Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Transitional ecopreneurs – a conference in Sweden, June 2014 (#ecopreneurs2014)

by Kirstie O'Neill

I am recently back from a really stimulating conference in Sweden, discussing the role of green entrepreneurs (aka ecopreneurs) with people from many different academic backgrounds and many different geographical places.  The idea behind the conference came from Martin Hultman, a research fellow at Umea University, Sweden.  He got in touch with me a few years ago now, after reading my University webpage on the research I was doing with David Gibbs (blogged here).  So, writing departmental webpages is useful and can lead to unexpected places!

Kerstin Uddes, Sweden (author's photo)
So, writing a few paragraphs on the UoH GEES website led to me being on the organising committee for the symposium entitled ‘Transitional green entrepreneurs: Re-thinking ecopreneurship for the 21st century’, which finally materialised into the conference on 2-5th June 2014.  The conference was held in a Swedish cooperatively-run health spa (think health benefits of the outdoors rather than manis and pedis!), which provided a beautiful and inspiring setting for a conference (and may have helped attract a few participants!).  Being this far north in Sweden in June, it never got dark, so sleeping was a challenge.

Picnic of local goats cheese and typical Swedish breads (author's photo)
Opening the floodgates! And getting the mill stones turning (author's photo)

In addition to the ‘proper’ work of the conference, and unusually for social scientists, we got the opportunity to get outside and enjoy the fresh air of Northern Sweden.  This included a visit to a goat farm for some, while others went on a forest walk and had a picnic around a campfire.  The highlight for many of us, was a beaver safari by kayak, going across the lake and into rivers feeding the lake where beavers lived.  So many people wanted to go on the safari that we had to split into two groups – I (rather foolishly) volunteered to go with the early morning one – a 4am departure!  We got to see a few beavers enjoying the early morning and playing around in the riverJ

Evidence of beavers - this was a huge tree some distance from the river 

So, what do we mean by ‘ecopreneurs’?  Green entrepreneurs (or ecopreneurs) and the idea of a green economy more broadly are increasingly seen as an important strategy for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and for combating the recession.  The popular media and a small, but growing, set of academic literature have argued that these entrepreneurs are leading a shift to a new green economy and helping to address fears over global warming, climate change and the associated negative environmental impacts.  However, both popular accounts and academic research have placed too much emphasis on the role of the lone individual or the ‘entrepreneur as hero’ approach, as well as relying heavily on anecdotal evidence.  In particular, charismatic individuals such as Anita Roddick (Body Shop), Yves Chouinard (Patagonia) or Dale Vince (Ecotricity) have come to be viewed as icons.  Many of the people at this conference, including our own research paper, are working to develop a more detailed and nuanced picture of ecopreneurship.

In a forthcoming paper (O’Neill and Gibbs), we argue that ecopreneurs are a diverse set of actors whose motivations, ethics and practices can vary significantly, indicating a more complex picture than has previously been recognised. 

We had three days of interesting talks, with keynotes from Robert Isaak, who was one of the first to publish on ecopreneurs, and Anne de Bruin, a NZ economist with a particular interest in sustainability entrepreneurship.  We also had talks from local ecopreneurs and social activists, such as Sofia Jannok, a Sami singer working to protect Sami rights to land in northern Scandinavia – her singing and images were a haunting reminder of the impacts of modern development on some rural areas and those who live in them.  Torbjörn Lahti spoke of his work to develop ecopreneurial activities in his community, in response to declining population and lack of local employment opportunities – his work and initiative has been popular and has led to projects in many overseas countries.  What I found particularly inspiring was the gender balance - there were more women than men, all doing interesting, critical research (of course, the men were too, but women are usually under-represented).

Sofia Jannok singing and talking about the Sami homelands and folklore (author's photo)

In combination with the wide range of papers that were given by the participants, we left the conference feeling that ecopreneurship was a much wider phenomenon than we might have imagined when we arrived.  Many participants were from business school backgrounds, but the range of perspectives covered during the conference made it clear that ecopreneurs are having social, political, economic and environmental benefits!  The conference was a really inspiring event with many people saying they would like to meet again to continue the the meantime, we are planning a book including many of the papers, and a special issue of the journal Small Enterprise Research is planned.

View from the jetty with  hot tub, sauna and ladder to the lake - we didn't want to leave! (author's photo)

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