Q&A: Solitaire Townsend on the rise of the solutionists

30th March 2023

Solitaire Townsend talks to Chris Seekings about how professionals can deliver real change and stay positive in a climate of pessimism

Solitaire Townsend is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author and ‘chief solutionist’ at Futerra, the sustainability agency she co-founded in 2001.

She has spent decades advising governments, charities and the world’s biggest brands, from Google to the UN, and Ikea to WWF, on how to solve social and environmental problems.

Her TED Talks have been viewed millions of times, and her optimistic and uplifting approach to sustainable development is inspiring and infectious.

In her new book, The Solutionists: How Businesses Can Fix the Future, Townsend provides a blueprint for how sustainability professionals can bring about real change at their organisations and stay optimistic when surrounded by pessimists and naysayers.

You studied English, Shakespeare and the Classics, before going on to read sustainable development at university. What made you make the switch?

I’ve been involved in campaigning and activism on environmental issues since I was about 12 years old, when a company tried to build a nuclear waste dump in my town, and I got drawn into it. I’ve always felt incredibly passionate about issues around the environment, equity and so on, but I come from a working-class background and didn’t realise that I could get a job in this area. I was destined to be a teacher or a university lecturer, but when getting further on in education, I started to wonder if my love of literature and the Classics – which is actually a study of sociology – could be applied to sustainability. I saw that the Forum for the Future was doing its first-ever master’s degree in the mid-90s, and asking for people with a background in the arts to apply. So that’s what I did, and it changed everything for me.

In a nutshell, what is a solutionist?

The dictionary definition is ‘a solver of problems’ and I think that’s an awesome way to sum it up. I consider solutionists to be solvers of the biggest problems, like climate change and injustice. Some people call themselves a pessimist, some people call themselves an optimist and others call themselves a realist, but by introducing the word solutionist to people such as Kate Brandt, Google’s chief sustainability officer, they are able to say “yes, that’s what I am – we’ve never had a word for us before!”. Solutionists look at problems straight on, don’t avoid them, and look at them long enough to come up with a solution. I hope that in years to come I’ll see thousands of solutionists on LinkedIn.

What was the inspiration for your book?

I have had the privilege of more than two decades working in this field with some of the biggest brands, as well as a lot of smaller businesses and NGOs, and have met tens of thousands of amazing people who are making a difference. I began to notice a few things about them and what the really effective people had in common, and I started to work out the formula for what it is to be an effective change-maker. I have been using that formula myself and teaching it to people, but I suddenly realised that I needed to give that knowledge away.

Can you give us some key advice on what it takes to be an effective change-maker?

There’s loads of advice and case studies in the book, but one vital point is flexibility. When it comes to sustainability, you have to have a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve – whether it be net zero or helping to tackle poverty – and then be super flexible on how you get there. In sustainability, you can’t be precious about your methods and you can’t stick to something if it’s not working, because we’re all working blind here and trying to do things that have never been done before. All of the most effective change-makers have had very clearly articulated visions of what they want to do, but some people are obsessed with their way of doing it, and forget that the only thing that matters is the goal.

There’s another chapter in the book on marketing and communications, because one of the big things that people who work in sustainability want is to be better communicators. The book will hopefully inspire them to be better at what they do, but it also explains to businesses what they are missing out on if they are not on the sustainability train. To me, it is a 250-page pep talk on the work that is needed right now.

What are some of the most inspiring stories or case studies in the book?

One of them is Jesper Brodin, CEO of IKEA, and what I found really inspiring was his honesty about the problems and some of the challenges that he has faced. And that was the same with Mads Nipper, CEO of Ørsted, who talks about being burnt out and coming back from that. There are also some amazing stories about start-ups, and from people who have overcome prejudice, and global climate leader Christiana Figueres talks about how to look after yourself, so it’s hard to pick one. And then, of course, there’s Bill Gates, who kindly answered questions about how he approaches change and some of the things that have inspired him.

One of the founders of the Green Party recently said that the environmental battle is lost. What do you say to the naysayers and pessimists?

I don’t see the point in declaring a loss when that patently hasn’t happened yet. If being pessimistic makes you work really hard to solve problems, great, be pessimistic, but most of the people I know are more motivated by hope. I’ve noticed that I never tend to meet pessimists in the Global South. Pessimism is a privilege that seems only to be expressed by wealthy, protected people living lives where they’re going to be the least affected by climate change. The poorest and most excluded don’t have that privilege. I get why it’s overwhelming, I get why it’s terrifying, I get you can feel horrid with grief, but I simply don’t understand what the point is in giving up.

You have an optimistic and infectious personality. Where do you get your positivity from?

After meeting so many incredible people, the main source of my optimism is knowing that I am not alone. Many of your readers are going to feel quite alone because they may be part of a small team and think they might be the only person who’s doing it, but they are not. They are part of a huge community which is growing every single day. So the people around me, the solutionists, keep me going. And until the worst happens, I am inspired by the people who are making a difference. As that line from the Terminator movie goes: “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

What is the most important thing each of us can do to change the world for the better?

I’m going to give that answer over completely to professor Katharine Hayhoe, the wonderful climate scientist, who says that the most important thing we can do about climate change is talk about it. The book gives loads of content that you can use to talk to people about, and we need to, because we are on a huge recruitment drive.

Townsend's book, The Solutionists: How Businesses Can Fix the Future, is available for pre-order now at all good bookshops.

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