Going the extra green mile
An institute of sustainable enterprises in India focuses on the planet and its underprivileged billions
Jyoti Pande Lavakare / Nov 26, 2011, 00:54 IST
At the outset, let me confess that I am a closet green-activist, though still somewhat in denial.
It was a slow conversion to begin with, although I suppose the seed was embedded in me from childhood, when my parents exhorted me to always "finish what's on your plate," or "turn off the tap while brushing your teeth." But it was my stay in California that catalysed the process to such an extent that today, words like eco-efficiency, clean-teach, ecologically-friendly, sustainable growth, social enterprise and triple bottom line call out to me like beacons attracting sailors on foggy nights at sea.
So, it isn't surprising that when I met Dr Stuart Hart at a confluence of talks in Goa recently, I had no regrets skipping a couple of sessions on other interesting topics for a detailed discussion with him on sustainable growth and how to achieve it.
He's the man who, along with C K Prahalad, made the term "Bottom of the Pyramid" so much a part of popular lexicon to describe the poorest but largest socio-economic group of people who live on less than $2.50 a day - and spawn business models that deliberately target that demographic, often using new technology. BoP has come to designate not the poverty but the potential of the world's poorest citizens as entrepreneurs, employees and discerning consumers.
But what Hart is busy doing now - along with a couple of US- and India-based entrepreneurs and a NASA technologist - is founding a stand-alone institute of sustainable enterprises in India. Hart, the S C Johnson Chair in Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University, has founded other university-attached institutes of global sustainability before. But the Indian Institute for Sustainable Enterprise is different. According to its website, "rather than creating a conventional business school with a side-initiative in sustainable enterprise and BoP, we seek instead to build the entire institute," focused on this concept.
To estimate IISE's brain-power at this stage, consider this; there are four doctorates among the six currently leading this venture, including one medical doctor and an astrophysicist-turned-applied economist. As for money power, together, the founders have enough funds for a 10-year minimum commitment to this venture - several million dollars, which will only grow as the Institute pulls in more partners like it did at its founders' summit earlier this month. And although its associated seed fund (appropriately named Pappillon) and a planned patent bank (which will monetise unused patents donated from universities' research labs) are still inchoate, its educational platform is ready to admit its first batch of 35 students from September 2012.
This is good news for people who care about this planet and its aspiring, underprivileged billions, inextricably linked through economic growth. The thing is, sustainability and green growth is no longer a peripheral concern that only bleeding heart activists worry about. We're all horribly aware of the climate monster lurking just outside our door - and we must find a way to blast it into oblivion.
Today, mainstream publications are writing about the importance of getting scalable, emissions-free technologies at the "Chindia price" to be able to power the dreams of the billions struggling to hoist themselves to the next class upwards. But even with our most cutting-edge technologies today, we could, literally, destroy all natural systems‚ soils, watersheds, fisheries, forests, and climate that underpin all economic activity - and indeed, human existence - if we are to serve the needs of today's aspiring middle-class and BoP customers. Just imposing carbon emission taxes or creating carbon credits won't do it. We need something transformational, and quickly.
"This is a planetary emergency," says Hart quietly. Achieving sustainability is the biggest business challenge - and opportunity - in the history of capitalism. The entire IISE leadership team believes that India is the ideal place to launch and base this enterprise, given its large population size, consistent poverty despite sustained economic growth, entrepreneurial culture and environmental challenges. And they've put in both their money and their sweat to back that belief.
To anyone who has been following the debate, it is becoming more obvious that a green future won't result from subsidising today's immature technologies. "We need to get people to think sharper. We have to find the smarter, cheaper, more effective solutions," Bjorn Lomborg tells me. Lomborg wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001 and has been named one of the 50 people who could save the planet. He says big changes aren't going to come about by tinkering around with current immature technologies. Further research would be a much better investment. Which is exactly where the IISE comes in. Its mission? "To dramatically increase the number and success of intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs focused on socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable business development for the 21st century." (theiise.net)
"We aim to make the institute the hub for these activities, along with field-based affiliates in India and partners around the world," says Pradeep Chowdhry, who will be the director of the new institute. IISE will help co-create innovative models of sustainable enterprise, building the entrepreneurial capacity of underserved rural and slum BoP communities, he adds. It hopes to stimulate ideas, create opportunity, mentor, fund, incubate and collaborate to launch what Hart describes as green-leap ventures. Not just a few, but hundreds of these, in order to increase the probability of finding that transformational one. "We need to think in regenerative terms and not just reductions in negative impacts," says Hart. An example is producing fibre that actually regenerates the soil rather than depleting it - so that by growing fibre on wasteland, one builds the soil in the process. Or Lomborg's personal favourite; growing algae in the open seas to generate oil.
These are exactly the sort of disruptive, innovative technologies that can make the current way of doing things obsolete while maintaining sustainable growth, or better still, accelerating it. And if the entrepreneurs starting up the IISE have their way, this 10-acre campus outside Bangalore is where those game-changer technologies are going to be co-created. Which is great, because clearly, existing producers of imperfect or inefficient technologies aren't proactively going to vote themselves out of business!
IISE will hand-hold hundreds of ventures for BoP markets by experimenting with and incubating revolutionary new, clean technologies, creating eco-sustainable business models, education and entrepreneurial training for the future through its PG certificate in sustainable enterprise, executive education and other academic offerings. It will also encourage existing companies to implement the BoP protocol.
"It aims not just to increase wealth at the bottom, but also arrest rural to urban migration by creating new economic activity in rural areas," says co-founder Shekar Narasimhan, currently managing partner with Beekman Advisors Inc. "We don't want to make only consumers out of our poor - we want to make them consumers and producers, address their basic human needs. Capitalism must be inclusive, or it will be a failed system," he says from Washington DC, his voice carrying his belief across the Atlantic.
But good intentions aren't all it takes - the IISE needs to walk its talk and throw up success stories - especially of rural entrepreneurs co-creating transformational technologies - to convince the sceptics. For the founders, this is a labour of love - Dr Premchandra Sagar, another co-founder along with NASA technologist Sachidananda Babu, have invested not just money, but also their time. And what's binding all of them even more strongly than the belief that this cannot afford to fail for the sake of the planet, is the desire to leave a legacy that will outlast them. And a planet that will outlast that legacy.