Sustainable Platforms: Launching the next stage

Welcome to our new world of multiple platforms. One professional platform no longer needs to fill every need.

Many of us working in sustainability at this stage (I’m 60) find ourselves with lots of experience and interests – more than fit in any one role. My friend Chuck Bennett and sustainability recruiter Ellen Weinreb explored this challenge well in two articles last fall talking with a half-dozen of us “sustainability veterans”, including tips for “sustainability veterans who won’t quit”. There are other things we want to do professionally. At this point in our lives, we don’t want to delay getting on with them. I’ve gotten a lot of signals in my personal life recently that have reminded me forcefully not to put this off.

US BCSD logoSo effective today, I have a new platform. I am Program Director (part time) with the US Business Council for Sustainable Development. US BCSD is “an action-oriented and member-led nonprofit business association that harnesses the power of collaborative projects, platforms and partnerships to develop, deploy and scale solutions to ecosystems, energy, materials and water challenges.“

Oversize logoBut today I am also delighted to remain a Partner at ERM, a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk and sustainability services. In fact, that remains my day job and my main platform. I will continue to provide corporate clients with help in strategy and management for environment, health and safety (EHS); and in linking sustainability issues more closely and effectively with their business. I look forward to continuing to serve my clients there.

And today I continue a lively conversation with a number of close friends and respected colleagues working in academia, in the investment community, and elsewhere using private means to achieve public ends. They are creating fascinating and hopefully sustainable platforms like Gastameco and its “innovative projects in the field of social housing” such as its We Crociferi development; or Co-Creation Ventures and its Stock Pot Malden “culinary incubator and commercial kitchen”.

I want this next stage to be the culmination of my professional life, not an epilog. For 40 years I’ve worked in the public-private frontier, in one way or another. For 40 years, I’ve helped drive change, hopefully in productive and constructive ways. For 40 years, I’ve worked in different aspects of strategy and management, economic development, and sustainability. Now, I want to pick and choose more of how I work on those issues. I want to apply everything I’ve learned. I want to keep learning.

In the long run, will this strategy of multiple platforms help drive more progress in sustainability? Will this mix of multiple platforms prove sustainable, personally and professionally?

I invite you to learn with me, by following these organizations, or following my journey on this blog or on Twitter.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners.]

Brick and mortar – and marble

On a canal in Venice last month, I got to see another “public ends, private means” project that’s gone from concept to brick-and-mortar reality.  Or in this case, brick and mortar and marble reality.

The project, We Crociferi, provides high quality, low cost housing for students and other university-linked visitors in crowded Venice for 10 months each year.  Using a rehabilitated 14th century convent, We Crociferi leverages income from tourists and study-abroad groups during the peak summer months to balance the bottom line without any public operating subsidies. We Crociferi

At first, I viewed the project with delight rather than diligence. I dropped all my intellectual curiosity and just wandered around.  This was Venice, after all, and you quickly get used to the notion that all kinds of amazing things may be down the next alley, across the next bridge, behind that heavy wooden door. We Crociferi lives up to those expectations, from quiet courtyards to soaring ceilings.  Not to mention a dramatic space to be used for a revenue-producing restaurant and event space. Then the intellectual curiosity kicked in.  Four things jumped out at me:

  • This is real. I’ve heard about the project through its evolution from concept to empty hulk to launch, but it’s different when you see one of these projects alive and in person.
  • This is sustainability in practice. The parent Oltre Venture group sees social, economic and environmental needs as interrelated, not competing goals to trade off against each other.  The objectives are unmistakably social and economic.  The building itself is a marvel of adaptive reuse.
  • This is “public ends/private means” in practice. While the goals may reflect the triple bottom line, the project is run with the rigor and flexibility required to meet the real financial bottom line.  This is a professional business operation.
  • This takes a lot of clever brains, diligent hands and patient wallets. In Venice, that includes patient, responsible private capital investing on the operating side (Gastameco), in turn working hand-in-hand with public resources (Ministy of Education, Universities and Research) and other private sources (Fondazione Venezia) in the restructuring of the building itself.

Courtyard There’s also tremendous opportunity to leverage lessons across very different public-private projects. For example, this creative reuse of a convent in Venice for housing looks awfully different from the creative reuse of a food-truck commissary in Malden. But there are some interesting shared challenges such as:

  • Being different things to different people with integrity. These are complex projects that create financial sustainability through innovation and leverage. In Malden, that means simultaneously being a service provider, an economic development incubator, an employer, and an educator. In Venice, it means serving dramatically different markets during the year with very different needs, while also building out the restaurant and other opportunities.
  • Inside CrociferiFilling and managing a wide range of different, overlapping roles while running a thin organization.  In each project, there are important roles for the entrepreneur, the investor, hands-on project managers, and content experts (in hospitality, food service, etc.).
  • Being accepted by a community at the same time that you’re practicing disruptive innovation.  These projects are about change (or they’re not worth doing).  Change inevitably disrupts somebody else’s life, business, neighborhood.  Each of these projects has to pursue its disruption without being rejected by its neighbors.

I’m looking forward to visiting more public-ends/private-means projects.  I expect to learn a lot and share those learnings. But Venice is going to be hard to top.  Room with a view

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients]

Public ends, private means

Affordable student housing in a 12th century convent in Venice.  A food truck collaborative in a gritty Boston suburb.  Mobile-phone charging stations in Burkina Faso. This is sustainable development?

Yes.  This is exactly the frontier where new models for sustainable development are being created: unconventional, innovative projects to achieve public ends through private means.

These models come from optimism but also from frustration. The optimism reflects the belief that new things are worth trying. The frustration reflects the experience many have had trying to work around the limits of conventional models, including:

  • Private sector, especially the corporate world.  Society expects more and more from businesses.  But good intentions can be ground down by the complexities of fiduciary responsibilities and quarterly earning pressures. Investment is stranded in old business models – and even older organizational cultures.  We’ve seen good progress and sometimes great innovation from business, but the limits are real.
  • Public sector, in both the developed and developing worlds.  Even the world’s oldest democracies are seeing stalemate rather than statesmanship in addressing their biggest challenges. We’ve had to put hopes for public policy solutions off to the side; almost a sequestration of expectations.  At this point, we expect so much from business precisely because we expect so little from government.
  • Philanthropy and foundations.  They do great work, but they are often not in for the long haul.  They can be enormously helpful at getting something started.  Providing dependable, year-on-year baseline funding seldom fits their business model, though.  That makes sense – but only if what they help start has some other form of funding to remain viable.
  • Civil society and non-profits.  Many do amazing hands-on work to fill the urgent gaps, including feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. That work requires ingenuity to stretch scarce resources every day.  There is no surplus to invest in new models, not when that can be done only by taking food off the table at the soup kitchen.

All these sectors and models play needed roles but all have their limits.

Now we’re seeing fascinating work on creating and testing new models.  (In full disclosure, I should point out that some of this work is being done by my greatest mentors, intellectual partners and friends.)  This work is building unconventional approaches to:

  • Harness private means including capital, spirit, management rigor, creativity;
  • For public ends including interconnected concerns around economic development, jobs, environmental sustainability, housing, energy, diversity, transportation and education;
  • In financially-sustainable ways, breaking the dependency on undependable foundations, grants, government agencies.

One might almost call this nexus… truly sustainable development.  At the very least, it’s putting back in the missing “economic” piece in the sustainability “triple bottom line”.

What does this look like in practice?  There are lots of initiatives including micro-credit, transportation, energy financing and other areas. Three striking examples of different models can be seen in:

  • The Crociferi development in Venice, providing affordable student and faculty housing built on a base of a 12th century convent and tourism spending.   (The facility opened just a few months ago with publicly funded property investment and privately funded management.)
  • Projects around the world sponsored by the Low Carbon Enterprise Fund (a program of the ERM Foundation).  The Fund’s projects “provide finance and pro-bono technical and management support for low carbon entrepreneurs in the developing world”, ranging from fuel-efficient stoves in India to carbon-neutral, shade grown coffee in Latin America and Ethiopia.
  • A new project in Malden, Massachusetts aiming at local business development for immigrant communities based on co-creating development rather than providing arms-length financing.

The people deeply involved in these experiments are asking tough questions themselves.  Isn’t each project its own “special case” and if so, how do we extract common lessons? Does sustainable financing depend on meeting both public and private ends? How do we scale up? How do we do enough to really matter when no one project is that large? Can we scale up without new forms of “hybrid capital?” Is “sustainable development” even the right label for all this, given how much economic impacts are overlooked in the sustainability world?

Where will this all go? I’m not sure.  Nor are the people driving these experiments.  I suspect it will be non-linear path, filled with twists and turns and setbacks and surprises both good and bad.  Then again, the people driving these experiments got where they are today on non-linear paths that ran through (among other things) railroads, economic development, boards of banks and consultancies, Native American crafts enterprises, and grass-roots political organizing. What the paths all have in common is a focus on broader pubic needs and experience in making things work in the private sector.  Maybe we should call it public yearning, private learning.

I’ll try to keep track of these experiments and share the lessons learned. (I’m already learning lessons just from the reading they’ve each suggested; see the mini-bibliography at the bottom of this blog.) I’m finding that these experiments are all about connection: connecting resources and needs, knowledge and challenges, opportunities and people willing to pursue them.  They are also about connection at a very personal level: reconnecting with old friends, connecting them with each other, and tapping the energy and creativity of much younger new friends being drawn in.  The path won’t be linear but it certainly will be interesting.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.] 

Mini-bibliography: