Lundquist College of Business's Center for Sustainable Business Practices welcomed Tom Osdoba as managing director of the center on April 1. Osdoba sat down and talked about his background, the state of sustainable business practices in Oregon and the region, and the role the center and the University of Oregon continues to play.
A social entrepreneur and strategic advisor who has spent more than twenty years advancing the cause of sustainability, Osdoba recently served the Portland's Office of Sustainable Development as manager of sustainable economic development, where he created a framework to guide future economic development strategies and led efforts to launch a collaborative, multisector sustainability institute. He has been a recognized innovator in the sustainability movement, and he will focus his entrepreneurial leadership efforts as the head of the Center for Sustainable Business Practices.
In speaking about his goals for the center, he stressed the need for the university and the business community to be bold in its thinking.
1. You were in the business of developing environmental policies and sustainability measures long before phrases such as "sustainable development" and "green building design" were part of the lexicon. How have these kinds of initiatives changed as they've become more commonplace?
Yes, it's been 20 years since the United Nation's Brundtland Commission put the phrase out there, and that's about how long I've been working in this area. What is interesting to me is that the environmental community was the first to embrace sustainability, and that has had interesting impacts on what has happened. A lot of stuff has been 'green' but not necessarily sustainable. Important, but not sufficient. Now, we see the need for more holistic thinking, and we can see also that the economic and social benefits often are much larger than the environmental ones. Think about the precipitous drop in home values, and single out areas where good sustainable development practices would have suggested putting homes. We can see that they are strongly connected, and it's hitting pocketbooks in a huge way.
In many ways, our response to this perceived complexity must be tackled through thinking about our processes--how we make decisions and take actions. Breaking down silos in all types of organizations is a challenge and cannot be an excuse for inaction any longer.
2. What impact is the economic downturn having on sustainability measures? What will the University of Oregon have to instill in its graduates to ensure success in such an economic climate?
My simplest reaction is to note that sustainability brings a long-term, integrated perspective, and the systemic failures we're seeing are the result of the opposite perspective being brought to bear. Look at Denmark, which started investing in renewable energy more than thirty years ago. Now, it's their number one export. They started when energy prices first shot up in the early 1970s, but they didn't lose focus when prices came back down. They also had some of the best policies in place around mortgage financing, and the country is suffering less as a result.
We need to re-connect policy-making with our understanding of the marketplace. Oregon has had great success with renewable energy companies for this reason. We set policies that shaped the market with a forward-looking orientation. We could do even better if we were more confident about this way of developing strategy.
3. What are your goals for the Center for Sustainable Business Practices?
The center is striving for international relevance and is part of an ambitious effort for the entire university and Oregon University System. Within the business community, we have a good start on supply chain, sustainable performance reporting, and balancing environmental, financial, and product stewardship. Within the university, there are deep capabilities in green chemistry, environmental and green business law, and architecture, so it makes great sense to build on those areas. I would like to explore the interesting opportunities around building design/development extending into infrastructure, help to articulate the opportunities to reinvent our energy and water systems, and contribute to broad efforts to reinvigorate our rural communities. (I grew up on a farm in a very rural community). All of these examples support the objective of the center becoming a focal point for leadership. There's an obvious role to play within Portland, working together with business leaders, Portland State University, and Metro/cities. I think my background helps to visualize where things are headed, and to invite real engagement with leading-edge businesses.
The Oregon business community aspires to global leadership, and we have to push beyond the innate humility of Oregon and really be audacious. If I can help encourage that sort of confident leadership, then I will have created an importance legacy.
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