What sustainability can learn from the moon landing
The Soviet Union was winning the space race. In 1957, Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite to be successfully launched, and four years later, Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. At the height of the Cold War, the Americans needed to take back the lead, yet this seemed a world away. The NASA Administrator, James E. Webb, told the Vice President that they couldn’t beat the Russians to launching a space station, and would be beaten to moon orbit too. Something had to change, and President Kennedy, would be the one to do it:
On 12 September 1962, he famously said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
President Kennedy’s famous speech was more than just inspiring rhetoric; it was policy. It was wildly ambitious and potentially impossible, with no clear delivery plan, but it galvanised the country. He gave NASA a new sense of purpose and gifted the engineers license to think in a completely different way. In 1969, seven years later, President Kennedy’s mission was accomplished by Apollo 11.
Setting ambitious targets
His legacy lives on with corporate talk of “moonshots” or “big, hairy, audacious goals” (BHAGs). More than presidential rhetorical devices, these ambitious targets have been shown to work in numerous studies. They really do “serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills”, and the most innovative companies structure their culture around these moonshots.
For example, X, Google’s “moonshot factory”, a business of incredible impact, has shared its ways of working. Its projects include autonomous vehicles to reduce vehicle collisions, delivery drones to reduce emissions, hot air balloons that deliver internet after natural disasters, and storing renewable energy in salt. Its mission is to “invent and launch moonshot technologies that aim to make the world a radically better place”. Top of the list of ways of working is to “aim for 10x not 10%” because ambition creates greater outcomes and more innovation1.
Increasing the pace and scale of responsible business action
We need that scale of ambition, impact and innovation more than ever. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we globally lost four years of progress in tackling extreme poverty, with nearly 150 million children missing more than half of their in-person education and women being disproportionately impacted2. Additionally, approximately 2 billion people live in conflict-affected countries, refugees were at their highest number on record in 2021, and climate change is aggravating this mayhem. Not only does an increase in temperature increase the chance of conflict, but globally some 24 million people were displaced by extreme weather in 20213.
We may be halfway through the lifespan of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but we’re nowhere near halfway to achieving the targets.
To change our course and realise the $12tn opportunity that is the SDGs, businesses need to increase the pace and scale of responsible business action, starting with setting ambitious impact targets; targets that transform the business and maximise our positive impact on the world4 . Together, we can deliver the SDGs’ moonshot of “peace and prosperity for people and the planet”.
Together, we can deliver the SDGs’ moonshot of “peace and prosperity for people and the planet”.
- Read our toolkit on setting ambitious impact targets, part of our Six Catalysts of Responsible Business project, which equips and inspires businesses to overcome the greatest barriers to action.
BE FASTER, BRAVER AND BOLDER IN
CREATING A FAIR AND SUSTAINABLE WORLD
1 Tips for unleashing radical creativity (February 2020).
2 The Sustainable Development Goals Report (2022), United Nations.
3 Why civil wars are lasting longer (April 2023), The Economist.
4 Sustainable Development Goals. A business perspective. Deloitte.