On Leaving Hong Kong

By July 26, 2013Blog

About the Author

I’m delighted to be joining the Erb Institute this week. I’ve worked in and around corporate sustainability for two decades, and I recognize the unique role that Erb—and the University of Michigan more broadly—play in driving the global sustainability debate. When I think of “sustainability ecosystems”, I can’t think of a more dynamic one than the worldwide network of Erb students, faculty, researchers, alumni, U-M affiliates, and business partners. I believe that I have a lot to contribute, and even more to learn, from this incredible community. I’m honored to be a part of it!

Last week was my move week in Hong Kong! I had called HK home for two great years, working with companies on a range of sustainability issues across China, Central and Southeast Asia. The movers arrived Tuesday and packed up my flat into 34 tidy little boxes, a couch, and a dining table. My last night in HK included a bus ride down the busy Nathan Road to HK Harbor, and a panoramic view over this crowded, and sometimes chaotic, metropolis of eight million people.

I passed in front of HK’s iconic iSquare shopping center, and the blast of super conditioned air pouring out of the lobby and cooling the entire block reminded me of the energy-efficiency challenges HK still faces. The congested traffic (even at midnight); the towering construction on seemingly every block (also working through the night); and the invasion of Euro-luxury brands crowding out age-old local shops … all reminded me of the broader sustainability challenges confronting China, SE Asia, and other emerging economies across Africa and Latin America.

There was a time when many saw the developing world as a sustainability problem to be solved by developed countries. “What about China? It’ll never work!”  The global debate has since evolved to instead understand emerging economies as an indispensable part of the solution. Pioneering solar-energy systems in China; scavenger micro-enterprises mining Jakarta’s municipal landfills for recyclables; Africa’s successful microfinance models being exported to the US and Europe; and Peru’s early adoption of the internet for digital inclusion of some of the country’s most remote villages. These are just a few examples of innovative solutions that are not only adapted to, but rather born of, sustainability challenges in the developing world.

I’m convinced that global sustainability will require a dynamic two-way dialogue between emerging and developed economies, East/West and North/South, and between hard-core environmental techies and lower-tech social and cultural activists.
These are the issues I hope to explore further with the Erb team and partners. My vision is to position Erb squarely at the crossroads of the global sustainability debate, as the “go to” institute for cutting-edge research and hands-on application in industry and community. I would like to further complement Erb’s legacy of environmental leadership with innovative approaches to the social, governance, and human-rights challenges that are becoming ever more complicated as business goes global. And we will look to the Erb ecosystem to help us better understand the complex linkages among all of these issues through systems thinking.

These are my first thoughts. My hope is that they will spark a fruitful debate among the Erb community, and that together we will forge a shared vision for the Institute’s next stage of development. In the coming months, the Erb team will be reaching out to a cross section of students, faculty, alumni, and business partners to include their ideas and concerns first hand in this dialogue. In the meantime, I encourage you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below or by emailing  the Erb team directly.

I realize that global sustainability is a tall order. I can’t think of a community of thinkers and doers better positioned than Erb to take on the challenge!

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