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Sustainability is beginning to have an influence across the board, redefining businesses' strategies

Photo: SUMA researchers
Marga Casado
Pere Suau Snchez, Natlia Cuguer Escofet, Athina Sismanidou and Eduard Alvarez Palau are members of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) Faculty of Economics and Business and of the newly formed Sustainability and Management Research Group (SUMA)

Pere Suau Snchez is an associate professor at the UOC's Faculty of Economics and Business and an airport, airline and air transport specialist; as a UOC professor, Natlia Cuguer Escofet is engaged in teaching activities on courses with ties to the world of business, business organization and people management; Athina Sismanidou is an expert in airlines, airports and finance; Laura Lamolla, expert in strategic management and gender, and in entrepreneurship; and Eduard Alvarez Palau is studying business logistics and transport and urban service infrastructures, as well as their impact.

The four UOC experts have extensive academic experience and are well-seasoned management consultants and business advisors. Their new research group, SUMA, is the fruit of their drive to transfer university-generated knowledge to society. Although Pere Suau Snchez has taken on a leadership role within SUMA, he made it clear that one of the group's keys to success is the fact that all four members work side by side, putting their heads together to breathe life into their applied research.

Our interview gave the four UOC researchers the chance to debate on a range of topics and introduce us to their new research group, which just got the ball rolling earlier this February. If there's one thing these professionals are sure about, it's that their research will have a direct impact on local society and business, so don't be surprised when you start to hear the name SUMA popping up all around you.

What type of research will the Sustainability and Management Research Group (SUMA) pursue?
Pere Suau Snchez (PSS): The UOC is engaged in many different areas, as is the Faculty of Economics and Business, and our research group is no different. Our idea is to focus our efforts on three main points, the interaction of which serves to underpin the group's activities. First, we're exploring sustainability, understood in a broad sense, from a social, economic and environmental point of view. Second, we're looking at management and leadership, honing in on factors related to sustainability, ethics and equality in business management. Lastly, we're striving to harness the diversity of perspectives and approaches we have at our disposal thanks to our different areas of expertise: Eduard is an expert in infrastructures, in analysing their history and current impact; Natlia, in everything to do with management and ethics; Athina, in management and air transport, and myself, in airports and sustainability. Each one of these fields overlaps in some way with the management and sustainability side of our work.

The scope of your research group is quite large, then.
PSS: There's also our way of doing things, the camaraderie we have when working together. One trait we all share is the fact that at some point in our lives we have gained experience outside the academic world, in companies or as consultants. We're looking to move past the typical way of doing things in academia, placing emphasis on knowledge transfer, which means teaming up with organizations and public and private businesses on new projects. If all goes well, we will kick off two or three projects tied to transport and sustainability already this month.

Natlia Cuguer Escofet (NCE): Universities are often criticized for lacking a business-centred focus. All four of us have experience in and knowledge of the business world, as well as a clear vision of today's world of work, which gives us deeper insight into companies' needs. We're more focused on this aspect because we are aware of the issues that executives are facing.

Athina Sismanidou (AS): It's also worth mentioning that we have addressed sustainability to a great extent with our focus set on the financial impact it has on companies.

PSS: Just as everyone accepted the fact that digital transformation affects organizations from top to bottom, pushing companies to redefine their business strategies, sustainability is now beginning to permeate companies' areas and departments, causing them to once again rethink their strategic outlook. 

Will your new research group, SUMA, focus on any of the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? If so, on any of them in particular?
NCE: In our faculty, there's room for reflection on what impact the SDGs have on the research the different groups are choosing to pursue, or on how they are shaping our training programmes. This is an area that businesses and, by extension, executives and those who receive training in our programmes, will be expected to address.

PSS: Yes, our faculty is focused on SDG 12 (sustainable consumption and production patterns) and SDG 17 (partnerships).

NCE: Don't forget SDG 5 (gender equality). Some of them influence us more than others, such as SDG 8 (decent work) and SDG 7 (clean energy).

Businesses and sustainability

In your opinion, are businesses committed to sustainability? Do they request consultancy services and strive to make this transformation happen? Is there a demand for this type of research?
Eduard lvarez Palau (EAP): In the upcoming Horizon Europe call, a significant portion of the research funds have been earmarked for projects in which knowledge transfer from universities to businesses is considered key for attaining sustainability. The demand for applied research is growing daily. The idea is for university academics, those holding the knowledge, to team up with professionals from the private sector, those who've got their hands on the data and take part in day-to-day operations. Together, they should be able to set their sights on a sustainable future.

Is a future characterized by sustainable business on the horizon? It seems as though so many changes still need to be made, as if the revolution were so insurmountable that, although we're on the verge of making it happen, we're not doing anything yet. 
EAP: Generally speaking, it's a selective process, wouldn't you say? It's about staying afloat. This process also depends on the government and its role. For instance, in a model such as France's, logistics operators are required by law to track the carbon footprint of all of their operations. Therefore, when consumers purchase a product and are prompted to choose whether to have it shipped directly to their home or pick it up at the store, they can see the consequence of their decision. Businesses don't want to do it this way; the government decided that that was the way it had to be done and made it law. When everyone complies with the legislation, end users are able to make fully informed decisions.

NCE: From a business management perspective, it should be clear that change works when it is enacted from a range of directions, with different forces putting pressure on it all at once. On the one hand, external pressure, which could be the result of changes in consumer behaviour, new regulations, local demands or a combination of all three. On the other hand, businesses are run by people, people who should be encouraged to make responsible decisions. In the end, everyone plays a number of roles; an executive is also a consumer, for example. So, understanding this complexity and helping companies to effect change are two of our missions as a research group.

That's how it works in models like France's, but that is not the model we have for now. And it's not the model used at a European level either.
PSS: When we look at the state of things across generations, we do observe change. As consumers, the younger generations are much more proactive and aware of their actions. This, in turn, means they have different decision vectors. Studies show that 75% of millennials prefer consuming sustainable products over their non-sustainable counterparts. It's worth noting here that by 2030 they will account for 70% of the total global workforce, meaning they will have buying and decision-making power as consumers.

NCE: It's a matter of empowering consumers. It's about providing information which may not be looked at by everyone at first, but will end up spreading little by little until it's seen by the entire population. If we're able to generate this information, the business world and government will follow suit, and the fact that consumers will be increasingly more aware of what's going on around them will place rising pressure on businesses and governments to implement change. So, it would seem that everything is quite lined up

EAP: Be that as it may, we need to remind ourselves that part of the population will continue to make purchasing decisions on the basis of price alone. In this regard, government policies ensuring the sustainability of supply chain processes will undoubtably be key.

The part of the population continuing to purchase based on price alone may be doing so out of necessity, wouldn't you say?
NCE: I have no doubt that some will choose this variable - price - above all else out of necessity, yes, but many will choose it with ulterior motives. 

PSS: We should also remember that we're still waiting to know what's going on with the European Commission's European Green Deal, which we'll learn more about as 2020 progresses. We do know that it will attempt to ensure that the path towards sustainability leaves no community or productive sector behind or excluded. We're at the very beginning of the entire process and we don't know how it will unfold quite yet. 

Academics contribution

When someone begins to quantify the outcomes of our actions, whether on a personal level or as a business, we can start to generate knowledge, and people can use this knowledge to make decisions.

As academics, what impact can you expect to have on this transition?
EAP: In order to assess potential decisions, their impact must be measured. If it's not measured, we're left in the dark, and that's where we come in as academics. We can contribute by taking those measurements. When someone begins to quantify the outcomes of our actions, whether on a personal level or as a business, we can start to generate knowledge, and people can use this knowledge to make decisions. 

Do you believe that big data also have an important role in enacting change and making decisions? 
EAP: I do believe that big data have a part to play, yes. But we should be wary of how we apply them, for example, to urban management operations. Some data processing techniques fail to consistently consider intervariable relationships. Even so, we can identify hidden patterns in the data, which can indeed help us to optimize processing. In any case, if our ultimate goal is to improve sustainability, we have to understand what's behind the decisions being made. What may seem like a one-off improvement today may snowball into a huge impact on the city's future.

Athina Sismanidou (AS): But we also employ a range of models that are useful in making predictions. For instance, we have machine learning techniques, which are used to explain situations and predict them. Although we are not necessarily able to explain why this model makes such good predictions, the point is that we can make them.

EAP: I too think that data can help us to make management or operational decisions. However, as far as management is concerned, there's a whole slew of other matters tied to planning and strategy. Let me give you an example: to operate in a city with a certain morphology, you are conditioned by that morphology, and it's virtually impossible for the data to allow you to change that. The only thing they can help you to do is make your operations more agile.

First subjects the group has set out to study

You just formed your research group two weeks ago. What are the first subjects you've set out to study?
AS: We are currently exploring lines of research that we can work on together.

PSS: Transport and sustainability are clearly on the list. Eduard is more heavily engaged in topics involving railway and motor networks, urban mobility and logistics. Personally, I've been dealing with topics tied to air transport and sustainability. Athina is working on flight layover efficiency, especially at overly congested airports. And Natlia is focusing on ethics and general management; in other words, management and social sustainability, using management models that consider the sustainability of what people do.

AS: Since we are just starting out, we'll have plenty of chances to be flexible and reshape our intentions, without losing sight of our main objective of conducting research with an impact. We call ourselves SUMA because the sum of our efforts will make the difference.