In the latest of our Global 20 series, we are privileged to bring you a penetrating interview with Dr Doug Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum in London. Formerly Global Vice-President and Head of Amazon UK, and Chairman of the British Heart Foundation, Doug is highly respected for his visionary leadership and recognised globally for his remarkable contributions to the realms of technology, business, and public service.

In this deeply compelling interview, Doug talks to our Chair, Iain Rawlinson, about his journey from the corporate to non-profit world, the ground-breaking work being carried out measuring the pristine natural biodiversity on the Earth’s surface, and the pressing challenges posed by the threat of a sixth mass extinction.

Do watch until the end as Doug imparts his belief that there is hope for the future as a path is found where global economic growth is still possible without over consuming the Earth’s precious and natural resources, whilst emphasising the collective responsibility in this endeavour.

Iain Rawlinson 0:00
In this Global 20 interview, I’m joined by Doug Gurr, director of the Natural History Museum in London. We’re looking today at the roles corporates can play in the philanthropic sector. And there’s no one better than Doug to address this question, thanks to his experience in both the nonprofit world and that of his corporate career, including his role at Amazon. So Doug, welcome, very nice to see you. Could you tell us about your journey from the corporate world to the nonprofit world?

Dr Doug Gurr 0:31
Thanks Iain, good morning, and hello, everybody. Yeah, I mean, in simple terms my career was was pretty much straight down the line, day job commercial, you know, a stint in consulting, a stint doing a sort of dot com start up, a chunk at Asda Walmart and then nearly 10 years at Amazon, China, the UK. So very much the day job was commercial roles, working through all of those. But along the way, I’d always tried to, from quite early on, devote a certain amount of time to doing nonprofit work.

I’ve always loved museums. So I think, it must be gosh, over 20 years ago, now I got involved at the Science Museum, initially helping out on the commercial side. And then after a while I was invited to become a trustee, eventually became the chair there. I chaired the British Heart Foundation, sat on the Board of The National Gallery, so I always had half a day/a day a week, devoted to trying to do the nonprofit stuff. And I was very happy where I was at Amazon. But then, as things do, somebody sent me this job to come and be Director of National History Museum, and they said, it’s a bit left field, but what do you think? And I looked at it and the museum had just written a new strategy, and I read the strategy and I thought that looks amazing, and really hard. So I went to the board, and I said, you know what, I know a little bit about museums and quite a lot about how you get stuff done. How about it? And that was really the transition. So two years ago, now.

Iain Rawlinson 1:50
You’re on record saying that experience from the corporate sector is highly relevant in the philanthropic sector? Can you just expand on that for us a little bit?

Dr Doug Gurr 2:00
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, look, I’ve had the opportunity to work for a number of very well run, commercial corporate organisations, a little bit of government, a little bit of nonprofits, and different organisations tend to be good at the things they have to be good at. So from my perspective, my experience, I would say, well run commercial organisations probably are, partly because you have a much simpler objective function, you’re trying to optimise one thing, you’re up against competition. They tend to just have become the best at getting stuff done, if you like. So in terms of have you built the mechanisms, the audit processes, the ability to scale, I think you can learn an awful lot of that in a well run commercial organisation, whereas you tend to find perhaps in the public sector or nonprofits, they’re a little bit better at juggling the question of multiple conflicting priorities and multiple stakeholders. But if you just want to take the basic ability to, as I would put it, get stuff done then I think there’s probably no better grounding than spending time in the commercial world.

Iain Rawlinson 3:01
And that’s happening to the Natural History Museum itself. You describe the state of the world in pretty stark terms. Could you share your thoughts on the current status quo and where we’re at in this moment?

Dr Doug Gurr 3:14
Sure. And I mean, the sort of honest answer is we’re not in a great place. I mean, as you said, the subject matter of the museum is planet Earth and life on planet Earth. We know the planet has been around for about 4.6 billion years, that’s four and a half thousand, million years. We know life evolved about 3.6 billion years ago. So it’s been around a long time. And for the first 3 billion just in the oceans, and about 500 million years ago, life emerged onto land. And life has been incredibly successful. So it’s spread to every corner of the oceans, every corner of the land, it’s incredibly resilient. But we also know that over that enormous period of time, there have been a small number of occasions when almost all light has disappeared. And we call these mass extinction events. So a significant change in environmental conditions was wiped out almost all life on Earth. And it’s happened five times, that’s just five times in the last 500 million years. So it’s very infrequent. And the last one was a whole 66 million years ago, when the asteroid came in and took out the last of the non avian dinosaurs. So very, very rare, infrequent events, but they do happen. And I think the challenge is every single piece of data we look at is telling us that we could be heading for a sixth mass extinction. And this time, it would be the first time where that mass extinction is a direct consequence of human activity. So that’s where we are. It’s it’s not an unfixable problem, crucially, this can be fixed, but it’s not a problem we can ignore.

Iain Rawlinson 4:41
You’ve spoken in the past about the three axes of groups or or people who can be influential in a positive way in this situation. How would you describe the corporate response to the crisis?

Dr Doug Gurr 4:55
I think it’s a great question. I mean look here at the museum we’ve taken the view that you know, what inspired me to join the museum was a very brave decision I think by the board at the time and the team to say, look, where for years, we’ve been chronicling the decline of biodiversity as trying to try and fix it, to do something about it. So instead of we see our role, as we put it, as trying to create advocates for the planet, and that’s about how do you inspire at scale people to care a bit about the natural world, and it’s gearing up to want to do something about it.

And if you’d like that starts from people, a mass audience. And we know people can achieve an enormous amount if they act in the right way and make those small, incremental changes. But we also know if we really want to solve this problem it’s not enough just to sort of if you’d like pass responsibility to individuals. We need people to play their parts, we need corporates to play their part and ultimately need governments to play the part, there are some things that only governments can do when they come together. But actually, for me, one of the biggest levers is we know that corporates are where things happen in the world and that’s where stuff happens at scale. And some of that will be about satisfying the bottom of demand of people and customers, but a lot of it is we cannot solve this problem without looking at a lot of the large and medium sized and small corporations around the world. Making sure that they’re acting in such a way that we can, of course, still have a good level of economic growth and of course, still have commercial success, but do it in such a way that doesn’t over consume the Earth’s resources. And at the macro level, that’s the risk we have.

And if you wind back the clock a bit the assumption has always been that the planet is so big, how can it possibly matter? What does one individual Corporation do? The reality is we’re now the scale at which human activity absolutely has planetary impact and if you want a simple example of this, let’s think about chickens. Chickens now outnumber all other birds on the planet by more than two to one. So the notion that human activity has no impact on a planetary scale has just long gone. And therefore, if we want to solve our true emergency, we have to get the right engagement from corporates and not to say it’s not an either or, but how do we actually continue to be commercially successful, continue to provide customers with what they need but as I say, do it in a way that doesn’t over consumed resources.

Iain Rawlinson 7:21
And you paint the picture very clearly. But thinking about corporates, they often have competing priorities, and boards wrestle with how to manage these. How do you think we can bring CEOs and boards into the discussion? And how can they be comfortable that they have a role to play and they can actually make a difference?

Dr Doug Gurr 7:41
It’s a great question Iain and in a sense, the danger of this debate. I’m sure a lot of CEOs listening are probably sitting there thinking, Oh, my goodness, yeah, another thing, you know, I just got my head around my ESG agenda, my carbon, my whatever, now you want me to pile biodiversity on top of that. And if we turn it into just yet another thing, I think we’re gonna have a real challenge because that becomes at best something a board has to manage and you’ll end up if you’re not careful with a tick box exercise or an absolutely do- minimum exercise. And unfortunately, that won’t be enough.

So to really make progress, it’s back to that point about look, we understand the power of a corporation is that you’re trying to optimise for a fairly singular metric. We’re trying to create shareholder value over the long term. So I think there’s different ways you can do it and I think we can make a certain amount of progress by saying, look, there’ll be a regulatory environment in which you have to operate. So there may be certain practices or certain locations, Cop15 suddenly says 30x 30 you can’t operate, you make some progress. I think to really make systemic progress here, though, we need to take the risk of being a bit nerdy at the moment, you know, what the economists would call an externality and internalise it. In other words, if we can crystallise properly, in a way that just translates it to simple numbers, the impact of a corporation’s activities on biodiversity, positive or negative, and we can begin to put some quantifiable value on that, then I think, actually, you’re making life much simpler. Because all you’re saying is you’re still optimising for shareholder value, but we’re recognising that the components of particularly long term shareholder value is making sure that you’re not either taking huge risks around your biodiversity exposure, or possibly you’re also taking opportunities to really get into those new markets.

So for me, it’s about, sounds a bit terrible, I’m a bit of a numbers geek, so how do we actually translate this into something that then just becomes part of the day job? And all you’ve had to do is just tweak the way in which we sort of measure things. Sounds a lot easier to say than do but, but actually, I think there’s some ways we can actually start doing them.

Iain Rawlinson 9:48
But there’s a core message there, isn’t there, which is trying to make the topic more accessible, so that CEOs can share with their boards this whole area in a way that makes sense in the overall context of what the corporation is trying to do.

Dr Doug Gurr 10:05
Exactly so and I think in some ways if you contrast, it’s not a perfect analogy, but if you contrast where we are on climate and carbon net zero, I think there’s a really good level of understanding now. I think most boards have thought through the issues, understanding the importance and increasing the outcome that will help the energy transition.

Biodiversity is much less well understood. Most boards I speak to, you know, you’re almost back to the what is it, how do we measure it, why does it matter? You’re almost back at that basic level. I’d say we’re probably a decade or so behind in the level of corporate understanding. But if we can follow a similar path in which we make it simple enough, easy enough, quantifiable and measurable, then I think we’ve got a reasonable chance of creating action. And as a wise person once said, if you can’t make it simple you can’t make it clear, and if you can’t make it clear it can’t be made to happen. So I think if we really want to engage corporates and actually get stuff done, we’ve got to turn it back into the right language that will make sense around a board table, that will make sense to the manager, the employee at the frontline. And just make it really, really simple.

Iain Rawlinson 11:18
So interesting. Just changing tack a little bit and going into the detail a bit more on what the Natural History Museum has done itself in response to the crisis, and areas where corporates might be able to engage with that, can you tell us a little bit more about current programmes that you’re thinking about at the museum?

Dr Doug Gurr 11:40
Yeah, sure, thanks Iain. When I arrived here, and having had the benefit of sat in both the corporate world and the nonprofit world, I said that we’ve got no chance of engaging if we can’t measure, and if we can’t measure in a way which is simple and clear and granular. So we’ve put a lot of energy into and by the way, that’s not a new problem. If you go right back 15/16 years, when the UN initially set out its Sustainable Development Goals, it tried and failed to set goals for biodiversity, because there’s no way of measuring it. Some people say it’s too complex, feels counterintuitive. You look out of the window, you can hear birds, you see trees, you sort of go ‘Problem? What problem?’. So I said we’ve got to find a way of measuring it.

And then of course, one of the joys of the museum (and by the way people probably know us as that big visitor attraction in South Kensington, and we are, we love that), what people tend not to realise is this place is also a fairly serious scientific research institute. So there’s 350 full-time academic scientists here, there’s 172 PhD students, all working on these questions, biodiversity and life sciences, and how do we come up with solutions, as we would say, from nature for nature?

So we’ve been thinking hard about specimen measurement and there’s a fantastic team here who have spent well over two years grappling with this problem. And they’ve come up with a really simple, but quite profound measure, which effectively looks at any part of the Earth’s land surface and sort of says, how intact is it? What percentage of the pristine natural biodiversity still exists? And I won’t bore you with the details, but behind it is an enormous amount of science and 5 million proper reference data points, so that for over 48,000 different types of ecosystem around the world, we can say what is its pristine natural state against a massive taxonomic database. And then we can use effectively satellite imagery, land use data, and a bit of clever machine learning geo applications to look at any square of the Earth’s land surface and say, for that square, what percentage of the pristine natural biodiversity still exists? So if you have tropical rainforest in Brazil and you cut it down to plant soya to feed cattle in the US, that’s pretty catastrophic for biodiversity. And we can measure it.

So it’ll give you a single, simple number. It’s a percentage nought to 100 and you can apply it. It’s global, it’s granular, you can apply it at every scale, you can do the whole world, you can do a country. And crucially, for a company, we can look at a corporate’s operations and its global footprint and just give you a percentage, you know, where you’re operating where you’re sourcing from, what is the biodiversity impact on that? Are you at 50 or 70, or 90? You can go back in time using historic data, and crucially, you can model forward based on changes to land use and climate. So you’ve got a simple brand new measure. And we’ve been working very hard to drive adoption of that, both on the policy side so that when we start talking about protecting 30% of the Earth’s surface, we can sort of say definitively which 30% is it most notably protect. And we can start to engage with a corporation where it might say, look, you’re doing a fantastic job but instead of sourcing from this location, if you moved from this location to that location, you could, at worse have no detrimental impact on your economic and your commercial performance, but you can make a massive difference of biodiversity. So that’s where just trying to translate it with simple metric; easy, comprehensible, global, granular, and something people can relate to. So that’s a lot of the work we’ve been doing to try and putting it bluntly, put simple, understandable numbers around this.

Iain Rawlinson 15:17
And just staying on that theme then and looking at engagement with the corporate sector, how have you worked with corporates in that area, and what has been the response?

Dr Doug Gurr 15:31
A lot of this work has been 10 plus years in gestation, but have been primarily providing academic research arena. Just under two years ago, we introduced it to the policy arena. So for example, ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, we put numbers for the whole world, every country in the world every year, about 2000, every decade back to 1970, and projections forward and we could begin to inform that policy debate.

Most of our last I’d say 12/15 months has been engaging with the corporate world. I think the response has been really positive. We’ve done a number of interesting case studies with corporations where we’ve been able to look at proposals and crucially be able to say we can look at what you have today, what you’re planning, or would be willing to change, and we can tell you today how that would play out potentially 10/15/20 years forward. So you can start to quantify and begin to value these things in a way which makes sense. So that’s been engagement at an individual corporate level. The other piece we’ve been working, probably putting even more energy into in the last six, nine months, has been talking to the investment community. So when we talk to the investment community, understandably, they’re saying to us, we’re aware of the potential that if regulation comes in and certain areas become no-go, you’ve got standard asset risk, you’ve got opportunity risk, you’ve got transformational risk. So actually, I think part of helping corporates is helping them deal with their shareholders. And part of that is beginning to, if we can make the intervention at the financial reporting level, at which part of corporate reporting, in a way in which people can trust and is consistent, and it works effectively globally, not just in one country, if we can begin to bring this data, these mechanisms in, I think you’ve got a chance to reasonably believe it systemically. So that’s where we’ve been putting some energy.

And as I say, we’re not remotely precious. We’ve got a metric out there, there are many competing metrics. If there was a better one we’d absolutely be pushing that. And a lot of the feedback we get from people is in order to do this, you know, we have one which probably has two orders of magnitude, more data points than anybody else says, it gives you that global bandwidth. So that’s the one we’re currently trying to push and engage. Not quite done yet, but hopefully over the next reasonable period of time we can start to get to the point where it just then becomes a lot easier for every corporation because it’s simply part of the reporting structure. As I said, you’ve taken something, which if we’re not careful, becomes a side issue, and translated into something that’s just become part of their job mainstream, because it’s just part about how corporations think about their overall performance. And essentially, economists have said, we’ve taken that externality and internalised it and we know behaviours will change.

Iain Rawlinson 18:25
Well, that does all sound very encouraging. And all being well, again, this is a theme that boards can get their mind around and start to embrace as part of a solution going forward. But looking into the future there’s obviously a lot to be of concern, there’s a lot to be worried about, and quite a number of interlocking themes that all need to be joined together. But looking at the overall picture, are you hopeful about the future?

Dr Doug Gurr 18:55
Absolutely. I’d even go beyond hopeful, I’m actually quite optimistic because this is a fixable problem. Partha Dasgupta, the economist was commissioned a couple of years ago by the Treasury to do a massive report with some of the economics of bio diversity. But the exam question was; Is it possible to find a path in which we can still have a good level of global economic growth, which we’ve had, without over consuming the Earth’s natural resources? That if you like was the exam question. And the good news, genuinely, is that the answer is yes. It’s quite a narrow path. And it’s not the path we’re currently on. But that’s why if we can just nudge everybody, people, corporations, governments, towards that path, we can absolutely still have good levels of economic growth, provide citizens around the world with the goods and services that they want, desire, to improve their living standards, but just do it in a way that doesn’t over consume the Earth’s natural resources. So the path is absolutely there. I think the desire is there to get it and it’s not facing citizens with completely unrealistic choices. You know, we’re not saying never fly again, be vegan. But it is saying that if all at the margins, people make changes and you can just nudge things, that collectively is enough to actually take us from what’s currently an unsustainable path to a sustainable path. That’s kind of our mission. How do we nudge the world on to that narrow path, but that path does exist.

Iain Rawlinson 20:31
Well, that does sound very hopeful. And Doug, thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning. It’s been a real pleasure to chat with you on this Global 20 interview. Engagement with corporates has been fascinating and obviously they have a major role to play in the future. But also very interesting to hear more of the detail and the breadth of the work of the Natural History Museum. So thank you very much for joining us. It’s been a real pleasure chatting to you. Thank you.

Dr Doug Gurr 21:00
Iain, thank you, it’s been an absolute pleasure.