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Strength in Numbers:
Erb Institute Harnesses the Power of Consensus

Tom Catania’s role at Whirlpool Corporation wasn’t specifically to shape the company’s sustainability efforts. But in more than 25 years with the appliance manufacturer, the last 14 as Vice President for Government Affairs, Catania’s job called on him to help identify public policy conflicts and bring together diverse interests to find consensus.

His role at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise is much the same. “My focus had always been on trying to identify public policy issues and turning them into business opportunities, and I think we were pretty successful at doing that,” Catania said.

Today, Catania is Executive-in-Residence at the Erb Institute, one of the oldest graduate programs combining business and sustainability. It’s also one of the larges,t with 350 graduates from 15 countries.

The Institute, a partnership between UM’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, grew out of the Corporate Environmental Management Program. Specifically citing the Institute, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked Ross the top “green” business school in 2013.

Today Erbers (as the Institute’s students are known) study a full range of sustainability issues and their impact on business – from energy and water to supply-chain working conditions, human rights, and social investment.

Catania sees the Institute as a hub for decision-making on issues such as energy. “Energy policy is so much at the center of many, many sustainability issues. We like to bring folks together to focus on policy issues and try to advance the ball,” said Catania. “We create a space for people who wouldn’t ordinarily come together to meet and be more expansive in their thinking than they would in their everyday work.”

Big Events Tackle Even Bigger Challenges

The Erb Institute’s reputation allows it to pull together heavy hitters from industry.

When the Institute hosted a large conference exploring how to double U.S. energy productivity by 2030, participants included leaders from Dow Chemical Company, Owens Corning and Whirlpool.

Such convenings have become an increasingly important part of Erb’s mission.

In 2013, the Institute hosted the Michigan Energy Futures Conference in cooperation with 5 Lakes Energy, Growth Capital Network, the Institute for Energy Innovation, the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council and Next Energy. The conference brought together regulators, industry leaders and sustainability experts to ask the question: “How will disruptive challenges in the electric markets impact energy decisions?”

In 2012, Erb and the Union of Concerned Scientists held a three-day event, “Increasing Public Understanding of Climate Risks & Choices: Learning from Social Science Research and Practice.” That event drew business leaders, scientists, religious and political leaders, and climate activists to discuss the most effective approaches to communicating climate risk to consumers and the public at large.

Other events bring a single luminary in business to work with scholars from across the university.

In Small Groups, Possibilities Loom Large

These “conversations with consequence,” as Nelidov calls them, aren’t huge gatherings, but push innovation because the participants come from different disciplines to approach the same problem.

Jim Rogers, who led the largest electric utility in the U.S. for more than two decades, presented one of the

“In the afternoon, he gave a big public presentation talking about the transformation of the energy industry in the 21st century and the need for business leadership and a coherent energy policy to guide that transformation,” Nelidov said. In addition to Erb students, attendees came from across the University, including engineering, public policy, social work, public health and microbiology departments.

Before that public event, Rogers spent the morning with an equally diverse but smaller audience discussing a unique — and provocative — topic, one that he is dedicating much of his professional energy toward in retirement: “Renewable energy to end world poverty.”

In the past, the C-Suite series featured Greg Page, the former chief executive officer of agriculture and food giant Cargill, the largest privately held company in the United States. In February 2015, Aron Cramer, president and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility will participate.

Envisioning More Than Incremental Change

In planning for the next five, 10 and 20 years of empowering business and educating students in sustainability, Erb leaders have been talking a lot about the future of sustainability itself and what it means to be an institutional leader in the topic.

“After reaching out across the globe and talking to our alumni, faculty, business people and others, we see that the world needs more than effective practitioners and leaders who can make companies as they are currently defined more sustainable,” Nelidov said. “That’s necessary, but not complete.

“The next step is to look at how you define markets, business models, eventually an entire economy,” he explained.

Pondering systemic change, rather than working through incremental change within existing systems, may seem radical, but it’s already begun in some organizations.

Nelidov cites the role of the transportation company as one that’s currently being redefined. Ford, Toyota and General Motors came together with representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and scholars on the UM campus this fall for the Conference on Transportation, Energy, Economics and the Environment.

“[Transportation companies] are looking beyond mobility of people to look at mobility of ideas and information. It’s not just about building individual cars, but it’s about how to facilitate the exchange of people, ideas and information,” Nelidov said.

Food and agriculture is another area that likely will see titanic change in coming years.

As Cargill looks for ways to feed a world of 9 billion people by 2050, the company is also developing future executives who can handle the demands of an increasingly more complex world.

“The complexity of the food system … It is complicated in one way and in other ways it is not, but it is always unforgiving. If you don’t treat it holistically, you won’t get the outcome you want,” Page said in a C-Series talk, Choices in Food Security, in 2014.

But perhaps the sector that will face the most disruptive innovation is energy.

Convening for the Future

Shaping sustainable energy policies will require repeated discussions, not just a single conference or conversation.

“The conference addressed the tectonic changes happening in the utilities marketplace – not just for one business, but for the whole market – and the question of how best to help companies to prepare for drastic changes that are just around the corner in that industry,” Nelidov said.

Bringing together industry leaders to work through multi-disciplinary challenges will become even more important to Erb’s mission in the future as the Institute enters its third decade.

“What the future means for us is that we will be doing more industry-level convenings focused on exploring the new business models and markets that are emerging in a sustainable world. Energy is just one of the first ones,” Nelidov said.

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