Alice Steenland joined Dassault Systèmes in the new role of Chief Sustainability Officer. She brings studies in human biology, management and over 20 years experience from business, academia and non-governmental organizations. Alice notably was the founding Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at AXA Group, one of the world’s largest financial and insurance companies. 3D Perspectives asked Alice about her outlook on her new role and Dassault Systèmes.
3D Perspectives: What led you to a career in sustainability?
When I graduated, the field was just starting. I studied human biology in college, but it’s not a typical major. It’s the study of the human organism in all its dimensions. I took math and sciences – chemistry, biology, physics, statistics – but also political science, sociology, psychology, organizational behavior . . . It’s more a systems thinking approach applied to people and societies. The defining thread of my career is that I have a way of thinking about things that is rather systemic.
At the Yale School of Management, it’s not a traditional MBA, which is why I chose it. It’s about tri-sector management, with the philosophy that public, private and non-profit all have to work together to build the whole economy. Students from each sector make up one-third of the class with all using the same tools. It’s a very different dynamic – a systems way of thinking about the economy.
I’ve always been interested in hybrid models, and this new role is a hybrid – working within a system, but also in the broader ecosystem. How does an organization function within broader systems? How can we use traditional market forces and capitalist structures to achieve broader social goals? Corporate sustainability is a hybrid, systems space that I thought was super interesting when I first heard about it, and I’ve been working in this field ever since.
3DP: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to achieving sustainability?
I quite like this idea of experience is human. Growth is a central emotion, but so are inertia and fear of change. At a certain level, the biggest obstacle is human resistance to change. We see it in behavioral science and psychology . . . people do not like change and with sustainability we’re talking about really big changes in how people do things. These are disruptive changes and the first reaction is resistance . . . keep the status quo as long as we can.
But a kind of sea change is happening. People are starting to see that this is not theoretical problem. This is happening now . . . not in 10, 20, 30 years. More frequent catastrophic events affect how we’re living. This might impact our food chains pretty quickly. We are already seeing mass extinction of certain species. Many crises are happening . . . environmental, social . . . the current pandemic is showing us that our social systems are not as resilient as we thought. What does that mean for a world where there will be more and more shocks to the system?
There is growing awareness of the urgency to change our ways of production and consumption, which means an amazing opportunity for innovation. Everything needs to be re-thought. Using technology to flip the story and solve problems in a more sustainable way is an amazing opportunity.
Innovation and sustainability are merging into one topic. The question is: why are you innovating? The answer often is because we can. We can do things faster, so let’s do it. But leaders now are seeing that there needs to be a reason. Not all tech is good tech. What problem are you really solving? And if you’re not solving a sustainability problem, a carbon problem, a diversity problem, a social problem . . . if you’re not contributing to solving one of these global challenges putting us in crisis, what are you doing? What is the usefulness, both on a social level and as a business opportunity?
We’re now in a cycle of crisis, but crisis can be an amazing opportunity to overcome inertia and fear of change to do something different. The economist Milton Friedman, in many ways the father of the shareholder primacy philosophy that got us into this mess, famously said, “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” About that, he’s right.
Recent analysis indicates Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions will drop 24% in 2020 because of the coronavirus lockdown . . . a 25% drop for China. These improvements came for the wrong reasons . . . shutting factories, stopping travel, putting hundreds of millions under quarantine. We did it because we have to, with negative ramifications we don’t want, but it also shows what might be possible.
We could choose to reduce travel, work more from home, reduce commuting. We could consume much less. Things people thought never would happen are happening. Is there an opportunity to see how things could be different? Something no one thought possible, reducing emissions, could become real if we organized ourselves differently. It underscores the amazing potential we have, the awareness we can have, that a crisis can be an opportunity if we choose.
3DP: How do you see Dassault Systèmes enabling the sustainability mission?
I joined Dassault Systèmes because I believe we can have a systemic impact on the overall economy because our software is behind so many processes in manufacturing and design across so many sectors. I think we can start to move customers towards disruptive new models. Experts say we have about 10 years to radically transform how we produce and consume goods, or we’re going to hit some pretty severe planetary boundaries. That’s a fairly short time, but Dassault Systèmes is one of the companies that can help accelerate the transformation.
We’re doing an internal survey about Dassault Systèmes potential to influence social and environmental performance on a scale of 1 (insignificant) to 100 (transformational). The results so far are about 85, and that’s extremely reassuring. It shows incredible hope in and for this organization in how we can influence things.
Given our experience in pioneering solutions that people didn’t think possible, using technology in a way that’s quite disruptive is part of our history, our DNA, our ethos . . . so I think it’s a question of aligning that capability and mindset. For example, can we use our power of innovation and technology to re-imagine product design and manufacturing for a zero carbon world? I see people in the company sharing that vision. Leadership shares that vision, and we all have a role to play in the transition to a very different type of economy . . . and that is very exciting.
3DP: A bonus question – how are you looking to shape your role?
Well, I just got here, so right now, I’m looking around, listening to people, figuring out where things can go. I see that Dassault Systèmes’ people think about these things, often quite passionately, but they don’t necessarily bring it to work. Now we want to ask people to bring that to work . . . to come and say it. My job is to give voice to other people and help shape this collective vision, help people free that voice and capacity, and let them use it.