Crises create the space and time for us to question long-held beliefs and to debate new possibilities. The current crisis shows more clearly than ever before the need for new and previously unimagined – or seemingly impossible – solutions to advance the transformation of our societies towards sustainability. And it needs people with the ability to make these new ideas reality. Little has been made of the potential benefits of cooperation between science and business in such vital areas as mobility and energy transitions. Pooling expertise from science and business, and involving political decision-makers, non-governmental organizations, and the public in relevant debates, could unlock previously untapped potentials for sustainability transformations.
We need new cooperation goals and a new outlook on co-creative cooperation between science and industry if we are to make substantial progress in this transformation process. Companies of all kinds – from established corporations and SMEs to start-ups and self-employed social entrepreneurs – have the know-how, financial resources, practical knowledge and implementation expertise needed to reorient societies towards sustainable development. The growing success of the common good economy shows how the targeted use of these resources can advance transformations towards more sustainable societies. For years now the annual "Entrepreneurship Summit" has explored how our economy can be shifted towards a more sustainable model and highlighted successful transformations.
The implementation expertise possessed by entrepreneurial actors and the reflexive competencies and understanding of knowledge production that exists within the science system could complement each other meaningfully. At the same time, both of these subsystems of the social system are faced with significant challenges: the societal relevance of scientific research processes and their results are more likely to be called into question in future. They will be measured by their capacity to add real value to our quality of life and the sustainable development of our society. This will entail, by necessity, a discussion about social values, acceptance and acceptability, feasibility and the necessary policy and regulatory environment. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is set to broaden its focus beyond profits and will have to demonstrate its capacity to support the shift towards more sustainable lifestyles. Milton Friedman's maxim that "The business of business is business" has long since become obsolete and expresses an understanding of business that has become increasingly rare among contemporary entrepreneurs, who, by and large, want to conduct their business in a manner that will benefit society. In the wake of the Coronavirus Crisis, social resilience will take centre-stage, pushing such views further towards the margins. Policy and regulatory environments must be shaped with the aim of supporting and promoting this approach to business. Economic stimulus packages only make sense if they serve broader environmental goals and facilitate the fair distribution of economic gains across society.
Future collaboration between entrepreneurs and science should explore and embrace new forms of cooperation. This is not simply a matter of enhancing the availability of scientific knowledge to companies interested in developing marketable products. Nor is it a matter of contract research, or technology transfer. These forms of cooperation are already practised and have their own advantages. Instead, the transformation towards sustainability needs a new and above all more advanced form of cooperation – "Cooperation 2.0", if you will.
The focus here is on supporting a process of reflection that is keyed to the overarching goal of shaping a broad transformation towards sustainability by pooling bodies of experience and knowledge in order to develop effective products, processes and framework conditions to advance transformations. These must be systematically explored and continuously improved in a joint research and design process. More promising solutions emerging in this process should be made scalable. Too many successes are left to linger in the shadows, although they could be applied with as much success elsewhere and could accordingly generate greater impacts. The development and implementation of such a new process requires scientific and entrepreneurial competences. Reconciling different perspectives on an overarching goal is no small task and the challenge lies in bringing these competencies together and successfully accompanying the process. It requires expertise in process design and moderation, forward thinking, conflict competence, and the ability to clarify and bring together different and sometimes initially conflicting approaches and perspectives. Only in this way is it possible to create something substantially new and valuable in a shared process of understanding.
In order to have a significant impact on society, processes of transformation towards sustainability must develop considerable leverage. Evidence-based knowledge and entrepreneurial implementation expertise must work together – supported by appropriate policy environments and social acceptance. The transformation towards sustainability will entail risks and, inevitably, it will create losers. Given this, there is a need for an ongoing process aimed at facilitating this societal negotiation process, exploring conflicts, and transforming them into stimuli for the implementation of solutions.
Forward-looking decisions require new skills in both science and entrepreneurship. In particular, the holistic perspective of sustainability research is a treasure trove of knowledge that actors from the business world are frequently unable to exploit. Instead, classical consulting organizations – which are, by and large, guided by principles that conflict with the values of sustainability – are often called upon to offer their expertise.
The current debate on economic stimulus packages offers a good entry point for this discussion. These packages will play a significant role in the future development of entrepreneurship. A recent joint statement of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Germanwatch highlights the path dependencies created by these stimulus packages and calls for their alignment with the overarching goal of the long-term transformation of our economy – in other words their alignment with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Climate Protection Agreement and the preservation of biodiversity.
We must not allow the looming recession to act as a brake on climate protection measures and strategies for the sustainable transformation of the economy and society. Progress in the further development of corporate responsibility will only be achieved in the context of constructive processes of reflection that use scientific findings as a basis and aim to translate them into concrete projects.