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Nexus2020: The most important research questions for business sustainability

8 December 2016 – A new report, which is the result of a unique collaboration between business and academia, highlights the most important questions for businesses around the sustainable management of food, energy, water and the environment.

Nexus2020: The most important research questions for business sustainabilityDownload the report

About the report

This business-focused synthesis report, 'Nexus2020: The most important research questions for business sustainability' shows the importance of collaboration between businesses and academics to ensure that academic research is informed by business and enables more rapid progress towards sustainability. It builds upon a CISL-led academic paper published in the scientific journal Sustainability Science in October 2016.

The report was produced by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), as part of the Nexus Network project, a three-year initiative funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and co-ordinated by a team from the University of Sussex, University of East Anglia and University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership to foster debate, innovative research and practical collaborations across the linked ‘nexus’ domains of food, energy, water and the environment.

The study is the first of its kind to bring businesses and academics together to address the challenges companies have in managing their impact and dependencies on the nexus domains. Over 250 stakeholders, including representatives from companies such as Asda, EDF Energy, HSBC and Nestlé and academics from institutions including Cambridge, Leeds and Exeter Universities all contributed to the study.

From the 722 questions that had been submitted by business, civil society, policymakers and academics over a five-month period, 40 critical research priorities were identified at a two-day workshop. These are categorised into five themes;

  1. Incentives for change
  2. Collaboration and stakeholder engagement
  3. Investing in sustainability
  4. Supply chains taking a landscape approach
  5. Making better policy

Since the list of priority research questions was produced in 2015, CISL has begun to investigate some of the questions, including ‘What common metrics can be devised to enable nexus comparisons to be made that will help businesses and investors choose priorities and inform decision making?’ CISL is leading this important piece of work by engaging with researchers as well as with members of the Natural Capital Leaders Platform and the Investment Leaders Group on this priority research area.  

Opportunities for greater business engagement

There is a real opportunity to build upon learnings from Nexus2020 in co-designing research priorities with business and academia. Providing researchers with the space to talk directly with business can provide insight into the application of their innovations. Encouraging business practitioners to be part of the research process can solidify partnerships to deliver impact even before a study is completed.

Now business leaders and researchers have co-designed these research questions it is time to begin answering them.  Multidisciplinary panels of researchers and business practitioners are needed to develop the projects that can deliver the research required to answer these pressing nexus issues. At the same time, research funding agencies interested in making high-impact investments have an opportunity to promote this co-production approach that can provide value to society, the environment and business alike.   

An effective collaboration between business, government and academia, including research funding agencies, can yield answers to these questions and, in doing so, help address the most critical global challenges of today.

Academic paper

The business report is complemented by an academic paper published in the journal Sustainability Science which provides further details on the methodology and process.

Citing this report

Please refer to this report as University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). (2016). Nexus2020: The most important research questions for business sustainability. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Businesses are increasingly working to better include research around natural capital in decision-making. Collaborate with like-minded companies by joining the Natural Capital Leaders Platform.

Published: December 2016

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Authors and acknowledgments

The principal investigators and authors of this report are: Dr Gemma Cranston, Dr Jonathan Green and Hannah Tranter of CISL. This report is based upon the work described in Sustainability Science DOI: 10.1007/s11625-016-0402-4.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL or any of its individual business partners or clients.