When David Nabarro worked with the United Nations to develop the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, he noticed a problem: the specialized university tracks many global leaders go through, whether in health, nutrition or development studies, might not prepare them for the kind of cross-disciplinary, people-centered leadership Nabarro deemed necessary to implement the agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The goals are ambitious; they call for, in part, the complete elimination of poverty, hunger, and unsustainable resource use by the close of the next decade.
In response, Nabarro, who is a medical doctor, longtime public health diplomat, and 2018 World Food Prize laureate, started a social enterprise called 4SD—“skills, systems, and synergies for sustainable development”—to give leaders the tools they’ll need to put the 2030 agenda into action. Systems-focused agronomist Florence Lasbennes joined 4SD as Managing Director soon after the enterprise’s founding. Each of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals touches the food system in some way, Nabarro explains to Food Tank, making food central to realizing the 2030 agenda. To address the challenges in food, people need to “work together in a multi-stakeholder and interdisciplinary way, and that in a way is our proof of principle,” Nabarro says. “If [4SD] can work on food systems, we believe it can work on many other areas of human endeavor.”
4SD grounds its work in the idea of “living systems,” which calls for centering the role of people and interpersonal connections in what might otherwise feel like mechanical bureaucratic environments. The traditional way institutions organize their teams—a hierarchical chart that tracks the distribution of power—doesn’t tell a realistic story anymore, Nabarro says.
“The best organizations don’t really work like that. They work as a result of relationships between individuals that go across the organization,” Nabarro tells Food Tank. The living systems framework, he says, outlines a way for leaders to actively facilitate the sharing of information to break through rigid institutional protocols. “What you can do then is to combine this focus on people and their relationships and their identities with the processes and structures and protocols, to establish a much more viable way of leadership and getting the job done.”
4SD introduces leaders to the living systems framework through their signature immersions, which Lasbennes is careful to point out are not trainings or lecture-based conferences. Instead, 4SD’s immersions include a three-day residential workshop during which facilitators such as Nabarro, living systems specialist John Atkinson, and food systems expert Charlotte Dufour encourage the small group of participants to discuss their vulnerabilities and institutional challenges. Then, participants are paired with 4SD mentors to guide them as they integrate 4SD’s principles into their organizations.
“That creates a context, a playground, through which we can—through webinars, through phone calls—follow up the discussions so that people are accompanied in their real work situations,” Lasbennes tells Food Tank.
With an initial group of 15 mentors and a goal of reaching 30 to 50 mentees by the end of the year, 4SD is starting small but actively growing. Nabarro hopes that through future immersions, the mentorship network, and a “playbook” that’s currently under development, the 4SD idea can be “seeded” in institutions, schools, and governments around the world and grow in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the person-to-person focus that Nabarro believes is necessary to solving the world’s thorniest challenges. 4SD currently maintains relationships with universities including Imperial College London, where Nabarro co-directs the Institute of Global Health Innovation and the University of Montpellier in southern France. The organization is also working to develop relationships with colleges from Asia to Latin America.
For 4SD, achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals—and addressing systemic inequalities—means not only rethinking leadership, but also encouraging leaders to rethink their own identities.
“We believe that changing the way we lead requires us to change something inside ourselves,” Lasbennes tells Food Tank. “Looking at things a bit differently will help [shift] mindsets, but it’s also being able to listen much more than we’ve been encouraged to do to the views of others, to the environment in which we are working, [and] to the political views and opinions that are around what we are doing.”