A tea plantation in Kerala, India
A tea plantation in Kerala, India. Photo: Flickr / Mikko Koponen

Research funders should invest in developing decision-support tools to help businesses adopt more sustainable practices at the nexus of water, energy, food and environment. This was one of the key messages that emerged when senior business practitioners and research experts sat down to define a priority research agenda for sustainability.

The Nexus2020 project identified 40 research questions that could help businesses to navigate sustainability at the food-energy-water-environment nexus. The exercise also highlighted important unanswered questions about how to motivate behaviour change among businesses and consumers, and how best to design policies and governance systems to support sustainability in a complex global economy.

Jonathan Green, a post-doctoral researcher at SEI-York and lead author of a new paper on the project in the journal Sustainability Science, explains the thinking behind Nexus2020’s “co-design” approach: “When we talk about a sustainability transformation, we’re actually talking about how businesses and other practitioners confront specific challenges and opportunities from day to day. As a solution-oriented discipline, sustainability science should listen closely to their needs.”

“By co-designing with businesses, we can identify questions that are both feasible and valid from a research point of view, and whose answers can feed more directly into transformative action,” says SEI Research Fellow Toby Gardner, who joined one of the priorization workshops. “We know we’re likely to be asking more relevant questions from the start.”

In the first round of the process, Nexus2020 asked a broad range of stakeholders to suggest questions whose answers could best help businesses manage their dependencies and impacts on water resources, the environment, energy and food. Responses were collected following webinars, presentations, workshop sessions, newsletters, blogs and social media discussions. Most came from businesses and academia but also from civil society and other stakeholders.

The project then brought together a panel of research experts and senior business practitioners to whittle the responses (around 700) down to 40 priority questions. These questions are all listed in the new paper.

Themes that emerged in a two-day workshop as part of the Nexus2020 process. These themes were well reflected in the final list of questions.
Themes that emerged in a two-day workshop as part of the Nexus2020 process. These themes were well reflected in the final list of questions.

“The next step in the process will be to co-design projects that can try and answer the questions we identified,” says Green. “This should also be done by multidisciplinary panels of scientists and practitioners.” Some work in this direction has already started under Nexus2020, but the hope is that other academics, and research funders such as the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – which supports the Nexus Network, which organized Network2020 – will take the baton.

Looking further ahead, Green believes this knowledge partnership between business and research can add value throughout the research cycle: “This should not be a one-off. We need an ongoing and iterative exchange of ideas and needs as new knowledge gaps become apparent and others close.”

Jonathan Green joined SEI’s global Sustainable Consumption and Production team in May 2016, and is no longer officially a part of Nexus2020. However, he maintains close links with the Nexus Network and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. And his SEI research on biodiversity impacts along commodity supply chains, and the role of greater transparency, will also address one of the questions identified by Nexus2020.

For Green, the most valuable outcome of Nexus2020 is not just the list of priority research questions, but also the model of close collaboration between academia and business: “Greater investment in the complex but productive relations between the private sector and research community will create deeper and more meaningful collaboration and cooperation”.

“Research priorities for managing the impacts and dependencies of business upon food, energy, water and the environment” by Jonathan Green et al. was published online first in the journal Sustainability Science in October 2016. It is open access.

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