By Christina Bosch, Erb MBA/MS student, class of 2011.
Energy rating requirements for home sales, subscription services for furniture, dematerialization, and small companies collaborating on issues it’s good to be bigger when facing…. These were all ideas bandied around this Monday in Cambridge, MA at EDF and Ashoka’s second “unconference” in a series of four that the organizations are holding to generate ideas, and maybe ultimately to change business as usual. The topic for the unconferences being held in D.C., Boston, San Jose, and Austin, is green business innovations.
By now, if you aren’t familiar, you must be wondering what the heck an unconference is. I didn’t know until I tried. Like other things that are named and defined by what they are not rather than what they are (non-profit, dairy-free, non-denominational), an unconference has a lot to do with conferences, and is most easily described by comparing and contrasting it to conferences. It’s a conference in the sense that it brings people together to discuss and share ideas around a central topic — to confer — with sub-topics and themes for smaller group discussion. It’s not a conference in that the focus is on group discussion. There are no presentations aside from some introductions and housekeeping (which in the case of an unconference, includes explaining what attendees are expected to do and then explaining that these expectations are flexible and few). There is no agenda until the participants make one by distilling themes from short small-group conversations first thing in the morning. There are no speakers, booths displaying literature, tote bags full of giveaways, or tables with logo keychains. With the agenda posted (topics included: supply chain, the dark side of innovation, dematerialization, behavior change, and green chemistry), the unconference then runs itself as participants move from session to session, each hosted by a volunteer who kicks off a group conversation. The day is capped off by a session with participants sharing “ah-ha’s,” insights, and ideas for next steps.
The Boston unconference attracted about 80 people representing non-profit organizations, students and academics, independently interested folks, and businesses. During the introductory session, when the facilitator from an organization called Dig In requested that each person state their name, affiliation, and up to three words describing why they came, motivations included things like “adoption of innovation” “curiosity” “networking” “ideas” “strategies” and “keeping it real in the environmental movement”… what became apparent quickly was that people there were thought leaders, and having been to other conferences, struggled with issues of environmental sustainability. Businesses were looking for a new way to discuss the issues, and share ideas. Also apparent was that several people (like those from MIT’s various open source and collaborative learning organizations) were just plain curious about the format — could it work?
It did work, and prompted some thought about ideas for me. I spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing and learning about how business and environmental goals can be aligned and synergistic in my dual master’s degree program at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. There are lots of exciting possibilities and some frustrating barriers between current practices and reaching this goal. This results in many examples of win-win solutions (both kinds of green) and an undercurrent of seeking out game-changing ideas that revolutionize business models, consumption, and our relationships with both business and the environment to go beyond energy and operational efficiencies to business that benefits the triple bottom line (people, planet, and profit).
Many examples were brought up at the unconference: reducing energy use, reducing fuel use, cargo-space sharing (coordinating with other companies on distribution to reduce the empty space being hauled by trucks contracted by one company at a time, or for one-way trips), and other logistics and operations twists and tweaks that save money. These types of efficiencies are increasingly possible and deep within supply bases as technology allows for easier tracking and planning. Business models that focus on services instead of products were discussed in their various forms: subscription, deposit, design for reuse and disassembly with required take-back programs to ensure proper management. Barriers to adoption (like our consumption-and-convenience culture), disparities in living standards, and the sheer magnitude of issues facing society were also hashed through at length.
These are all good ideas. At first, however, I found myself a little frustrated with this wide array of examples that skimmed the surface of sustainability and with whether or not they fit the “innovation” bill of the unconference. But I think that that is the point. Many have remarked that our best ideas take shape when we least expect it (like in the shower or while exercising), noting that there is something to having a variety of inputs floating around in our minds that can interact and overlap and congeal into new ideas when we relax and stop thinking in a focused way. I think the unconference served to provide a zillion ingredients that now will simmer and hopefully generate positive innovations — minute and mega — for business and the environment. In this sense, the unconference potluck was the best variety of “’group think.”