A new project led by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership is looking at how academic research can help make businesses more sustainable. Dr Jonathan Green, one of the project leads, is looking to the public to ask the questions that may form the basis of future research, and help businesses reduce their impact on the environment.

How can we meet future needs for food, energy and water without degrading our natural environment and putting companies out of business?

Jonathan Green

The natural world is already in peril, yet demand for water, food and energy are set to rise further as the global population grows and climate change takes hold. Increased demand for one of these will alter the availability of the others. Businesses sit at the heart of this ‘nexus’ of interactions, both depending on and impacting on the environment. What academic research could help make their operations more sustainable?

Working with leading researchers from the Departments of Geography and Zoology, the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s (CISL) Nexus2020 project is bringing together ideas from the 6,000 alumni of our executive education programmes, business people, academics, policy-makers and members of the general public.

The project is part of the Nexus Network, an extensive network coordinated by CISL, the University of Sussex and the University of East Anglia, and supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. With its considerable outreach across business, academia and government, CISL encourages conversation and stimulates the research that is most helpful to companies.

We want to know what you think are the most important questions around business practice that, if answered by 2020, could help companies manage their dependencies and impacts upon food, energy, water and the environment.

How can we meet future needs for food, energy and water without degrading our natural environment and putting companies out of business? Can we meet increasing demand for energy without making climate change worse? How do we produce enough food and energy with less water? These are the types of questions we are looking for.

In September, we will bring together leading members of the academic and business communities to rank the submissions and identify the most important questions for research. We’ll present these at the Nexus Network annual conference in November, by which point research will be underway. 

The process of gathering questions and prioritising research needs is not new: Cambridge’s Bill Sutherland identified the 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK in 2006. More recently a project led by Jules Pretty looked at the top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture, and Lynn Dicks has replicated this process to look at the conservation of wild insect pollinators and the UK food system. These ranking exercises are extremely valuable and have had consequences for high-level policy, including Defra’s National Pollinator Strategy. These approaches also encouraged scientists to come together to develop workshops and led to the identification of initial priorities for programmes such as the UK’s Global Food Security Research Programme.

With the UN’s 2014 report highlighting that one-fifth of the world’s aquifers are being overexploited, how do ensure that corporate actions are alleviating water-related stresses? How do we communicate the urgency of sustainable farming methods when 10 million hectares of arable land are being eroded or degraded every year?

Whether your question is around policy, business education, rights, science, finance, or best practice, take part in this project - we want to know what you think.


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