What makes the i3 interesting is the thinking that went into its design. Jacob Harb, Head of Operations and Strategy explains: [the project]..started a decade ago, looking at how to ‘future-proof’ our business…it sounds a cliché, but we really started with a blank slate, we re-examined the design process from the ground up. Sustainability and innovation are embodied in the i3.”
The result is a carbon fiber chassis, 50% lighter than steel. Amongst other efficiencies, production uses 50% less water and 70% of the energy used in conventional processes.
Designed with disassembly in mind, the i3 is an impressive 95% recyclable. Perhaps just as importantly, it is the sort of car you can imagine people aspiring to. It’s not a half-baked nod to sustainability, it’s a car that expects to capture a good portion of the market on its own merits. The i3 may well shake up the burgeoning EV market and push its competitors (the hitherto dominant Chevy, Nissan, Tesla and Prius) to go one better. This can only be a good thing- for consumers and for the environment. It’s a good example of a competitive marketplace driving a ‘race to the top’, stimulating more creative thinking to solve our sustainable transportation challenges faster.
Delve a little deeper into BMW’s story, however, and you’ll discover that supply-chain and community collaboration also played a key part in creating the world’s first mass produced carbon fiber vehicle. Carbon fiber is pricey. Very pricey. So in order to make the production process cost effective and reliable, BMW formed a partnership with SGL Carbon SE and opened a hydro-powered carbon fiber plant in Moses Lake, Washington. The two firms worked with a local community college to train employees for the plant, which created 80 new jobs, and according to SGL’s Managing Director, Dr Joerg Pohlman aided in “starting the production at a high level of quality and efficiency.” Without the bold $100m invested in the Moses Lake joint venture, BMW’s vision may have stalled.
The i3 is an interesting example of an innovative, more sustainable product created for a highly competitive market. Yet it is also a useful case study in collaboration and the value of well-managed partnerships in creating social and environmental value.
It’s a conclusion Darwin arrived at more than a decade after the publication of On The Origin of Species. In the Descent of Man (1871) he outlined his conviction that cooperation and reciprocity were as essential as competition to the evolutionary process. According to philosopher Roman Krznaric, Darwin’s new thinking was “largely neglected at the time, and we are only beginning to recover it now.”
Perhaps what businesses really need to help solve the knottier social and environmental challenges of our time is more of this kind of thinking- a philosophy that balances intelligent and well executed collaboration with an ability to compete (and fight fairly!) in the evolution of ever more effective and sustainable products and services. Perhaps then we might realise the true power of the emerging social economy.
by Jenny Ekelund
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