Ensuring tomorrow’s business leaders have the skills to make companies more competitive by viewing social and environmental challenges as unmet market needs that can provide business growth through innovation, entrepreneurship, and organizational change.
Sustainability Leadership and Education
Over the past two decades some companies have made significant progress recognizing the impact their products, services, and operations have on the world around them. Once simply seen as costs of doing business, social and environmental externalities are now commonly viewed as one of the responsibilities for the firms that help to contribute to them.
The continuing challenge for many companies, though, is how to make terms such as sustainability, social responsibility, environmental management, environment, health and safety, and corporate social responsibility meaningful within the context of that firm’s operating environment. Companies are increasingly critical that today’s business programs too often fail to provide graduates with the skills necessary to lead in a multi-cultural, dynamic, and global competitive environment.
WRI’s BELL (Business, Environment, Learning and Leadership) goal is to make sure promising business leaders of tomorrow have the skills necessary for making companies more competitive by viewing social and environmental challenges as unmet market needs that can provide business growth opportunities through innovation and organizational change. BELL achieves this by working together with educators, researchers, and managers to generate new knowledge about management strategies and techniques and disseminating those through cutting-edge business educational programs, including degree programs, executive, and in-house training programs, and corporate universities.
BELL currently has strategic partnerships in Brazil , Mexico, and China. BELL work in these emerging economies focuses specifically on the innovation, entrepreneurship and organizational change issues that exist within developing economies. This includes an emphasis on issues related to challenges faced by multinationals trying to expand their opportunities to these new markets; by locally-based large, small and medium sized companies looking to develop new growth markets domestically and abroad; and economic capacity building at the local level through innovative cross-sector partnerships. Today’s firms have limited knowledge or experience in trying to meet the needs of the poor, in designing the goods and services that might generate social, environmental, and economic benefits, or the creation of the business models that would be effectively serve unmet needs in low income markets. BELL is working together with local partners to fill that gap in the knowledge and create new understanding about real business growth opportunities in emerging economies.
Overall, BELL activities are focused on the long-term growth aspects of sustainability in a business context related to innovation, repositioning, and shared visions. This includes topics such as technological innovation, clean technology, technological commercialization, BOP market development, and economic capacity building. This approach is in contrast to most programs found at other NGOs or reflected by a great deal of private sector consulting work that addresses short term sustainability issues related to costs and public perceptions. Those issues include risk and cost reductions, reputation building and efforts to establish legitimacy and tend to focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR), environmental management, environmental/health/safety (EHS), and ethics.
BELL seeks to understand the mechanisms for encouraging innovation in business, from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. Finding competitive advantage by addressing environmental and social challenges requires innovation in problem definition, problem solving, sustainable product design, and business model development.
As part of organizational change, the continuing challenge for many companies is how to make terms such as sustainability, social responsibility, environmental management, environment, health and safety, and corporate social responsibility meaningful within the context of that firm’s operating environment. BELL works to build a knowledge base of organizational experiences and processes that support the meaningful integration of these terms into culture and strategy, and leverage that knowledge to help firms become more effective in the marketplace.
Dynamic economic growth depends on entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs drive innovation and pursue market opportunities when others hesitate. In the coming decades significant growth opportunities will be found in emerging markets. Entrepreneurs in small and large firms alike will be important for the development of new products and services able to meet low-income needs in those markets. BELL works to provide knowledge to nurture inclusive capitalism that will engage billions who are currently underserved or ignored by current economic activities.
Top Universities Collaborate on Innovation Curriculum
The buzzword “innovation” puts dollar signs in the eyes of corporate executives—but how is higher education meeting the demand for inventors and entrepreneurs of the next big technologies? WRI’s “Business, Engineering & Sustainability” initiative specifically seeks to equip students to create and commercialize the technologies that are required for meeting the demands of consumers living in poverty and reversing negative global environmental trends.
The “Business, Engineering & Sustainability” Workshop brought together 60 academics from the engineering and business disciplines as well as other experts from industry and civil society to discuss education for “sustainable innovation and venture creation.” The participants vetted ideas for collaboration between disciplines in and out of the classroom. As one outcome of the meeting, several participants self-organized workgroups in “new curriculum” and “clean energy” for ongoing development.
The workshop was held on February 16-17, 2007 at University of Maryland with the generous support of the National Science Foundation, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, and the Institute for Systemic Change. WRI is partnered with Engineers for a Sustainable World, Cornell University, and Penn State University on the “Business, Engineering & Sustainability” initiative.
Mariana GonzalezCommunications & Metrics Assistant, New Ventures