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The Spark for New Thinking May Be as Simple as Pulling Up Another Chair at the Corporate Decision-Making Table

Sissel Waage, Ph.D.How do you spark new thinking in your meetings? Is it possible to slightly expand corporate processes or brainstorm meeting participants, in order to ignite new thinking about business problem solving? 

Research from BSR and REF has shown that breakthrough business solutions can come from the simple act of pulling up another chair at a brainstorming meeting and inviting a biologist, ecologist, or hydrologist to sit down. The results include both effective responses to problems and millions of dollars in savings.

Consider, for example, Dow now has almost two decades of data from the United States to show how well a wetland can naturally filter water and improve water quality—at a tiny fraction of the cost of a built wastewater-treatment plant. Royal Dutch Shell has come to the same conclusion and is investing in large-scale wetland-based solutions to water management in the Middle East. Coca-Cola has concluded that maintaining a key input to their product (water) requires corporate investments in reforesting and revegetating lands far upstream from bottling facilities, even though lands are owned by others. Apple sees innovation and leadership opportunities by investing in trees and sustainable forest-management approaches that can balance and thus address the inputs for packaging. Allegheny Power has rationalized its real estate portfolio, while concurrently mitigating operational risks and realizing significant revenues and tax credits, by asking what parcels of land could do for the company versus what it could do for the natural environment. The list goes on, with details on each case, in the recently issued BSR-REF Business Brief on the benefit multiplier of investing in nature.

The reason is simple. Natural resource-focused scientists often see both the problem and solution spaces from different angles than others within companies.

For example, ecologists consider business infrastructure (such as buildings, roads, harbors, or other built infrastructure) within the natural context in which they are located. They see the surrounding  grasslands, forests, wetlands, and broader watersheds with an analytical lens that considers how species’ composition and distribution may affect the flow and recharge of natural aquifers, produce oxygen (through plants and trees), sequester carbon, mitigate climate change, and offer other advantages to people and societies.

From an ecologist’s vantage point, the natural environment is not a business limitation. Rather, it is viewed through the same lens that an engineer considers gravity: a reality to consider in designing a built structure or business approach.

Ignore gravity at your own peril. Similarly, ignore natural systems and you may miss a slew of business solutions while also stumbling on a range of business challenges related to water, clean air, climate change, sourcing of raw materials, and many other issues of concern.

The natural systems in which business facilities are sited and operate are simply another system companies need to be attuned to—not just for problems, but also for solutions.

All businesspeople recognize that they must be attuned to regulatory systems. So too should corporate decision makers be tracking and assessing the natural systems in which a company literally sits.

Therefore, prior to siting a new facility—or while managing an existing facility, real estate portfolio, or even supply chain—businesspeople should ask a range of questions, such as: Is this site, and broader region, prone to natural resources- or ecological and/or hydrological systems-related problems? These issues could include flooding, storm surges from the ocean, droughts, excessive draw-down of groundwater beyond current recharge rates of natural aquifers, water quality problems, or other nature-related issues.

Once business concerns or problems are identified, the question is: Are there nature-inspired (biomimicry) or ecological restoration-based solutions that would address concerns or mitigate risk? Would any of these solutions require less financial investment, lower operational and maintenance budget demands, relatively little oversight, waste, and environmental as well as local community impacts, along with reliability?

For several companies, summarized in the BSR-REF Business Brief, these questions have yielded robust, business-positive, as well as environmentally- and community- positive results.

Given these findings—which support earlier studies from TNC and the Natural Capital Hub case summaries, among others—business leaders are well-advised take a more proactive tact by pulling up another chair at corporate brainstorming and decision-making meetings, as well as embedding in core processes questions such as:

  • Do our corporate siting, facility operations, and supply chain management teams assess the ecological and hydrological context in which they operate with the same due diligence that they examine zoning and land use, as well as tax breaks and labor/employee availability?
  • Does our company assess opportunities for problem solving through nature-inspired (biomimicry) approaches or ecological restoration? For example, wetlands can be expanded or created to provide buffers from storms, improve water filtration, sequester carbon, and create more open space for employees and adjacent communities, as well as habitat for migratory birds and other species.
  • If not, then who needs to be invited into the process to surface and explore such potential nature-based solutions to business challenges?

With these kind of questions, new business-relevant insights have come into clear focus for a growing set of companies, as described in a new BSR-REF Business Brief. In many cases, these solutions address the fundamental reality that businesses are built on, and within, natural systems. By considering these systems, new opportunities, solutions, and returns are being generated, as the cases in the business brief show.

The implications of these findings are straight forward.

Companies would do well to hire more engineers with blended civil or environmental engineering and biology backgrounds—especially individuals who consider green infrastructure and seek out biomimicry-inspired approaches. Business units can organize and hold trainings for technical solutions teams in biomimicry and green infrastructure opportunity assessments. Business leaders can participate in field trips to visit well-functioning green infrastructure. And internal corporate new-project processes and checklists can integrate the question: “Have you considered how nature would solve this issue?” Finally, human resource departments can integrate perks, benefits, bonuses, and promotions to staff who are exploring and investing in nature-based solutions, ecological restoration, and green infrastructure projects.

The opportunity is to learn from the leaders who are investing in nature-based solutions to business questions—and seeing value created at multiple levels. This set of cases within the BSR-REF Business Brief should provide inspiration as well as guiding questions with which to begin explorations of solving business problems by working with nature and nature-inspired solutions.

Sissel Waage, Ph.D. is the director of biodiversity and ecosystem services at BSR. She has over 20 years of experience working on environmental and sustainability issues in North America, Europe and Africa. Her areas of focus have included sustainable business, corporate environmental strategy, water risk and opportunity, investing in nature-based and restoration solutions, ecosystem services, conservation-based entrepreneurship and economic development, as well as community-based conservation.

Ph.D.
 
Sissel Waage, Ph.D.
Sissel Waage, Ph.D. Director of Biodiversity and Eco-System Services BSR
 
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