New Funding from Department of Education Allows WPI to Investigate Ways to Build Climate Resilience through International Business Opportunities

Program will involve students, faculty, and regional organizations in New Zealand and Massachusetts
December 08, 2021

Climate change is an issue facing all parts of the world, and studying both its effects and mitigation strategies are critical topics of research at WPI. Now the Department of Education (DOE) is supporting this work through a new Title VI grant that aims to identify resilience opportunities that will help address climate change issues in New Zealand. The funding will allow WPI to partner with schools, businesses, and organizations in both Massachusetts and New Zealand to collectively work on sustainable solutions.

The two-year grant is being awarded to WPI Business School Professor Michael Elmes, who founded the WPI Project Center in New Zealand in 2010. “This is a chance for WPI to strengthen its international business education and global relations as they pertain to the role of the private sector in climate resilience and decarbonization efforts,” said Elmes.

Creating inclusive partnerships in New Zealand

Even though the country is still closed to foreign visitors due to the pandemic, WPI already has strong ties to business leaders and organizations in New Zealand, and Elmes plans to connect remotely with a wide range of partners there, including technologists, climate change scientists, and business leaders, including business leaders from the Māori community. The involvement of Māori business leaders is particularly impactful because, as Elmes says, “as indigenous partners, they have a critical role in addressing the challenges of climate resilience and decarbonization.”

This important role comes to the forefront in a key aspect of Māori culture. While many workers and business owners of European ancestry leave New Zealand to seek opportunities in other countries, Elmes says Māori business owners usually don’t plan to leave the country. And culturally, Māori think long term, not just looking ahead years or decades, but keeping future generations in mind by looking ahead centuries. Elmes says it’s an outlook that could be beneficial to the rest of the world as the climate crisis becomes ever more dire.

Elmes also notes at the moment much of the U.S. trade with New Zealand is centered around wine, but the goal of this grant is to widen the conversation and expand those trade opportunities. Another aspiration of this effort is to reframe what international business as a whole can accomplish. He says he plans to use the grant to stimulate conversation on more than just global finance and trade, and to “emphasize the essential moral and ethical role that international business has to play, particularly as it pertains to the global climate crisis.”


Connecting globally and locally

The global-local nature of this grant is underscored by the involvement of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is working with WPI in a collaborative effort to increase opportunities for businesses in Central Massachusetts. Tim Murray, President & CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, says, “this grant provides opportunities to share best business practices around issues of climate change and sustainability, around Worcester, throughout the state, and in New Zealand. What’s more, there is potential for additional trade between the two nations, and tremendous opportunity for U.S. companies to bring their technology and services to New Zealand while also gaining knowledge about addressing climate change. I look forward to the sharing of ideas and opportunities back and forth between the Worcester area and New Zealand.”

The connections this project is forging between the global and the local highlight a key tenet of a WPI education: engaging with the world to solve problems and addressing challenges both at home and abroad. Mimi Sheller, Dean of The Global School, has agreed to sit on the Advisory Board for this project, bringing her vast experience and knowledge of global politics and partnerships, as well as the resources of The Global School, to bear.

Climate change threats to New Zealand

As an island nation, New Zealand is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with many coastal communities facing an existential threat from rising sea levels. The country also has a large agrarian economy, with farming and fishing two of its most important industries, making the loss of land by rising seas and the warming ocean temperatures especially devastating.

“While the potential impacts of climate change on New Zealand are strong, the interest in creating adaptations and resiliencies there are equally strong—particularly in de-carbonization and alternative sources of energy,” said Elmes. That interest fuels real action, both from the government and the private sector. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has committed the country to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 and generating all of its energy from renewable sources by 2035. Also, in legislation that’s the first of its kind in the world, banks, investment firms and insurance companies in New Zealand are required to report the impacts their investments have on climate change.

“The private sector can play a major role in addressing climate change, and that reality also provides an important opportunity to strengthen international business education,” says Elmes. “This grant will provide WPI students with an opportunity to investigate strategies for dealing with climate change, build climate resilience, and enhance decarbonization efforts in New Zealand through international business relationships. My hope is that this grant sparks our imagination and awareness of what’s possible.”

Funding and contributions

The total amount of the grant is of $338,927; the DOE will provide $163,344, while in-kind contributions from primarily faculty and staff at WPI will make up the balance. These include the involvement of WPI professors Ingrid Shockey of The Global School and Joe Sarkis from The Business School, who will be developing and testing curricular materials related to the award. Other WPI support will come from Kimberly LeChasseur, Research and Evaluation Associate with the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center at WPI, and Caitlin Keller, instructional designer; website design and Zoom conferencing support will come from other staff at the Academic Technology Center.

Supporting organizations include the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Higher Education Consortium of Central Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Office of International Trade and Investment, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts.

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