The Science of Business

By Dirk Olin, Editor-in-Chief of Corporate Responsibility Magazine

Benjamin Franklin

Few business leaders know science. Some have fragmentary knowledge, of course. I’ve discussed the biology of taste with General Mills CEO Ken Powell. And Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, today a leader in venture capital formation for clean technology firms, can wax academic on the chemical physics behind a photovoltaic cell’s conversion of solar radiation. But most captains of industry possess the scientific acumen of the average high school student—at best.

It’s quite understandable. We live in an age (or is it the norm from now on?) of extreme specialization. We do not live in Benjamin Franklin’s world—where a word class generalist could make a profound impact by dabbling across a variety of disciplines—science, publishing, diplomacy, commerce, social entrepreneurship.

Today, science is largely both produced and consumed by scientists. You wouldn’t expect a resident of the c-suite to be able to unpack Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, any more than you would assume that a biophysicist could conduct due diligence on the choice between an asset sale and an entity sale. But this gap has consequences: Business has a huge impact on the environment, a huge potential to help address climate change, and a yawning lack of systemic expertise in the scientific method—which is precisely the discipline that could offer approaches to environmental damage mitigation within and across industrial sectors. What’s more, after Kyoto and Durban, no one is holding their breath in anticipation of inter-governmental protocols to confront problems of such magnitude.

Keep reading to hear about one possible solution.

Of course, it’s true that business can point to a raft of rigorously data-driven reforms. In Atlanta, Stephen Leffin of UPS will tell you that many of the company’s drivers no longer make left turns—not because of the fuel and dollar savings (which are considerable), but because statistical analysis revealed that the lion’s share of company (and pedestrian) fatalities happened during left turns. In Minneapolis, General Mills’ Powell will proudly cite the mill manager who revealed the latent BTU value in recycling the oat hulls lying on the floor of their cereal operation. Or search for Dell’s director of packaging, Oliver Campbell, whose accounts of sourcing bamboo are highly calibrated adventures in sustainability.

But however inspired, an adhocracy will not get the job done. So, after years of frustration with governmental inaction, the organizers of Planet Under Pressure have approached our partners at the Corporate Responsibility Officer Association (CROA) with an intriguing proposal. I’ll return to that in due course, with a specific exhortation for you to become part of the initiative under discussion.

First, some background. The international Planet Under Pressure conference will be the largest gathering of global change and sustainability scientists prior to the Rio+20 Earth Summit next June in Rio de Janeiro. The 2,500 global experts expected at the London conference will provide a “State of the Planet” assessment, discuss concepts for planetary stewardship and societal and economic transformation, and prescribe a recommended route to global sustainability. The conference is being organized by a consortium of the four leading global-change research programmes — co-sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) — and their Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP)  .

Okay, back to that intriguing proposal. The idea: to assemble a delegation of business leaders to go to London at the end of March to challenge the scientific assemblage to develop scientifically-backed approaches that companies and organizations can take to address pressing environmental challenges. This working group will foster a unique multi-sector dialogue leading to Rio+20.

I’ll be part of the first round, which will take place at a World Café  session entitled “How Science & Business Can Create a More Sustainable World Together,” Tuesday  March 27 at 2pm. The scientific community will in turn send a delegation to the COMMIT!Forum October 2-3 in New York to share ways that they can help. Colin Drummond, chief executive of Viridor and chairman of the Living With Environmental Change business advisory board, is on the Board of Patrons of the event and will be joining this conversation. We need you to do the same. Not because you should do, but because you need to.

Contact to request more information on taking part in the delegation or click here to learn more about Planet Under Pressure 2012. And, for further thoughts on the subject from CROA Executive Director Richard Crespin, click here to read his blog post on Forbes’ web site.

Ben Franklin was a beacon in the Age of Enlightenment. As a leader in the corporate responsibility movement, you can now become a beacon in the Age of Self-Interested Enlightenment.

Dirk Olin is the Editor-in-Chief of Corporate Responsibility Magazine and an executive board member of the CROA.


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