All sustainable technologies are disruptive, but not all disruptive technologies are sustainable. Sustainability is determined by the business model used to apply the technology.
Business leaders, academics, and members of the public and non-profit sectors came together in July 2005 for the 11th annual BELL (Business* Environment* Learning* Leadership) Conference, hosted by the Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University together with World Resources Institute (WRI).
The 2005 BELL Conference theme was Sustainable Technology Development and New Market Creation, specifically focused at the base of the economic pyramid. The goals of the conference were to facilitate dialogue, create new knowledge, increase understanding, and to catalyze action and innovation by approaching social and environmental challenges as “unmet market needs.”
In order to have meaningful dialogue about a topic as broad as sustainability, we must recognize our potential to talk past one another. The conference thus began with a framing of sustainability by Stuart Hart, S.C. Johnson Chair in Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell, mapping out the various approaches or “tribes” encompassed falling under the topic of sustainability.
Across the 3 days of the BELL conference, discussions of innovation, sustainability, and social and environmental benefit specifically targeted the base of the economic pyramid- be it global or local. Break out sessions and plenaries alike discussed the real needs existing for those in the lowest economic strata. Sessions included:
- Building a Service Economy in the U.S. and Abroad
- Business Strategies for Conquering Disease in the Base of the Pyramid
- Cutting Edge Social & Environmental Technologies
- Building a Technology Network for a Sustainable Future
- Unleashing Entrepreneurship in Clean Technology and Biodiversity
- Developing and Commercializing New Technologies in the Multinational Firm
- New Market Creation in Finance
- New Business Opportunities from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- Renewable Energy Market Development
- The Structure of Poverty
- Research Protocols for Low Income Markets
- Sustainable Directions in Materials Science and Chemistry
The competitive advantage for companies serving the base of the economic pyramid is that they establish themselves in niche markets with more growth space available than targeting production for higher economic markets. Another benefit for firms is the management of non-traditional risks, reputation management, and reduced liability.
Serving markets at the base of the economic pyramid is not for the faint of heart. It requires a high degree of visionary entrepreneurship to see an opportunity and then to shift one’s sector or domain towards sustainability. Other challenges come with the complexity of the social and environmental issues which serve as un-met market needs.
Many discussions in the formal and informal components of the BELL conference revolved around questions like: “What is the role of large corporations in the communities in which they’re embedded?” “To what degree are organizations responsible for developing the economies that they serve?” “How does a corporation’s business model hold the firm hostage, keeping it from serving other markets?”
For more information on the BELL program go to: http://www.bellinnovation.org/
By Linda Robson
 For more detail see: Hart, S. & Milstein, M (2003). Creating sustainable value. Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 17, No. 2.