The Power of Networks

July 31, 2013
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

Aron Cramer, President and CEO, BSR

In his recent book Future Perfect, Steven Johnson describes a fundamental shift in information and influence: The 20th century hub-and-spoke model, defined by a centralized concentration of power with connections to subsidiary institutions, has given way to an interconnected web capturing a “dense network of human intelligence.”

Johnson is talking about a new model of change, but this same concept—the power of networks—applies to sustainability progress.
We live in an era of distributed information and distributed influence. The vertically integrated organizations that dominated life from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution have wilted in the wake of the Information Revolution, creating massive new opportunities to achieve a genuinely sustainable economy.

In a few months, the BSR Conference 2013 will explore the many ways that networks are reshaping our world, the new opportunities for businesses and their partners to activate their networks, and the various ways BSR is using the Power of Networks to achieve our mission of building a just and sustainable world. 

How are networks promoting progress?

Networks allow us to see the big picture. Sustainability challenges are inherently systemic, and so it is logical that networks would be uniquely suited to the challenge.

Businesses operating in a climate-constrained world have come to understand that solutions depend on understanding systemic issues in a networked manner. This is most evident when we look at the intersection of food, water, and energy—the so-called “stress nexus”—where competing demands on land use and other basic resources can only be understood through the connections that link them all. There is increasing recognition that preserving food and water security depends on models that embrace entire ecosystems.

This is also evident with networks of sensors that allow visibility into everything from energy use in buildings to water use in agriculture, enabling quantum leaps in efficiency.

Crucially, a networked world is more likely to reject the concept of “externalities,” encouraging an evolution of markets that reject old and unworkable economic models in favor of more holistic frameworks that place a value on water, biodiversity, wetlands, and other ecosystems services.

Networks produce innovation. When we think of the kinds of networks that define our world today, information technology is only the start. The future depends on activating all kinds of networks—human, machine, organizational, even networked business models.

By combining efforts, networks of organizations are able to establish norms and expectations in a manner that was once the exclusive province of states: Witness the International Integrated Reporting Council, a purpose-built network that aims to redefine corporate reporting. 

We are also seeing the emergence of networked business models, with enterprises such as Airbnb and Zipcar capitalizing on opportunities for collaborative consumption, and distributed energy production that may well remake the utility business, for example by allowing homeowners to produce energy for sale back to the grid. New networked business processes are also needed to create the reverse supply chains that allow for reuse of materials on a scale never before possible.

Networks are more participatory. The age of networks has also reshaped our mindsets, sparking new approaches to problem-solving that bring unusual partners together. If two-way stakeholder dialogues defined the first wave of sustainability in the 1990s, crowdsourced solutions are emblematic of the world today, as seen by Nike’s Launch challenge, calling for solutions to waste, energy, and health. Another example is Houston’s newly launched Resilience Action Initiative, which is premised on the notion that business, government, and community institutions are able to ensure a resilient city only by working together.

Advocates for shared, sustainable prosperity have long pointed to the interconnected nature of our world.  This is one of the main reasons sustainability is likely to be the defining feature of the 21st century. With the rise of the networked world, we now have a way of thinking about solutions that is perfectly suited to the challenge. Our ability to activate human, organizational, and technological networks may well be the ultimate test of our ability to achieve the vision of a truly just and sustainable world.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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