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In their book, Blue Ocean Strategy, Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, emphasize the strategic move (or initiative) as the key to innovation strategy, with the majority of corporate growth (and later, profits) coming from new strategic initiatives rather than from the continuing development and improvement of existing businesses.

Consistent with this view (and a previous piece, "The Folly of Corporate Sustainability Ratings"),  I believe that refocusing attention on new, Transformational Strategic Initiatives holds the key to driving (and evaluating) corporate sustainability:  Rather than chasing the fantasy of rating entire corporations as to their "sustainability" let us instead shift the "unit of analysis" and spend more time fostering new strategic initiatives within corporations focused on leapfrog, clean technology and disruptive new business models that serve and lift the poor.  

While we will no longer be able to rely so heavily on secondary data and a consistent set of parameters (as we have increasingly with existing Sustainability Ratings), identifying and evaluating Transformational Sustainability Initiatives (both within existing companies, and as new ventures) is more consistent with our aim to recognize and reward what we aim to create--environmentally sustainable and inclusive business for the 21st century.

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This is exactly the focus of our new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) Program at the University of Vermont.  SEMBA seeks to fundamentally reinvent business education and the MBA degree to address the daunting challenges we face in the 21st century--environment, climate change, poverty, inequality, ethics and entrepreneurship.  Experience-based learning is a central component of the SEMBA curriculum, with the Practicum Project forming the backbone of the program.  

The Practicum Project is a 3 month, full-time, hands-on experiential engagement with either existing companies or new ventures focused on launching transformational sustainability initiatives.  I briefly describe below a few of the transformational Practicum Projects that form the backbone of the SEMBA program.

Initiative:  Terragraph Business Model
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Facebook Connectivity Lab's mission is to do the fundamental research to connect the 4.2 billion people who are without access to the Internet or underserved with limited connections to the Internet. Using new technologies built by Facebook's Connectivity Lab, the company seeks to leapfrog traditional methods for connectivity and offer disruptive, innovative projects to connect the "last mile." 

The SEMBA practicum project will work with the Facebook team on project Terragraph; one of the Connectivity Lab's terrestrial internet solutions. The focus of the project will be on exploring the ecosystem in dense urban slums in India to better understand the value proposition of Terragraph technology. SEMBA students will be conducting on the ground interviews to uncover challenges and solutions associated with the use and implementation of the technology. These findings will assist Facebook in determining a viable business model for project Terragraph in India ad a framework for the rest of the world.  The goal of the project overall is to create mutual value for businesses and the communities they operate in, creating a truly sustainable venture. 

Initiative: Affordable & Sustainable Portfolio for the Underserved
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Low income consumers are greatly underserved in the green products marketplace. Due to the current reality of higher costs in development, sourcing materials, production and compliance, green products cost more than conventional products of similar efficacy. As a result, many families cannot afford high quality green products. As a mission-driven company, Seventh Generation believes that everyone should be able to clean safely, sustainably and effectively.  

The request to the SEMBA team is to develop a comprehensive go to market and long-term strategy to address the clothes laundering or other household cleaning needs of low income communities in an affordable and environmentally sustainable way. The team will identify options for new products or services and business models. The team will focus on understanding the target consumers' preferences and cleaning habits, identifying barriers to use of green products by these consumers, defining attributes that will appeal to the target consumer, and developing a value proposition uniquely suited to low income consumers while avoiding cannibalization of current products. 

Initiative: Hydraid Business for Base of the Pyramid in Africa
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NativeEnergy recently acquired the Hydraid® Biosand water filter technology to supply its Help Build™ clean water programs in developing countries. Utilizing NativeEnergy's impact investment model to seed-fund initial placement of filters could provide a powerful boost to establishing a profitable business that helps to meet the critical need for safe drinking water.  

The SEMBA project team will assess the potential for a water filter business and create a business plan for a venture to support under-served, low-income populations in one or more countries.  The team will utilize prior research conducted by TripleQuest and NativeEnergy on filter technologies and current experience across projects that were funded by NativeEnergy to install these filters in Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Honduras, and Haiti. The SEMBA team and their findings will be central to NativeEnergy's strategy on investing in the Hydraid® Biosand business.

Initiative: China Recyling Strategy
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With Novelis' global recycling footprint, we want to have the capabilities to take and process scrap from anywhere.  Novelis has built an automotive finishing plant in China, but with rising volumes of aluminum scrap in China due to a growing middle-class and increasing levels of consumption, it seems like an obvious move for Novelis to next put a recycling center there. 

But there is an effective export ban on scrap leaving China and perhaps a very difficult scrap market to break into with many challenges.  How can Novelis develop a strategy to purchase and reprocess scrap from China?  What should be the immediate next steps to move the company forward toward a long-term, sustainable strategy for closed loop aluminum in China?  What are the risks?  How can they be dealt with?  This project would require a few meetings in Atlanta and trip(s) to China.

Initiative: Sustainable Entrepreneurship in Latin America
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An initiative has been launched to assess Pepsico's capabilities and readiness undertake Base of the Pyramid (BoP) business development.  The next step will be to launch an actual sustainable entreprneurship initiative to develop a new venture in Latin America focused on the underserved.  

This effort is focused on the creation and development of a new business focused on affordable nutrition, starting in Latin America.  The practicum project will engage students in the process of co-creating the value proposition and business model for a new venture in Latin America focused on the BoP.  It will involve travel to both Latin America and Miami.

Join us to help spawn the Transformational Sustainability Initiatives that will move us toward a more sustainable world in the years ahead.  

For more information about this completely new and redesigned MBA program, visit SEMBA >>

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Forty years ago, in 1975, Steven Kerr published a now infamous paper in the field of organizational behavior entitled "On the Folly of Rewarding for A, While Hoping for B."  The article drew attention to the fact that reward systems in organizations are often well-intended but misguided in that "behaviors which are rewarded are those which the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior he desires is not being rewarded at all."  Tragically, over forty years later, the same unfortunate quality can be ascribed to the now burgeoning industry of corporate sustainability reporting and ratings.
Today, there are literally hundreds of corporate sustainability and ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) rating and ranking indices.  Some have achieved a high level of visibility and companies compete to be listed among the leaders on these lists, e.g. Dow Jones Sustainability Index, EIRIS Index, FTSE4Good ESG Ratings, and the Newsweek Green Rankings, to name just a few.  Like their sister industry of Corporate Sustainability Reporting, most ratings systems examine criteria at the corporate or company level--energy use, water use, waste generation, and greenhouse gas emissions, along with risk management, corporate governance, human capital development, labor practices, diversity, and expenditures on CSR projects and community relations.  The objective is to have a set of criteria with which to evaluate and rate all companies against each other.
To be clear, these corporate sustainability ratings serve an important function and have gone a long way toward continuously improving the social and environmental performance of corporations throughout the world.  But they have also inadvertently rewarded A, while hoping for B.  How?  In their quest to be consistent, comparable, and easily measureable, the Sustainability Raters have defaulted to quantitative metrics that can be easily aggregated and reported for the entire company.  Recognizing this, companies have staffed up to ensure that they can report healthy improvements in all the key dimensions that make up the rating indices.
But in so doing, we have inadvertently put most of our chips on continuous improvement in current businesses and largely forgotten about the critical importance of disruption, innovation and transformational change to corporate sustainability.  Large incumbents in unsustainable industries can rack up big rating points by focusing on incremental reductions in negative impacts from current operations and making positive social contributions through improved labor practices and CSR projects.  Lost in the shuffle are the harder to see and more nascent initiatives to commercialize new, sustainable technologies or develop more inclusive business models that may ultimately disrupt or even replace today's core business.  Yet, it is these more transformational initiatives that hold the key to moving us toward a more sustainable world:  We are, in other words, rewarding for A, while hoping for B.
What can we do about it?  In their book, Blue Ocean Strategy, Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, emphasize the strategic move (or initiative) as the key to innovation strategy, with the majority of corporate growth (and later, profits) coming from new strategic initiatives rather than from the continuing development and improvement of existing businesses.
Consistent with this view, I believe that refocusing our attention on new, transformational strategic moves (or initiatives) holds the key to evaluating corporate sustainability:  Rather than chasing the fantasy of rating entire corporations as to their "sustainability" let us instead shift the "unit of analysis" and spend more time understanding (and driving) new strategic initiatives within corporations focused on leapfrog, clean technology and disruptive new business models that serve and lift the poor. 
While we will no longer be able to rely so heavily on secondary data and a consistent set of parameters (as we have increasingly with existing Sustainability Ratings), identifying and evaluating Transformational Sustainability Initiatives (both within existing companies, and as new ventures) is more consistent with our aim to recognize and reward what we aim to create--environmentally sustainable and inclusive business for the 21st century.
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This is exactly the focus of our new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) Program at the University of Vermont, where we aim to launch a new SEMBA Transformational Sustainability Award in the coming year.  For a better idea of the types of high-leverage strategic initiatives that we aim to catalyze, read more about the Practicum Projects that form the backbone of the program.  These include new, transformational initiatives with companies like Pepsico, Novelis, Facebook, CEMEX, Seventh Generation, Novozymes, Interface and Native Energy.
Transformative change is also the aim of the Base of the Pyramid Global Network, and you will be learning more about the up-coming events and Summits associated with the BoP Global Network. 

Let us end the folly of Rewarding for A (incremental improvement to existing businesses) while hoping for B (transformational change to inherent sustainability and regeneration) by focusing our attention, once and for all, on the new business initiatives and strategic moves that actually have a chance of moving us toward a more sustainable world.
As we witness growing inequality and accelerating environmental degradation around the world, commercial attention in the years ahead will inevitably come to focus more on breakthrough and disruptive innovations that directly confront these challenges.  Increasingly, competitive advantage will hinge on innovations incubated at the base of the pyramid (BoP)—the ability to create tomorrow’s sustainable enterprises from the bottom up, by commercializing new, disruptive technologies through innovative business models focused on the underserved at the base of the world income pyramid. 

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With this theme in mind, Enterprise for a Sustainable World (ESW) and The University of Vermont’s School of Business Administration, in collaboration with the BoP Global Network, are organizing the second BoP Global Network Summit. The event will be held July 16th and 17st, 2015 at the UVM Davis Center in Burlington, VM - USA.

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The 2015 Summit’s main objectives will be to provoke, discuss, and then act. This will not be your typical conference filled with talking heads and plenary presentations.  Instead, the focus will  be on Challenge sessions (e.g. financing,  scaling, assessing impact) and action-oriented Domain sessions focused on Food & Agriculture, Materials, Inclusive Health, Housing, Mobility, Energy, and ICT.  The Summit will also bring together entrepreneurs, executives, financiers, change agents, and the BoP Global Network Lab leaders representing more than 20 countries from around the world and will engage leading edge examples of bottom-up innovation from around the world, including some right here at home in the US.

Three “Provocation Plenaries” will aim to jog creative thinking around the following themes:

BoP Innovation: Where Will the Disruptive and Leapfrog Technologies Come From?  Significant attention has been paid to the challenges of business model innovation, co-creation, and organizational innovation in facilitating BoP business venturing.  Less attention has been paid to where the technologies and innovations that drive such ventures come from and how they might be best developed.  This session focuses on the three primary sources of new technology for driving inclusive and sustainable business development and how they are best driven from the bottom up:  Exponential technology, shelf technology, and grassroots/indigenous technology.

Can BoP Business Logic Be Applied to the Developed World?  For the past decade the primary focus has been on the challenges of building successful BoP businesses in the impoverished rural areas and megacity slums of the developing world. Comparatively little attention, however, has been paid to how innovation from the bottom up might create opportunity and better serve the growing underclass in the US, Europe and other parts of the Rich World.  This session focuses on some innovative new “homegrown” models from Vermont and the US, with potential for applicability around the world.

Beyond Silos: Systems Thinking for BoP Sustainability.  Most BoP ventures to date have been focused on the sectors and industries that define business at the top of the pyramid: water, energy, transportation, telecommunications, food, housing, health, and education, to name just a few.  Yet increasingly we see that the world’s challenges, particularly those at the base of the pyramid, do not fit neatly into traditional sectoral or industry compartments. Instead, they cross boundaries and require broader ecosystems of partners to succeed. This session focuses on the challenges and opportunities of systems thinking, boundary spanning, ecosystems and interconnections in creating and scaling BoP innovations.

Join us in Burlington for the 2nd BoP Global Network Summit!


The recent release of the 5th Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), and last month's shattering of the 400 parts per million carbon dioxide milestone in the northern hemisphere reminded me once again of the perilous times that we live in.   The data reveal that the process of change in our climate system is happening even faster than predicted five years ago in the last IPCC assessment report:  more rapid melting of ocean ice in the arctic, accelerating loss of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, faster melting of the permafrost and mountain glaciers, rising ocean levels, dying coral reefs, more extreme storms and floods, more severe droughts, and longer and more intense wildfires.  

And we should keep in mind that, despite claims to the contrary, the scientific process is inherently conservative--it takes strong evidence for any results to be statistically significant and replication by others in order for any single study to stand up to scrutiny.  At the end of the day, science is really about rejecting competing hypotheses that might explain a particular phenomenon--a sophisticated game of "Last Man Standing," so to speak.

In a strange way then, science is a competitive process. Biased or poorly designed studies do not make it through the peer review process. Only the strong survive. As a Ph.D. who has spent most of the past three decades in academia, I can attest to this!  So, the claims made by some that the thousands of climate scientists from around the world involved in the IPCC process are either: 1. conspiring together; or 2. swayed by their left-left leaning political or ideological persuasions (a hypothesis yet to be tested), are simply preposterous: the scientific process itself mitigates against such tendencies.  This realization makes the most recent IPCC report even more foreboding.

Yet with a few notable exceptions (e.g. the current initiative in the US to issue carbon dioxide regulations for coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act), the release of this report has generated barely a whisper among the political leaders, policy makers and corporate executives around the world in a position to take real action.  The periodic issuance of these assessment reports from the IPCC has become the scientific equivalent of Chicken Little proclaiming that the "sky is falling."  Few still outright deny that the climate is changing.  Instead, the art of denial has now morphed into assertions that such changes are either: 1. Part of a natural cycle (i.e. not caused by human activity); 2. Not very significant; or 3. Potentially "beneficial" for humanity (see below for further explanation).

The first assertion simply does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.  Suffice it to say that the evidence is overwhelming that human activity is driving the bulk of the greenhouse gas loading of the atmosphere that we are experiencing.  Combustion of fossil fuels, emissions of methane from leaking natural gas pipes and wells, livestock, and melting permafrost, and deforestation (land clearing) for agriculture are clearly the culprits.

The second and third assertions simply reflect a lack of proper time perspective.  The problem is akin to the proverbial crash test dummies that we have all witnessed on television:  Seen in slow motion, as the car gradually crashes into the test wall, the dummies appear to be gently and peacefully moving forward into the steering wheel, airbags, and windshield as the front end of the car is gradually turned into an accordion.  It all seems innocuous enough to make one think that perhaps such a crash isn't so bad after all--until you see it in real time.  Viewed regular speed, the crash appears to be the abrupt and violent event that it really is--sudden, jolting, and catastrophic, for the car and the dummies!  

Given our short tenure on this planet, we humans are a bit like the crash test dummies in slow motion:  The changes that we see around us seem gradual enough that they do not seem particularly out of the ordinary--we've always had hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, and wildfires.  So, maybe we are just in a bad stretch.  Or even if this is the new normal, perhaps it won't be that bad:  warmer temperatures means longer growing seasons...etc.

But when we view this video in "real time"--that is in geologic time--then the changes that are happening are occurring in the blink of an eye, like the actual crash of the dummies.  As far as we can tell, the atmosphere and the climate of the earth have never changed this quickly before, in the history of the planet.  Not even close.  Sure, the climate has fluctuated wildly over the billions of years that life has thrived on our planet.  But the changes took place over millennia, not decades.  There was time for life to adapt.  We, unfortunately, are driving ourselves into the proverbial wall, but we can only see it happening in slow motion.  Time to clean out the head gear, humanity, or the next generation of dummies will not like how this crash video turns out.

The Real Job Creators

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The world is stuck in a prolonged downturn--growing inequity and a spiral toward environmental meltdown--and we can't seem to find a way to turn the corner.  Not surprisingly, there is much talk these days about job creators--in US politics as well as geopolitics. 

Two camps seem to dominate this debate.  The first camp advocates cutting taxes for the rich, under the assumption that their investment and spending will "trickle down" to everyone else.  The second camp wants to focus attention on the little guy--the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector, under the assumption that assistance for "mom and pop" enterprises will enable them to grow and flourish from the "bottom up." 

The reality, in my view, is that neither the "trickle down" nor the "bottom up" perspectives will get us out of the hole that we are in.

Some years ago (1978 to be exact) Filley and Aldag published a wonderful piece in the Academy of Management Journal entitled "Characteristics and measurement of an organizational typology."  In this article they empirically classified organizations into one of three types:  Administrative, Craft, and Promotional.

Administrative organizations are established enterprises that are run by professional managers using formal systems of reward and incentives.  At best, they generate slow, linear growth since they typically compete in established industries where unsustainable practices and bureaucracy reign supreme among incumbents.  And they produce few jobs, since their focus is on increasing labor productivity rather than employment.  Indeed, the corporate sector (the largest of the administrative organizations) makes up fewer than one percent of the world's enterprises and has actually shed jobs over the past decade, at least in the developed world.

Craft organizations comprise the vast majority of the world's enterprises which are created by their owners for the purposes of convenience or survival.  Most "mom and pops" fit into this category and their defining characteristics are informality and a desire for stability.  It should come as little surprise that the small shops and microenterprises of the world produce little in the way of job or employment growth since they are seldom started or run by real entrepreneurs.  Indeed, those at the low end of the income scale are typically entrepreneurs by necessity rather than choice:  Given the option, most would prefer a good job for a decent wage. Expecting the world's craft enterprises to somehow rescue us from our current malaise is therefore a false hope a best and a shibboleth at worst.

That leaves us with Promotional organizations, which constitute only a small fraction of the world's SMEs.  Promotional enterprises are started by entrepreneurs whose intention is to get big.  They are driven by a passion for achievement and will stop at nothing to realize this dream.  Most fail.  But the few (less than 10%) that succeed are the real job creators and growth engines for the future.

The good news is that promotional enterprises can come from anywhere in the world and need not be focused exclusively on the development and commercialization of new technology.  In fact, entrepreneurs focused on solving social and environmental problems through enterprise are some of the most passionate and driven people on the planet.  Our challenge (and the leverage point for the future) is therefore to devise ways to multiply the number and success rate of this new breed of promotional enterprise.  

iise.gifAs a co-founder of the new Indian Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, I aim to do just that--dramatically increase the number and success of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs focused on socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable business development for the 21st century. 

To realize this vision, IISE has assembled a complete innovation ecosystem to foster the creation of tomorrow's distributed and sustainable infrastructure, including an education platform, incubator, investment fund, technology bank, cluster (social) network, learning laboratory, and field support system.

The flagship offering is the Post-Graduate trickleupo.gifCertificate Program in Sustainable Enterprise which aims to create nothing less than a new model of business and entrepreneurial development appropriate to the challenges we face in the 21st century.

The future lies in neither trickle down nor pure bottom up, but rather "trickle up." 

The real job creators will drive innovation from the base of the pyramid, creating the companies and industries of tomorrow and a more sustainable way of living for the world.

The Road to Rio +20


Twenty years ago, in 1992, the first Rio Earth Summit took place in Brazil.  While it was convened amid great fanfare and high expectation, the only really lasting legacy was the creation of the World Business Council of Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the christening of "eco-efficiency"--doing more with less--as a key private-sector based strategy for sustainable development.  The governmental negotiations produced a massive volume--"Agenda 21" but little concrete action.

Next week, the Rio + 20 Summit will convene, again in Brazil.  The past twenty years has produced some good news and some bad news.  First the good news: Eco-efficiency has become standard practice in large corporations everywhere and is now spreading to the world's small and medium sized enterprises as well. This is a major accomplishment and has significantly reduced the impact per unit of output in economic activity. 

Now for the bad news: we have not yet begun to actually slow or reverse the level of human impact on the planet.  Indeed, over the past twenty years, we have tripled the size of the global economy, added nearly two billion people to the world's population, and further intensified our ecological footprint on the planet.  Growth swamped eco-efficiency.  Today, the science is clear: we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet and serious repercussions are now inevitable.

In 1997, I wrote an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review entitled Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World. The piece won the McKinsey Award in 1997 as the best article in HBR.   The article stressed that corporate eco-efficiency (greening) strategies aimed at incrementally reducing negative social and environmental impacts, while important, would not be nearly adequate to the challenge of global sustainability in the decades ahead.  Even then, it was clear that "beyond greening" strategies--leapfrog clean technologies, and business models that included and lifted the four plus billion poor in the developing world--would be essential if we were to fundamentally change the course of the global economy, and set it on a course to sustainability.

In the 1990s, people spoke in terms of the need for fundamental change over the next decade or two.  Indeed, the title of the WBCSD's inaugural book was "Changing Course."  Unfortunately, all we got was continuous improvement through eco-efficiency. 

As I prepare to leave for Rio next week, my hope is that this Summit can plant a new stake in the ground--the Beyond Greening Stake.  I will do everything I can to drive this agenda.

We are running out of time.

The Fallacy of Extrapolation

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We accept it almost without question—prognostications about the future which begin with the phrae: “if present trends continue…”  Extrapolating present trends into the future has become a stock technique for both those on the political left (e.g. “if present trends continue, the gap between rich and poor will continue to widen”) and on the right (e.g. if present trends continue, GDP will double again within the decade”).

Consider the following trend:  China consumed more energy in the past ten years than it did in its entire history, spanning thousands of years.  The vast majority of this energy was in the form of fossil fuels.  If this trend in energy consumption continues, then by 2020, China would consume virtually all of the oil currently produced for export in the world today.  And, by 2030, China’s oil consumption would exceed today’s total global production of petroleum.  What is the likelihood that this trend continues? 

Even if we set aside the obvious implications of this trend for climate change and assume that the world embarks on the all-out development of unconventional oil reserves (in the form of shale oil and tight oil), to compensate for the now declining world production of conventional oil, it is not clear that production could be ramped up at a sufficient pace to meet this exponentially rising demand.

It is important to note that similar projections of current trends into the future are commonplace in virtually every domain, including the production of food, consumption of water, and emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  The reality, however, is this:  it is highly unlikely that any of the current trends in the world can or will continue into the future for very long.

Nor should we expect them to.  History is filled with game-changing discoveries and events that fundamentally alter the trajectory of society and civilization.  Consider for a moment how future projections for energy and food production appeared in the 1890s, just prior to the explosive growth of the oil industry, automobile industry, and the rise of mechanized agriculture.  No one could have anticipated how radically the world would change in a relatively short period of time.

So expect a very bumpy and exciting ride over the next decade or two.  Nothing will stay the same.  We are approaching a time of unprecedented turbulence, change…and opportunity. 

Schumpetarian creative destruction will reign supreme.
  Many incumbents will fall, and entirely new industries will be born.  An age of entrepreneurship on a scale that we cannot yet imagine is about to be unleased.

There is only one trend that we can really count on:  Present trends will not continue.

Strategies for sustainability are often counter-intuitive: No is really yes, up is really down. This is true for companies and countries alike. Over the past five years, for example, I have been working extensively in both China and India. The contrasts could not be more stark:

China: Five year plans, massive investment, rapid industrialization, infrastructure development, new town planning, national highway system, high-speed rail, new airports.

India: Messy democracy, corruption, mass migration to cities, chaotic slums and shantytowns, poor infrastructure, inadequate roads, antiquated rail system.

Many point to China as the model, with its gleaming skyscrapers, maglev trains, freshly paved highways, and massive new towns. But will they regret it in a decade when the full impact of Peak Oil hits? Will many of these investments, so dependent on increasing consumption of fossil fuels, become like giant albatrosses?

It hit me on my most recent trip to India, where I am involved in founding a new Indian Institute for Sustainable Enterprise in Bangalore, that India's apparent ineptitude may turn out to be its "silver lining." With 600,000 villages, 700 million plus rural farmers, burgeoning slums, inadequate infrastructure, and a culture of transparency and entrepreneurship, India still has a chance to steer the country in a different direction.

India can draw upon all of its ancient knowledge and traditions while at the same time applying the best of the emerging clean and sustainable technologies to "leapfrog" to what comes next:

  • new urbanism
  • mass transit
  • sustainable agriculture
  • distributed generation
  • renewable energy
  • bottom-up entrepreneurship
  • IT-enabled development
  • inclusive wealth creation
India can take a "green leap" into future precisely because it has not used up all its seed corn on the "Old Way."

As we all know, the transformation to sustainability is the biggest business challenge--and opportunity--in the history of capitalism.
Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, economies of scale have ruled the day, with massive investments in power plants, pipelines, factories, transmission lines, dams, and highways to more efficiently serve the burgeoning consumption needs of the rising consumer classes. Industrial-era technologies (such as electricity, petrochemicals, and automobiles) were also closely associated with mass production, the assembly line, and centralized, bureaucratic organization, resulting in the rise of organized labor, worker alienation, and growing social stratification.

As we enter the second decade of the new century, however, the "dark satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution are giving way to a new generation of technologies that promise to change dramatically the societal, economic, and environmental landscape. The information economy powered by the microchip has already begun to revolutionize society by democratizing access to information and empowering the repressed. Indeed, You-Tube, Twitter, and the rapid emergence of the "blogosphere" have spawned a bottom-up revolution in user-generated content.


Increasingly, the technologies of tomorrow will be decentralized, distributed in character and disruptive to incumbent firms and institutions. It is much cheaper and more energy efficient, for example, to treat drinking water at the point of use, rather than transporting massive quantities of clean water through pipes from treatment plants only to have much of it leak out or be re-contaminated before it reaches its final destination.

Indeed, we are witnessing a dramatic reversal of the logic of scale--the new diseconomies of scale.

Think about it: Over the past decade or so, we have witnessed the rise of: distributed generation of energy, point of use water treatment, community supported agriculture, microbreweries, point of care healthcare, microfinance, and sustainable construction, to name just a few. Indeed, the term "nano" has become de rigeur.

Because existing players in the utility, energy, transport, food, water, and material sectors have so much to lose, however, it is enormously difficult for the entrepreneurs developing such distributed solutions to gain traction in established markets. Yet given their small scale and distributed nature, such clean technologies hold the potential to creatively destroy existing hierarchies, bypass corrupt governments and regimes, and usher in an entirely new age of capitalism that brings widely distributed benefits to the entire human community.

And rather than depending on national governments or paternalistic social engineers to design the future for the aspiring masses, these disruptive new technologies may be best brought forward through the power of capitalism--not the capitalism of the Industrial Revolution, which enriched a few at the expense of many, but rather a new, more dynamic form of global capitalism that will uproot established elites and unseat incumbents by creating opportunity at the base of the economic pyramid on a previously unimagined scale.

newcomen.gifWhen Thomas Newcomen pumped water out of an English Coal Mine with a makeshift steam engine for the first time in 1722, little did he know that he was giving birth to the defining characteristic of industrial capitalism for the next two centuries--the relentless quest for greater labor productivity.  By substituting coal for manpower, the English textile industry drove the industrial revolution and established the template--and "rules of the game"-- for all industrial enterprises to come.  From cars to chemicals to computer chips, the very concept of "productivity" came to mean producing more product with fewer person-hours of work.

This metric made sense in the 19th century, when coal (and other raw materials) were plentiful and people were relatively scarce.  Now, however, exactly the reverse logic applies--fossil fuels and other raw materials are increasingly scarce and people are relatively plentiful.  We now live with the paradox that increasing business productivity means fewer jobs (especially when economic growth slows), precisely at the time that we need productive employment the most.

Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the corruption crisis in India, the rural revolt in China--all of these growing social protest movements originate from the same source--a growing "opportunity crisis" driven by unemployment, underemployment, alienation, and humiliation.  The time has come, therefore, to overthrow the tyranny of labor productivity and graduate to a new definition for what it means to be "productive" in business.

wepeople.jpgIn the emerging economies of the world, this revolution has already begun.  ITC in India, for example, prides itself on creating livelihoods for the poor in the rural areas as part of its strategy for wasteland reforestation and agricultural productivity improvement.  Indeed, as commodity costs rise, it may make sense to redefine productivity--from capital intensity and labor efficiency to labor intensity and capital efficiency.  In the 21st century, "sustainable" enterprise must define success by the extent to which they create productive and fulfilling employment for the people of the world. 

Is business up the challenge?

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