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Book review: Turnaround Challenge by Michael Blowfield & Leo Johnson (2013)



A sustainability manifesto for businesses and cities, Michael Blowfield and Leo Johnson’s Turnaround Challenge: Business & the City of the Future outlines the steps required towards a more sustainable economy and prosperous society.

This book is about the rights to optimism.” The first line of 2013’s Turnaround Challenge is an important one. Amid massive social and environmental challenges – climate change, resource depletion, pollution and population growth to name but four – few would criticise you if your predictions for the future were pessimistic. Two people on the optimism bench are Michael Blowfield and Leo Johnson.

Blowfield is an academic at the University of Oxford, Wolverhampton University and London Business School, while Johnson, is a sustainability expert and a partner at consultancy giant PwC, as well as being the brother of the mayor of London (who developed his own vision for a London of the near future last year). In an interview with Blue & Green Tomorrow in June, Johnson described his and Blowfield’s first joint publication, released in September, as “a tome that started in a really dark place, with all the carbon and population challenges, and ended up, weirdly, as a tidal wave of optimism.”

Turnaround Challenge discusses whether a better future is on the horizon. The authors’ answer is a resounding ‘yes’ – albeit with a few caveats. These mainly exist in how business and cities respond to the large-scale shifts. If successfully, a fairer, cleaner and more sustainable society beckons. If unsuccessfully, Petropolis or Cyburbia – two future city scenarios that the authors describe – await us.

Petropolis – fossil fuel-driven with “mass production and consumption” – and Cyburbia – the iPad city built for obsolescence, “smart and green but censored and sensored” – are, respectively, where we currently live and where we are largely preparing to live. But Blowfield and Johnson suggest a third model: the so-called ‘distributed economy’, which has people at its heart and, importantly, comes without a blueprint.

The first few chapters of Turnaround Challenge are all about the big picture. The “dark place” where the book begins, as Johnson calls it, may indeed be a grim commentary. But climate change is real, human population is growing rapidly and resources are being consumed at terrifying rates. These issues matter and to deny them is as futile as it is reckless.

In subsequent chapters, the authors talk of a “quadrilemma of crises” – covering the economy, environment, society and governance. They ponder the big decisions in each area: respectively, credit-driven consumption versus productive economy; high-carbon versus low-carbon growth; intensive economy versus extensive economy, addressing unmet needs; and centralised versus distributed forms of governance.

Their solutions are clear, engaging and, crucially, achievable. Capitalism, the authors say, is not going to say ‘no’ to a shift towards cities moulded by ‘the people’ rather than ‘the man’, because that’s where growth and future prosperity lies. As the book goes on, optimism bleeds through. The reader is left with a feeling of hope in the eyes of the impending and immediate problems, which while massive, are shown to be either manageable or avoidable.

Martin Turner, an Amazon Hall of Fame and Top 50 reviewer – who gave the book five stars – wrote that Turnaround Challenege offers “a wealth of paradigms to explore”. He added, “This is an insightful book which presents strong reasons for not pursuing the existing Petropolis and Cyburbia models. It makes a good case for its preferred alternative, without understating the problems.”

Blowfield, with his academic and business expertise, and Johnson, with his sustainability knowledge and enthusiasm for communicating ideas to help people see and act differently, combine to produce an essential read. They conclude by rounding up why they remain optimistic, saying that the promise of prosperity – rather than merely survival – is on the cards if business and the city of the future are successful in their turnaround challenges. It is very difficult to disagree with them.

Further reading:

Leo Johnson and the power of people

Will Day, PwC: the companies that deserve to succeed call sustainability ‘common sense’

Why businesses must ‘shape and innovate’

Taking the lead: how to govern for sustainability

Future Cities: a blueprint for sustainable urbanisation

Books & Films

Book Review: Ubernomics




Step inside the next generation of economics, business strategy and investing.

In this radical business book, Barbara Gray makes it clear that all is not as it seems. Just when we think we know the rules of the road, we find we have hit the age of economic abundance—and surprises await.

Gray navigates us through this journey with great insight and acuity, sharing stories and case studies about a new breed of “rebel with a cause” companies such as Starbucks, LinkedIn, Airbnb, and Uber, whose founders relish disruption of the status quo. Taking us through the highlights of her research, Gray reveals her discovery of the next generation of business strategy for companies looking to create economic abundance and rise above the competition.

Barbara Gray is a former top-ranked sell-side equity analyst and the founder of Brady Capital Research Inc., a leading-edge research and strategy consulting firm. She has more than fifteen years of sell-side equity research experience in Canada and the United States covering a wide range of sectors. Barbara has a Bachelor of Commerce (Finance) from the University of British Columbia (1993) and earned her Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation in 1997. She lives in Vancouver, Canada with her husband and two sons.


Ubernomics is über-needed by any organization that wants to be around in the next five years. Read it and you’ll be here for fifty–and more! Barbara Gray is half brilliant analyst and half seer. The result is a book that is both crystal clear and a crystal ball.”
–Joey Reiman, Chairman, BrightHouse and Managing Director, The Boston Consulting Group

“Barbara is one of the most astute and forward-looking analysts who covered lululemon. Ubernomics gave me a framework to think about the sharing economy capital structure and the value that can be gained from that.”
–Christine Day, CEO, Luvo (former CEO, lululemon)

“Barbara’s overall analysis centering on the three new values of advocacy, connection and collaboration is very powerful. And the examples, both of firms born in the new economy and others trying to adapt to it, are fascinating.”
–Jean-Claude Larreche, Professor of Marketing, INSEAD, and author of The Momentum Effect


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Books & Films

Book Review: Business as an Instrument for Societal Change




Business as an Instrument for Societal Change: In Conversation with the Dalai Lama is the result of two decades of research and dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other leaders in business, government, science and education. Author Sander Tideman, a lawyer and banker who has maintained a friendship with the Dalai Lama over all these years, presents a practical framework and methodology to develop a new kind of leadership – one fit to repurpose the business world and tackle escalating social, economic and environmental needs.

The Dalai Lama rarely speaks directly on the topics of business, leadership and economics. Yet in the dialogues recounted here, his wisdom – combined with key insights from business and public leaders – creates a unified shift towards a consciousness of interconnectedness, offering profound insights for practitioners and general readers alike.

Tideman unites the scientific worldviews of physics, neuroscience and economics with the positive psychology of human relationships, and ancient spiritual wisdom, to formulate practical business leadership solutions. At the heart of this book lies the journey to discover our shared purpose. This ignites new sources of value creation for the organisation, customers and society, which Tideman terms ‘triple value’.  We can achieve triple value by aligning societal and business needs, based on the fundamental reality of interconnection.

Business as an Instrument for Societal Change: In Conversation with the Dalai Lama is a readable and intelligent exploration of how leaders can actually help to shape a sustainable global economy by embracing innate human and humane behaviour. It is also Tideman’s fascinating personal journey, which brought him to question the underlying motivations and goals of business leadership and to seek a new paradigm for a more sustainable approach. Reflecting Tideman’s sharp perceptions and infused with the Dalai Lama’s unmistakable joy, this book has the power to change your way of thinking.


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