rapidly changing our world, but the strategic by-products from access to tremendous amounts of information. We have more data than perhaps ever before in human history. A strange paradox exists; we hold an abundance of information on on the subject of nutrition and optimum human health, but we also have a crisis of health on our hands. At least in the West, where obesity levels are at an all time high (almost a third of adults in the UK are now clinically ‘obese’).

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In many respects, there has already been a cultural revolution in response not just to our health crisis but growing problem of responsibly feeding our ever-increasingly populated world. The proliferation of vegetarianism and veganism, is one example. In 2017 it was estimated that 550–950 million vegans in the world, with that number growing. There is also increasing concern about where and how our food is sourced, with the first ever slave-free chocolate Tony’s Chocolonely hitting the market earlier in 2019. That it has taken so long for a popular product to become slave-free is, needless to say, shocking. For many, they would not even have been aware chocolate was not slave-free in the first place. Surely that’s what ‘Fairtrade’ was all about, first in coffee, then chocolate, and now many other products. But alas, this was not the case.

Now, new research from Dan Buettner of National Geographic into Blue Zones — five areas of the world in which people live dramatically longer than the rest of the world — will likely precipitate further societal and even political changes. Whilst these changes will probably be very beneficial for our health, they will impact a multitude of businesses that are going to have to rapidly adapt to accommodate a changing way of life.

Dan Buettner’s research looked into all the factors that contributed to people living into their 100s, and not only that, but remaining sharp and productive until the end. Some of his findings were controversial. For example, that four out of five of the Blue Zones encouraged regular but moderate drinking, and that moderate drinkers outlived nondrinkers. His findings were then applied to a small American town, Albert Lea, Minnesota, which has a population of only 9000.

They made small but profound changes. None of these changes were directly to individual lifestyles. They were all environmental. This is intriguing, as Adaptai, who measure adaptability, do so into three broad dimensions: Ability (our adaptability skills), Character (how we adapt and our innate preferences), and Environment (which can either help or inhibit adaption). Buettner’s research indicates that Environment may have a more profound effect on us than we ever realised.

Here is an extract from the original paper that shows the kind of changes implemented and the results of those changes:

“Grocery store and restaurant pledges were created to help individuals change the way they eat. Restaurants were required to offer 3 plant-based entrées. When a sandwich was ordered, the customers automatically got fruit instead of fries. By using different adjectives rather than the “healthy choice,” individuals were more likely to choose the best option. Grocery stores created healthy checkout isles, so that instead of candy bars and soda greeting people in the checkout, they saw fruit, water, and healthy snacks.”

Schools signed Blue Zones pledges. They do not sell candy for fundraisers, and there was no candy for good grades. Based on a University of Minnesota study calculation that prohibiting eating in hallways and classrooms would occasion a 11% per year drop in student body mass index (BMI), the project convinced schools to adopt the policy. Then, 25% of the community signed a personal pledge that they would take steps toward a healthy lifestyle.

After about a year and a half, there was a 3.2-year bump in life expectancy; the community lost a combined weight of 7280 pounds; and health care costs dropped by 40%.”

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The Environmental changes are small but significant. It’s interesting that even something as simple as changing the language around eating can have a dramatic effect: for example, using alternative adjectives as opposed to ‘healthy’ on a menu. Were these types of changes to become widespread across the states, it raises a question for many sweet-manufacturers and fast-food enterprises, as to how they might adapt in a world where they are not allowed to advertise in the same way and when large organisations such as schools and groceries no longer promote and buy from them. The fast-food industry is a global behemoth. McDonalds reportedly sells 75 burgers per second worldwide. Can it truly be toppled by government policy, or will it rather have to adapt? McDonalds already went through a large transformation after the scandals surrounding the quality-grade of its meat, re-vamping its menus and re-branding its stores with a new eco-friendly aesthetic. Will they have to change again?

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Personally, I hope so. I see the next radical transformation originating from lab grown meat. Memphis Meats has risen in profile, with large scale investments such as from Tyson Ventures, the venture capital arm of Tyson Food, Inc, coupled with the exponential technologies, driving growth. Lucy Brady, McDonald’s senior vice-president of corporate strategy, said in 2018: ‘Plant-based protein is something we’re keeping an eye on as we start to think about the opportunities there and growth in that space.’ What might be the next breakthrough could have a profound effect across the planet, reducing millions of square miles of land used for animal farming and billions of litres of water to feed the beast of meat production.

Intriguingly, the UK has even more motivation to change than the US. Whereas in the US, medical care is a profitable industry, in the UK, healthcare is a government expense. The benefits of reducing the crippling cost of treating obesity related diseases and general poor self-care would surely be a colossal incentive for the government to implement similar policies to those found in Alberta Lea.

But, governments tend to be super slow to enact change, because policy implementation is a lengthy bureaucratic process even at the best of times. It is likely organisations and individuals will have to act and take responsibility themselves before any policy change occurs, perhaps you might see this as unlikely, but if profits are radically transformed as a result of such changes there is hope. In other words, it is organisations and individuals who must set the example and leap ahead, rather than waiting for edicts that dictate our behaviour. We have a responsibility to make these changes not only to humanity, but to our planet, where sustainability is more than ever a critical concern. Doing good has never before been better for business, with the 17 SDGs, the Global Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations; a focal point in working towards these objectives, with massive environmental, societal and economic benefits.

Leading change is not just important in the realms of wellbeing, sustainability, and health, but in every industry in every part of the world. More than ever, traditional business models are failing, and surprising new models and modes are emerging. We spoke of predicting changes, but there will come a point, the singularity, where change will become literally impossible to predict because the ways that technology and AI will interact, entering an unimaginable era of creative explosion.

Whether these changes are prompted by governmental or grass-roots movements, they will likely be disruptive. Peter Diamandis, engineer, physician, founder and chairman of the X Prize, and co-founder and executive chairman of Singularity University, discusses how technology disrupts the industry in which it is deployed (and indeed other industries) by virtue of replacing what went before. And we’re not just talking about an iPhone X replacing the iPhone 9, like with slightly upgraded like. We mean streaming music outmoding CDs; 3D printing outmoding traditional parts manufacture and construction work; algorithms and apps outmoding traditional insurance or accounting practices.

These innovations fundamentally change the way we behave and interact with our world and indeed each other, more so, and faster than any policy or law.

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