Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Department of Commerce Natural Capital Business Roundtables

My last post was about my overall experience working at NOAA and being a Knauss Fellow, so I thought I’d use this one to go a bit deeper into one of the projects I lead, the Department of Commerce Natural Capital Business Roundtables.

Natural capital, the world’s stocks of natural assets such as water, air, geology, and living things, is critical for economic growth and human survival. Natural capital, just like financial and human capital, is a key component of business operations, and smart business decisions necessitate accounting for both the natural capital assets a company uses, and the natural capital its operations impact.

My team is traveling to four coastal regions - the Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, Northeast, and Silicon Valley - to engage businesses and other external partners in day-long workshops on case studies, strategies, and challenges for conducting corporate natural capital work. In addition to facilitating peer-to-peer learning among companies, we’re gaining insight into how the Department of Commerce can better meet business needs in the natural capital space.

I’ve heard some pretty inspiring examples of how companies are integrating natural capital into their business operations. For example, Dow Chemical Company’s first constructed wetland system for treating industrial wastewater had a capital cost of just $1.4 million, compared to $40 million for the next best option. It filters water better than other systems, requires fewer resources for operations and maintenance, and produces a host of co-benefits including habitat for native wildlife.
Our first Natural Capital Business Roundtable, which engaged the oil and gas, petrochemical, and ports industries at Rice University’s Center for Energy Studies at the Baker Institute for Public Policy

The backbone of this effort is a cross-bureau team in the Department of Commerce, including NOAA, the Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). I’ve had the opportunity to work with some pretty cool people, including NOAA’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Management, the Department of Commerce Chief Economist, and the Commerce Chief Data Officer. I’ve also engaged with innovative companies like Entergy Corp and Bechtel Infrastructure, and natural capital experts at NGO’s and academic institutions.

Leading this project has taught me how to facilitate decision making and provide strategic direction for a team whose members all have different levels of subject matter expertise and sit in different levels in a hierarchical organization. It has also taught me a lot about effective external engagement, and helped me realize that I really love the collaborative, perspective-broadening work of engaging people from across multiple sectors towards a common goal.

In December I will head to Stanford for the final regional roundtable, and I’m currently planning the Department of Commerce National Natural Capital Summit, which will take place in early 2016. Read more about the Natural Capital Business Roundtables on the ESA blog, and follow us on Twitter: @DOCEconomist.

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