Overline: Global Sustainability Strategy Forum
Headline: Science and Business: Working Together for Sustainability

How can science and business help build sustainable societies? This question took centre-stage at the second Global Sustainability Strategy Forum, held on 22 – 24 March 2020. The event did not take place in Bangkok as previously planned due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, 25 leading experts from business and sustainability science came together online to discuss how the two sectors could work together more effectively.

The 2nd Global Sustainability Strategy Forum took place via video conference.
The 2nd Global Sustainability Strategy Forum took place via video conference. IASS

Discussions at the GSSF revolved around three guiding questions developed ahead of the event by Ortwin Renn, Ilan Chabay, Solène Droy (all IASS) and Sander van der Leeuw (Arizona State University):

1. How can academic research in sustainability science converge effectively with corporate sustainability strategies to design feasible, effective, and fair transformation pathways harmonizing both corporate and societal needs? What are recent examples of such collaboration and what can we learn from them?

2. What are common priorities on which both the scientific and business communities should focus over a 5 – 10 year period and over the longer term?

3. What institutional frameworks and structures at the local to regional scales would best support cooperation between sustainability scientists and business leaders to facilitate necessary transformations?

Two days of intense discussions delivered the following results:

1. There are three intertwined concepts for the changes that are taking place as we move towards sustainability: transition, transformation and transgression. Transition implies that changes are emerging independent of the will and activities of the actors; transformation refers to the concept of actively designing and shaping the future towards sustainability; transgression denotes disruptive change. As a powerful actor with global reach, the business community plays a particularly important role in transformations towards sustainability. However, further research is needed to better understand the role of these three concepts for a sustainable future.

2. Three paradigms illustrate the possible role of business in sustainable development:

- In the first, we maintain our current modes of production and consumption patterns and try to minimize costs to the environment and society while maintaining current consumption levels to the extent possible (example: energy-efficient vehicles).
- In the second paradigm, we change the mode of production to include major innovations in the supply of goods and services, but keep demand more or less constant (example electric car, video conferencing instead of travelling).
- In the third, we rethink demand and go back to the roots of the demand – needs and wants – to align the production and distribution of goods and services with new value priorities and sustainable lifestyles (examples: changes in mobility behaviour, less air travel, greater use of bicycles and public transport).

Which of these three paradigms are applied to advance transitions towards sustainability will vary across sectors, regions and cultures. In each case, their success will rest on new forms of cooperation between scientists, engineers, decision-makers in the business community, regulators, NGOs and society.

3. Close cooperation between science and business is essential if economic actors are to incorporate the best available knowledge into complex decisions. A key problem with respect to the interaction between business and science is the difference in time horizons. Scientists need longer to reach a firm conclusion, whereas businesses must respond quickly to new challenges and opportunities. One solution to this would be for actors from the business community to specify the degree of precision required so that researchers can provide robust findings in a timely manner.

4. Interactions between science and business can only be effective if they involve mutual learning.

- Learning should begin with an honest and comprehensive assessment of the current situation and define common goals and challenges on this basis.
- It should challenge routines and practices that are unsustainable; i.e. there must be a "willingness to unlearn".
- It should be based on a mutual understanding that each actor is willing to contribute to the common goal.
- Learning must include a willingness to agree on facts, identify common values and goals, and show respect for each other's interests and preferences.
- Learning should be based on dialogue grounded in mutual respect. Within this dialogue, decisions must be made on the basis of evidence, informed argument, jointly agreed values and goals, and the transparent reconciliation of conflicting goals (so-called deliberative discourse)
- The results should be evaluated and monitored by external reviewers.

5. Effective cooperation between business, science and society requires transparency and openness. Arrangements and measures should be made public and non-proprietary data should be shared among actors. Transparency is an important driver for change as companies are keen to protect and enhance their reputations.

6. Another important prerequisite for successful cooperation between business and science is a clear understanding of each other's role and function. In addition to their research findings, partners from science can provide advice on the design of decision-making and policy-making processes. They can also monitor such processes in order to bolster their success. Business communities can provide platforms for testing new approaches (e.g. Living Labs), supply data for further analysis and share insights from practice on what works and what does not. Cooperative arrangements must also consider who will be affected by the desired changes – both in the positive and negative sense. Finally, it is important to address the implications of this for the distribution of burdens and benefits and to develop strategies to facilitate outcomes that are fair and socially equitable.

The main results of this virtual 2nd Global Sustainability Strategy Forum will be summarized in a synthesis report. In October 2020, the Forum's core group will convene in Hanover to draft regional-level sustainability strategies and to more clearly specify the role of scientific institutions such as universities and science academies in the transfer of sustainability knowledge to business communities, policymakers and civil society.

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