Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

Business and Resilience

It seems that everyday a new article – popular or academic – comes out about Business and Sustainability.  All about supply-chain efficiencies, corporate social responsibility, the corporate role in sustainable development.  Of course, there is at least as much coming out about the problems, deficiencies, contradictions between capitalism and development and the prevailing neoliberal order.  I’ve recently read Dauvergne and Lister’s “Eco-Business: A Big Brand Takeover of Sustainability”, which does a nice job at introducing the arguing sides to each other – the language, the pros/cons of each position, and what seems to be working.  This post isn’t about this.  Rather my intent is to comment on a recent workshop at IBM-Montpellier as part of the Resilience 2014 conference.  Margot Hill Clarvis and Gail Whiteman coordinated an off-site session on Business and Resilience.  Following presentations from IBM on their corporate view of and response to Resilience and from speakers from the Resilience Alliance (Brian Walker) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), we split into parallel sessions.

Margot and I hosted a session titled “Investing in Resilience: Challenges and Opportunities” with a number of industry speakers, including:

  • Dr. David N. Bresch, Director Global Head Sustainability, Swiss Re
  • Dan Dowling, Assistant Director, Sustainability and Climate Change, PwC
  • Linda Freiner, Flood Resilience Program Manager, Group Corporate Responsibility, Zürich Insurance
  • John Fullerton, Founder & President, Capital Institute
  • Prof. Sander van der Leeuw, Arizona State University

From the abstract:  Our concern was that business, and the finance institutions that lend to, invest in, and insure them, are at the heart of many of the drivers and solutions to ecological degradation, resource depletion and social vulnerability. Resilience principles should be at the heart of practical steps to both alleviate these pressures and frame opportunities for more sustainable financing models and investment practices. So far, the majority of dialogue on resilience and investment has focused on a limited set of issues primarily relating to disaster risk resilience. However, there has been very little investigation into these issues within the academic discourses on resilience, and even less dialogue with this practitioner community than other communities (e.g. park rangers, water managers etc). At the same time, the business and investment community are scaling up efforts to transform accounting and valuation practices and strategic priorities in order to facilitate more sustainable investment.

The session aimed to present novel perspectives from a range of practitioners involved in finance (i.e. insurance, accounting, investment) or financing ‘resilience’-based activities in order to provide insights into the challenges and opportunities for integrating resilience into the practical mechanics of enterprise risk and investment evaluation. Panelists gave an overview of how their practical work/research intersects with resilience issues and science, the challenges in the operational application of these frameworks, the expected opportunities and benefits to doing so (focusing on the novel insights it provides) and how best to drive further progress.

As compared with the standard corporate perspective, the financial organizations, particularly the insurance industry seems to value a resilience approach as a means to assess and design preventative approaches (adaptation) rather than ex post responses to disasters or sustainability shortcomings (mitigation).  Unlike many politicians, they see global change and are cognizant about the various potential futures unfolding. This is less about liberal/conservative philosophies and more about preparing and responding to reality in a rapidly changing environment.

Stay tuned for more on business and resilience.

Student Project – Maus Haus – on TV

Previously I’ve had a couple posts regarding the student project, Maus Haus that resulted in the building of a micro dwelling.  As part of ASU’s School of Sustainability year-end Open House of Student Projects, the Maus Haus made prime time.  See the link to the video below:

http://www.azfamily.com/good-morning-arizona/Mauhaus-creators–258646611.html

Sustainability, Governance and the Navajo Nation

In the last few weeks I’ve had the wonderful good fortune of working with representatives of the Navajo Nation on governance.  One of the School of Sustainability’s doctoral students, Edward Dee, a member of the Navajo Nation, approached me about a meeting on the proposed Navajo Decentralization Plan and the incorporation of sustainability concepts in their Intra-tribal Consultation Policy.

My starting point drew on my previous work in southern Africa on transboundary conservation and the challenges of interactions between national agencies while simultaneously working between local communities and national governments.  This becomes particularly challenging when land claims and the settlement of indigenous rights are involved.  While limited in the comparisons that are appropriate between the cases, I believe that the Navajo Nation faces similar constraints both between Navajo chapters and between tribal and federal land, particularly when facing transboundary environmental problems such as water conservation, fire management, and biodiversity threats.

In thinking about environmental policy and sustainability, I stress three main points – the need for collaborative, nested, and adaptive institutional arrangements (or rules and operating procedures).  Because sustainability challenges are often ‘wicked’ in that they have no single, right answer (incomplete, inconsistent, and changing requirements) and because they generally involve multiple stakeholder groups, effective governance requires collaboration.  Effective governance requires legitimacy.  Collaboration and broader levels of participation are ways to build legitimacy in rule-making.

Sustainability challenges are also multi-scalar and cross many political boundaries and land use/land tenure borders.  Building on ideas of polycentricity and institutional fit, governance systems should try to manage to the scale of the problem.  As sustainability challenges are often comprised from multiple problems, governance will often need to be nested to address multiple problems at multiple scales.

Finally, sustainability challenges occur in dynamic, complex systems filled with uncertainty and surprise,  nonlinearity and  threshold effects.  As a result, there is no such thing as an optimal set of rules/laws/policies.  Instead, governance arrangements need to be adaptive to deal with the unknown and be able to confront a dynamic environment.

These ideas are obviously quite vague in details.  I look forward to working with representatives from the Navajo Nation on how to operationalize the concepts.

Art and Sustainability

The first Resilience Conference in Stockholm back in 2008 had a wonderful art exhibit on resilience and the themes of the conference.  I thought it was very moving to see our discussions in entirely new mediums.

Now one of my current students, Angela Cazel-Jahn, is creating a mural in downtown Phoenix about multiple aspects and concepts of sustainability.  While the images for the mural are under design, one fun idea for selecting themes and designs involves leaving images for people.  This idea builds off of one of her previous projects (see her website at www.trustgallery.com).  As the site describes “Out in the world, trustgallery exhibits just a couple of pieces at a time.  You might find them in carefully selected locations, at unexpected moments. I place the artwork here and there, and then I go off and live my life. Some pieces will be found, some will be taken, some will be paid for, some will be damaged or lost, some will be kept and treasured.”

For this project, various images will be left with scholars, practitioners, and others to get diverse perspectives on sustainability.  It lends a collaborative approach, which is key to resolving many sustainability challenges.

I look forward to seeing the final product!

 

 

Sustainability Consulting Services

Over the past year, I have had the wonderful experience of working with some of the most motivated and hardworking students that I have ever met.  I serve as faculty advisor for Greenlight Solutions, a student sustainability consulting organization that is rapidly growing beyond the bounds of campus.  Their website, http://www.glsolutions.org/, highlights their vision of their organization, their approach to sustainability, and some of their early success stories and client engagements.

To summarize their vision and mission, I see their work flowing along two parallel tracks.  First, they are engaged with a number of real-world clients (WWF- World Wildlife Fund, General Dynamics, Orcutt-Winslow Architecture, Phoenix Metro, among several others).  For their clients, they deliver professional sustainability solutions to challenges that these companies face.  Second, they provide educational training for students and, more importantly, experiential learning opportunities for their members with real stakeholders.  In both, they are succeeding wildly and positioning themselves for success in their future careers.

The organization currently has around 25 members working on 6 projects with plans to grow over the next two years to 100 members engaged on 20 projects.  They are also in the process of developing satellite chapters at other universities.

As my previous posts have alluded, much of my teaching and mentoring involves problem and project-based learning approaches where students must find solution options to real world problems and challenges, not made for the classroom assignments.  Greenlight Solutions takes this approach to the next level by providing the means and mechanisms for students to find their own challenges and sense of purpose.  With that comes valued experience, a burgeoning network of contacts in the fields in which they want to work, the satisfaction of doing a good job, and the enjoyment of working with a well-functioning team.  If everyone’s work did the same, well, wouldn’t that be a nice thought.

The Problem with Public Policy Schools?

I want to thank John Hulsey for posting this editorial from the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-problem-with-public-policy-schools/2013/12/06/40d13c10-57ba-11e3-835d-e7173847c7cc_story.html).  I would have otherwise missed it.

I had a number of quick thoughts and wish that I had the benefit of discussing with Roger Parks and other colleagues and advisors from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs before jotting down my ideas.

It’s worthwhile to first note that the authors are thinktank leaders and longstanding critics of the academy.  However, they raise a number of points worth considering.  Others have started targeting a number of critical flaws in the article (not fully understanding the enterprise of science, pushing a specific political agenda, etc).  I don’t want to continue dissecting the weaknesses of the article, but I would like to focus on a few of the key points that they have (perhaps unwittingly) raised.  Many of these challenges facing policy schools are the very same challenges that have been leveled at business schools for decades as well, and b-schools, in spite of their high profile, still struggle with their role in the academy around these issues.

First, the field of study is so broad, how does a school focus to the level needed to provide its students the depth of understanding required for future success?  At the same time, how does a school provide the broad perspective required for systems-level thinking and understanding.  Where should a program direct its efforts?  Should it directly them topically (environmental policy, public finance, etc) or around core skills needed by all MPA/MPP graduates?  How do the schools develop a common core curriculum?

Second, how does the faculty balance basic and applied research?  Should the work be predominantly applied and focused on real-world solutions and deliverables?  Should it be focused more on traditional science?  (And yes, I understand that science and application may not be in opposition).  If the focus is on more traditional academia outputs, how do professors balance their research with the solutions-oriented training and needs of their (mostly) professional students?

Third, and related to the previous questions, how do policy schools balance different disciplinary perspectives?  Is the program truly interdisciplinary?  Is it dominated by particular perspectives (hard-core quant, case-driven, environmental science labs,…) or disciplines (economics, political science, policy analysts)?

I noted earlier that public policy schools and business schools share in many of these dilemmas.  The same can be said for environmental studies programs and schools of sustainability.  At ASU’s School of Sustainability, we struggle with these issues a great deal.  We orient our program toward use-inspired  research and providing real-world solutions.  However, it remains a perpetual challenge to balance the world of academia with this approach.  We focus on an interdisciplinary approach oriented around skill development and sustainability competencies defined by the faculty as a whole (see Wiek, Arnim, Lauren Withycombe, and Charles L. Redman. “Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development.” Sustainability Science 6.2 (2011): 203-218.).  Much of this revolves around a more holistic approach to science and draws on research in complex adaptive systems.  If that sounds further and further from direct application, I need to explain what this means.  But that’s a topic for another day.

Systems Thinking Class Activity and Leverage Points

This morning we ran a bit of an experiment in my Systems Thinking class (mostly sophomore level undergrads).  This comes from the Meadows “Systems Playbook” text.  We formed two groups for ease of organizing.  One group of 8 was run by my TA.  I ran another group of 26.  We gave everyone a number and then had them select two other students as the “reference points”.  However, we gave them some stipulations.  First, if their own number was an odd number, they had to select Student Two.  Second, no one was allowed to select any of the three students wearing red shirts (my randomizing process for my group of 26).

We then asked them to move around until they were equidistant from their two reference points.  Before moving we discussed as a group what they thought would happen.  (Perhaps ask yourself the same question before reading ahead).  When they started moving, it took a couple minutes of shuffling around, bumping into each other, getting a tad too close, etc before settling into a stable formation.

Next, we had everyone return to the circle.  We then ran the same experiment except that when I said “stop”  the three Red Shirts  stopped moving while everyone else continued.   When the others settled into a formation, I said “go” and the Red Shirts moved again.  At this point there was a minor amount of shuffling around, but because none of these three could serve as reference points for others, they made very little difference on the rest of the group.

We returned to our original circle and ran this game a third time.  This time I randomly selected 3 people plus Participant 2 (the reference for the odd numbered participants).  When I said “stop”, these four stopped.  Once the formation emerged, I then said “go” to the four that I had stop earlier.  Because of Participant Two’s high leverage, the system had to reorganize substantially before coming to a halt again.

Finally, we ran the first treatment again with one exception.  This time we added a three second delay between when their reference moved and when they responded.  This caused quite a commotion and the delay kept the system from “equilibrating” in a reasonable amount of time.

This little adventure took about 20 minutes.  At that point, we went back to the classroom and discussed leverage points in systems and related it back to that day’s reading and how these concepts manifest themselves in the experiment.

I highly recommend it.