The Zurich-based South Pole Group supports global sustainability and climate protection projects. In our interview, Renat Heuberger, managing director of the South Pole Group and jury member of the idea competition smart urban pioneers, discusses the balance between fun and profitability when it comes to sustainability.
Mr. Heuberger, what drives your work with the South Pole Group?
Renat Heuberger: I care a great deal about sustainability. In our company, we believe that climate change poses a great threat. Solving this issue concerns us all. We want to encourage awareness of the fact that sustainability can actually be profitable. In many projects and initiatives we support, people campaign for sustainability, which can in turn create value. That’s something the South Pole Group aims for – and it’s also a personal driver for me.
Can you recall a recent personal experience that highlights what you work for?
Renat Heuberger: I can give you a specific example. Recently, we initiated a program in Africa to supply people in remote villages with clean drinking water. The whole project was financed by a carbon offset payment. The sheer enthusiasm of the locals who no longer had to walk for miles to get water was so authentic and palpable that I thought: That’s exactly what I’m working for. With these funds, I want to ensure that real solutions are created.
Or take some great examples right here in Europe: We recently collaborated with a company and showed them how even a tiny investment can help slash their power bill. They were completely floored by the results: Could it really be true that we never noticed this before?
This example underscores how small actions can help protect the environment without neglecting economic factors.
At first glance, it’s quite hard to see any overlap between profit and sustainability. How do you align the two?
Renat Heuberger: Solving the issue of climate change very much relies on economic factors like jobs or energy supply issues. I would guess that the proportion of people with an active interest in protecting the climate for purely noble reasons hovers around 30%. Our mission with the South Pole Group is to get the remaining 70% on board.
Why is it so hard for the majority to lead a more sustainable lifestyle?
Renat Heuberger: I notice that many people simply have the wrong information. Wherever they look, they hear that protecting the environment is expensive, that buying organic food is expensive, that climate protection means doing without comfort, that it means leaving the car at home … basically, many people are scared that their own standard of living might take a sharp downturn. While in actual fact the opposite is true – the overall standard of living rises if we take the right measures.
You like to emphasize that sustainability can be fun and that more people need to be aware of that. Where do we need a general or economic rethink?
Renat Heuberger: If you look at the list of projects submitted to smart urban pioneers, you already have a pretty clear answer. These projects are great examples of unearthing and engaging the joy of getting involved. There are festivals, intriguing new living concepts, or use-share ideas for unused urban spaces. These projects are based – and rely – on the enthusiam of those involved. Such interventions on an often very small or local scale also encourage long-term changes: More local leisure activities mean less time spent in the car. If you can grow your own vegetables nearby, you lower imports. Or take my earlier example from Africa: If you don’t have to spend an hour or more walking to the well, you have more time for other useful or fun activities.
Are social projects just as important as traditional climate change initiatives?
Renat Heuberger: Both factors are strongly interrelated. There can be no climate protection without people and no people without climate. Water, for example, is also a very social topic. We need to stop classification according to entrepreneurial categories. Climate protection starts with people. Initiatives like the smart urban pioneers projects ensure that more people are motivated to get involved with small or larger projects and also to take a risk – that’s very important.
Start-ups and small projects often thrive on idealism and unconventional approaches. What can large corporations learn from start-ups and the other way around?
Renat Heuberger: My philosophy is that people should be able to shape their own fates. In today’s world, the globalization of economic flows has caused a certain amount of uncertainty. Big players like Google, Amazon, or Apple exert a huge influence, causing some of us to feel powerless and disenfranchized. Many only see themselves as consumers of these global brands and the sole purpose of business to make these corporations even more powerful.
The smart urban pioneers participants highlight alternative approaches. The projects rely on immediate human participation. That’s very important since it finally lets people feel the significance and effect of their own actions again.
So, have global corporations somehow lost sight of us, the people?
Renat Heuberger: No. Google, too, was once a start-up. And don’t forget that Apple started out in a cramped garage. Start-ups aren’t just naïve and multinationals aren’t just large. Small ideas have the power to exert great influence. That should never be underestimated. Uber started small and upended the taxi business with its model. It’s important to be driven by a clear mission.
What are the current urban trends you notice in Zurich?
Renat Heuberger: A few years ago, Zurich already had an urban gardening movement – a very exciting domain. And there’s a very active coworking scene with young, smart people willing to take risks, eager to make changes. When you look into such developments, you notice that Switzerland – despite its demonstrated independence – remains a very open, cosmopolitan country that gives rise to ideas with European and global appeal.
What makes a city especially appealing and livable?
Renat Heuberger: That would be a city where I can easily get around my neighborhood on foot or by bike, but that also offers fast and easy access to the outside world. It’s very important to me to have easy access to nature despite living in an urban environment. I love spending time in the mountains or sailing.
Any further advice for the smart urban pioneers participants?
Renat Heuberger: Many start-ups struggle with dealing with initial failures or negative comments. I know investors who will only support people with at least one failed start-up under their belt. Really messing up at least once is an incredibly valuable experience for budding entrepreneurs. My wish for the participating projects is that they won’t give up – even if and when they don’t succeed right away.