Author // Ben Mouncer

Marga Hoek and embracing tech-driven sustainability

Marga Hoek is an award-winning author and keynote speaker on the subject of sustainability in business. Her upcoming book will cover technology’s role in our drive for a more sustainable world, so Tech For Good grabbed at the chance to learn more about her personal mission and why COVID-19 looks to have made organisations less tech-averse

In March, Europe ground to a halt. Lockdowns enforced because of the spread of COVID-19 closed our towns and cities. And the business world changed in the blink of an eye as many workers were confined to their homes or even placed on extended leave, with little indication of when they might return. All in all, the peak of the pandemic was a time of huge uncertainty. But for Marga Hoek, it was also a time that fired a passion, sharpened her focus and reinforced an idea that had taken root some months before. Freed up by the unavoidable postponement of many of her usual engagements, Hoek - a global voice on sustainable business and author of the award-winning 2018 book The Trillion Dollar Shift - did anything but stop. Instead, she got to work on her next title. The subject of her new book is “tech for good”, making Hoek a shoe-in candidate to be interviewed for this magazine. Fundamentally she believes the future economy must be built around two pillars: technology and sustainability. Both have been topics of significant interest in her impressive career spanning high-level roles in the private and public sectors, but it has been the COVID-19 experience that has given Hoek greater urgency to put this message across. “I was already doing research and writing a little bit about it,” she reveals. “And then COVID-19 set in. I thought, ‘oh wow, this is a disaster’ - but I’m an entrepreneur, so if something terrible happens, I have the motivation that something good must come out of it.

“It struck me that the ‘tech for good’ topic was amazingly obvious throughout COVID-19, because we could see before our eyes the benefits of technology in helping fight this pandemic. And that gave me motivation to do more work on it and develop this book in order to offer inspiration to everybody.” As a self-confessed optimist on the heavy issues around sustainable business, Hoek makes it her mission to “inspire”. The book, due to be released in 2021, will shine a light on 10 technologies that she believes organisations must consider to deliver sustainable success into the future, outlining groundbreaking use cases from today.

Hoek offers us only a glimpse into what you might call the book’s 10 commandments - “3D printing is one, and of course artificial intelligence” - but each will be supported by a compelling business case. In the crowded professional speaker arena, this is how Hoek has carved out her niche: by fitting big ideas around sustainability with the commercial realities of a company. This notion was foundational to The Trillion Dollar Shift, in which Hoek uses the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to set out how business and capital have a real opportunity to help resolve problems of sustainability while staying profitable. As she now brings technology into the mix, Hoek will adopt the same approach, with one of the book’s main purposes being to highlight the enormous scope of potential. “Technology gives you so much enhancement to achieve sustainability impact while improving your company, but I found that so many people actually don’t realise it and most importantly aren’t aware that tech applies to every single company,” says Hoek, who sits on the boards of three large corporations in finance and insurance among her other professional commitments. Hoek puts this knowledge gap down partly to an historic aversion to technology-driven change, but it’s at this point that she brings up COVID-19 once again, and a positive side-effect of the pandemic.

“In normal life, if there’s not a crisis, we fear all kinds of things, but in this situation, the fear of the virus was so much bigger that people were much less resistant to technology,” she says. “And we couldn’t test things a million times before applying them, so that gave an enormous boost to the use of technology.

“COVID-19 has shown us that we need technology, it’s so much part of the solution nowadays. It brings the solution so much quicker, and it enables us to do innovative things, like delivering medicines with drones. I think the level of acceptance has been positively impacted by the coronavirus. It’s like the fear has been stripped away.”

Other evidence can be found to support the theory that COVID-19 has shone a light on technology’s power for good. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), technology is helping “mitigate the negative effects of this crisis” in relation to the 17 United United Nations SDGs. The third SDG for example, around “Good Health and Well-Being”, has been supported by everything from IoT-based remote health monitoring and bedside telemetry, to robots and drones used in quarantined hospitals, says the IDC. Then there is SDG number 12 - “Responsible Consumption and Production” - a subject close to Hoek’s executive background in sustainable construction, and where COVID-19 has seen retailers and manufacturers reexamine their supply chains and consider circular economy principles that enable the reuse of discarded items and materials. These are the types of examples, along with many more, that Hoek will detail in her book - yet one book and one person can only go so far. Hoek says the responsibility to grow technology and sustainability initiatives ultimately sits at the door of business owners and consumers. “My grandfather was a captain on a ship, and he always used to say ‘leadership is a privilege and comes with a huge responsibility’. And I keep repeating that. If you lead a company, you have responsibility for the company, the stakeholders, and the world,” says Hoek. “A lot of leaders have a company, and then they ask how they can do a little bit of good with what they do. That perspective is completely the wrong way around; it’s not driven by creating impact, it’s driven by improving their company a little bit. A really sustainability-responsible leader of a company thinks from the world backwards.They think about what the world is faced with, what we need to find solutions for, and bring that back to their own company.” When it comes to this topic, the technology sector itself is under the microscope. As the macroeconomic power of Silicon Valley’s biggest corporations has grown to frightening levels, so has their responsibility to not only demonstrate sustainable practices, but also commit cash and resources to tech-driven, world-changing initiatives.

“I feel there is a fundamental shift now, and that is happening because more and more companies see that more value creation can be achieved by applying both technology and sustainability”

At the beginning of this year, Microsoft vowed to be carbon negative by 2030. Not only that, but it also launched an initiative to use its technology to help its suppliers and customers around the world reduce their own carbon footprints. Apple and Amazon are among others to have made similar pledges, but in Hoek’s view, more can still be done to apply best sustainable practice to the “core businesses” of big tech. “Some [of these companies] fund renewable energy, for example, and because they have a lot of resources, they develop renewable energy at a large scale, essentially becoming energy providers, and that is amazing and very important - but it’s not enough,” she says. “And that’s because we expect from these same companies that they don’t, for example, develop phones that we have to throw away all the time for the next model. “So actually, the ‘for good’ doesn’t apply to their core business. And what sustainable leadership means is that those leaders would apply it to their core business. That is what we want.” Hoek works tirelessly to get her views across to today’s business leaders - but she is positive she won’t have to toil quite so hard in the future, as a generation brought up tech-savvy and sustainability-conscious graduates into enterprise’s decision-making roles. But will change happen in time to overcome our planet’s toughest challenges? Hoek admits she is simultaneously optimistic and impatient. “My hopes are high, because while the generation shifts now to the millennials, who will soon be the biggest percentage on the market, as well as Generation Z, they are very sustainably-minded. Eight out of 10 of them won’t work for a company that’s not sustainable, and seven out of 10 of them are willing to pay more for sustainable products. So they’ll put the pressure on it, and by the time they become leaders, hopefully we haven’t ruined their motivation. “I feel there is a fundamental shift now, and that is happening because more and more companies see that more value creation can be achieved by applying both technology and sustainability. So more companies are successful, and if other companies see that, that makes things happen quicker. And the coronavirus has opened our eyes. It’s made people realise, and I hope it sticks, that when we do change our behaviour, the positive impact of that is there within weeks and months. “Yes I’m impatient, and it takes too long sometimes, but it will happen, it absolutely will happen. And technology is the big driver behind that.”