This is part of a series of articles by MBA students at California College of the Arts dMBA program. Follow along here.
By Sue Pollock
How can conservation organizations leverage the economic concept of shared value? Can they create tools beyond the regulatory stick, which creates the illusion of a carrot? Can they create collaborative partnerships between NGOs and sustainability-focused social designers?
Michael Porter notes that shared value is about “expanding the total pool of economic and social value” not simply trading off between societal benefits and economic success. If conservation organizations can find ways to create shared value for farmers, ranchers, energy, and chemical corporations, they can create much greater positive impact for nature. With rapidly increasing population growth and climate change, purchasing land and claiming that it is “conserved” is no longer the single viable option.
This is a large pivot for many conservation organizations that don’t want to risk their brand or reputation by partnering with industrial corporations. But, let’s face it, when conservation organizations look for solutions to environmental problems, they almost always come up with some sort of human cause. Throwing down the gauntlet against human consumption is not going to get you far these days. Many conservation organizations realize this issue and have begun to work with the private sector to find ways to mitigate impact on the environment. However, mitigation via the regulatory “stick” is not necessarily creating shared value.
The regulatory stick can be beneficial, but when used tactlessly creates the illusion of a carrot instead of creating actual shared value. For example, endangered salmon need a certain level of water in the streams to spawn in the fall, precisely when vintners may need to draw on the water supply to protect against frost. Conservation organizations could influence government to set regulations on water flows to maximize water in streams, causing vintners whose livelihoods depend on water to object.
This is the case in Sonoma county where local environmental organizations threaten to “initiate the complaint process” against vintners over water flows. This is a classic case of tradeoffs: either salmon get the water and vintners lose their vines, or vintners save their vines and salmon have no habitat to spawn. Progressive conservation organizations are left creating the illusion of the carrot by helping vintners find ways to reduce their water use to avoid litigation or worse, lose their livelihood. Creating shared value means moving beyond the tradeoff by finding ways to help vintners become more profitable growing a superior product using sustainable practices while simultaneously managing water flows to benefit salmon.
This is where social designers could play a pivotal role. Social designers use systems thinking to find profitable and sustainable solutions to large-scale problems. What if conservation organizations were to use their science-based expertise to identify the problem frame and partner with social designers to hypothesize and prototype opportunities to create shared value solutions?
Scientists and designers share similar methods of working: finding the right problem to solve, making a hypothesis, testing, analyzing and repeating. Conservation organizations have limited capacity for R&D and could benefit from partnering with designers while social designers could benefit by knowing that they are working to solve a real need that could translate into something profitable. Could social designers find a way to help vintners make a superior sustainable product while reducing water use, enabling both the vintners and the designers to make a profit all while helping to conserve endangered salmon? Talk about a shared value win – I’d like to see them try.