A city of contradictions. SF is a beautiful city on a bluesky day. It’s one the first places I travelled to by myself when I was 14. I took the Cal train in from Palo Alto about 25 years ago and wandered. I only have impressions of the vibe from so long ago, but it remains similar.
Glorious feats of engineering from bridges, sky scrapers and now rooftop floating parks. You’d be lucky to be born here. It’s not without obvious problems. Homelessness is rife.
Two images: a homeless person napping in the midday sun with Bose headphones and Nike trainers.
A suited man stepping round a homeless person coming out of an Uber.
When I first came to SF, the company Salesforce had not even been created. It now has over $8 billion in revenue and has created one of the tallest buildings on the west coast of the US.
As part of this building, salesforce has created a public park. It seems to me part of how some see the American way. Open markets, creative entrepreneurs creating enormous wealth, and as part of that creation giving back to the place and community that helped create them.
I wonder how strong this type of social contract still is - or ever was. The tower rises like a glimmering shard, the park all new bursting with plants, toddler areas, free art and reading. Is this enough to hold the fabric of America?
Willfully turning away from the beggars, the vibrant, diverse life is still present. Boys and boys, girls and girls, boys and girls. A smattering of colour. Old fashioned cable cars trundle alongside electric low emission buses. The waiters are mainly white and cute. The bussing folk are mainly coloured and invisible along with the maids and other worker bees.
You can get free wifi almost everywhere.
I’m here too fleetingly to see much else of the city, but note an awkward clash between some environmental awareness and still a huge amount of waste, plastic and limited nudging of individual choice.
Here’s one partial critique of the Responsible Investing gathering. In attending this conference, I skipped two (and there were many more) mainstream investment conference focused on healthcare.
The two health conferences had a few hundred companies, and a couple of thousand investment and corporate professionals between them.
There was a flagship Asian and Emerging market conference also running and many more.
Every company at the healthcare conference could easily claim alignment with several SDGs particularly the health one - SDG 7 and hundreds of investors are trying to allocate billions of capital to good ideas and good companies.
The PRI conference had a bare handful of portfolio manager risk takers. Critics could argue was a silo echo chamber for sustainability people to tell each other how right they are.
I wonder if sustainability could cross the divide, break the silo and go and present at one of the other conferences and make the case. Here continue some reflections more sustainability based.
In SF, there are two intersectional conferences on climate change and the PRI responsible investing conference. Some more personal fragmentary observations.
Physical climate risk is reaching up the agenda. We are starting to see it and feel it.
Much of the “mainstream” is not really here. Lots of policy, engagement, stewardship and ESG (environment social governance) teams. Very few portfolio managers, the risk takes who buy or sell billions in assets of stocks and debt and direct assets. Arguably, this is not hopeful.
Those I observe in SF are committed and passionate. They are bringing people along in a journey. Arguably this is hopeful.
But I recall two comments, Paul Polman (CEO, Unilever, retiring soon) - “I’m an asset creator” and Nassim Taleb - I paraphrase, if you want to change the world, don’t join an NGO, but go create a business.
The committed folk hope to mobilise and nudge capital, but I wonder more and more of late of the demand side of the equation.
The majority of large asset managers can now a credible narrative around ESG (Environment Social Governance). But, see also above “the mainstream is not here”.
The intersectionality problems are complex, often opaque. A Marriott staff employee spoke about how declining housekeeping makes her unemployed. It’s not only automation that takes away jobs. But is less housekeeping, and less washing, better for the environment, and profit margin? But not the humans.
I observe. Most waiters and waitresses are white with Gap Ad looks. The bus folk, those who clear the dishes. They are almost all coloured. Not allowed to take orders, barely likely to hold your eye - smiles are not at them.
Where mainstream PMs and analysts meet material ESG world, they do convert but I wonder about the silos.
I hear little on the demand side of the equation. The Global Climate Action Summit is also taking place. It comes across as disorganised and diffuse. But seemingly more focus on the “real economy”, Green tech entrepreneurs are about, although I don’t find them.
Still, parsing through, I sense managing food waste and sustainabilty could be a major unlock. Any ideas here, do shout.
The demand side could be a huge unlock. But, I’m unsure if I’m hearing ideas here. The single-use, the consumption it’s again and again - so hard to imagine it declining away. I’m hoping clever peeps are working on it. This to me will need cross silo thinking.
But, if I had to be - and I do - we are going to go through 2 deg warming. We will need to account for the cost of physical infrastructure loss and forced migration.
We, humans, weigh near term convenience so heavily, it seems to me we are unlikely to reach critical mass for changing behaviour until we are in crisis.
Although talking about crisis, given we’ve not changed significantly since the last financial crisis, I’m uncertain how it plays out.
But, humans have continually come out of crisis in better shape - and many other trends are in positive land. I try not to forget that.
I hold a lift for a man scurrying. That man turns out to be Paul Polman (Unilever, CEO, retiring soon). Maybe it’s the little things and connections that will save us.
A look at what some of the art in SF MOMA is saying to me.