Innovation and Collaboration: What the world needs now

Responding to today’s challenges will require the cooperation of individuals and groups representing diverse backgrounds and cultures: industry leaders, government officials, non-governmental organizations, academics and visionaries.

In conjunction with my good friend, Zhihe Wang, I recently had the opportunity to organize a meeting representing a reasonable approximation of just such a microcosm. Executives from The Dow Chemical Company, the director of land conservation for the Pennsylvania chapter of The Nature Conservancy, 15 professors and business executives from China and yours truly gathered together to listen to presentations on innovation and collaboration and to learn from each other.

The Chinese delegation included distinguished professors from the Central Party School (the picture at right was taken in 2001 when I spoke there) – an educational institution where senior Chinese officials debate and form policies that address China’s most pressing issues. Professor Jianjun Zhao is director of the Green Development and Innovation Program at the Central Party School and has a government grant to publish a series of books on “Green Companies.” A prime reason for his trip to the U.S. was to learn how other organizations are dealing with sustainability challenges. Cu Cao, President of Dandong Orient Mechanical & Electrical Integration Company shared with the group some of the benefits his company has derived by emphasizing socially responsible business practices.

Catherine T. Hunt, Ph.D., R&D Director, Sustainable Technologies & Innovation Sourcing for Dow Chemical spoke about breakthrough products Dow has brought to market or is working to commercialize in the next few years. These include solar shingles that will make sun power accessible for most households, next generation battery technology for hybrid and electric vehicles, high-performance epoxies that help create lighter, stronger blades for generating wind power and advanced filtration systems for water purification. Dow, which generously hosted the meeting, has a website featuring a home, built in conjunction with Cobblestone Homes, which uses many energy-efficient materials and technologies to supply all of the home’s electricity needs. The home is priced at the average cost for a new home in the United States.

Josh Parrish, from the global environmental NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC), spoke about how TNC has successfully partnered with corporations and governments around the world to protect ecosystems and cooperate on a range of sustainability issues. Their collaboration with Dow has, perhaps, the most far reaching implications. The partnership is focused on helping identify, value and measure the ecosystem’s contribution to organizations and communities around the world. Most people recognize that nature’s services are essential and quite fragile. This is especially true when the environment is degraded and its resources – fresh water, clean air, flood protection – become vulnerable. This cooperative effort to quantify the extent to which companies rely on and impact nature will help Dow executives incorporate ecosystem effects into their business plans, decisions and strategies. Tools, models and organizational experiences will be publicly shared, resulting in improved business practices and increased opportunities for sound conservation investments.

I came away from the meeting optimistic that our problems can be solved by bringing together diverse groups of people intent on sharing their successes, learning from their mistakes and making the changes required to achieve sustainable prosperity. As world-famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead wrote, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”



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