15th April 2021

Book in Focus

Public Goods, Sustainable Development and the Contribution of Business

By Roland Bardy, Arthur Rubens, Raymond Saner and Lichia Yiu

Relating the topic of public goods to the sustainable development agenda and to what businesses contribute to the progress of mankind beyond economic growth has been a theme of discussion between the four authors of this book for quite some time.

Coming from different countries, different backgrounds, and different perspectives, we, however, are united in the recognition that public goods play a key role in the sustainable development agenda, as well as for the thriving of businesses. Hence, it is imperative that businesses move beyond a singular focus on economic growth to contributing to the wellbeing of the larger community. We feel that it is this diversity of backgrounds that brings power to our discussion. One of us spent 30 years as a senior executive in a large German multinational, another is a retired business professor from the USA, and two of us, one from Switzerland and one from Asia, have been running a think tank in Geneva, Switzerland, where relations to international organizations are routine matter. From there, it is no surprise that the decision was made to write a book with a holistic perspective, and we are happy that Cambridge Scholars Publishing accepted the idea and proved to be a great support in all facets that came up during the preparation of the book.

We consider that our book differs on several levels from the relatively large number of titles on public goods currently on the market. First, many other works on public goods focus on either the socio-economic concept, like the 2017 book by the French Nobel laureate Jean Tirole, or on a purely business-case view, like the 2019 book by the American management authority Philip Kotler. In contrast, we view the topic through a multi-perspective approach and from a much more holistic standpoint. We not only look at the dimension of measurement, but also explore the macro- and micro-economic sides, as well as the political and developmental aspects of public goods. This allows us to show which range of action is available at different levels of decision-making and what outcomes decision-makers and policymakers may provide. We also very importantly consider how all the elements of the topic are interrelated and interlinked, and, while this perspective is not new, the formats of these linkages and interdependencies—and the consequences of such interconnectedness—have not previously been exhibited in such a comprehensive way. Like any work, our book is built on the foundations laid by others who have explored this topic before, particularly the writings of Inge Kaul, veteran Director of the United Nations Development Program.

When we started writing the book, the manifold challenges that have occurred with the COVID-19 pandemic were not in sight, nor envisioned. The control of the pandemic, a global public good, is now at the forefront of policy making everywhere. If this control is successful, harsh social and economic disruption can be prevented—another important public good. This, however, cannot work without strong social cohesion and a unity of purpose around this collective action—as with all the other public goods that we present in the book. Paradoxically, the horrific events surrounding the pandemic have also allowed a more positive outlook for the future than what was to be expected—crisis brings change and opportunities!

Change and opportunities are two axioms that have always been related to the subject of sustainable development. One of the reviewers of our book referred to another axiom, which is Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) categorical imperative, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. The reviewer wrote that, if this had been part of our collective thinking, we would not have needed the UN Charter in 1945, nor would we have to discuss sustainability or public goods because all members of society would pursue the common good and make all opportunities available to everyone anywhere. However, unfortunately, we do not live in this ideal world. COVID-19 has shown where this world has deficiencies and shortages beyond those immediately visible, and where there is a lack of opportunities and, very often, of good will. Millions have suffered from severe illness and from the loss of their loved ones, and the economic consequences of the pandemic will not be quickly overcome. However, beyond the ills of society being displayed, we have also seen the strength of social cohesion and, in many instances, a collective will that has resulted in a rapid and positive response to the pandemic. This collective thinking is the most fundamental public good.

On a personal note, during the early months of the virus, all four authors, like so many others, had projects cancelled, and ran into problems when travelling outside our home countries. The two co-patriots of Switzerland got out at the last minute from Bolivia, while the American author found his trip to Cambodia cut short as all surrounding nations closed borders around him. However, with this said, we all have been extremely fortunate. We escaped having the virus, although we saw friends who had contracted the virus and have had loved ones and friends who suffered the economic implications of lost jobs and many others who struggled to make ends meet.

Although our initial thoughts were to change or greatly alter the focus of our book in order to take a broader account of the COVID-19 pandemic, we ultimately felt the book should stay focused on the subject at hand: public goods, sustainable development, and the contribution of business to the greater good. As we continued to write our book, and as the pandemic spread in prevalence, we saw the unfolding of an active case study illustrating the overriding themes of the book. The underlying issues that we had as we started work on it in late 2019 remained unchanged as the book slowly came to completion: societal advancement can only be achieved if ALL members of a society cooperate. The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined how businesses and public entities must come together to not only protect the health of their stakeholders, but also protect and restore the economic health of their nations. In addition, they must take—and some have—account of those nations which need to be aided from the outside in these efforts. However, all of the many other themes that relate to building a better future for mankind remain an ongoing concern, a work in progress so to speak, which is the main interest of our book.

The book is now completed and is in print and available for sale. We hope it will stimulate new work, which we believe will include the emerging lessons from the varied COVID-19 responses that are manifesting through international good practice. These new developments could potentially contribute to making public goods more resilient. Furthermore, they might improve our collective understanding of what “public goods” mean to society and how their provision can be secured through multipartite collaboration on all levels. However, for this understanding to become meaningful, more knowledge must be provided on this phenomenon. We see our book as being a primary or optional text for an academic course or a workshop on the subjects of public goods, the contributions of business, and sustainable development. It could also be used as a resource in specialized seminars or workshops across several disciplines. The authors hope that the reader will gain knowledge and insight from our book for the betterment of public goods, business practices, and sustainable development.

Read Extract

“The book admirably serves the purpose of framing and shaping the public and commercial discourse on their use of public goods. It provides a uniquely accessible understanding of how current use and costing needs to change to strike the best approach to balancing economic vitality today while protecting future generations and preserving our planet’s resources for our descendants.”

Jerome Katz
Brockhaus Chair of Entrepreneurship, Chaifetz School of Business, Saint Louis University

“The pandemic that washed over the globe in 2020 demonstrated that the provision of public goods is still central to civilized societies. Businesses have a share in this, and their contribution is essential to achieving sustainable development. This book provides a grounded and topical approach to understanding how business can contribute to public goods and help achieve the vision for 2030.”

Jerry Davis
Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Management, Professor of Sociology, Michigan Ross School of Business

“A very timely and unique perspective on how sustainability matters in the use of public goods by consumers and producers. I particularly appreciated the message that businesses have a social responsibility in the use (and abuse) of public goods.”

Jagdish N. Sheth
Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Business, Goizueta Business School, Emory University

“At last! A book that makes business a critical element of the conversation about sustainable development in a multi-institutional environment.”

R. Edward Freeman
Professor, The Darden School, University of Virginia

“The themes of the book are all key contributors to attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. This book is timely and provides a holistic view on the link between public goods, sustainable development and the crucial contribution of business, as well as providing clear guidance on a way forward in addressing global challenges.”

Victor van Vuuren
Director, Enterprises Department, International Labour Organisation

“There is an enormous gap between the macro-ambition of creating public goods and the micro-translation of this ambition in relevant business strategies. This book clearly serves the purpose of that translation, not in the least by showing how the SDG agenda of the United Nations creates a platform for this endeavor. We need to step up the pace.”

Rob van Tulder
Professor of International Business-Society Management, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University

Public Goods, Sustainable Development and the Contribution of Business is available now in Hardback at a special 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem.