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Dow builds the business case for green infrastructure

A message in a bottle made the case for investing in ecological systems. The lesson? Balance pictures, words and numbers.

Imagine that you are an executive in a multinational company. You focus on growing the business and delivering quarterly returns that delight Wall Street investors.  An appointment has appeared on your calendar with a senior vice president to discuss a new investment in something that sounds environmental — “natural treatment systems” — but you are told it is operational.

The meeting starts with three clear bottles being placed on a table. One has thick, greenish water, representing algae contamination. Another contains a green-tinted liquid, but can be seen through. The final one looks like drinking water.

All three bottles are taken from tests of wastewater treatment options being explored for one of the company’s chemical production facilities. The presenter pulls up a summary slideshow, saying that the technology that yields the clearest water also has the lowest infrastructural investment outlay — cheaper by $39 million to build. Detailed spreadsheets are presented, but the decision is as clear as the last bottle of water.

This case is from 1995, the early days of Dow’s exploring investment in “engineered natural treatment systems for industrial wastewater.” In the end, Dow essentially created a wetland to undertake the water filtration processes that natural wetlands do very well.

Natural answers

The final results of this approach look strikingly similar to what nature achieves on its own, because the custom-built wetland enables natural ecological systems to treat the water (as shown in this video). Dow elected in 1995 to build this constructed wetland at its Seadrift, Texas, facility — delivering benefits exceeding $282 million to date.

The idea emerged from a question not often brought up within the water technology team. Instead of asking how to build a water treatment plant to clean the water, they asked first: How does nature handle this issue?

Following on that question: Are there nature-based approaches with lower capital investment or operations and maintenance costs; low energy intensity; minimal operator involvement; little residual waste or odor potential; and high reliability (both from an operational and regulatory perspective)?  What about soft advantages, particularly in terms of public affairs and enhanced wildlife habitat?

Bringing this unique perspective around green infrastructure approaches proved fruitful. The internal business case for what became Dow Seadrift Operations’ approach to water treatment was built-up systematically — through lab tests of wetlands-based water filtration methods, followed by small, on-site pilot tests. The findings quantitatively showed that the approach worked; wetlands “treated” water. The next step was determining the financial cost of full-scale implementation.

But the real question (as co-author Mike Uhl discovered) was how to communicate to senior management about this approach to wastewater treatment, which was new to the company. The discussion needed to present both the business case and the rationale for an unconventional approach to a key business operational issue, especially because the traditional technologies had proven effective over time.  

Pictures, words, numbers

As with many companies, the internally persuasive final business case was a mix, as UCLA economist Ed Leamer has asserted, of “pictures, words and numbers — in that order.”

For Dow, the numbers laid out both the scientific findings on water-quality results as well as costs, of nearly $1 million versus some $40 million. The words described the proposed engineering. But the pictures provided the communications tipping point:  a simple photo of brackish water in bottles showed that, by contrast, the water treated by the wetlands came out clear.

As interest grows in green infrastructure and resilience — particularly in the face of water scarcity and climate change — the question is often raised as to how to incentivize corporate investments in improved watershed and ecological structure and function. How does one communicate with business people about the value of investing in green infrastructure?

Spreadsheets and data are essential — and should reflect low costs because all investments in infrastructure adversely affect the bottom line. However, crisp communication often hinges upon imagery.

This blended approach — of pictures, words and numbers — in crafting a business case is not unique. It is supported by organizational change academic studies, such as Harvard University Professor John Kotter's decade-old book, “The Heart of Change.” Engaging an audience in multiple ways — and in several parts of their brains, as well as through different decision-making approaches — is essential to driving change.

Just as pictures are an often-underappreciated component of business proposals, so too is the simple question: What would nature do?

Will it blend?

Dow's case also highlights that a blended approach to looking at potential business solutions can lead to new, creative ideas.

Faced with growing issues associated with water, climate change and other concerns, companies have an opportunity to hire more engineers with a blend of civil or environmental engineering and biology backgrounds — especially those who consider green infrastructure and seek out biomimicry-inspired approaches.

Companies can hold trainings for technical solutions teams in biomimicry and green infrastructure opportunity assessments. Business leaders can take learning field trips where green infrastructure is working, such as Dow’s Seadrift Operations facility or Philadelphia’s green stormwater infrastructure system.

And internal, corporate new project checklists can integrate this question: Have you considered green infrastructure-based solutions?

Finally, human resource departments can integrate perks, benefits, bonuses or promotions to staff who are exploring and investing in green infrastructure projects.

For Dow, this natural treatment decision in Seadrift led to some $39 million in initial capital savings and ultimately translated into some $282 million of Net Present Value benefits and counting.

So, we ask: Who is on your infrastructure team? Are they ready to talk about building robust, compelling business cases that draw from inspiration from natural processes? And what are you doing to encourage them to do so? 

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