Here’s something that we all have in common. You, me, communities, organisations, businesses, everyone. We all have an environmental footprint. And that footprint can be measured through the resources we consume, products we buy (or sell), transportation choices, carbon emissions, and the lifestyles we live.

The current narrative is that we should work to offset that footprint in order to meet our environmental goals and help avoid human-made climate change. But what if there was a better way to solve these issues?

And how can we shift our mindset and stop focusing on the negative and start building positive, credible change? Not just in the short term… but how do you go about sustaining a sustainable impact?

Today, I’m joined by Dr. Simon Schillebeeckx, a published author, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at SMU, and co-founder of Handprint, a tech company with a difference. Unlike others in the sustainability space, the company’s unique impact platform helps businesses not only achieve their social and environmental targets, but also participate in the regenerative economy. Simon talked to me about how Handprint is trying to help other companies radically rethink their approach to sustainability and environmental responsibility.

For many companies, the current approach is to equate their responsibility based on the negative impact they have on the planet, trying to offset or reduce their harmful ways. But, as we discuss, it’s a noble yet limited view of things. And the old ways of thinking about and reporting on sustainability also aren’t working. People have enough anxiety in their lives without adding climate angst into the mix. Sure, pandering to negative emotions and producing fear-based news will work in the short term, but that’s no way to create sustained action over time.

What I really appreciated about this conversation was the fresh approach Simon presented, and the sparks truly began to fly as he detailed how flexible the technology was and all the ways people and businesses could help create positive change. A lot of what we talk about in this episode relates to engineering – but not just in the software sense. It’s also about engineering behavioural changes, shifting mindsets, and reducing anxiety about what’s wrong with the world. Instead, choosing to focus on what is truly within our power to change and recognising what we can actually do to make things better.

It’s a new way of thinking about affecting positive impact at scale, something that is very on brand for this show.

We also get into the current state of the climate, why you should be cautiously optimistic about that, what’s going well, what isn’t, and where things might be headed in the future… and what it’s going to take to get us on the right track. It all comes down to scaling individual impact and focusing on our handprint rather than just our footprint.

And now, on with the show.

The transcript of this episode has been lightly edited for clarity.

Simon, welcome to New Ways.

Simon: Thanks for having me, Russ. Really excited to be here.

Before we get to the story of handprint, could you tell me a little bit more about your background? How did you get started in the sustainable technology industry?

Okay, so my background is, I’m now almost 40, I am originally from Belgium, but have been living in Singapore and Asia for close to eight and a half years. Initially, I spent my childhood and youth in Belgium. I studied commercial engineering and then specialized in business ethics and corporate social responsibility after moving to the UK in 2006. That was for my second master’s degree. Then I traveled to South America for about a year, went back to Europe, back to Belgium, my home country, just before the financial crisis hit in 2008. And I was desperate to find a job in sustainability, which obviously was a massive failure…

So, I ended up working in bars for a year, eventually got a job in a boutique sustainability consultancy firm, during which I basically helped the firm transition a little bit from purely thinking about sustainability as compliance and reporting and all the boring stuff towards looking at business model innovation and how sustainability can inspire new ways of thinking and acting. About two years into that job, I realised I was sick of being a consultant, went back to university and moved to London to do my PhD in Innovation and Natural Resource Management.

That’s the magic source of what Handprint is trying to create. It’s a new way for companies to monetize or to benefit from supporting public goods.

Then I was fully committed to becoming an academic and being an academic and ended up in Singapore, becoming a faculty member at Singapore Management University. That was in 2015. That was the plan for the rest of my life. Then somehow it all went wrong and I started becoming an entrepreneur as well. In 2018, I was working with my now co-founder, Ryan Merrill, and hired him as a postdoctoral research fellow under a grant I had received to study innovation in the natural world in Southeast Asia. We did a bunch of case studies together, one of which brought us to Myanmar to look at the work of Worldview International Foundation, a Norwegian NGO that was working in Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal doing mangrove restoration and conservation work.

And we really got super inspired by what those guys were doing, specifically the 82-year-old Norwegian founder who was still day in, day out working in the mangrove slumps and slumps. You’re like, what is driving you to do this at this age? And he was a really inspirational figure. And then we got back from that trip, set up a nonprofit called Global Mangrove Trust to help that organisation, specifically, initially that organisation, now a much broader group of organisations, but help them access climate financing.

Then out of that work we did with Global Mangrove Trust, as well as some work we did commissioned by the United Nations, grew Handprint. At the end of 2019, just before the Covid lockdowns here in Singapore, we founded Handprint when Mathias, our current CEO and co-founder, started working initially as a pro-bono volunteering work for Global Mangrove Trust, but that collaboration basically led to the founding of Handprint.

And now fast forward, what has it now been, over three years. Yeah, we’re still around, still kicking and screaming, growing and trying to enable companies to make a positive impact in the world in a way that’s easy, convenient, credible, and actually allows them to capture some business value from doing that as well. And that’s really the big, let’s say, that’s the magic source of what Handprint is trying to create. It’s a new way for companies to monetize or to benefit from supporting public goods.

That is quite the rap sheet with many twists and turns. But I feel like you successfully built off the lessons and experiences of each chapter as you went along. And where would you say you sit now? I mean, would it be fair to call you an academic entrepreneur?

Yeah, I think that is the right way of phrasing it. I’m still an academic. I still teach at university. I still do research. I just recently got a paper that we published in Frontiers and Blockchain on regenerative finance. I’m still active in that area, but a lot of what I do right now is entrepreneurial. Of course, I’m very interested in working with universities as an entrepreneur. There are ongoing conversations with a variety of universities in Singapore that could potentially partner with Handprint, and that would be amazing.

I’d like to double-click on something you just said then; positive impact. When I hear that, it conjures an idea of adding something positive, not necessarily just taking something bad away. Could you talk to us about how that might relate to things like the environment, carbon footprints, and the name of the company itself?

Absolutely. So, the Handprint name, which now our company is called Handprint Tech, wasn’t originally meant to be our name. We initially, if you go back to YouTube and you look for our initial founding video, you’ll see our initial company name was The Green Company. But luckily, the Singapore government didn’t allow us to have that name because there was already another company called The Green Company. And so they said no.

The idea of a handprint is to measure the positive impacts that a specific action or a specific choice has on a broader ecosystem.

In the meanwhile, we started building a platform and we had called it Handprint, not because we wanted to have some interesting play on words on the concept of footprint, but because Handprint is a scientific concept that was initially proposed by Norris at MIT in 2011, and has since gained some traction, but not that much. It’s still pretty much unknown. But the idea of a handprint is to measure the positive impacts that a specific action or a specific choice has on a broader ecosystem. As a scientific concept, it really is the exact opposite of a footprint. Whereas a footprint captures or measures the negative impact an action or an organisation or human life has on the wider world, a handprint is, I would say, it’s big sister.

It is about the choices you make that have a positive impact. As academics, we were familiar with this concept, which is why we ended up developing our platform, using that name, and then eventually naming the company after it. But I think there’s a broader realisation here that underpins lots of the work we are doing at Handprint. And that is inviting organisations and thought leaders to make a pretty radical jump in how they think about environmental responsibility. I use environmental, but it includes social. The entire spectrum of ESG or CSR or whatever abbreviation you want, sustainability in general.

What we have done in the last 40 years pretty much unconsciously, I would say, is we have accepted as a society that we define the environmental responsibility of an individual or of an organisation in terms of the damage they do. That’s footprint thinking. This is like we’re going to measure the impact, the negative impact of your productive activities across your entire supply chain, and that is going to be your environmental guilt, your environmental debt, your damage. And this equates your environmental responsibility. Basically, you need to get rid of that. This is the idea of achieving, in carbon terms, net zero or carbon neutrality.

Now, this is one way of thinking about how we define a responsibility. It doesn’t need to be the only way. And in many ways, it’s a very extreme way because you’re only looking at one side, namely damage, and you’re saying damage equals responsibility. I think it’s very limiting. What Handprint is advocating, and some of the scientific work we’ve done within Handprint, is really trying to think about different ways in which we can conceptualise and quantify an environmental responsibility that is not the same as your environmental damage.

We think that this transition is extremely important for the simple reason that most companies that have a very big carbon footprint, very damaging for the planet, let’s think about oil companies and such… Their ability to significantly reduce that negative impact is severely constrained by technology and also, of course, by bad intentions in many cases. But also these companies and the oil majors may be a little bit of an exception there, but in general, even if you look at coal companies and so on, they’re not very profitable. It’s not saying they don’t make any money, but their profitability, like when we compare it to banks, when we compare it to insurance companies, when we compare it to many other actors, is very limited.

As a consequence, if you assign most of the responsibility to do something about the negative impact, climate change, biodiversity collapse, to companies with very little spare capacity, very little slack financing in terms of profit, they’re not going to be able to do it. We really need a different way of thinking about this. Handprint is, I think, probably globally one of the thought leaders as an organisation in this space to advocate for, we need a different way of thinking about and not only thinking, but a different way of quantifying, qualifying and then acting for companies to think about what is their environmental responsibility. That was a very long answer to a very simple question. Sorry.

No, it’s good to get that context. I think one of the important takeaways from what you’ve just said is that solving these big pressing problems will require a different way of thinking. And that’s something that you’ve seen permeate across different fields, like psychology, where it’s no longer just about focusing on, Hey, here’s what might be wrong with you. It was that way for a long, long time. But now, and again, as the case for positive psychology, it’s about the promotion of wellbeing, an additive to improve the situation, sustaining your mental health, as it were. It’s awesome to see that mindset exist across industries, and to see Handprint helping to champion that for other businesses too.

If you want to make people engage in sustained action over time, making them feel guilty works very badly because nobody wants to feel guilty all the time.

And if I may just add on that, even within psychology, we use a lot of behavioural economics and psychology in our work, simply because the reality is that psychology teaches us that if you want to make people act quickly, making them feel guilty works very well. You show them images of a big disaster, somewhere crying, ideally kids crying or dying, and people will donate. But if you want to make people engage in sustained action over time, making them feel guilty works very badly because nobody wants to feel guilty all the time, so people opt out. This is why think about the news cycle where when the war in Ukraine starts, for one month, it’s all everybody reads and talks about, and then fades into the background, and it’s still very real, of course, not for people who are living it, but for most of us and the rest of the world.

The idea of climate angst and climate anxiety comes out of psychology, of course, but it’s really about the fact that people are continuously bombarded with all of this negative news. And then on top of that, this total feeling of helplessness because they’re like, oh, the only thing we can do is try to reduce our footprint, so I have to use less plastic and I can’t use straws anymore and all of these kinds of things that are just don’t make any dent in the real issues.

And so, the idea of handprint as a narrative and as an approach is also much more engaging because it tries to engage people in a positive story around, hey, you can create positive impact. Yes, we might have to change our lives a little bit, fly a bit less, eat a bit differently. But in reality, there’s not much we can do as individuals about this alone. I mean, if everybody becomes vegetarian tomorrow, of course, that’s a different thing. But as an individual, we can’t do much about that. But we can do something about positive impact because every individual has that capability. I think that also gives people a lot more of an aspirational goal to live by, which hopefully will reduce this climate anxiety that we see so often.

One hundred percent. And I think that speaks, as well, to what we do here in that we’re solution-focused. Because there’s enough media out there, there’s enough information out there to tell you what not to do and not so much what to do, to actually help solve the problem or create a positive impact, as you’ve said. Getting down to the nuts and bolts of it, how does your company help other businesses meet their sustainability and social responsibility goals? And how do you scale those solutions?

Right, that’s a great question. So, basically, at Handprint, you can think about what we do as two different things. On one side is we curate and digitize the highest quality impact projects in the world. And so impact projects or regenerative projects are broadly defined as projects executed by organizations that have a demonstrably positive impact on the natural or social ecosystem on which they are working. That’s a long definition, but what that means is we do… We work with reforestation, coral restoration, ocean plastic cleanup, conservation work, social impact, access to education, anti-slavery work, female empowerment, peace and justice, anything along the spectrum of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, we’re going to find the best projects globally. That’s the first step.

Then we identify those, we bring them into our technological ecosystem, which means we equip them with tools for monitoring and reporting, and they can then price activities on our platform. In simple terms, they could say, okay, we want to do a 100,000 tree replantation project and reforestation project, and the cost of this entire project is going to be this and this and this. They provide us with all this information, and then we price this as a cost per unit of impact.

So, for this project, you can plant a tree for two and a half dollars, for instance. Then we make that available to companies. On the one side, we do this impact curation, digitisation, monitoring, verification, validation, all of that, which is very important. This creates trusted, credible impact. On the other side, we have a variety of digital tools that enable companies to integrate and automate the creation of positive impact into their business processes.

The way you capture value from doing good is by integrating the good actions in your engagement strategy with your customers, your suppliers, your partners, or your employees.

And this is where the value capture aspect comes in. So if you think about how most companies execute their CSR budget or their CSR policy is, they’ll have a team, maybe a couple of people, typically not the most highly regarded people in the organisation, they’re a cost centre, they’ll have a budget and at some random moment during the year or not so random, they will allocate part of that budget to some NGO, some organisation, philanthropic organisation that they want to support. They might put this in a newsletter internally or externally. That is the entire engagement strategy. What Handprint is saying is that, okay, you don’t capture a lot of value from doing this. The way you capture value from doing good is by integrating the good actions in your engagement strategy with your customers, your suppliers, your partners, or your employees.

What that concretely means is that organisations can pivot their existing budgets and capture a lot more value from this if they use this approach. A couple of concrete examples, we’ve partnered with organisations that do this in e-commerce, a simple example. At the moment of checkout, you have a message that says, oh, if you buy this product, we’re planting a tree. Super simple. We’ve seen in Australia that this can increase sales by 16%. So great business value. The increase in sales much more than covers the cost they incur for the tree planting. That’s one thing.

We’ve done it in advertising, where we basically link the number of impressions an ad generates to a specific type of impact and demonstrate that in the ad unit itself. We’ve done this with our partner, Teads, for a variety of clients in Singapore, in Japan, and we’ve seen that this increases ad engagement, time spent watching the ad click-through rate, positive brand recall. But clear business value from doing this. Of course, the brand needs to pay a bit extra, but it’s worth it in terms of attention, which is what you care about in advertising. We’re now launching this product in banking where you’ll be able to connect your bank card transactions to some positive impact.

You collect points like a loyalty program and then those points can be allocated to specific curated sets of impacts that the bank has preapproved. The idea here for banks, mainly for incumbent banks, is that this can help them attract Gen Z and improve loyalty. Similarly, we can do this with electricity companies, with telecommunications, like all of these companies that offer, in the eyes of the customer, very standardised services that look for ways to differentiate themselves and that are in this battle for acquisition of the young consumer, the Gen Z.

But, always there is this component of business value, but the idea is really that rather than having a discrete budget that you allocate out of a silo, little ivory tower that nobody really knows about, is you take that budget, you split it up into hundreds or millions of small micro budgets, and you embed those into your engagements. That changes the nature of the relationship. Because suddenly you’re not, let’s say, a customer buying something from a brand, you’re still doing that, but you’re also creating a positive impact together. That, in itself, creates an opportunity for the brand to engage with that customer for, if you’re doing tree planting, for 20 years saying, remember when you bought this pair of shoes? This is what happened now with those trees! You get 20 years worth of content, meaningful engagement. There’s a lot of value in that approach, and this is really what Handprint does.

That was an absolute masterclass on the business of sustainability. Thank you for unpacking that. Just to underscore that last point, it’s about sustaining sustainable impact through that process, right?

Yeah, that’s a really good way of phrasing it. We’ve always been saying in our narrative recently is sustainability is not sustainable because of everything that we’ve just talked about. But sustaining sustainable impact is a very good way of phrasing it. I might steal that and share it with our comms team.

Absolutely. You can have that one for free.

Haha, cheers!

A portrait shot of a man in a casual green tropical shirt, smiling at the camera.
Handprint co-founder and CSO, Dr Simon Schillebeeckx. Image: Supplied.

So… let’s say I’m an individual or a business, someone who is hearing everything you’ve just said, all the wonderful benefits. I’m interested in what you’re doing and want to get on the Handprint platform. What’s that like from a… Let’s go with business. What’s that like from a business’s perspective? How easy is it to do this? How much friction is there?

We’ve tried to make it as frictionless as possible. You can get on the platform, you can come to the website, you can schedule a meeting. Or you can just try to say like, okay, I don’t even want to schedule a meeting. I just want to plant 100,000 trees. You can do that online as well. Now, most companies, of course, don’t want to just spend 100,000 without having a person to talk to. Typically, there’s a meeting first, and then it’s about figuring out what is the business case that you’re interested in.

If you’re an e-commerce, then it’s pretty much off the shelf. Everything’s available. You can do it in five minutes. You can launch. If you want to have something very specific, like we’re talking with a variety of concert organisers in the ticketing space, and they’re like, oh, yeah, we want to integrate this capability in our ticket issuance, so they can use our API. Again, we don’t have to be involved. They can just start using this. They can set the price they want. They can potentially make money off this. We don’t have any issue with that. We just don’t make marginal impact, but they can.

If we say that the tree costs whatever, $1.8 and they want to sell it at two, perfectly fine. That’s possible, and then they can all do this through the API. Then, of course, we need to have a commercial agreement in the backend for them to access our service layer. But all of these things are pretty simple. I think, especially for small companies, starting with Handprint is really super easy. It’s just about figuring out what kind of cause do I want to support. Am I interested in anti-slavery work, or am I interested in coral restoration or whatever? Like figuring out what aligns with your purpose, what aligns with your brand, what makes sense for you, or what aligns with you personally, if you’re the CEO, decision-maker and say, well, I want to do this because I care about this. We’ll always suggest it should be aligned to the brand.

And then it’s figuring out what the use case is. So, you can use our technology to pretty much do anything. We’ve got companies that use our API for newsletter signups, for rewarding salespeople with other type of incentives and financial incentives, for events. We had recently a company using it during an event when they asked people to vote on specific clips like which they preferred, and every vote supported an organisation that works on The Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

There’s lots of ways in which you can use the technology because basically it’s a universal impact API. It can sit behind anything that has a digital fingerprint.

That does sound like a very flexible implementation supporting quite a range of use cases. Let’s say that I’ve jumped on board, we’ve integrated with Handprint, people are buying whatever it is that we’re selling in this scenario. How can the business, or even the clients and the customers of that business, trace the impact of their purchases? And how granular is that information?

Across this chain of making the platform available, we keep perfect visibility on the total impact being created for every actor. Up until the level of the individual.

Also very good question. It depends a little bit on which piece of tech they’re using from us. Our most granular solution, which is called Earth Wallet, is very good at offering deep granularity. Earth Wallet is developed for banks, but it can be used for other types of organisations as well. We have developed this in collaboration with a partner called Idemia. Idemia already sells bank card technology to about 35% of global banks. We make this platform available to Idemia. Idemia makes it available to a bank. A bank can make the same platform available to a corporate client, and a corporate client can then make that platform available to all of its employees, let’s say, or a bank makes it available to all of its customers, its retail customers. Across this chain of making the platform available, we keep perfect visibility on the total impact being created for every actor. Up until the level of the individual.

So, the final individual that basically, let’s say, has this new bank card that creates a positive impact in the world, will within its banking app, its existing banking app, be able to access a “Handprint” section. Probably won’t be called Handprint, but an impact section where they’ll be able to see, Okay, the last month I have collected 700 earth points and I can now allocate these points to a specific project that the bank, its bank has preapproved.

Let’s say they say, okay, I want to put 100 earth points in reforestation in Australia, 200 go to some coral restoration, and then I really care about this food bank, so the rest of my points go there. The individual allocates those points to these different projects. All of that information will trickle down in aggregated form up to us. The money will be distributed. Then the individual, as and when the project becomes activated, will get updates in his banking app from the projects that they support on a biweekly or bimonthly basis.

They’ll get an image, they’ll get a little text, they’ll say, so they’ll open their banking app and they’ll see like, oh, okay, I’ve got a new image from the reforestation project. Oh, great. There’s a little video about what has happened.

It’s that level of granularity that we can provide, which of course is important because without that level of granularity as an individual, you’re basically throwing money into a black box, which we see now some of our banks that we’re talking to, they have this problem. When it goes into a black box and they’re like, well, we don’t really see what’s happening on the ground. It doesn’t create a lot of trust at the individual level, and it’s not very engaging because you have no reason to come back. We can solve all of that. With Earth Wallet, we can do this up until the individual level. With our normal service layer, it’s really targeted at corporate customers, so they can access all of this information, but they can’t make it individualizable.

Okay, that answers my question. Very granular, very detailed, and again, very flexible in terms of how you track and even present that information. Do you find that gamification, the points and such, what’s the level of engagement with end users? Because I’m thinking that would be pretty high with the upcoming generation, the mobile-first generation. Is that accurate?

I think it’s very, very important. So if we look at the best example, again, in the finance space of an organisation that has done this incredibly successfully is Ant Financial in China. They created this little feature within their Alipay app called Ant Forest that has so far resulted in the planting of over 400 million trees in China, all supported by Ant Financial.

What they did was two very smart things. One is they said they wanted to reward sustainable behaviors, which basically allowed them to tell their customers, Oh, if you’re buying vegetarian food, if you’re taking the bus to work, if you’re walking to work, if you’re paying your bills with Alipay rather than getting them sent via the post, all of those things you can get points and they’re called energy points in their system. But all of those little rewards are obviously also very important because it allows Alipay to collect more data. Imagine that a banking app says I want to track wherever you walk. Your bank is not doing that. You would not be comfortable with this. But in China it’s different. The bank there is like, Okay, if you want to earn more points, you need to let us track where you walk, so we know your whereabouts.

And most people sign up for that saying, yeah, sure, because I get more points. And so what happens there is they found this really interesting system where they’re allowed to collect a lot of data, which is very valuable. And the rewards they get for this are very, very meagre. The individuals get very small rewards. They get some points or energy points. If they collect enough of those they can plant a virtual tree, within the banking app. And if they keep that tree alive for long enough, Alipay will actually plant a tree in a variety of projects.

Now, Alipay has been doing this since 2016. It’s grown a lot. They’ve got about 500 million active users. And when I talk about this example with my Chinese students, I would say 95% of them use this system. And of that 95%, 90% say, it’s the first thing I look at in the morning when I wake up. The reason is because they gamified it. If you don’t look at it as the first thing in the morning, your friends, who obviously Alipay knows because these are the people you occasionally send small payments to, it’s very ingenious, your friends can steal the points you collected the day before, which forces you to basically log into the app, claim your points that you’ve earned over the previous day, otherwise your friends may steal them.

It’s a really simple gamification thing, but it makes it incredibly sticky. Again, ever since Alipay has done it, they’ve been very successful at this, creating lots of engagement, daily user trade, super high and super cheap, because on average, a single user will plant about one tree per year, and that is enough to create 365 days a year of engagement. That’s insane. That is so cheap. And then, moreover, now, because in China, it’s obviously a hard market to compete. There are hundreds of companies, including Starbucks, for instance, that are financing trees in Alipay’s forests and using Alipay as a engagement tool. They’re not even paying for the trees themselves anymore. It’s a really good example of how you can create the right business case with a very strong value proposition that creates customer, user loyalty, user stickiness, and actually creates a lot of positive impacts.

Handprint logo comprised of a green and white illustration of a hand with a leaf in the palm.
Through the Handprint platform, businesses can integrate, automate and deliver positive impact across their processes and operations. Image: Handprint.

That is wild, both in terms of the impact that the system has and the data that is being collected to power that. Usually, you don’t want to hear stories about big tech tracking you, addictive apps, and things like that. But on one hand, if that’s going to help social and environmental causes, do we give it a pass? I guess it’s about finding that balance, right?

Absolutely. I’m all skeptical about lots of big tech and their, “benevolent intentions”. But at some point, we have to… Either we realise or we accept that we want to live off the grid and then we need to go move to North Dakota or some place in the desert. But if we can choose to a certain degree how we are tracked, why we are tracked, and what the consequences are of that, then I think there’s a lot of potential.

Every individual that uses the internet basically creates a wealth of information that we cannot capture value from as individuals. We only capture value from this in the fact that we get better target ads and stuff, which is mixed. But if there would be a way, and obviously this is not my business, but if there would be a way for us as individuals to own that data and then say we can make it available to a variety of organizations, but part of that money should go to things that we care about. They could actually be a very powerful tool.

Ethical data brokerage?

Yeah, something like that with individual data ownership, right?

Something to hope for. And speaking of hope and tracking, what’s your outlook on the current state of affairs? And how are we tracking with regard to some of the bigger picture issues like climate change? How do you feel about how things are right now and where do you think they are headed?

Well, if you look at the data, it looks pretty grim. There are cascading and converging climate effects all over the world, like rising intensity, rising death tolls, rising frequency, there is still no evidence at all that we are reaching peak carbon, knowing that we should be at 50 % reduction by 2030. The data are not promising. I think if you just look at that alone, then it’s very discouraging or very discouraging.

I think that it’s also our duty to be hopeful, but not blind.

But I’m always hopeful. I think that it’s also our duty to be hopeful, but not blind. There are things that are going in the right direction. I think Europe has peaked in terms of internal carbon emissions. Now, of course, it’s easy for a region that doesn’t produce anything. That’s going okay, I think, in the reasonably right direction there. Of course, the war in Ukraine has not done us or anyone else any favours in that regard.

If we look at the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) in the US, the most influential climate regulation that has been approved in any country of significant size, rise, it looks like it’s very promising, especially when it comes to electrical vehicles. There’s still not enough clarity on the big question on the solar and the wind farms.

There is a need. If they want to reach their goals, they should build — what is the number? I think — 2,000-acre solar plants every week for the next 30 years. I heard that recently on a podcast. Of course, that’s impossible, mainly because of permitting problems and also because at some point, they’ll run out of space. The key question, I think, for us, as you and me, as people thinking about these issues, maybe from a more global perspective, is how do we allocate resources in the right place at the right time? We know that if we cover maybe two or three percent of the desert in Africa and the Sahara Desert, we could power the entire world, if we add the transmission lines.

Now, of course, there are some risks with that that we don’t really understand. There is a very delicate relationship between the Sahara Desert and the Amazon in Brazil, surprisingly, in terms of sand movements through the wind. At some point, we will have to make trade-offs. Right now, interestingly, if you look at the debates in the US, not that I want to use this as the example, but many of the debates right now in the US are between people wanting to create, let’s say, solar or wind plants and environmentalists.

And the environmentalists are saying, no, but it’s going to be bad for bird life, or we have to study the effects of this solar plant on this type of beetle, and this needs to take four years. There’s a lack of realism in terms… I find this very surprising coming out of the environmental movement myself. Well, no, actually, coming out of this movement, I don’t find it surprising, but it is damaging that given the urgency of the situation, we need to make and accept trade-offs. There is not going to be a great solution. We can only try to avoid the worst. And we need to do so both at the climate level as well as the biodiversity front, because the biodiversity collapse that is ongoing is arguably a more existential threat to human survival than climate change.

I think we are at the beginning only now. We should have been there in 1989 when we almost had our first global climate agreement. But we’re only now at the beginning, I think, of a period during which action is actually taken at scale. It’s good that we are getting there or got there. Whether or not it’s going to be enough to meet the 2030 targets, I think it’s highly unlikely, and whether we’re going to be able to, as a global society, to withstand the pressure from countries that are very fossil fuel-dependent, think Middle East, think Russia, think even the US, Canada, Brazil, is to be debated.

If we see that COP28 is supported by UAE and basically entirely dominated by the petrol industry, that doesn’t fill me with lots of confidence, although we absolutely need that industry to be on board, but we can’t do it without them. I think there’s a lot of reason to be very pessimistic and very negative, but nobody ever derives motivation or action, sense of action from pessimism and from negative thinking. I remain cautiously optimistic and I try to do what I can through my organisation and through some of the other things I’m involved in, but we’ll need some global agreements and we’ll need them to be enforced and quickly if we are to avoid the worst of climate change.

The theme that’s emerging from a lot of what we’ve talked about today is motivation for change, engineering that change, that behavioural change through the services you provide and the companies that deliver that to the public. With consideration to the targets that we’ve set and the windows that we have to act upon in order to, quite frankly, sustain human life on this planet, I mean, that’s what’s at risk ultimately. But what steps could people take to become part of that change, part of that regenerative economy themselves?

I think there are two. Let me give you two completely different answers to this question. One is nothing. As an individual, you can’t do anything. It’s just, unfortunately, the case like you don’t matter. Unless if you’re Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or Biden or Putin or whatever, you don’t matter. Your individual capacity to do anything is non-existent. That’s true, but it’s also incorrect. The other side of this is to say, well, everyone can make small changes. Again, you can reduce meat consumption, you can increase the aircon temperature by one or two degrees, or lower the heating of your house. You can improve insulation, there’s stuff you can do if you’re a house owner, there’s stuff you can do if you’re a tenant. You can travel less, you can eat less meat, you can do all of those things about doing less. We know all of those things. It’s a drop in the bucket. It’s a drop in the ocean. If you do it alone. But if you do it with 100,000 people, you can change the world. That’s one thing.

The other thing, and I think this is where individual power is most interesting, is in the creation of positive impact, because the reality is very simple. Especially, I mean, you live in Australia, so I live in Singapore. I’m originally from Belgium, so I come out of a welfare state upbringing. Our assumption engrained in us, in me as a Belgian, is that the state is taking care of the environment of people, of the world, whatever. The reality is it doesn’t. It has failed in its fiduciary duties to its citizens to do so in any way. Most states, maybe Costa Rica being the only exception and Bhutan.

Individuals alone can’t do anything, but individuals together can do everything.

But as a consequence, we have an ability, and in many countries this comes with tax benefits, to make a positive impact in the world ourselves by supporting organisations that do stuff that we care about. This is a very small thing. I always tell a person, if you want to do something and you don’t know what, okay, plant a tree every month. Now don’t do it necessarily in your country. Support an organisation that does that. Of course, you can do that through Handprint or many other organisations. Or if you care about corals or ocean plastic cleanup, you can do this. Most of us in the developed world have enough spare money to say, I’m going to make commitment of 2, 5, 10, maybe even $50 a month to create some positive impact doing something that I care about.

This is step one. I think we can all do this. Most of us can do this either as part of our business, let’s say, in this podcast, you do this for every listener, or we do it as an individual. Now, again, if I do this alone, it doesn’t matter. Well, it makes me feel better, but doesn’t necessarily do something. My thing is, if you can say, I’m going to do this, and I’m going to convince two people, just two, to do this as well every month. But I have to convince them that they also need to convince two people to do the same, and so on and so on and so on. So if you set this in motion, again, it doesn’t matter which organisation you want to support. But the question is, can you convince two people to do this as well? And can they convince two people? And can they then convince two people? And on and on and on.

Now, if you get to 30 iterations of this, you’ve convinced more than a billion people. And this is the scale of individual power. We don’t need to change everything. If we can change two people and convince them to also influence two people, and if we can set off that ripple effect, we can change a billion people in only 30 iterations.

Individuals alone can’t do anything, but individuals together can do everything. I think this is where our unique power is. I think as a podcast host, this is where your unique power is as well. If we can say we’re going to try, we’re going to start trying to do this, how many people can you reach in one episode, 100 episodes? And if we can create this movement, then a lot of good can be done. Because if a billion people say, I’m doing two dollars a month, that’s a lot of dollars to create positive impact.

There is immense power in altruistic pyramid schemes…

Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t call it that, because otherwise people are going to be skeptical and upset by it, absolutely. That’s what it is.

It’s a catchy name, perhaps, but not the best name. It’s a great way to look at individual impact, though. The key is to scale it. That’s where the power and real change lies. I can imagine that through the formation of Handprint that you and your team have enjoyed some awesome moments where you’ve seen that change manifest. What’s your favourite part of what you do and what your company does?

I think my most favourite part is really talking to people. The conversations I have in podcasts, in key notes, in speeches, but also in the first, second, third, fourth sales conversation that we have with potential clients or prospects. Yes, sometimes having this moment where you see something clicking, that you just feel like, all right, we finally reached this ah-ha moment within them.

When you’re trying to sell the things we sell, which is basically positive impact, and you’re trying to convince companies that this has business value, this is not easy because they have never really looked at it like that. I think that’s really my favourite part of the job is to create that moment where they’re like, I don’t believe this. Then maybe one call later, they’re like, No, we’re totally aligned. This is it. Because then I feel like you’ve really changed someone’s mind. Maybe that’s really also, of course, as an educator, that’s a lot of what I have to do is teach people things that they didn’t think about before and hopefully that are useful to them. I think that’s my favourite part of the job.

Then the scientific work, the nitty gritty thinking. For instance, we’ve developed this handprint target calculator to get not specific to our organisation, but to the scientific concept of a handprint. Then working on this with some of our teammates saying, Okay, how are we going to set the environmental responsibility if not by allocating blame to people. And it creates interesting scientific challenges that are very different from the types of challenges that I can tackle as an academic, because we’re trying to do stuff that doesn’t exist. In academia, you’re always going to look backward to stuff that has been done by others and then try to make sense of it. So I think that’s the most fun part.

You’ve mentioned tackling challenges in new ways and inventing things that don’t currently exist. What’s then next for Handprint? When you think about the future, what gets you excited?

The next things are, I mean, they’re few and far between because it will depend a little bit on which part of the organisation. I think what gets me most excited, although I’m actually least involved with it, is the gradual, step-by-step, slow grinding evolution of our platform, so our service layer that we are providing.

We’ve created the architecture and the infrastructure that enables ultra-scalable trust in the impact space.

Why it gets me excited is that because what we’ve started to build, and I think it’s taken us a while to realise this completely, is we are building a totally new way of creating trust in impact. In order to understand this, you have to basically recognise that right now, without Handprint, there are two ways in which trust in Impact exists. One is reputation, which basically means I’m giving money to WWF because I trust this organisation because they have a very good reputation, they’ve been around for a long time. The other one is authority, which means I’m buying carbon credits because they’re externally verified, independently audited, all of that stuff. There is some authority, either a governmental or a voluntary carbon authority like Gold Standard or like now OxCarbon, that is saying like, this is true, this is legitimate.

These are very common ways in which organisations or individuals have trust in third parties, but they’re fundamentally not scalable. WWF cannot scale its reputational trust to other organisations because it belongs to them. It’s not expandable. Authority cannot scale because it’s human constraint, which we see in all these organisations is that they can’t scale their activities by 10x, although there is demand for this because they don’t have the people to do this. They create bottlenecks.

What Handprint is building is trust through social verification and technological intermediation in the same way that platforms like Airbnb have done this. You get peer-to-peer reviews, you get a social trust mechanism that enables you to validate something to be high quality or not. You get some expert opinion, at least in the beginning, also, and this is with Airbnb, but the benefit of this approach is one that it’s 100 times more scalable than authority or reputation, and it’s flexible and that it expands to other organisations. The moment we bring a new NGO to the platform, it benefits from the entire trust that the platform has built. This is really valuable, scalability. Secondly, it’s about 80% to 90% cheaper than authority because authoritative work requires lots of experts, requires third party, requires all of those things that are super costly, super slow, not scalable.

With social trust, social verification, we don’t have this problem. We’ve created the architecture and the infrastructure that enables ultra-scalable trust in the impact space, which is something that the United Nations have been wanting to do for decades, have never been able to do. It’s something that many NGOs would really benefit from, especially the small NGOs, the kinds that we work with that don’t have this WWF reputation but that offer amazing quality work at a fraction of the cost because they don’t have all of these overheads that WWF has.

I think this is really what excites me because if you think about this in the startup terms, this is the moat. This is what we’ve built that nobody else has built, and that’s super hard to imitate. Advancing that system through the next couple of steps that we’re working on now will set us up to deliver, it’s already very advanced, but to deliver even more and more a complete trust layer that is highly scalable, that enables expansion to other parties and other impact types very quickly. I think this is absolutely what is missing in the impact space. So that’s what gets me most excited.

So, solving not only for positive impact, but trust at scale as well. And on the topic of unique solutions, which has been a major thread through all that we’ve spoken about today. I’d like to finish with a question that I ask of everyone that comes on the show. I’m especially interested in your take on this one. We are faced with many challenges today, both for people and the planet. In your own words, what’s a modern remedy for those issues?

I’m going to give a very political answer here. There is not one modern remedy. We need every possible modern remedy. But if I need to highlight one, I would say to everyone who’s listening, focus on the area in which you have power. If you’re a business leader and you’re in the service industry or your digital industry, stop worrying about your footprint. Start thinking about your handprint.

Pick a fight that you care about, find the community that you belong to and support that. I think it’s really enriching to do so.

You have nothing to do with footprint narrative. If you’re building or manufacturing products, or if you’re in transportation, you’re in mining, you’re in energy, your footprint should be the only thing you care about. This is the most important thing. Anything else handprint-wise is additional. If you’re an individual, yeah, you can make small changes to your diet, your plastic consumption, maybe your travelling, but start thinking more about your handprint. What is it that you really care about that you want to support? Do this.

There’s a study, I don’t know, it’s been a very old study, but there’s a study that says that people that support three NGOs or good causes on a yearly basis are on average, happier than those that don’t. It might have a positive impact on you in your life, even though it might reduce your financial affluence by a little bit.

But again, it’s probably less than a coffee. So I think this is where I’d say this is where that the focus needs to be for individuals and organisations. Pick the fights that you really care about. It doesn’t need to be climate change. It could be biodiversity, it could be education, it could be food, it could be racial equality, whatever. But pick a fight that you care about, find the community that you belong to and support that. I think it’s really enriching to do so.

Pick your battles, invest in the causes you believe in, and join supportive communities with like-minded people who are also committed to change. Where can we point our community to find out more about Handprint and the work that you’re doing?

Obviously, the website, – you e website, handprint. Tech, you can find me and Handprint on LinkedIn. I’m also on Instagram and on Threads, and on Twitter. We also have a YouTube channel. I think our YouTube is potentially most interesting for listeners and individuals. Of course, if you’re a business and you want to reach out, feel free to drop me an email at, and I’ll be happy to hear from you.

Simon, thank you so much for your time today. It has been fascinating to learn about your business, its unique approach and mindset behind sustainability and the pressing need for an investment in the regenerative economy. I’m really excited to see how your platform evolves as it continues to affect positive change at scale.

Cheers, Russ. It was very fun talking to you as well.

Connect with Handprint / Simon

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