300 years ago the British Parliament put up a £20,000 prize (£2.6 million in today’s money) for anyone that could figure out how to measure longitude at sea. The call attracted the brightest scientific minds of the day, but it was a humble watch-maker from Yorkshire, John Harrison, who finally cracked it. His sea-worthy clock was, as they say, a game-changer.
Three hundred years later, in the world of sustainability with its myriad of challenges, fueled by technology and social media, crowd-sourcing 3G is very much alive and kicking. Unilever has its Sustainable Living Lab, Sony its Open Planet Ideas, IKEA and Philips support EarthHack. All seek to tap into the creative, collective juices of consumers and stakeholders.There is no doubt that the approach can provide fodder and momentum for change. It’s fast, it’s scale-able, and it’s cost effective - who needs expensive consultants?
So, what might you get if you take a bunch of students from the worlds top business schools, put them in a room with a big hairy sustainability question, pit them against some of the world’s top sustainability academics and business leaders? Well, with luck, a few bright ideas about how to crack some of business’ more challenging sustainability nuts, and who knows, maybe a game-changer.
With our roots in academia and our boots firmly planted in the soils of Latin America, CIMS, together with its sister organisation INCAE, Latin America’s leading business school, know from experience that the best ideas are ones that both challenge the status quo and at the same time remain grounded in business realities. Which is why the approach taken by the Nespresso Sustainability MBA Challenge, now in its second year, aims to harness bright young business minds, expose them to business realities, temper them with applied scientific and thinking, and put some fresh energy into Nespresso’s strategy.
Nespresso has embraced this challenge with enthusiasm. In effect, it has opened up its bonnet and let sharp-eyed students and academics peer in at the engine. And the engine is a complex beast. One of the world’s leading premium coffee brands, Nespresso is dependent on over 60,000 smallholder farmers in Latin America, Asia and Africa for its high quality Arabica beans.
Through its AAA Sustainable Quality Programme , now in its 11th year, Nespresso’s focus on quality, productivity and sustainability is one of the better regarded initiatives in the sector. Despite these efforts, it is no secret that coffee farming faces a perfect storm of challenges – many of them beyond Nespresso’s control: volatile coffee prices, increased production costs, disease, climate change, currency fluctuation, lack of access to finance and, unsurprisingly, a whole generation of worn out, dispirited farmers whose kids would rather work anywhere but on a farm.
You might wonder, how, given such complex challenges, that in the space of a few weeks, a group of fresh-faced students could possibly come up with solutions that have eluded development and industry experts for decades. Indeed, they might not. But as my colleague Lawrence Pratt, INCAE Professor and founder of CIMS put it, ”Nespresso is sufficiently advanced in its supply chain engagement and management that it has to look 'outside the box' for future direction. MBA students have a distinct advantage for this task -- they have never been taught what is 'not possible ' in business."
Last year, we asked teams to consider how the company could help coffee farming in Colombia become a viable business for the next generation of coffee farmers. For this year’s competition, over 70 schools – from all corners of the world (India to Israel, China to Peru), top ranking to newly emerging – rose to the 2014 challenge: a strategy for reducing carbon in coffee supply chains that creates incentives for all those involved in the value chain – from farmer to consumer. We provide a detailed academic case study that explains the context, business data, facts and figures they need to ‘solve’ the case, and away they go.
After two rigorous elimination rounds, three finalist teams are invited to Nespresso HQ in Lausanne Switzerland in June to pitch their ideas to the judging panel. This cast of characters is not for the timid. Our academics have years of experience in disassembling hare-brained ideas (from students and business alike). Equally, Nespresso’s top management knows the difference between a nice idea and an implementable one.
Of course, a perfect idea doesn’t end with a perfect presentation. Last year Nespresso hosted the winning team in Colombia to ‘ground-truth’ their idea in the local market, talk to farmers and key actors in the value chain. The experience was rewarding (and sobering) for students, and helpful for Nespresso. This year we’ll host our winning team in Costa Rica, a country that has produced the world’s first carbon neutral coffee.
Two competing dynamics of the competition hold important lessons for the wider world of sustainability. The first is the one between academia and business. The former demands scientific rigour and theoretical perfection, the latter, gritty pragmatism and compromise. Both need the other to be truly credible. The second dynamic is inter-generational.
As an ageing 3G student of sustainability myself, I view these 4G students with a sense of hope. They enter the real world far better equipped than we did. While 3G students spent nearly 20 years defining and debating the business case for sustainability, 4G students take it as a given. While the convergence of the major global concerns - climate change, food security and poverty - seemed important to us, it’s now critical for them.
I have witnessed the transformative effect of showing a ‘3G CEO’ the realities of farming life. But often, it can come too late for them to make a real difference. Imagine then, the possibilities of seeding the fertile minds of next generation’s CEOs. A trip to a Colombian coffee farm can be a life-changing experience. Let’s hope so, because transformative change led by tomorrow’s business leaders may be our last chance to really make a difference where it matters.
Read more at Ethical Corporation