The importance of collaboration

9th December 2016

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Business & Industry ,
  • Public sector ,
  • Education ,
  • Management


Stuart Gibbon

How can academic research better help business?

How should companies meet the demands of a growing market for food, energy and water without damaging the integrity of the environment on which these services depend? And how should they take account of the additional complexity of climate change, inequality and population growth in their strategies?

The interaction between food, energy, water and environmental systems is just one example of a ‘nexus’ that companies are increasingly being expected to manage. The irrigation of crops, for example, can affect access to drinking water, the health of aquatic ecosystems, and hydroelectric power generation. It is simultaneously dependent on these factors, as well as others such as forest loss, watershed management, pollution, politics and the practices of other companies.

Yet the science of interdependency, particularly in a problem context such as a global commodity value chain, is in its infancy. Arriving at long-term solutions to nexus challenges is proving elusive: it is simply very complex. That said many companies, including those we are working with at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), are making serious strides to safeguard soil, water, biodiversity and carbon.

As a whole, however, the global business community has much further to go before being able to declare itself sustainable in any scientifically robust sense, and governments have a crucial role in unlocking ambition. Although the endpoint is clear, systems of production and consumption that can, literally, go on forever owing to their restorative influence on the environment, the solutions are multifaceted, location- and context-specific, and subject to significant uncertainty. In a world of limited budgets, what forms of research would empower companies to make most rapid progress?

Through the Nexus Network, a three-year ESRC funded collaboration between the University of Sheffield, University of Sussex, the University of East Anglia, the University of Exeter and CISL, CISL set up the Nexus2020 project to build a bridge between the business and academic worlds and identify the top 40 questions that, if answered, would best help companies to manage their food-energy-water-environment nexus dependencies and impacts.

This was the first time that these two communities have been brought together effectively to co-produce research priorities that underpin solutions to challenges such as managing competing uses of land, building resilient supply chains and sustaining livelihoods in resource-scarce parts of the world.

The questions identified by this group reveal the most pressing areas that academics and their counterparts in business can act on now. If they are studied in such a way that the companies are engaged fully as partners, shaping the research objectives, methods and timeframe, there is an opportunity to leverage the results at a globally significant scale through the reach and influence of the companies.

From a purely academic perspective there is a further significant opportunity: to build relationships, and hence trust, with companies with a view to conducting research in situ within their operations, that is placing the firm and its data at the heart of the experiment.

This is not the usual modus operandi of academics, some of whom may hold legitimate concerns that co-operation with business could compromise independence or resemble consultancy rather than fundamental research. With careful management, neither need be the case.

True co-production, or ‘transdisciplinarity’ as it is sometimes called, is beneficial to both parties. Companies need sound, multidisciplinary, long-term research engagement to address the dilemma of managing the food-energy-water-environment nexus while maintaining bottom line and competitive performance.

Academics need data-rich research environments in which to test hypotheses and uncover new knowledge and increasingly to demonstrate the value of their work to research funders.

This innovative way of working requires new skills and significant patience to make work in practice. But the prize is immense, which is why CISL has published the report Nexus 2020: The most important research questions for business sustainability and why it is placing co-design at the heart of its research strategy for the future.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Is the sea big enough?

A project promoter’s perspective on the environmental challenges facing new subsea power cables

3rd April 2024

Read more

The UK’s major cities lag well behind their European counterparts in terms of public transport use. Linking development to transport routes might be the answer, argues Huw Morris

3rd April 2024

Read more

Tom Harris examines the supply chain constraints facing the growing number of interconnector projects

2nd April 2024

Read more

The UK government’s carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) strategy is based on optimistic techno-economic assumptions that are now outdated, Carbon Tracker has warned.

13th March 2024

Read more

The UK government’s latest Public Attitudes Tracker has found broad support for efforts to tackle climate change, although there are significant concerns that bills will rise.

13th March 2024

Read more

A consortium including IEMA and the Good Homes Alliance have drafted a letter to UK government ministers expressing disappointment with the proposed Future Homes Standard.

26th February 2024

Read more

Global corporations such as Amazon and Google purchased a record 46 gigawatts (GW) of solar and wind energy last year, according to BloombergNEF (BNEF).

13th February 2024

Read more

Three-quarters of UK adults are concerned about the impact that climate change will have on their bills, according to polling commissioned by Positive Money.

13th February 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close