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Previous research themes

Participants have the opportunity to undertake group research into a thematic area of personal and professional relevance to them. 

Themes explored in 2016

The role of business in shaping a sustainable economy

What role can business play in shaping a more sustainable economy? The last thirty years have shown us that our current economic paradigm is not working as well as it could. Even though we have succeeded in lifting many people out of poverty and have seen technological progress unimaginable to previous generations, we are also facing an environmental, social and economic crisis of significant proportions. Since the Second World War, the objective of any society has been to further economic growth, but this has come at the expense of people, the planet and even economic stability. There is a growing consensus within government, business and civil society that a new approach is needed, but still uncertainty as to what that new approach should be. The group will explore the failures of the current economic paradigm, explore the potential of a new, more sustainable paradigm and define how business can thrive by enabling the transition between the two. 

The role of business in society

Is the business of business, business, as Milton Freedman wrote? Or should and can business have a higher calling and contribute to society in more ways than simply commercial ones? Can a business be ethical? Can a business be motivated beyond commercial concerns? What is the role of an oil or coal company in dealing with climate change? What is the role of a pharmaceutical company in fighting malaria in poor countries? Can a water company help bring clean water to a developing country? How does a publicly owned company take its shareholders with it if it wants to contribute more to society, or does our model of company structure and shareholder value mean business is pushed to unsustainable actions? The group can explore any aspects of the role of business in society, researching cases and models. 

How can we build business strategies that result in sustainable development?

How can we build business strategies that result in sustainable development? Short-term priorities, the drive for profit and share price growth can result in companies paying lip service to calls for more environmentally and socially responsible business practices. And yet, there are an increasing number of businesses that have embraced these challenges and have implemented strategies that are creating shared value – the elusive triple bottom line – including innovative partnerships with social entrepreneurs. What sets them apart? Why aren’t all businesses seizing the opportunity? Is there a flaw in the business case, lack of visionary leadership, or are there other issues in play? 

Rethinking value – (how) can we reconcile business growth and sustainability?

Discussions about business and sustainability often throw up questions around growth, and how it is possible to reconcile economic growth with the physical limits of the earth’s ecosystems. What does this mean for business? After all, how many companies / organisations announce that they are planning not to grow? A credible response to these questions requires an exploration of the nature of growth and development, and the implications for business. Is it still possible for business to grow and increase profit, whilst simultaneously reducing (or at least stabilising) physical throughput? Does a focus on increasing value rather than financial growth help to shift the debate? How can we progress proposals for ‘dematerialisation’ or ‘decoupling’ growth from consumption? This group will engage with some of these debates, exploring what this might mean for developing new measures of success for business for example, or a new way of thinking and talking about growth, development and value.

Working with others – the prospects and pitfalls in pursuing impact for sustainability

As companies increasingly look to work with others to strengthen their sustainability credentials, are such relationships helping them to become more sustainability minded or letting them off the hook? Businesses are under increasing pressure to work proactively with non-business actors to enhance their operations and ensure accountability. However, as roles and relationships evolve, is this making companies more accountable for their actions? Or is it allowing them to co-opt external stakeholders and thereby deflect responsibility for their impact? Are companies using these mechanisms to unduly influence policy and regulations in which there is a clear conflict of interest? This group shall focus on the changing environments in which companies are operating and the shifting expectations of them vis-a-vis their 'partners' and external stakeholders.

 Innovation and entrepreneurship for sustainability

Much is spoken about innovation as a mechanism to deliver solutions for sustainability. In reality the bulk of innovation by existing firms is incremental, and new ventures face challenges scaling up. This group will build on Dr Nicky Dee’s research across a range of areas in the field of innovation for sustainability, including: scale up and commercialisation of new ventures (in new and existing firms); industrial transformation; start-up ‘ecosystems’ including access to finance and business support (in both developed and developing countries). We will explore topics of most relevance to the group. Possible topics for the group research include ‘David vs Goliath – building productive relationships between corporates and ventures’, ‘The role of corporates in start-up ecosystems’, ‘Examining business models that support growth in ventures with a sustainability purpose’, ‘Channelling innovation through prize competitions, accelerators and incubators’.

Workshop dates

Workshop 1: 2–5 July 2018
Workshop 2: 12–15 November 2018

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Senior Programme Manager