By Tom Still

MADISON – If you dropped the word “sustainability” in a crowd of business executives five years ago, most of them would have pegged you as an aging hippie, then scrambled away to avoid any lectures about riding their bikes to work.

Today, sustainability still carries some linguistic baggage, but those same business execs might stick around to talk because there’s no avoiding a rational conversation. Global climate change, constraints on some resources, and restrictions on waste and emissions are changing the face of business – and the technologies that drive it.

Examining those challenges and possible market-based solutions will be the focus of a Nov. 30-Dec. 1 conference at UW-Madison’s Fluno Center for Executive Education. Current and former business leaders from some of the world’s largest corporations will join with leading academics for “Engineering Sustainability in the Global Enterprise,” a forum produced by the UW-Madison College of Engineering and the Department of Engineering Professional Development.

The forum promises to be timely as well as informative. Within the last month, a report issued by Britain’s government urged that economic growth and environmentalism can go hand-in-hand as the world seeks ways to head off the worst effects of global climate change. A separate report warned of the possible depletion of fisheries worldwide, and a chorus of scientists suggested a 21st century “Manhattan project” to dramatically increase research and development of energy technologies.

The UW forum recognizes those challenges and more, but suggests they need not be crippling to either the environment or the economy if they are properly managed through technical leadership, innovation and good business sense.

“This will provide an in-depth discussion of sustainability’s challenges and opportunities over the next 20 years,” said Thomas W. Smith, program director of the Department of Engineering Professional Development. “Our speakers and panelists will share the science behind the headlines as well as industry efforts to implement sustainability strategies.”

The conference is aimed at chief technology officers, directors of engineering, research and development directors, global product managers and other engineering executives. Among the speakers who will take part are:

?      Sanjay Correa, global technology leader for energy and propulsion technology at GE Research. Correa is a principal in GE’s Ecomagination initiative.
?      Allan Emkin, the principal author of the paper guiding the $140 billion sustainability commitment of the California State Teachers Retirement Fund.
?      Jonathan Foley, director of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the UW-Madison.
?      Robert Hirsch, senior energy adviser for SAIC and a former vice president of the Electric Power Research Institute. He has also worked at RAND, Atlantic Richfield, Exxon and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
?      Horoshi Komiyama, a leader in Japan’s industrial sustainability movement, is president of the University of Tokyo.

Academic and industrial research into energy technologies has taken on renewed importance as federal research in that realm has declined. “Real” federal spending for all energy research and development – not just the research aimed at climate-friendly technologies – is less than half what it was a quarter-century ago. It has fallen to $3 billion per year in the most recent budget from an inflation-adjusted $7.7 billion in 1979, according to recent studies.

President Bush wants to increase energy research to $4.2 billion in 2007, but most experts believe industry and academia, working together, must accelerate the R&D process. Unless the search for non-polluting energy sources and systems becomes more urgent, the world may confront stepped up climate change – and the political, economic and social fallout that will accompany it – sooner than later.

The UW-Madison’s forum is an example of the Wisconsin Idea at work. It extends the borders of the university to include leaders from private industry and beyond. Sustainability need not be a phrase that scatters business-oriented crowds, but one that pulls them together in a search for business-smart solutions.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. To learn more about “Engineering Sustainability in theGlobal Enterprise,” visit epd.engr.wisc.edu or call 608-262-1299.

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