Nestled among the French Alps and East of the Rhone valley, the city of Grenoble is known for its beautiful scenery and 2,000-year-old history.
But now it’s on the map for another reason, as the European Green Capital 2022—an award given to a city for its outstanding environmental record.
It’s not been without its challenges though. Grenoble’s mountainous terrain has limited city growth, and it’s one of the most densely populated cities in France. The city has had to rely on urban regeneration and careful planning for its continued development, with sustainability at the forefront.
Sustainability efforts have come from several fronts, and the local business community has played an important role. In the wake of Grenoble’s success, what sustainable business lessons can others learn from the city?
1. Local leadership matters
One key factor behind Grenoble’s sustainability success has been its political leadership. The city mayor, Eric Piolle, is a member of the Green Party, for whom environmental issues are a priority.
“The award of Green Capital is the consecration of a dynamic focus on environmental, social, and democratic transitions,” comments mayor Eric (below).
“This title offers an opportunity to put forward our efforts and speed up transitions that had already begun.”
Eric points to a number of city initiatives that have been crucial for its green development over the past several years, including pollution reduction, renewable energy, biodiversity, and public access to green space.
“There was perfect alignment between leadership and territory ambitions,” explains Thibault Daudigeos, professor of people, organizations, and society at Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM).
Thibault’s area of expertise is sustainable development, and he also heads up the Chair of Inclusive Sustainability at GEM—a multi-partner chair that researches and supports the transition toward living spaces that are sustainable and inclusive.
2. Multiple stakeholders need to align
The election of a mayor with green ambitions created the right environment for Grenoble to prioritize sustainability, but Eric emphasizes that it’s been a city-wide effort, including multiple stakeholders.
“We remain convinced that the ecological challenges we are facing require the commitment and contribution of each one of us,” he says.
“All the actors in the Grenoble Region and beyond are involved in the transition process: politicians, the economic world, the scientific community, and civil society.”
Business schools like GEM also factored into the equation. For some time, the school has worked with over 200 partner companies to ensure sustainability issues are on the agenda.
“We also worked with City Hall to build the application for European Green Capital,” says Thibault.
Business schools have an important role to play, adds Joel Losch (right), one of the MBA students who took Thibault’s course at Grenoble Ecole de Management.
“It’s very apparent that the city cares,” he says. “Cycling culture is prominent, and I learned from a friend in city planning that they’re creating ways for the territory to keep its ecological footprint small.”
The fact that the MBA dedicated crucial teaching hours to sustainability is telling, Joel thinks, but schools could also do more to integrate the issue throughout the program.
“There’s a big opportunity for business schools and local organizations to share their mutual vision through speakers from the local community coming in,” he suggests.
3. Concrete sustainable goals need to be set
As head of the Inclusive Sustainability Chair, Thibault supports local stakeholders as they work together.
“We’re really convinced that to overcome sustainability challenges you need to erase artificial frontiers, and have all these people around the same table,” he says.
Although not every group will have the same priorities, providing a space for discussion can help compromises be reached. But in order to see real change, communities need to set concrete goals.
“If you create an assembly or committee just to discuss environmental issues it won’t be fruitful, but with a concrete project you find real ways to solve problems,” Thibault observes.
One such project has brought diverse organizations together to work on the issue of air pollution. As a densely populated area hemmed in by the Alps, air quality is an especially pressing issue for Grenoble.
To overcome this challenge, the French Post has committed to using electric vehicles in the territory, while city authorities are encouraging local people and companies to upgrade to more efficient heating systems.
“When we encourage many different partners to commit to the challenge we see innovative practices,” comments Thibault.
4. Tech and social innovation need to be balanced
Innovation has been a cornerstone of Grenoble’s sustainability strategy. The city is widely recognized as a center of tech development, and is home to a number of public and private research institutions. Among them are the Leti Center for Research and Specialized Technology in micro and nanotechnologies and the GIANT (Grenoble Innovation For Advanced New Technologies) innovation campus.
On the GIANT campus, researchers and industry work together on technical solutions to major challenges in areas like renewable energy and healthcare.
According to a survey conducted by Thibault and his colleagues at GEM, this atmosphere extends into the entrepreneurial world. The survey found that several hundred local startups were currently developing a green product or service.
Advancements in areas like renewable energy, waste management, and air quality have played a huge part in helping Grenoble secure the title of European Green Capital 2022.
“[Technological innovation] is especially important for Grenoble and its surrounding area,” comments Thibault (right). “The link for us between tech and sustainability is really a fundamental question.”
However, tech development alone is not enough to facilitate increased sustainability. Thibault emphasizes the concurrent need for social innovation.
“By this we mean new, innovative ways of organizing society, and this really rests on collective action,” he explains.
The business world has a major role to play in this collective action. Every organization is made up of individuals, and as opinions shift to prioritize sustainability these organizations must adapt to keep up.
According to a 2017 report from intelligence agency, Global Data, 71% of European consumers consider living an ethical lifestyle to be important or very important.
“I would say companies are changing now because pressures are coming from everywhere—shareholders, customers, government bodies, and employers,” Thibault asserts.
5. Resource sharing is key
Winning the title of European Green Capital is a huge milestone for Grenoble, but Thibault believes that there’s still progress to be made.
“Grenoble won the award because we’ve initiated some good moves and are taking sustainability seriously, but we need to be humble in facing these challenges,” he reflects.
Just as Grenoble is sharing the sustainable steps it took with the wider community through its Green Capital application, the city in turn can learn from actions being taken elsewhere.
“The most important thing is to build a network of cities committed to transition toward sustainability. Others will learn from our internal dynamics, but we will also learn from them in turn,” says Thibault.
“We share and are inspired by realizations from all over the world,” concludes mayor Eric. “Grenoble wants to carry on innovating, learning, and sharing.”
BB Insights explores the latest research and trends from the business school classroom, drawing on the expertise of world-leading professors to inspire and inform current and future leaders