On studying coopetition, taking a second PhD degree, and doing things with mindfulness.
This article is part of the series of portraits where RiseB members share their research ideas and plans.
Siarhei’s doctoral research is within a project on coopetition for sustainability.
-Our team is interested in situations when companies that compete in the market choose to collaborate - not just to make money, but to create something of importance for sustainability. This is a relatively new topic, even though collaboration in general has been studied earlier.
We are lucky to have a unique case where seven private builders, three infrastructure municipal companies and Umeå municipality initiated a collaboration to create a new residential area “Tomtebo strand”. The idea is to integrate a national and international benchmark for sustainable residential areas. The municipality would traditionally allocate plots to companies who plan and build separately, but here they plan together when it comes to energy solutions, materials, and public spaces integrated in the wooden infrastructure and green areas. As one example, they want to reduce the number of cars by providing various mobility services like car-sharing.
Siarhei explains that it is impossible to cope with societal challenges without collaboration. One company alone cannot be sustainable when the business environment and society as a whole is unsustainable. At the same time, sustainability as an overarching goal can unite businesses today.
-Our project focuses on three areas. First, we are looking at drivers, or what makes firms collaborate. There is external pressure from the government and other stakeholders to mitigate climate change for example through decreasing CO2-emissions. Yet what surprised me after conducting over fifty interviews is that the firms deliberately wanted to collaborate because they understood that it would be impossible to build a sustainable business environment without working with others including competitors. Culture might also play a role where Swedes in general prefer to solve problems through dialogue and collaboration, so the pure capitalistic notion of competition does not really work here.
Second, we focus on processes, or how these firms organize their collaboration. Just think how much coordination is needed when forty people, representing ten companies and several municipality departments, have to work together on a project like this. Finally, we also want to estimate and assess sustainability outcomes from the collaboration, which is a complex and challenging task in itself.
One company alone cannot be sustainable when the business environment and society as a whole is unsustainable.
To study coopetition for sustainability is to study a paradoxical phenomenon with many demands that are in contradiction with each other.
-Not only do the firms need to balance environmental, social and economic objectives, but they also have to account for collaboration and competition demands such as the need to create common environmental and social value while also making profit. In our research, we faced a challenge that many activities unfold in parallel with numerous competing demands present at the same time.
-We identify four organizing mechanisms that might be helpful for practitioners to navigate their activities and meet these different opposing demands simultaneously, instead of getting stuck in tensions or giving up. These mechanisms have been well-received by the actors in our case project. It made sense to them and helped systematize their activities.
If everything goes as planned, Siarhei is on track to defend his dissertation by the end of the year. Yet, this would not be his first doctoral degree. His previous PhD also concerned collaboration, and he was first invited to USBE as a guest researcher.
-Imagine how excited I was to realize that Maria Bengtsson, a world-leading researcher in coopetition, was sitting next door! Together with Herman Stål, who is my other supervisor, she thought it was a great idea to relocate my expertise on collaboration to business sustainability.
As an academic, I enjoy having an open world with many outstanding and smart people to work with. The international collaboration is already giving spin-off projects from my PhD research. One interesting spin-off is to look at how circular economy production is organised as coopetition. Another is to explore financial instruments like portfolios that can diversify risks for actors involved in collaboration. With Herman and Maria, we are also trying to integrate coopetition into business models for different sectors.
Having an academic background before starting a PhD has its pros and cons. On the one hand, I think I am more pragmatic about how to perform, focusing on actual results and getting published. But I also feel that it is good to be a “rookie” sometimes, not being constrained by previous experience of how the publishing and reviewing process works, and not knowing what will happen with my research in the future.
When you have this awareness about how things are interrelated, it becomes important to do everything with mindfulness.
When starting on his PhD, Siarhei was also learning to be a father to his one-year old son. He reflects how this experience has resonated throughout his research.
-The more I learn about sustainability, the more I realise how everything is related to everything. Our behavior as adults affects our children. What one country is doing affects other countries. When you have this awareness about how things are interrelated, it becomes important to do everything with mindfulness. This means being fully engaged and involved in what you are doing right now, focus on every detail, every step, otherwise you can overlook something of importance. This was not the case with my previous PhD when I focused on financial value only rather than on what is needed for a better world. I hope that now I am doing something that is really relevant for our society.