18 Mar A conversation with…Sandra Magro
Today is one of those special days when I feel happy and proud of this section. For “a conversation with…” have passed very special people for me and who also have a more than a remarkable professional career at national and international level. The person I am talking to today is no exception.
Today I wanted to talk to Sandra about topics that she masters to perfection, such as sustainability and entrepreneurship as real “ways of life”, not as fads to jump on because “everyone is talking about them”. A conversation with Sandra Magro begins.
I have always had a strong feeling that science has to be at the service of society.
Q: Sandra, without a doubt you are an example to follow for many. For me, you know you are. I want to start by asking you what a researcher is doing to create a company. When did the need to start a business and leave the academic environment arises?
Good question… I still ask myself! The truth is that I have always had a strong feeling that science has to be at the service of society. It is a public good, which should be accessible so that everyone can take advantage of scientific advances. When I was in the middle of the “cutting and sewing” of my thesis, during my stay in the Netherlands, this feeling came back to me in a very clear way. I talked to my thesis director about the possibility of organizing a forum to see who was interested in what we were researching (ecosystem restoration) and that’s when it all started. I realized that what I wanted was to do exactly that: work with companies, with administrations, with other professionals to see how we could change things and reduce our environmental impact. At that time no one was going to hire me to do what I wanted to do, so I decided to set up Creando Redes.
Q: Creando Redes, as you say on your website, is the first ecological restoration company in Spain that works with the public and private sector, among other things, to recover ecosystems, develop green infrastructure and enhance the value of the natural capital of the territory. You have been in operation for more than 5 years, what do you think that having your own company has given you that you could never have achieved if you had followed a “traditional” research career?
I think the main benefit of choosing to jump into business is that you are much more in touch with the real needs of the market. From this position I am in, you realize that “raw” scientific knowledge does not necessarily solve any problem. You have to adapt it: to the language of “non-scientists”, to the working dynamics of companies, to transform it into a product in itself. I find it an exciting task, but it is also a hard road. In that way, it is similar to a scientific career. You have to make a name for yourself from scratch, with no resources (neither economic nor knowledge, because we knew nothing about business!). Your ability to generate resources for yourself and your team depends directly on what you are able to create and sell. Every day! Of course, just like being a scientist, you have to like being an entrepreneur.
We have to bring ecology and products with low environmental impact to the convinced and the unconvinced.
Q: In the last decade, but especially in the last 5 or 6 years, we have experienced a boom of the words “eco”, “bio”, “sustainable”. You know that I am a fervent advocate of 360º sustainability, but sometimes I think we are stuck in a bubble of “healthy influence”, where saying that you are vegan, that you eat healthily and that you don’t use plastics is “cool”. Do you really think society is becoming aware that we’re taking a gamble on a natural level, or are these just labels that look good?
It’s hard to say. I guess it wouldn’t be fair to make an assessment of whether all or none of those who consider themselves environmentalists or sustainable understand the depth of the environmental crisis we’re in. But I also think it doesn’t matter much. The important thing is to add actions. Just yesterday I read in the newspaper that Jaguar will only sell electric cars in 2025. Normalizing sustainable alternatives is the first step in transforming society in general. Is this more or less important than people buying in bulk stores because they are super convinced that plastic is the worst? For me, no. We need to get ecology and low environmental impact products out to the convinced and the unconvinced. However, I think it is important to continue to educate based on scientific knowledge and that, as far as possible, consumers have information to make better choices, knowing the consequences of their decisions. Is consuming electricity just as great when that energy comes from burning coal? Is being vegan just as great when the soybeans you eat have been generated by cutting down the Amazon?
Q: As it could not be otherwise in RSR, it is time to talk about European funds, which you know very well. Can you tell us a little more about COUNTMITMENT and what it has meant for Creando Redes?
For us, it was a great joy! Not only because of the funding but also because it allowed us two things that have been key and will be key for years to come. On the one hand, to open a direct commercial channel with many of our clients. In COUNTMITMENT we proposed a market study for the valuation of natural capital (to see how to include the goods and services provided by nature in the decision-making process of companies) generating working groups with potential customers. Apart from getting to know much better what kind of decisions they face and what their main limitations are, we had the opportunity to present our products directly to them, validate them and improve them. Moreover, it was a decisive project for us to make better decisions ourselves as well. We had the idea of developing a technology to automate our natural capital valuation consultancy and we were aware of where the market is at. The European funding allowed us to choose the best time to bring our product to market.
Q: Continuing with Europe, which you know is my favourite topic, I must say that I am particularly excited about the presidency of Ursula Von der Leyen, the so-called “green president. One of her first initiatives has been to launch the European Green Pact or Green Deal. What do you think of this new initiative?
I think it’s absolutely right that an international economic development plan should be structured around the environment. I think it’s the right thing to do! We can’t keep saying that resources are running out, that we’re skirting planetary boundaries and not putting the environment at the centre of our decisions. However, I believe that the success of such a plan is to make it happen. The strategies on which the Green Deal is based all look very good, but they can be difficult to develop and implement by individual countries and we don’t have much time. I think it is important to create governance structures that allow us to land all the concepts and put them into practice in a short period of time and I don’t know if we have those capabilities. Top-down (regulation and environmental legislation) is all very well, but we need answers and governance models from society (bottom-up). And that has to be implemented as well. What I was telling you before about continuing to educate and to add “followers” to the green movement is key.
Q: Sandra, I would like to talk to you about SUSTAINABILITY, with capital letters. The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are beginning to be known terms outside the technical spheres, which gives me hope that a better world is possible. You are one of the main SDG activators in Spain, and I would like to know what your work consists of, how you interpret the real impact that sustainability is having on people’s daily lives. Do you see a change in trend in terms of people’s behaviour, of the real initiatives that are applied in cities, is there more “predilection” for some SDGs or for others?
The SDG Activators movement arose because we coincided a few professionals in the scientific committee of the First Ibero-American Congress of the 2030 Agenda that was held in 2018 in Salamanca. We realized that all of us from our professional activity had the ability to drive sustainability (not only environmental but social) in different sectors of society. Sometimes together, as with the organization of TEDxFUNCIONA, sometimes separately, but always putting a new grain of sand to encourage society to know the Agenda and join in with large or small actions. I think it is undeniable that sustainability is gaining ground. I insist that the fact that it is a fashionable topic plays in our favour. Sometimes we downplay the importance of fashions, but the truth is that they make an idea circulate very quickly, the power of the mainstream! The important thing is that what lies behind this first impulse is solid knowledge and a social fabric capable of continuing to energize the process. In the end, being more sustainable has a return in health, an economic return and a moral return that will reinforce this behaviour in the short term. At least I am confident that this will be the case.
I think it is undeniable that sustainability is gaining ground. I insist that the fact that it is a fashionable topic plays in our favor. Sometimes we downplay the importance of fashions, but the truth is that they make an idea circulate very quickly, the power of the mainstream!
Q: Finally, I sincerely believe in the power of awareness-raising and training to change consciousness and behaviour. At Creando Redes you work on both pillars in a very professional and personalized way. To close this fantastic conversation, I would like to know your thoughts on the training work you are carrying out and what, for you, are the main lessons you learn from your teaching work.
Our training work is a direct consequence of the fact that we come from an academic world where knowledge has value. For us, the human component of sustainability is very important. In the end, companies and public administrations are the people behind them, working every day to do their job better. Our idea is that, in order to bring about the change we want to see in the world, it is essential that there are professionals sufficiently trained in integrative disciplines such as green infrastructure planning, valuation of natural capital or ecological restoration. All of these subjects establish bridges between the environment and other fields: territorial planning, green growth, local development, adaptation to climate change. We need to train today’s professionals with the best knowledge that exists today. Do you remember when we were taught how to mark DNA with radioactive isotopes, very much in the style of Marie Curie, when this had not been used for decades? We need professionals who can creatively solve today’s and tomorrow’s environmental problems. Education at the cutting edge is fundamental.
We need professionals who can creatively solve today's and tomorrow's environmental problems. Education at the forefront is fundamental
I think there is little more I can add to what we have just experienced together. We are in a unique, key moment, where even the most incredulous have realized that “there is no planet B”. And even at the risk that you may look at me the wrong way, the coronavirus in its crudest form, a year ago now, has made us aware of this. Do you remember the images of wild animals in the middle of the Gran Vía in Madrid? Of the brutal drop in emissions in the most polluted cities in the world? Of the plants “making their way” in the most unsuspected urban places? And all this was possible in just a few weeks of human absence on the face of the Earth. Very hardcore ladies and gentlemen, it gave me a lot to think about. How is it possible that we become so disrespectful with what gives us life, which is our planet, our environment? This conversation with Sandra makes me think positively, that with an education based on solid science, with mutual understanding between people, institutions and companies and with real policies, we can make sustainability go from being a fashion to being “our closet”.
See you next time, thanks San!