The man who could not move, but moved many: Professor Stephen Hawking

On 14th March 2018, the world sadly lost not only a brilliant and respected scientist who courageously triumphed over his own debilitating handicap, but also a highly valued sustainability ambassador and guide amongst the general chaos of thought leadership today. In learning this morning of Stephen Hawking’s demise at the age of 76, I recalled a favorite quote that is often attributed to him (but not proven to be something that he actually ever said):

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Even if this great man never said this, it is a fine reflection of the underlying principle of his work and teachings. Nowadays, propagating an “illusion of knowledge” is a risk that all business schools need to take seriously. We live in an age when “fake news” is being purposely fed into information feedback loops, even by world leaders of democratic societies (I am purposely not mentioning any names!). We are witnessing an unprecedented era where truthful news outlets and honest agencies are easily undermined with accusations of fakery capable of sowing seeds of societal doubt around even scientifically proven facts. Indeed, fake news proliferates in today’s avalanche of information, creating an illusion of knowledge whereas in fact, we are sometimes being kept in ignorance. How can we see the wood for the trees? How do you fight against the “illusion of knowledge” enemy? We need to be ever more vigilant about developing skills in our BSL students that help them to critically assess content that uses new media forms, determine deeper meaning to events and language, properly “join the dots” and understand the world around them based on expert exploration and observation of facts, not fiction.

The vision and purpose of BSL is built around a pragmatic view that there are scientific and social realities – fact, not fiction – that the business world, and thus business people need to catapult to the top of their strategic priority list. Climate change mitigation and adaptation, for example, are amongst these critical realities. When the United States dropped out of the Paris climate agreement, Hawking was one of many credible voices to react, armed with the sheer weight of his own profound scientific knowledge. He wryly observed that Trump’s actions would certainly cause damage to our beautiful planet, and would ultimately bring humanity much closer to a tipping point where the Earth’s systems would break down, disabling humanity’s existence, and ultimately coming to resemble the inhospitable system of planet Venus. Remember that Hawking was a harbinger of doom, suggesting in 2016 that humanity would ultimately have no choice but to find an alternative planet to live on within the following 1000 years. He controversially modified this projection to 100 years just six months later, saying that escalating conflicts, development of militarized technology, weapons of mass destruction, threats from artificial intelligence and general geopolitics had massively increased the likelihood of collapse.

The objective of seeking another host planet for humanity is squarely on the agenda of one of the world’s most recognizable business figures today, Elon Musk, who also suspects that humanity may be doomed for the same reasons outlined by Hawking. His project to colonize Mars has the laudable aim of creating a safety net for humanity (preferably making money, and lots of it, at the same time….). However, the best hope for survival of humanity is still to act on the looming threat of climate change right here and now. For Hawking, we had already reached the eleventh hour, but it was still not too late. As he said in 2017: “Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent if we act now. “

Stephen Hawking was a brilliant ambassador for the thousands of scientists in the world that have placed their knowledge about the reasons for, effects of and solutions to climate change at the disposal of the business community. He knew that the illusion of believing that climate change was not happening was a force to fight against. Despite his own physical immobility, he also knew he could mobilize people by using his credible and highly respected voice. He exercised that power responsibly and sensitively. We join with many in the academic community that mourn the loss of such a spokesperson in a world where true and authentic leadership is increasingly rare and questioned.

 

Ionescu-AileenPICTURE-150x150Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.

Philip Morris International & Sustainable Change

Sustainability is a highly complex concept that, at times, might be hard to integrate in a business environment. However, even companies that were not built with a sustainable focus in mind can turn the leaf and make a real change. A great example illustrating sustainable change is Philip Morris International, which BSL’s Master in International Business students visited on 16th January 2018.

The morning started with warm greetings from Huub Savelkouls, Vice President of Social and Economic Affairs. After a short coffee break, Mr. Savelkouls took us through what the future might hold for PMI’s stakeholders in our first presentation: “Transformation and Sustainability within Philip Morris International”. An interesting fact he mentioned was that, while the world population is growing, the number of smokers remains constant. This represents a great opportunity for Philip Morris to reevaluate their strategic focus. Mr. Savelkouls also tackled common misconceptions, suggesting that contrary to what people think, the tobacco industry can have an important role in solving the smoking problem. This is one of the main points within PMI’ sustainability strategy – convincing people to switch to less harmful products, such as the newly released IQOS device.

The release of this “reduced risk product” allowed Philip Morris International to publish their first ever Sustainability Report in 2016. One of the striking figures in the report is the fact PMI now allocates approx. 70% of their R&D spending on the development of smoke-free products, even though this segment currently only represents 12% of their net revenues. Their overall emphasis on the development of technology-driven, smoke-free products is a great example of sustainability being at the core of a major company’s strategic pivot.

Numbers aside, most students that attended the visit at the Philip Morris International Headquarters in Lausanne were pleasantly surprised by the overall work environment and culture. The free of charge gym, with provided gym attires, and motorsport-themed “Paddock” smoking area were the two favorite workplace perks among the BSL Master students.

To conclude, we would like to thank the people that made this visit possible and PMI for sharing with us their long-term vision on sustainability – hoping it will allow them to leave their competition in a cloud of smoke.

Author:

Ana Maria Login – MIB Master in International Business, Spring 2017 Intake

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year: Next steps and sustainable consumer behavior insights

This article is a first contribution of a trans-disciplinary applied research work in sustainable consumer behavior.

Did you enjoy the holidays? Were they as deeply satisfying as you hoped for? 

Holiday celebrations are over, another 2’366’000 Christmas trees have been sold in Austria alone, most of them are waiting to be recycled after a few short days of being admired. At the same time, most of these 2’366’000 buyers like to go for a walk in the forest – trees are essential for this natural experience!

At a superficial level, most people are aware of the big environmental issues, this awareness being perhaps limited to climate change, biodiversity loss (especially elephants, rhinos, pandas, polar bears, whales, bees, over-fishing), air pollution, deforestation, and plastic in the oceans. At the same superficial level, people care about major social issues, such as poverty, hunger, inequality, discrimination, violence, stress, insecurity. Furthermore, when asked, most people in most countries express “concern” for these issues.

MAK Wien, January 2018

So, let’s follow up with our consumer behavior experience: during the same holiday period, how does our tradition to offer presents square with our concern for the environment or other humans? Once it comes to deciding what present to offer a family member or close friend, consumers are willing to compromise, or even completely ignore the impact of their purchases. They end up with yet another half-toxic plastic toy for their child, a blouse made (by someone else’s child labor) in India, or the latest Nintendo gadget destined to soon become e-waste… isn’t this strange, as many expressed concern about the specific problem they are making worse by their own actions. Do we care at all? An excellent article about Xmas shopping, “The Gift of Death”, by George Monbiot, was published in the Guardian in 2012 – if anything, it’s even more relevant in 2018.

Beyond Christmas, in spite of all knowledge and expressed “concern”, most people behave in a massively self-destructive way most of the time, directly and personally contributing to the problem. Let’s look at this self-destructive, yet perfectly “normal” daily behavior: eating processed food based on industrial agriculture, traveling a lot, organizing one’s life around a car, following fashion in clothes or electronics, and simply participating in the consumer society all damage the environment (for example climate, biodiversity loss, deforestation, air-water-soil pollution), undermine healthy society (promoting discrimination, inequality, “lifestyle” diseases, poisoning from toxic waste, fueling conflicts and wars, displacing populations), and also destroy personal well-being (unhealthy lifestyle, poor nutrition, short-term focus, lack of meaningful social connections, stress and uncertainty).

Thus, it is a matter of fact that human behavior has to be seen as something complex that cannot be split into parts to be analyzed separately (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2010). No internal and external factors justify a deconstructive individual behavior. As of today, researchers from different fields like psychology, sociology and environmental sciences have not yet found answers to this gap between being conscious about the need to change in regard to sustainability, and the willingness of change in regard to consumer realities.

Reasonably assuming that most people in most countries cannot be completely crazy, we must also assume there are other, even more powerful, forces at work. This will be the initial focus of our research.

Of course, a significant and growing minority is indeed starting to change, in areas as varied as nutrition (vegans, vegetarians, locavores and many other flavors), consumerism and shopping, zero waste, transportation and many more.

What are your resolutions for 2018? After one week, do you still expect to achieve them?

New Year Resolutions are a tempting way of “turning the leaf”, repeatedly and unsuccessfully practiced by a sizable majority. Much research in psychology explains why, and offers suggestions on how to improve the success rate, here is a good example published just last week. But, as it happens, 55% of health-related resolutions and many of the remaining ones are examples of willpower trying to fight the system of normal daily behavior described above, the “normative expectation”, a shared belief about how to behave. Of course, the “system” usually wins. Making sustainability the default, the new normative expectation is clearly our challenge.

MAK Wien, January 2018

The authors were inspired by an applied art exhibition “Aesthetics of change”, in the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna, Austria, a presentation of a trans-disciplinary work, coming from universities around the world, with insights in regard to sustainability. Beside a “future room” showing how consumers can access knowledge by simply pronouncing keywords, or standing in front of a camera showing an art photo of themselves, or observing a robot perfectly drawing a Mars landscape (who is surprised by this anymore?), we see this gap between visitors understanding future solutions and their daily consumer behavior. But there is one single message: any member of any social-technical group can become a change agent in regard to sustainability.

This brings us to our applied research question: Why do people continue destroying their own environment instead of changing their way of consuming?

We hope you’ll follow us on this exciting journey, and wish you a great, sustainable 2018 !

Authors:

Sascha Nick, BSL Professor

Alexandra Broillet, BSL Professor