By Terry F. Yosie
Environmental issues are big, thorny problems. Scarcities in water, food and raw materials are too complex for any single company or non-governmental organization to solve on its own. In order to make a difference, it’s necessary to collaborate with like-minded partners to achieve shared goals.
Collaboration is a normal feature of customer-supplier relationships, government-business partnerships and initiatives with universities and other partners. It’s also typical for organizations looking for new business models that can sustain profitability while addressing societal needs, natural resource management, product and service innovation, and differentiation of brand value, to name a few. Collaboration can spur organizations to redefine their business purpose by utilizing society as another kind of R&D lab for innovation.
Coca-Cola’s Global Water Strategy is a good example. Water is clearly essential to the company’s business – for its beverages and also for growing the agricultural products they need. The company instituted a global program to promote water resource sustainability. It set global strategic direction on water, established policy and requirements, and formed and managed key partnerships with organizations such as the WWF and USAID.
Another example is IBM’s work with cities in emerging economies such as Africa. It requires years of building on-the-ground relationships and capabilities while turning projects into partnerships that generate positive economic, environmental and social results. IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge – the company’s single largest philanthropic initiative — deploys teams of employees to work with cities around the world to deliver detailed recommendations addressing key urban issues identified by local elected officials and other stakeholders. A recent report, “A Vision for Smarter Growth: an IBM Smarter Cities Report on Accra, Ghana” highlights how this rapidly emerging West African city should turn to technology to transform key city systems such as transportation and energy.
Many companies are still finding their footing as they try to build global collaboration to match their global business strategies. This requires a “system-level” understanding of societal and environmental changes that can transform global economy and society. At the World Environment Center, we’re seeing more companies beginning to recognize how issues such as population growth, urbanization, food security and natural resource management may affect their business and impact return on investment.
Such decisions rarely occur in a vacuum. For example, investment decisions to upgrade power generation should take into account interconnected energy and water use in building design and maintenance. Only a “system-level” understanding of goals will enable companies to develop more innovative approaches to understanding both customer and societal needs.
For collaboration to succeed on a larger scale, we need global networks of companies, national agencies, NGOs and foundations, such as those created to eradicate malaria. Organizations can jointly develop licensing standards and transparency practices. They can work towards specific goals, performance metrics, and accountable behaviors to make a difference — from individual projects, to Big Bang transformational initiatives.
Collaboration is key to developing solutions to the mounting global challenges of current and future generations.