Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Dr. Dan Vermeer of Duke University

Dr. Dan Vermeer spent most of his twenties in the Himalayas. An anthropologist, he wandered through small mountain communities in Nepal and India, learning how the people lived, their connection to the environment, and how their economies were changing. He studied meditation and had the opportunity of a private audience with the Dalai Lama. He witnessed first hand the impact of the forces of globalization. Dan was shaped by these experiences. He had been trying to get “outside the bubble” by traveling to hard-to-reach-places but the reality he saw was there is not an “outside.” We’re all in this together and the global economy is creating collateral damage in the world.

Today, he has a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences and works as the Duke University Associate Professor and Executive Director for the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE). His passion is to train and equip the newer generations of students to work across multiple companies on multiple issues to solve the grand challenges of our world.

In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Dan and I discuss the process of getting buy-in from leaders to support a transformation to improved sustainable behaviors and the lessons Wilmington could use in pursuit of the Blue Economy.


Deb: What is your definition of the Blue Economy?

Dan: The first point to be made is that that word is used really differently by different people. It has widely varied and contested definitions. I would put those definitions on a spectrum. On the one hand, you have a completely reinvented model of economic development that is in balance with the natural ecosystems. It’s a re-imagined economy that lives in harmony with the natural environment, where economic value is created and human needs are met in ways that don’t degrade the health of the ocean in the process. On the other end of the spectrum, people use Blue Economy as synonymous with the ocean economy, meaning all of the economic activity that happens on the ocean, including shipping and offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation. We’re on the verge of the launch of deep-sea mining. We have had hundreds of years of history where the ocean has been completely vulnerable to any kind of exploitation that humans imagine and where the ocean could absorb any amount or type of waste that we could generate. It’s made the ocean into a giant storehouse of resources and a giant trash bucket for the world. I like to use the definitions of the Blue Economy closer to the former definition than the latter. The point is, the term connotes different kinds of models of economy and different models of how companies are to operate around it.

Deb: If Wilmington leaders came together on a common definition, how could it help the community create a better future for the environment and for the people who live there?

Dan: There are pieces of that puzzle. One piece is determining how to reduce the negative impacts of the existing ocean economy that operates in that area. How do you reduce the amount of pollution that’s generated by ships in port? I don’t know the Wilmington economy deeply. So I don’t know exactly the sectors that are most prominent there. But they need to look at ways to reduce the impacts of shipping, fishing, resource development, and tourism. There’s a whole portfolio of things you can do to minimize the negative impacts. There’s also a set of exciting, new, non-extractive opportunities such as seaweed farming, or using ocean genetics to produce new medicines, or creating new kinds of high protein, nutritious foods that are grown in a sustainable way.

There is a whole set of emerging opportunity categories that are more restorative than extractive or exploitive. It’s exploring and growing those opportunities as rapidly as possible and ultimately displacing the exploitive parts of the ocean economy with the restorative parts of the economy. Over time, it’s a transition from one economic paradigm to another. I don’t think it’s going to happen inevitably or organically. There has to be public policy that supports the solution. As we’ve seen in a lot of other domains, when new sustainable opportunities emerge, they are pursued and they’re scaled. They tend to be additive to whatever is still there. The sustainable economy grows, but the unsustainable economy doesn’t shrink. Transformation from one to the other only happens through a really integrated holistic process of transition that is facilitated by policy.

Deb: Your professional journey includes supporting a large corporation with its sustainability goals, tell me about your experience at Coca-Cola.

Dan: The CEO was setting up a think tank to look at long-term strategic issues for the company. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I was able to engage with the C-suite of the most global company in the world, and we were able to identify the priority issues for the company. It was something I had dreamed about for almost 10 years and I actually had the chance to do it.

We set up the think tank in New York, not in Atlanta because the CEO wanted us to be out of the bureaucracy and close to the action. Within the first couple of years in New York, we launched a project on the future of water. This is what I had been looking for my whole life — a big meaty issue. Water is critical to everything — ecosystems, public health, energy supply, food security, women’s rights, and more. And I was working in a company where 98% of everything it makes is water. Coca-Cola is deeply intertwined with the fate of this natural resource, just as all of us are. 

Until that time, water hadn’t really been studied from this perspective in the company. We had a chance to reorient Coca-Cola about water and to engage differently around the way it was used and how it connected with our stakeholders. The water sustainability initiative began. We spent seven years creating a new vision for water stewardship in the company. The CEO loved it and invited me to help form a new environment and water resources department. I spent the next five years in Atlanta working on the process of organizational change to take a big idea and actually change the way a million-person company that operates in almost every country in the world handles one of the primary elements of its business production. We learned a lot about how to make change happen inside big companies. Not just theoretically; but practically.

Deb: What are your thoughts about managing risk through a transition?

Dan: First, acknowledge the risk of the existing system. It’s risky to transition to something new. There’s also risk in staying with what currently exists. In the area of climate change, for example, it’s costly and risky to imagine transitioning to a no-carbon economy, but it’s even riskier not to do it. Acknowledge that the transition will be painful. Find a way to make a  compelling case about the risks of the status quo. There are economic risks to manage. There are lots of ways of demonstrating the cost of the status quo that ultimately undermines the ability to continue “as is” over the long run. You can keep fishing, but if you fish in a way that overexploits the stocks of fish, eventually they collapse. You can have a tourism industry, but if you fill your whole coastline with big resorts and hotels, you can kill the beautiful pristine coast that created the opportunity in the first place. We need to demonstrate the transition in tangible, compelling, and quantified financial ways. What is the risk of the existing model that we have? That’s the starting point?

In terms of introducing the new, I don’t think there’s any way to do that with a master plan. It has to be a process of experimentation and finding ways to rapidly scale the things that work and finding the appropriate scale to which they can be grown. It’s a portfolio and it evolves over time; it’s ever-changing. So you’re not asking people to make a transition from A to Z. You’re asking them to try B and try C and try D. If those work, then maybe there’s momentum to try a new set of things that can move us further down the path. It’s accelerating the cycle of innovation and evolution. Some things can be scaled to a certain extent and not more. Economically, we don’t know how to scale good things to their appropriate level and then operate in a steady-state way. We don’t have a lot of economic mechanisms for doing that, but we desperately need them. This is how I see the process of transition.

Think about the difference between cities such as Manhattan and Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, which was created to be a sustainable city in an area where nothing existed except desert. The developers said, “We are going to bring in buildings. We’re going to have a space-age train system that takes people around the city. We are going to bring in businesses to reside in our buildings.” I’ve been there, and the city appears to be a ghost town. There is a train but nobody is on it because there’s no business. It didn’t grow organically. We can’t just build a city on a sheet of paper. The opposite is an organic process of evolution where there are a million experiments going on all the time, some of which get traction and excitement and attract resources then scale.

Humans are mimetic creatures. We’re great at imitating what we see when it works. A city that evolves is one that has a process of experimentation and creativity. It can mobilize resources in service of the best ideas. There’s financial capital, talent, and natural resources. The city can mobilize resources to grow the healthy sorts of things that are evolving. You want it to look like a garden where lots of different things are growing and benefiting from each other, and different kinds of activities happen. It’s like when the bees come and pollinate. It’s not choreographed but it’s a healthy, vibrant ecosystem where things feed off of each other. It’s this ecosystem model that can teach us a lot about what a healthy and flourishing regional economic ecosystem might look like. It can help characterize what a regional Blue Economy ecosystem in the Wilmington area might look like.

Deb: What are the two or three things that have to be done immediately to start the process of the change?

Dan: Identify your champions. Who are the ones politically powerful enough to serve as champions that can be forceful to get things done? It doesn’t have to be everybody in the community, but it has to be well-positioned champions who can make the case in the right context to be able to promote it. I can give examples from my Coca-Cola experience of the champions we had to get on board. And how doing this created a dynamic that led to many more people coming on board, who may not have gotten involved otherwise. That’s the first thing to do.

Second, celebrate heroes, even the micro-heroes. Celebrate anyone who’s taking action that is signaling the kind of behavior and experiments that you want to see more of. Give them lots of visibility and love. Cultivate the kind of heroes you want others to orient to.

At Coca-Cola, we got cameras out to document the stories of anyone who was taking initiative to drive water sustainability in new ways. We got the stories written up and we started a newsletter to promote them. We tried to amplify the stories because those people became great role models — especially when it was people who were not formerly in a job that had a specific responsibility to be working water sustainability. It was those that were doing it on their own initiative. Some of those people actually got promotions and new opportunities because of the initiative they had taken. The visibility we amplified created opportunities for them to move in the company in ways they never would have been able to do otherwise.

Third,  it’s related to radical transparency. Things have to be out in the open, you can’t hide anything. You’ve got to actively promote a spirit of transparency around the initiative and its activities. I’ll give you one example where radical transparency created positive behavior change. When I was at Coke, we did a big risk assessment. We realized to do it well we had to drive it all the way down to the level of the bottling plants. There are hundreds of bottling plants globally. We needed to get these plants to fill out the risk survey and I’d never done a survey before. I started drafting the survey and it ended up being 300 questions. When we pilot-tested it, it took about 10 hours for one plant to complete it. But the survey was going to franchise bottlers that are not even owned by Coca-Cola. 

The problem to solve was how to get hundreds of bottling plants to put 10 hours of work into completing this survey, especially if it may actually end up making them look bad? We did a few things to make the survey a success. We created allies. We got the Coca-Cola presidents of China and India on board. They mandated that all of the bottling plants in their region had to do the survey. It was a forced mandate from the business lead. But once that happened, Africa followed, then others. North America was the last one to jump on board. Its survey participation was about 15% until the division president got called out for the low participation. We motivated him with transparency. We were sending out results every two or three days showing how many survey responses we had. We couldn’t force the bottling companies to do anything, but we could make the process transparent about who was playing and who wasn’t. It created internal peer pressure. Ultimately, we got 93% of the plants to participate.

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Dan: That my children’s lives are healthy, whole, and full of beauty, nature, stability, and opportunity. I hope they feel good enough about the world that they want to have their own kids and raise them to live in a flourishing world. So my hope is not just an aspiration. It’s a real call to action.


Today’s leaders need to take their leadership skills to the next level. They must adopt new mindsets with new mental models about the purpose of business. Move away from believing the sole purpose of the business is to maximize shareholder profit. Open the aperture of thinking about business as being human-centric. To do these things, leaders must reexamine and update organizational designs that worked in the past, along with the mental models that guided those approaches. This endeavor will be hard. Our mental models are integral to who we are as professionals. We have imprinted thought processes and decision-making behaviors through time and experience. And these deeply set mental models prioritize the business system over the human system. Taking the step towards disruptive, creative thinking will level up leaders — and their organizations — for the future.

Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.

Get your copy of Convergence here.

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