One of the greatest environmental problems of the 21st century may not be environmental at all. The United Nations Environment Program’s 2012 Foresight Report states that the most critical emerging environmental issue for the 21st century is not climate change, energy or water, but “aligning governance to the challenges of global sustainability.”
Progress towards sustainability is unlikely to occur unless effective management tools are designed to incorporate environmental factors into corporate decision-making. Even the most innovative new technologies or green methods require an implementation plan.
We propose a simple way to address both governance and resource management in the corporate context. Our book “Designing Innovative Corporate Water Risk Management Strategies from an Ecosystem Services Perspective,” (available on Amazon.com) demonstrates that while the particular circumstances or scientific underpinnings of the situation will vary, natural resource challenges are likely to share a few common characteristics from a management methods perspective.
To business managers, many natural resource challenges provide new issues for a company to address and may require new types of knowledge that are not traditionally found within the company. Natural resource challenges commonly involve uncertainty of political context and scientific precision. Lastly, many natural resources (and the ecosystem services on which they depend) are public goods, requiring the company to interact with an entirely new set of public and private stakeholders in order to address the issue.
Our team created a framework for identifying existing management responses to natural resource challenges from within “analogous” organizational responses to environmental and resource challenges. As is the case with many of the sustainability challenges facing corporations today, the management analogues that we dissected were applied in similar cases of managerial novice, political uncertainty and forecasting ambiguity. Further, we examined attempts at resource management that, given the nature of our ecosystems as shared resources, required collaboration among numerous stakeholders and even unusual allies.
After conducting an extensive search for appropriate organizational analogues, we deconstructed each case to determine the underlying mechanism driving effective management outcomes. Because the analogues were pulled from both the public and private spheres, these mechanisms had to be adapted to the corporate context, as well as the natural resource issue chosen as the focus of our study: freshwater scarcity. Read more about the team’s research
While the preservation of ecosystem services presents a complex issue for corporations, our work shows that solutions to environmental challenges need not start from scratch. Our goal is to show that these issues are not so difficult as to warrant paralysis. We urge readers to look beyond industry, sector and natural resource type in their efforts to build more sustainable companies. We hope all are emboldened to redesign internal processes and management styles in order to equip their company for whatever political, economic or operational challenge the quickly evolving natural resource landscape brings their way.
In many ways, our conclusion for companies is what we learned as students and the questions we ask our readers will be the same questions we will ask of ourselves in our jobs, as we act as official or unofficial champions of sustainability. We will have to understand underlying drivers, use this understanding to draw solutions from seemingly unrelated sources and then creatively apply these solutions to our own situations.
We hope that readers of our work will be inspired to step back and reframe the challenges that they face, empowered by the responses already at work around the world today.
 “21 Issues for the 21st Century: Results of the UNEP Foresight Process on Emerging Environmental Issues.” United Nations Environment Program. 2012.