Robert Kennedy, C. K. Prahalad and Ted London
Scholars Gather to Discuss Base of the Pyramid Research
WDI hosted leading BoP researchers at three-day conference.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—An international group of leading Base of the Pyramid (BoP) scholars engaged in deep and spirited discussions on some of the big research questions and issues facing those interested in conducting research on the topic at a recent three-day conference hosted by the William Davidson Institute.
The broad goal of the conference, held May 18-20 in Ann Arbor, was to understand what is unique and interesting about research at the base of the economic pyramid—defined as those with annual purchasing power parity of less than $1,500.
Discussion revolved around two perspectives: the BoP as a context to challenge and extend existing theories and the BoP as a source for new theory development.
Another objective of the conference was to help build a community of scholars interested in stimulating cutting-edge thinking about generating new knowledge uniquely related to research on the BoP and creating additional opportunities to have this research shared across a broad audience of academics and practitioners.
During the past several years, using market-based approaches to serve the approximately four billion people at the base of the pyramid increasingly has been touted as an untapped opportunity for company growth. It also can be an additional strategy for nonprofits to enhance their effectiveness and a novel approach for aid agencies and governments to more efficiently achieve their development goals.
With these goals in mind, an increasing number of initiatives have been launched that anticipate generating revenues and profits while working in collaboration with those at the base of the pyramid. Many of these initiatives have been studied by scholars, leading to some interesting research findings.
Stu Hart, the S.C. Johnson Professor of Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University, kicked off the conference by talking about the many companies beginning to experiment with the BoP. He also said the BoP is a "gold mine" of opportunity for research.
"There is a lot of institutional momentum, which I think is important," said Hart, a WDI Research Fellow. "The time is right to think about what are the important research questions. What is the important work we need to do?"
Hart's "Setting the Stage" presentation spurred lengthy discussions by the group, mostly centered on how the BoP could be fertile ground for new thinking.
C.K. Prahalad, professor of strategy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and a WDI Distinguished Fellow, opened the second day of the conference with his presentation "Mapping the New Phenomenon." Prahalad and Hart, affectionately referred to at the conference as the grandfathers of the BoP movement, wrote the groundbreaking 2002 article "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid."
Then, Ted London, WDI Director of the Base of the Pyramid research initiative and a faculty member at the Ross school, reviewed the key articles published on the topic—many by people in the audience—and led a group discussion on important unanswered questions. Participants then were asked to identify what they thought were the biggest challenges and opportunities for exploring the BoP space.
"We wanted to know what research question interested them the most," London said.
Based on the responses, participants were assembled into five groups. Those groups then spent more than two hours discussing these challenges, opportunities and questions with the goal of developing an actionable research project. WDI Executive Director Robert Kennedy then led a discussion about publishing in the BoP field.
On the conference's final day, each of the five groups gave a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation summarizing their discussions and how they plan to move forward on the project. An in-depth question-and-answer session followed "so everyone could provide each group with feedback to help push the projects forward," London said.
Lastly, the group talked about appropriate next steps.
"There was strong interest in continuing this type of event," London said. "There were discussions about an annual meeting in Ann Arbor as well as additional events in Latin America and elsewhere. Overall, there was strong group consensus that this type of format is crucial to continuing to build the field and the community of scholars."
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