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For partnerships to be sustainable, they must be SMART

Five keys to successful business strategies for public-private partnerships.

Seventh in a series on the role of public-private collaboration in realizing smart, sustainable cities, systems and industries.

I left you last year confronting climate change — shaping climate action plans in collaboration with the communities most important to you. It’s time now to reflect on your main act: the business of delivering valuable products and services in a collaborative manner that is deeply sustainable.

Whether you are a global operator or a small local business, this requires becoming truly SMART.

In my frequent engagement with innovators during the early days of sustainability-driven innovation, I observed that deeply sustainable strategies incorporated five key principles. Conveniently, these spelled out the word SMART. Approached together, they can keep your business, your industry and your local and planetary communities vibrant and thriving for the long haul.

The "art" in SMART is to be Adaptive, Regenerative and worthy of Trust. Applying these principles with a sophisticated understanding of how systems work together and guiding that interplay with data-driven insights is what being SMART is all about.

How do SMART principles show up in your business’ purposes, products, processes and partnerships? Let’s look at each of them, one at a time.


This first SMART principle is central to the advances that fill the stories gathered by GreenBiz. To be systems-savvy is to understand and optimize the interplay across and among systems. Recent stories describe slashing waste in food systems; applying storage technologies to shave peak energy demand; and responding strategically to largely untapped demand pools while creating sustainability, prosperity and security.

Is your business systems-savvy? Does it understand the metabolism of its immediate ecosystem and its effects on adjacent ones? Does it see the opportunities and vulnerabilities within its operating context? Does it seek ways to create synergies across systems to shrink waste and maximize value generation?

Managed intelligently

Intelligent management — applying sensors and controls to manage systems effectively— is at the heart of smart grid and smart-city concepts. But any system can be instrumented with high- and low-tech methods to create a "nervous system."

When a living system sees itself — its resources, environs, operations and impacts; its customers, partners and interactions — it can develop insights and respond accordingly.
When a living system sees itself — its resources, environs, operations and impacts; its customers, partners and interactions — it can develop insights and respond accordingly. Through active tracking and frequent realignments and redeployments, intelligent management can optimize the value generation of food, energy, materials, assets and all the vital capitals of the triple-bottom line.

Is your business managed intelligently? Can you see what you’re doing, how well you’re doing it and its impacts on other players? Can you find and close the value gaps? Can you see systems synergies and potential partners? Can you share valuable insights with your public service providers? Can you observe more ways to serve and more revenue and goodwill streams to tap?


To be adaptive is to work well in an evolving industry and a changing world. Some recent examples: transitioning a transportation fuel products portfolio to include electricity; switching farming and food-sourcing practices from conventional to sustainable; adopting new standards for circularity; and employing agile methods in products ranging from software to cars.

How adaptive is your business to changing realities? Are your facilities flexible? Are you applying agile product design to respond to new demands, constraints and opportunities? Are you adopting new business and finance models to unlock value and turn the once improbable into the new normal? Are you participating in innovative public-private partnerships (PPPs) to proactively adapt and evolve your industry?


To be regenerative means to turn waste into food via closed-loop or cooperative systems or to tap non-depletable resources. Examples include: partnering with customers to re-circulate plastics; crafting circular packaging and printed-paper loops; using renewable power to electrify fleets; returning to sustainable agricultural methods and introducing carbon farming; and turning to nutrient recovery technology and chemistry-based recycling.

There is a wealth of ways your business can be regenerative. Do you create your products with renewable materials? Do you provide take-back programs to return both customers and materials to your door? Are you using others’ information in ways that generate value back to their source? Do your products and services lead to customers’ well-being?

Are you returning value to the communities that host you? Are you providing good jobs and charging fair prices to regenerate your customer base? Can your competitors challenge and evolve with you, so that together you can grow an industry and not just a company?

Are you collaborating to replenish the natural capital on which your business, industry and the communities in which you operate depend? Are you contributing to the buildout and maintenance of the public infrastructure that your business relies on each day? Are you powering your firm with renewable energy?


To be trusted means to transparently deliver on the triple bottom line, sharing risks and rewards in partnership with other players in your ecosystems. Unfortunately, the State of Green Business 2019 reveals that, on average, natural capital costs are two times company revenues, belying a rampant denial of environmental risk while focusing on economic reward.

How trustworthy is your business? Are you using others’ information with their understanding and consent? Are you deliberately delivering value that is economic, environmental and social? Are you owning and accounting for your externalities? Is your climate-stabilizing plan and action underway?

Live SMART or die

Whether partnering with your communities or playing well with your customers and competitors, your business will be wise to be SMART.

These distinct but organically integrated principles lead to long-term resource productivity, rich value generation and robust relationships. SMART strategies can transform a mere economic engine into a thriving living system, turning what could become a linear death march into a series of smart, beautiful circles.

It’s a wrap!

I began this PPP Playbook series in search of a replicable process for building public-private partnerships to realize smart, sustainable cities, systems and industries. I discovered instead an urgency and opportunity for forming PPPs of many shapes and kinds. My mission became less about standardizing procedures and more about exploring the myriad ways that businesses and the communities they rely on can collaborate for success.

This journey, launched over lunch at GreenBiz 18, has covered a lot of territory — from understanding the range of public-private partnership forms; to understanding cities’ partnering models, partner types and specific partnering environments; to creating a plan for partnering on climate rehab and climate action; and, finally, to looking at how to thrive through SMART and collaborative business strategies.

On this, the eve of GreenBiz 19, I urge you each to launch your own next journey — and begin to forge your own next set of potent public-private partnerships.

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