Centre for Organization and Time (COT)
Making Distant Futures Actionable (Novo Nordisk Foundation)
- Professor Majken Schultz (PI & project responsible).
- Professor Tor Hernes (Project responsible).
- Assistant Professor Miriam Feuls (Novo Nordisk sub-project)
- Postdoc Sunny Mosangzi Xu (Arla sub-project)
- Postdoc Jonathan Feddersen (Ørsted sub-project)
- Listen to Majken Schultz talk about the Actionable Futures project in the CBS Sustain Podcast
- Listen to the Majken Schultz talk about the Actionable Futures project in a Danish context in the “Få det til at ske” Podcast (only in Danish).
INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH PARTNERS:
- Professor Tima Bansal, Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada
- Professor Raghu Garud, Smeal College of Business, Penn State University, US
- Professor Daniel Nyberg, University of Newcastle, Australia
- Professor Juliane Reinecke , Saïd Business School University of Oxford
- Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville, University of Cambridge, UK
The industry has a critical role to play in creating a zero-carbon future both as providers of sustainable solutions and as problem solvers in their own industries. Companies are increasingly making commitments to distant future climate goals, which are becoming more comprehensive to include emissions, biodiversity, and waste. Yet, the solutions for how to reach the climate goals are still uncertain and even unknown. Companies are thus faced with the dilemma of moving towards ambitious goals without knowing the path leading toward those goals. Not acting is not an option. There is an urgent need to understand how companies make distant futures actionable, creating a path forward. This challenge is at the core of the Actionable Futures Project. The project studies Danish companies in different industries, which are among the early movers in the efforts to create a zero-carbon future. The companies comprise Ørsted in energy; Arla in foods, and Novo Nordisk in life-science. In each company, we study ongoing projects with the potential for reaching distant future climate goals such as how off-shore windfarms may create nature-based solutions in marine biodiversity; how animal-based farming may become regenerative across different local ecosystems; and how developing circular solutions for the recycling of medical plastic waste can become resourceful on a global scale.
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The project is part of the Centre for Organization and Time. The project will regularly host open seminars relevant to the research themes and participate in international conferences, such as EGOS and Academy of Management.
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Novo Nordisk, a global life science company specializing in the treatment of diabetes and other serious chronic diseases, has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2045. Confronted with the climate crisis that intersects with biodiversity loss and, in particular, the plastics crisis, Novo Nordisk has developed a “Circular for Zero” strategy, encompassing several initiatives to implement a circular economy approach in its products, company, and supply chain. The sub-project examines Novo Nordisk’s circular strategy making by following the corporate environmental strategy team and two initiatives to develop circular solutions to the plastic dilemma, i.e. recycling solutions and design solutions. It explores how the circular approach is translated and integrated into different organizational units and how innovative activities are developed through multi-actor collaboration on a global scale.
The sub-project follows Ørsted, a Danish energy company, in pursuing the goal of becoming biodiversity net positive in their offshore wind farms by 2030. The research has two main strands. The first strand follows how Ørsted seeks to understand conceptually what ‘biodiversity net positive’ means, and to develop a corresponding measuring framework. The second strand investigates Ørsted’s portfolio of pilot projects seeking to develop a toolbox of biodiversity enhancing interventions to reach the target, including constructing artificial reefs, growing corals on foundations, and building nesting structures for endangered bird species. Both strands of research combine participant observation in meetings and events, interviews, and archival data. In addition to the focal research on biodiversity, we conduct a retrospective study of Ørsted’s remarkable transformation from ‘black’ to ‘green’, exploring how Ørsted was able to transform faster than the energy system within which it firmly was embedded.
Arla, the Danish multinational dairy cooperative, set its climate target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 and be carbon net zero by 2050. Acknowledging that dairy farming carries a responsibility for the climate crisis, Arla sees the opportunity to be part of the solution by transforming toward a sustainable dairy future. As each farm has its distinct social and environmental localities, one challenge for Arla is to develop solutions that will fit all its farmer-owners across four production regions. In the Actionable Futures project, we study Arla’s newly initiated Regenerative Farming Pilot Network. The Pilot Network selected 24 farmers across four regions with both organic and conventional dairy production systems. This farmer-led project explores how each pilot farmer can apply regenerative farming principles to their farms in order to provide insights for all Arla farmer-owners to change their farm practices for the better.
INTERVIEW WITH CO-LEADERS MAJKEN SCHULTZ AND TOR HERNES:
"In reality we only have a very small window of time to make this happen,” says Majken Schultz and Tor Hernes, both professors at the Centre for Organization and Time at the Department of Organization at CBS.
The current problem when addressing the climate goals is that innovative solutions are restricted by pressure for short-term performance and value-creation. Long-term climate goals, on the other hand, are abstract and often experienced as very distant. Previous research has often assumed that the two are separate and even irreconcilable which is what this project will try and find a solution to.
“With less than a decade left to prevent long-term damage to the planet we are going to need to accelerate the green transition and bring these two together. Research shows that each of them will most likely fail if they stand alone. This project will show the two need each other,” they add.
The project will investigate how synergies are created between short term-solutions and distant futures that lie beyond the strategic horizons of most companies. “Hence, the project title ‘Making Distant Futures Actionable”, state Professor Majken Schultz and Professor Tor Hernes, who will manage the four-year project funded by Novo Nordisk Foundation.
Translating between short and long-term
Current research works from the assumption that all actors should aim at the long-term. The project will challenge this assumption and show how short-term thinking is vital for thinking for the long-term, just as long-term thinking is vital for the short-term. But the two-way influence is not symmetrical. Therefore, the theoretical part of the project aims at developing “Temporal Translation” – a term to explain how short-term solutions can be projected into distant solutions and vice versa.
“It is a bit like translating between languages, where we move back and forward with different words to frame similar meanings. Except that in our case we consider how translation takes place across time; how actors project on-going solutions into the distant climate goals and conversely, how emerging innovations may become part of something that is materialised 10-20 years from now,” they explain.
“Our current research in a related project funded by Velux Foundation, shows how novel solutions in sustainable packaging of dairy produce are created by Arla (also a partner of the NNF-funded project),” Tor Hernes explains.
“Our colleague, postdoc researcher Miriam Feuls, analyses how actors from different functions collaborate to ensure that innovative solutions are viable for the distant future. We find in that study that actors move back and forth (translate) between short-term and distant solutions through different sets of collaborative practices, such as how future narratives frame their economic and environmental calculations, while these calculations enable them to modify future narratives in turn,” adds Majken Schultz.
Different actors, different sectors
An underlying idea of this project is that that actors of different time orientations need each other for distant climate goals to be met.
The project will explore how different types of actors interact to “co-create” solutions that comprise both singular innovations and holistic solutions.
The project is organised into three sub-projects, each one headed by a postdoctoral researcher (these are currently being recruited). Each sub-project will study focal companies in a sector important to the green transition, but organised very differently: Food (Arla), life-science (Novo Nordisk) and energy (in process). In collaboration with each company, specific innovation projects will be selected that involve collaboration between different types of actors, such as universities, entrepreneurs, public institutions, or other corporations.
“For each sector/sub-project, we will focus on what specific management challenges arise from translating between innovative solutions and climate goals. We do not expect to find one model, but rather a variety of models, which we intend to develop in ways that are helpful to managers,” says Majken Schultz and Tor Hernes.
The road ahead
The project plans to host open seminars relevant to the research themes and participate in international conferences, such as European Group for Organizational Studies and Academy of Management. The idea here is to expand the research agenda on organisation, time, and sustainability in collaboration with the international research community and represented by four international research partners.
The project is also confronted with some interesting challenges. “It is always a challenge to apply qualitative social science theorising in a natural science setting. In our case we will engage in longitudinal studies of specific innovation projects, often emerging from natural and technical sciences, and analyse them from a social science view. In addition, our qualitative research requires close collaboration with the involved companies etc. and the ability to discuss our findings in ways that are meaningful to actors from the natural sciences,” they add.
Also, it will be a challenge whether the innovation projects will remain as ambitious and relevant to climate change as they are expected to be. “We will select the innovation projects to be studied based on their current importance and future potential to the involved actors. We have every reason to believe that management in our focal companies will stick to their priorities and future ambitions, but as we have all learned this last year the world is less predictable than we often assume,” concludes Majken Schultz and Tor Hernes.