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PhD Defense Monica Ramos-Mejia

transitions to sustainability at the bottom - the role of grassroots ecopreneurs 

Monica Ramos-Mejia is a PhD student in the department of Governance and Technology for Sustainability (CSTM). Her supervisor is prof.dr. J.T.A. Bressers from the faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social sciences.  

This document presents and discusses an action research process that took place from October 2014 until October 2016. During these two years the author led a socio-technical experiment that consisted of designing and implementing a Product Co-creation Centre (PC3) in Santa Rosa del Sur, a small town in rural Colombia, where great sustainability challenges are found. It is a region characterised by long lasting violence and migration. Main economic activities include coca plantation and gold mining in river banks, which bring about environmental degradation and biodiversity loss because of large deforestation and heavy-chemical pollution. Additionally, these economic activities have social consequences such as informal jobs, violence and short-term mentality. However, within this context, there are some community leaders who stand out because of their alternative ideas about the socio-economic future of this region. These leaders have promoted innovative ventures based on environmental awareness and community development.

These leaders are understood here as grassroots ecopreneurs, who contribute to the green economy on the ground, because they bring about inclusive and resource-efficient technological innovations and promote more inclusive mechanisms to deliver products and services (Creech et al., 2014; Hall, Daneke, & Lenox, 2010; Pansera & Sarkar, 2016; York & Venkataraman, 2010). They are also considered social innovators, because they promote more sustainable practices that embrace change in social relations in order to solve relevant problems that critically affect humanity (Alvord, Brown, & Letts, 2004; Pacheco, Dean, & Payne, 2010).

Ten grassroots ecopreneurs have been involved in this research project. They represent a core network that promotes a more equitable and environmentally friendly economic development in the region. This network has a broad geographical scope, covering 18 municipalities from three different administrative provinces, in an area of around 11700 Km2.

As a socio-technical experiment (Sengers et al, 2016), this research project consisted of introducing a support system into a real-life setting, in order to purposively re-shape social and material realities. In order to do so, design research methodologies have been used.

Design research methodologies are rarely used in social science research, given the explanatory nature of such research. However, it has been argued that prescription-driven research, based on the paradigm of design sciences, can contribute to finding solutions to problems social scientist care about (Van Aken, 2004). As sustainability science is a problem-driven solution-oriented field (Lang et al., 2012), design methodologies offer a suitable complement for research purposes. This research process highlights the insider’s perspective rather than the observer’s on the problem-solving process. Therefore, prescription-driven research is highly participatory, in the same way action research is (Reason & Bradbury, 2008). Here, the researcher is the designer, co-creating with all stakeholders involved. Research in itself becomes a design process. Specifically, I have used the Design Research Methodology (DRM) which has been developed to guide solution-oriented research in a structured and rigorous way (Blessing & Chakrabarti, 2009).

Throughout the research process I have played the role of both practitioner and researcher. Therefore, the reader will find a continuous dialogue between practice and theory. In terms of practice, on the one hand, the research objective was to design a support system for grassroots innovators interested in developing feasible business models that contribute to sustainable development on the ground. On the other hand, in terms of theory, the research objective was to understand the ways in which PC3 contributes to transitions to sustainability at the grassroots level.

In order to achieve both interdependent objectives, five specific research questions have been explored. These questions are: (1) What are the characteristics of a transformative learning model that contributes to promoting sustainable innovation?; (2) How do ecopreneurs create novel business models for sustainability?; (3) What are the characteristics of such business models?; (4) What are the characteristics of a model of collaboration and participation between university and grassroots ecopreneurs in a real-life setting?; and (5) In which ways does this model trigger system transformations in such setting?

The findings from this doctoral research project suggest that, first, a transformative learning model that contributes to promoting sustainable innovation could be based on experiential learning, following a cycle of confrontation, observation, practice and application of contents related to product design, entrepreneurship and sustainability science. This cycle creates room for collaboration between university and grassroots ecopreneurs in a real-life setting, creating an iterative, solution-driven, dialogue between the two. In this cycle university facilitates confrontation and observation processes while grassroots ecopreneurs bring about new ideas and solutions by practice and application. The results from these processes get fine-tuned at every iteration of the cycle. This is an innovative training model for sustainable development, because it is interdisciplinary and builds on real-life experience and sustainability challenges of grassroots innovators. Additionally, it makes room for testing alternative economic paradigms on the ground, where ecopreneurs’ rationale can shift from linear towards more iterative and cyclical approaches.

Second, that  ecopreneurs find alternative framings and solutions to create social, environmental and economic value through the value proposition, the business infrastructure, the customer interface and the financial model. Additionally, along the process of negotiating and defining the business model, ecopreneurs act as change agents, actively engaging in practice work. This illustrates how change agency relates to practice, specifically in the creation or maintenance of emerging sustainable fields of practice. An agency-based approach like the one I have developed, pays attention to the interaction of bottom-up strategies, which may provide a more adequate framework than a strategic management view (Kemp et al, 1998), in order to support nascent sustainable innovations in developing countries.

Third, socio-technical experiments such as PC3, create room for grassroots ecopreneurs to deploy change-making strategies, by creating a scenario in which grassroots ecopreneurs act as social innovators. In this way, they are enabled to build the foundations of more sustainable production-consumption systems from the bottom-up.

And fourth, a model of collaboration and participation between university and grassroots ecopreneurs that could trigger system transformations refers to an ‘engaged scholarship’ characterised by voluntary participation and commitment, openness to new knowledge and to trying out unconventional ideas, disposition to learn via action and reflection, and commitment to the process rather than to the expected outcomes, caring for the means rather than for the end.

The findings just mentioned above, have policy implications for both NGOs and government agencies supporting ecopreneurial ventures as building blocks of a more inclusive and resource-efficient economy in the developing world. These implications relate to taking into account the institutional characteristics of the entrepreneurial setting, by being open and flexible enough so that ecopreneurs can ‘use’ the support that is given to them as a resource with which they can strategise in such ways that they challenge poverty-reproduction patterns and environmentally unsustainable practices.

Support models based on a co-creation logic need to be open to properly understand and address (and even embrace) the institutionally diverse setting. In the dialogue between practical and scientific knowledges there must be room for interpretation and re-interpretation of local realities as well as diverse socio-technical pathways. This asks from all actors involved constant reflection on the ways the knowledge dialogue takes place throughout the co-creation process.

Another implication for practice refers to the fact that entrepreneurial programmes usually target single individuals. My findings suggest that it is important that ecopreneurs build a team of locals, who contribute to the venture with different capacities and resources. The ecopreneur shares her/his ideas and beliefs with them, in order to collaboratively shape the business model.

Finally, policy that supports entrepreneurship should consider paying more attention to ecopreneurial ventures than to conventional commercial ventures. While the former develops new tools and models to transform markets by re-examining consumption-production patterns and creating new roles of companies in society, the latter develops new models to react to today’s social and environmental pressures in order to reduce unsustainabilities, but without fostering system transformations. In the specific case of Colombia, currently main private and public programmes that support entrepreneurial activity focus on job creation, innovation and growth potential, without mentioning any sustainability-related criteria. Without implying that these criteria are not important, these policies overlook the significant impact that ventures in which sustainability is at the heart of the value proposition may have.