RSM Sustainability Forum
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Sustainable business models explored at RSM Sustainability Forum 2017

How far have companies come in making the shift to sustainable business models? Around 200 students, alumni and practitioners gathered to find out at the RSM Sustainability Forum on Friday 31 March 2017. Among the highlights of the event, which was held at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), were keynote presentations by Mark Bras, manager of BMWi, and Thomas Rau, visionary entrepreneur and architect and founder of Turntoo and Rau Architecture.

Of RSM's three big annual forums, the RSM Sustainability Forum is the only student-organised and implemented event. Hosted by Sustainable RSM and MSc GBS STAR, this fifth anniversary event set the bar high once again with presentations and breakout sessions with managers from some of the world's largest companies, who explored 'business models for sustainable development'. A highlight was the announcement of the winner of the <link about-rsm news detail>RSM-KPMG Sustainability Award, which went to <link master msc-programmes mscba-master-in-management overview _blank>MScBA Master in Management graduate <link about-rsm news detail>Angelos Tsereklas-Zafeirkis.

Facilitating the seven breakout sessions were Michel de Goede, a strategy consultant at Alliander; Bert Bernolet, founder and director of Solar Without Frontiers; Fred van Beuningen, director of Clean Tech Delta; Dorus Galama, co-founder of Gerrard; Nanning Jacobs, founder of Tuk Tuk Cartel; Fokko Kroesen, environmental manager at KLM with graduate intern Remona van der Zon; and Marianne de Bie, senior advisor of corporate affairs with Simon Theewes, manager investor relations at Schiphol Group.

Sustainability central to RSM's mission

“Sustainability at RSM is not just a story, it is a part of our business model,” RSM career development coach and event moderator Dorothy Grandia told audience members in her opening remarks. Dean Steef van de Velde echoed this sentiment in his welcome presentation. RSM’s <link about-rsm>new mission to be a force for positive change is already “embedded in the school's community and activities but will more prominently drive our agenda,” he said. “Businesses want to solve grand challenges. It’s only logical that our mission should be to enhance management practices by being a force for positive change.”

BMWi: future is electric, shared and autonomous

“We plan to go down in history as pioneers of mobility,” Marc Bras, manager of BMWi, the car giant's innovation sub-brand, told participants during his keynote presentation. BMW has built its success on big engines, he said, but the company has been shifting its focus to its core brand of joy and fun, together with sustainability. “We want more than evolutions,” he said. “We want revolution.” Launched in 2011, BMWi focuses on developing eco-friendly urban electric cars. Among the first to market is the BMWi3, which is 95 per cent recyclable, produced out of carbon fibre, recycled plastic from PET bottles, wood, and recycled aluminium cans. Bras: “What's next for us? Autonomous cars. Shared cars is a new business model for the future: selling a fleet of cars to a group of people. These are the future of mobility.”

Sustainability is optimising a system that is broken

“The problem we have now is the sum of every business model we have had until now,” the second keynote speaker of the day, <link sustainability-forum forum-2017 speakers>Thomas Rau, told audience members. Last year, Rau was rated among the Netherlands' three most influential architects and one of its top five visionaries in sustainability. “Sustainability is just optimising a system that is already wrong,” he said. “If we want change, we need new business models where responsibility and power come together. We need a complete transformation of the system.”

All materials need an identity

In the closed system that is planet earth, everything is useful, Rau said. “Waste is just material without an identity. And all material is a limited edition. We need to write them down not write them off. All materials used in buildings and products must have an identity and rights. We need to know exactly what and where everything is. We can then use buildings as mines.” Three weeks ago his company launched a library for this data, the 'madaster' – which embodies a radical new way of thinking about and managing the earth's resources.

Using buildings as mines

“New business models should make products that are also a service,” Rau said. In his new terminal design for Schiphol airport, Rau embraces the concept of 'building as machine'. The end result is that his terminal design was half the price of a regular terminal to build, and with double the capacity. “Let's think of better solutions, not how to optimise,” he said. All the buildings he designs are energy positive. He has also designed the most sustainable bank in the world. Before designing it, he looked at the “abundance of ugliness” that was the old building, and decided to “use it as a mine”. He said 92 per cent of the new building was made from recycled materials from the old building.

Forum participants also learned more about sustainability in business from experienced speakers from start-ups and industry leaders during break-out sessions. 

Investment ideas for Alliander

Alliander's Michel de Goede, strategy consultant and <link mba global-executive-onemba why-the-rsm-global-onemba>RSM OneMBA graduate, shared with participants the breadth of the challenges they face as an energy network company in shifting towards sustainable business models. In answer to the case question of what their best investments for sustainability should be, participants proposed big renewable plants that would use the grid to transport energy (renewable energy plants are also more feasible than decentralised energy rooftop solar panels due to economies of scale). Alliander could also consider facilitating neighbour-to-neighbour energy trading, and invest in influencing regulation to foster the transition towards solar energy. 

'Integrated reporting' at Schiphol Group

The Schiphol Group was represented by Marianne de Bie with Simon Theewes, two of the three team members responsible for 'integrated reporting' at the Schiphol Group. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has responsibilities to many stakeholders, from the people residing near the airport to employees and the environment. Sustainability is thus a core component of Schiphol's strategy. One example of how the Group implements this is by imposing heavier landing charges on noisy planes that emit more CO2 and by incorporating all sustainability initiatives in its annual report to encourage the board to view its strategy from a holistic perspective.

KLM to become 'most sustainable' airline?

Environmental manager for KLM, Fokko Kroesen, spoke about KLM's sustainability plans, which include fleet renewal, operational efficiency, sustainable biofuels and offsetting. KLM has partnered with Sky Energy to become a pioneer in the field of sustainable biofuels. But the challenge for KLM, one shared by all of the aviation industry, is the difficulty prioritising investments in R&D in a market defined by very strong competition and a focus on prices. A major outcome from the brainstorm session, co-facilitated by Remona van der Zon, was that partnerships were critical for KLM to achieve any headway towards sustainability: partnerships with government, customers, competitors and manufacturers in the industry. It was widely agreed that KLM could gain a competitive edge in the market if it became “the most sustainable airline in the industry” through partnerships.

Management challenges for Solar Without Borders

Solar Without Borders is a non-profit organisation that aims to bring solar energy to disadvantaged communities in Africa. Founder and director Bert Bernolet outlined his business model Smart Kiosks, in which a central house in the village is fitted out with solar panels, batteries, regulators, solar lamps and chargers, and is managed by a kiosk keeper. People pay for the energy they use. Around 170 solar kiosks have now been set up in Togo alone, providing more than 40,000 people with light. However, shop owners have too much autonomy and are not easily motivated. How do you develop good leadership in shop owners and build the system further? The solutions discussed in the break-out session provided input that will be used in further discussions in RSM's <link bachelor international-business-administration>IBA, <link bachelor bsc-business-administration-bedrijfskunde>BA, <link mba international-full-time-mba why-the-rotterdam-mba>MBA and <link mba executive-mba the-executive-mba-at-rsm>Executive MBA programmes and eventually, to facilitate student trips to the sites in Africa. 

Clean Tech Delta

Participants in the Clean Tech Delft break-out session were challenged to think of ways to optimise the business model of Clean Tech Delta, and come up with whole new business models. Clean Tech Delta creates and supports public private partnerships that “close the implementation gap between an idea and a sustainable business” in the regional clean tech sector. Fred van Beuningen, director of Clean Tech Delta and <link master msc-programmes>RSM MSc alumnus, mapped out the challenges for the energy and clean-tech sectors in the local area, including reducing emissions in and around Rotterdam, which is one of the world's largest petrol-based areas. Currently, the business operates on a triple helix model which includes the knowledge of universities, private actors, and government bodies. A better design, said participants, would be a quadruple helix, that included users (the market). Participants suggested that there should also be clearer value propositions for members, and measurable outcomes of all collaborations.

Vending machines for Gerrard Street

Dorus Galama, co-founder of Gerrard Street, a Dutch start-up that aims to develop circular consumer electronics, asked participants to develop a plan for how Gerrard Street could expand its business into other countries and cities. The fundamental challenge for the company pertains to its size: significant changes or innovations can only really be made once its customer base has grown. By consensus, participants agreed that the best idea to come out of the brainstorming session was that of distributing headphones and parts of headphones via vending machines operated by entrepreneurs or dedicated customers who would serve as ambassadors for the company.

Clearer mission needed for Tuk Tuk Cartel

Tuk Tuk Cartel is a new NGO, powered only by volunteers, that aims to create social change in impoverished areas with projects in sustainability, education and innovation. Co-founder and business development manager Nanning Jacobs outlined the organisation's goals and business model, which sees 100 percent of funding going towards projects. Attendees were excited to brainstorm solutions to the case problem of how to ensure a proper match between volunteers and projects. However, much discussion centred on the viability of the organisation's business model. The organisation should streamline its focus and direction, said participants, and have a method for measuring impact if it is to increase funding and make more impact. Many saw the organisation’s projects, such as donating clothes to Syria, as a temporary solution, and that researching the needs of locals should serve as a basis for the design of projects.


Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 research-based business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who carry their innovative mindset into a sustainable future thanks to a first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, Media & Public Relations Manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at