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Turning Challenge into Opportunity: Students Tackle Financing for Natural Infrastructure and Community Benefit

Turning Challenge into Opportunity: Students Tackle Financing for Natural Infrastructure and Community Benefit

March 23, 2015

Authored by Brandy Wilson, LEED AP O+M

Based in Boise, Idaho, CH2M Global Sustainability Director Brandy Wilson has a long history of working on environmental issues with communities and sustainability planning and reporting for companies. Recently, she completed an MBA in sustainable business to better integrate corporate finance and ecosystem valuation to her work. Follow her on Twitter @Brandy_M_Wilson.

It is a Monday morning in August, and a high tide over the weekend has caused another flood in downtown Matthews, Maryland. Ellen Wilson, Matthews’ City Planner, arrives to work knowing that her city desperately needs to improve its climate change resiliency. Rising sea levels and more frequent and intense storms are causing more flooding and storm surges in Matthews. Ellen believes the city can adapt to the changing environment, and even turn the risks of climate change into an opportunity to strengthen the city. Now that the governor who promised funding for infrastructure lost his election to a candidate who vowed to cut taxes at all costs, Ellen has no idea how her city will fund these desperately needed improvements.   

We can engineer a better future, but can we pay for it?

Answering this question is going to require significant creativity from the next generation of brilliant minds. The seemingly boundless opportunity of an expanding consumer culture has run headlong into resource limits, the global recession, reduced government spending, and chronic underemployment. For our future engineers to have the opportunity to design, build, and rebuild much-needed infrastructure as our climate changes, we need financial leaders who understand the impact of infrastructure on communities, can put a value on ecosystem services, and make the case for investments that protect people and foster resiliency.

NIC_LogoThat’s why the CH2M HILL Foundation sponsored the Net Impact Case Competition (NICC), an opportunity for MBA students to put their minds to a fictional case study, solve a sustainability business challenge, engage with professionals in the field, and win cash prizes. As the sponsor this year, we challenged students to calculate the value of green and natural infrastructure on the fictional coastal community of Matthews (cited above) and figure out how to fund improvements that will return value to the community, preserve the environment, create jobs, and steward scarce financial resources.

I had the opportunity to work with 15 MBA students from Colorado University at Boulder to help design the case study, answer questions about sustainable business and engineering challenges, and connect students with subject matter experts at CH2M to answer their questions. Beyond connecting with these inquiring minds, more than 200 students from around the world formed 51 teams that competed in the first, virtual round. Next, 25 teams advanced to an in-person finals round, which was whittled to 5 teams for the championship round. People from CH2M and other local businesses judged the students’ proposals to address the infrastructure financing challenges for the town of Matthews, and selected the top three teams to win the prize. The teams presented themselves as consultants who provided proposals to solve Matthews’ challenges, and the judges posed as the mayor and city council.

In its 14th year, the Net Impact Case Competition (NICC) challenges graduate business students to develop sustainable solutions to business problems. Left to right: Charley Weschler, Elise Ferguson, and Laura Williams from the CU Boulder NICC team; Brandy Wilson and Ellen Sandberg from CH2M, and Anna Hughes from the CU Boulder NICC team.

In its 14th year, the Net Impact Case Competition (NICC) challenges graduate business students to develop sustainable solutions to business problems. Left to right: Charley Weschler, Elise Ferguson, and Laura Williams from the CU Boulder NICC team; Brandy Wilson and Ellen Sandberg from CH2M, and Anna Hughes from the CU Boulder NICC team.

On the first night of the finals round, Ellen Sandberg (CH2M HILL Foundation Director) and I had the opportunity to share how sustainability is incorporated in CH2M’s business model. After that, the floor was open for students to ask us questions. I was completely blown away by the articulate, well-researched, and thoughtful questions the students posed. As a championship round judge, I got to hear the top presentations. As a consultant who makes these kinds of presentations to clients, it was fun to be on the other side, and I could appreciate the hard work, research, and rehearsals that it takes to pull off a successful presentation.

Participating in this competition gave me hope. With so much evidence to the contrary, believing in a sustainable future can sometimes seem downright silly. After hearing the creative, fresh ideas for making that future financially abundant, and through working closely with the CU MBA students on the case study, I received a serious boost of optimism.

Most of all, I felt a strong connection and legacy with my friend Dr. Matthew A. Wilson, who initially sparked the engagement of the CU MBA students with the CH2M HILL Foundation. Matthew was a financial genius who worked with me at CH2M for about 5 years; before that, he taught Environmental Economics at the University of Vermont. He was passionate about making sustainability pencil out financially, and equally passionate about working with students to foster a new way of doing business that views the economy as a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. On learning of his passing in September 2014, the NICC student planning team at CU re-named the fictional town in the case study to “Matthews” in his honor.

These students helped me to see that Matthew’s work is not lost, nor is it finished. I’m sure that many of these students used his research in their presentations and calculations (thanks to the magic of Google Scholar). Now that 200 students from all over the world had the chance to work on this case study, their awareness of the financial challenges around climate risk and resiliency and ecosystem services is heightened: an awareness I’m sure they have shared with fellow students, friends, and family.

The lives touched through this competition will continue to ripple out through the dedication of these students, and transform the conversation around infrastructure and ecosystem value. I’m honored to have been a part of it.

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