Collaboration between business and academia can identify the most urgent research priorities to ensure the sustainability of food, energy, water and the environment, according to a new study.

As pressures start to mount, placing enormous demands upon natural resources, we are increasingly asked for support by businesses who want practical approaches that they can apply to address their growing challenges.

Gemma Cranston

Companies both depend upon and impact the environment, and are subject to interdependent pressures over food, energy, water and the environment. Yet their perspectives are often overlooked by the research community, which lacks access to their business thinking. Equally, businesses find it challenging to engage with the academic community, and to define researchable questions that would benefit from more detailed analysis.

The study, published in the journal Sustainability Science and organised by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, included over 250 people, including academics and companies such as Asda, EDF Energy, HSBC and Nestlé, to produce research priorities that are both scientifically feasible and include results that can be practically implemented by the business community.

“The process of co-design engages businesses at the outset to help define the challenges, limitations and ambitions of research agendas. These considerations ultimately have important consequences for the impact and practicality of research outputs,” said lead author Dr Jonathan Green, formerly of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Geography. “Greater investment in the complex but productive relations between the private sector and research community will create deeper and more meaningful collaboration and cooperation”.

The project is part of the work of the Nexus Network, an extensive network of researchers and stakeholders coordinated by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), the University of Sussex, the University of East Anglia, the University of Sheffield and the University of Exeter, and supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The study was carried out over five months and involved researchers collecting over 700 questions from business practitioners, academics, policy-makers and members of the public. Over 50 per cent of these questions were submitted by businesses from a range of sectors, including retail, utilities, manufacturing and consumer goods. These questions were then reviewed by an expert group of businesses and researchers, who narrowed this list down to 40 questions that reflect key challenges for corporate sustainability.

Dr Bhaskar Vira, one of the project leads from the Department of Geography and the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute said: “We were able to bring together 40 experts with a huge diversity of backgrounds and knowledge. This unique group of senior business practitioners and interdisciplinary researchers, who represented 13 universities, 16 businesses and other important partners including ESRC, were able to inform the debate by their ability to answer both ‘Is this question answerable through an academic research project?’, but also ‘If answered, would this change the way we do business?”

Several themes emerged from the study, highlighting the issues that require more research and better engagement between the academic and business communities. These included research around development of pragmatic yet credible tools that allow businesses to incorporate the interactions between food, energy and water demands in a changing environment into their decision-making; the role of social considerations and livelihoods in business decision-making in relation to sustainable management; identification of the most effective levers for behaviour change; and understanding incentives or circumstances that allow individuals and businesses to take a leadership stance on these issues.

“As pressures start to mount, placing enormous demands upon natural resources, we are increasingly asked for support by businesses who want practical approaches that they can apply to address their growing challenges,” said Dr Gemma Cranston, project lead from CISL. “Co-designing new research is critical to provide business with robust and rigorous approaches that are academically sound but that are also directly applicable to a business context. We have identified priority areas that can guide new research development and look forward to seeing a greater integration of businesses into collaborative research agendas.”

It will be the role of multi-disciplinary groups of researchers and business practitioners to devise the projects that will deliver the solutions to these pressing issues around food, energy, water and the environment.

Jonathan Green et al. ‘
Research priorities for managing the impacts and dependencies of business upon food, energy, water and the environment.’ Sustainability Science (2016). DOI: 10.1007/s11625-016-0402-4

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