Office Hours: Gerry George Discusses How Digital Innovations Are Helping Tackle Climate Change and Sustainable Development

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Entrepreneurial organizations have adopted innovative approaches to tackle seemingly intractable societal challenges. By focusing on the digital toolbox employed by pioneering businesses, Gerry George, professor of management, explores questions around entrepreneurship, business models, and ecosystems as well as new ways of thinking about trust and the institutional context. In his latest research, he highlights how digital technologies are helping address grand challenges to tackle climate change and promote sustainable development.

How are entrepreneurial startups, nonprofit ventures, and incumbent organizations engaging in digital sustainability activities to tackle problems?

Over the last 20 years we’ve really seen organizations step up in ways that utilize digital technologies to make processes more efficient and sustainable. The world is waking up to the fact that climate change is as important as digital transformation, and now we’re seeing businesses use digital tools like artificial intelligence, blockchain, mobile technology, and remote sensors to address global sustainability problems. 

The goal is to truly shape consumer behavior by shifting the emphasis from digital footprints (shopping online and shipping them home) to real-world footprint (the impact on carbon and natural resource use). For example, when you enjoy a bowl of cereal, that cereal has a mix of grains sourced from various parts of the world before the cereal actually reaches your table. So if a company can track its impact on sourcing materials, then it can ensure that the bowl of cereal in front of you has the most sustainable footprint. 

The example above explains how we can mitigate damage to the world, but it doesn’t address how we make the world a better place. Companies are now emphasizing “regeneration” over “mitigation” in ways like ocean clean ups, improving biodiversity, improving quality of life, and measuring these in a way that highlights every dollar that it spent or occurred actually makes a difference on the natural capital of the world.

Can you explain how sustainability and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand?

Sustainable entrepreneurship offers a unique perspective that links the creation of economic, social, and environmental values with a focus on the well-being of future generations. A common feature of such ventures is that their goal is not only to achieve profitability by meeting specific needs, but also to achieve a positive impact on society and the environment. Businesses are now integrating sustainability into their business model at the core rather than as an afterthought. 

There are four elements or questions to consider within a business model:

  1. What resources do we use?
  2. How do we structure transactions?
  3. How do we create and capture value?
  4. What is the narrative behind it?

If a business is able to harness these four in a way that is compelling for the consumer, that can  radiate a narrative of positivity and create good for the world around us. Organizations are now asking “How can I structure my transactions or structure a business model that reduces the resources that I use and make processes more environmentally efficient?”

Can you explain the importance of communication in sustainable entrepreneurship? How are firms/organizations leveraging tools to communicate?

An organization’s narrative is their way of communicating to the consumer. Their narrative holds so much importance because it evokes human consumption—empowering you, the consumer, to take action. Part of that communication also is showing the value you create and being transparent about that process. Many businesses today are transparent about the fact that while they do generate capital, they are truly committed to sustainable practices and want to highlight their positive impact. Many businesses struggle with communicating how their customers’ behavior tangibly makes a difference. Some ways to combat that are to utilize technologies that help consumers visualize their impact on the world. Crafting a sustainability narrative and designing the business model around it is essential to purpose-driven ventures.