The value of collaboration and dialogue

Louise Gardiner recalls her first exposure in the Mail & Guardian. It was a 2008 article featuring South Africans who were returning to the country, inspired by positive changes and a desire to be part of that change. 

She offered a dissenting voice when she said: “I love my country, but I don’t see a future there any more.”

Today she admits a sense of irony in returning a year after that article appeared, especially since she has thrown herself into disproving her assertion about the country’s future.

Gardiner draws on more than 15 years of international experience in sustainability standards, policies and systems to help organisations thrive by recognising their social and environmental responsibilities.

Apart from the work she does through her sustainability consultancy First Principles, she chairs the Southern Africa chapter of the International Association for Public Participation and recently cofounded KudosAfrica, an initiative that aims to identify and support unlisted entities that embrace social and environmental responsibility.

She says her primary objective is to foster collaboration and dialogue, not only within organisations but also between private enterprise, civil society and the public sector.

“I approach this from the point of view of the problem that a team is trying to solve, or, at a macro level, how to solve a challenge in an industry. It’s about getting people to have a dialogue rather than competing for individual pieces of a pie,” she says.

A landmark example of how this can be achieved is her involvement in the industry-led Sustainable Returns for Pensions and Society initiative, created in response to revisions of the Pensions Fund Act. These changes demanded improved environmental, social, and corporate governance in investment decision-making.

“This was a spectacular success in terms of engagement and output around the issue of responsible investing by the country’s pension funds,” she says. One of the outcomes was a guide on responsible investing that was adopted by then finance minister Pravin Gordhan.

Her focus around organisational teams is currently on helping companies to grasp the value of individual responsibility. This is based on the agile and scrum methodology used in software development that calls for incremental improvements to solutions, in which individual members are given the authority to take appropriate action at an appropriate time.

Gardiner says these principles apply equally to the work she is doing in public participation projects.

“South Africa has advanced legislation and world-leading practices around public participation, but not enough is being done to train people in the public sector who need to design and implement these projects,” she says.

“Nonprofit organisations, under the right circumstances, can also add valuable input into projects and we need to start investing in and recognising those sustained structures in communities.”

Her aim is to get organisations to recognise the benefits of collaborative solutions in which participants are not afraid of dialogue and are willing to change their expectations based on the outcome of such dialogue.