Executive Briefing: Civic Dialogues on Sustainability

Business Briefing: Civic Dialogues on Sustainability

Solving sustainability challenges requires engaging society. This briefing identifies how both business and society can benefit from civic dialogue.
NBS March 10, 2014
Executive Briefing
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When Canadian business leaders gathered to share their top sustainability priorities, they wanted to change the system.

Many said they have “picked all the low-hanging fruit” with respect to their organizations’ environmental and social impacts. These companies are looking beyond the boundaries of their own organizations to advance sustainable business practice. They want to know: How can we have a national dialogue on the issue of sustainability? How can we become a citizenry aware of and committed to sustainable living?

In response, NBS led a project on civic dialogue, a powerful new way to move sustainability issues from awareness to action. Civic dialogues build broad-based agreement and commitment around complex and controversial issues. By creating shared understanding, dialogues enable action in the form of regulation, social movements, voluntary agreements and more. The figure below shows this process.

Figure: Civic Dialogue's Role in Building Sustainability

Figure - Civic Dialogue's Role in Building Sustainability

Working with Business to Find Answers

This project represents an innovative collaboration between research and practice. Researcher Dr. Thomas Webler summarized the best academic and practical research available on civic engagement. A working session of leaders from the business, non-profit, and academic communities provided extensive feedback, which Dr. Webler incorporated into the final documents.

The Executive Briefing describes: 
The companion Main Report, a “Best Practices Guide,” provides more details on effective engagement in civic dialogue, focusing on implementation. 

Why Civic Dialogue

Solving sustainability challenges at any scale requires broad social agreement on the meaning of sustainability and how to achieve it. Without agreement about change, we can expect political gridlock, inconsistent policies and public controversy — all things that make it difficult for businesses to operate.

Effective change demands grassroots public acceptance and legitimacy. The public must be involved in discussion early on, to build shared understandings of sustainability problems and to define possible action strategies. Civic dialogue provides this opportunity for engagement.

What Civic Dialogue Looks Like

Civic dialogue is a flexible approach that can be adapted to local needs. Participants are regular citizens and sometimes also representatives of organizations (e.g. business and government). Dialogues can work at any scale, from the neighbourhood to the nation or the globe. Civic dialogues can be focused narrowly (e.g. green space in Toronto) or broadly (e.g. reducing consumption in Canada).

Civic dialogue differs from other common forms of business engagement with society, such as traditional stakeholder engagement or multisector partnerships. It is particularly appropriate for complex and uncertain issues, and it broadens the range of people, issues and outcomes. The figure provides a decision guide for choosing the right form of engagement.

Figure: Choosing the Best Form of Engagement for Controversial Issues

An Opening for Business

Historically, governments have led public engagement in decision making. But today, governments have fewer resources and are less trusted. Philanthropic foundations often find civic dialogues. Businesses have historically played little role, but can make a major contribution.

Businesses benefit in many ways from participation in civic dialogue. They can achieve broad sustainability goals. Civic dialogues can also help businesses understand customers, build brand and market and change the rules of the game. James Baxter, publisher, iPolitics, describes the value: “Dialogues are hothouses for ideas. Companies pay a lot of money for consultants to give ideas … [At these events], you get as much as you give, more often than not.”

Businesses can be involved in civic dialogues in different ways. The figure shows options for involvement, from participating to leading. 

Figure: Levels of Involvement in Civic Dialogue

Executive Briefing 
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Best Practices Checklist
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Figures from Report
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Related Resources

Systematic Review

Conversations about sustainability need shared understanding to move from rhetoric to effective, collective action. Civic dialogue allows that to happen.

NBS
Reports and Articles

A Conversation with Dr. Ann Dale In 2013, NBS’s Leadership Council identified civic dialogue as critical to sustainability. Civic dialogues are organized...

Maya Fischhoff
Reports and Articles

NBS, working with researcher Dr. Tom Webler, is developing resources to enable businesses to engage in civic dialogue.

Maya Fischhoff
Reports and Articles

As an engineer, Tom Webler knew how materials would respond to certain conditions. As a sociologist, he is dedicated to involving citizens in public policy.

Maya Fischhoff