houston voices

How company behavior guides activists’ choices, according to this Houston researcher

Companies that capitulate to protestors may encourage them to protest for more. Companies that win against protestors may catalyze them to join similar movements nearby. Photo by Thirdman from Pexels

It’s been more than 100 years since Pavlov’s dog showed the world that behavior is often guided by forces we don’t comprehend.

The same is true of the interaction between companies and protestors, according to Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and Fabrizio Perretti of Bocconi University in Milan. In a recent study, the scholars show that when protestors fight to change a company’s policy, their future choices of where and how much to protest are shaped by the company’s response.

Moreover, the outcome may not be what either group has planned for. Companies that meet protestor demand often inadvertently spur the protestors to demonstrate further; conversely, companies that refuse to give in tend to propel protestors to redirect their energies toward related but different issues.

The researchers based their conclusions on a deep dive into the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and a close analysis of protests and company responses in specific locations.

During the time period studied, the researchers found, public sentiment toward nuclear energy changed from mild support to open hostility in the form of an organized protest movement. To quantify this movement’s impact on nuclear power plant construction, the researchers studied the aftermath of protestors’ local victories.

In Massachusetts, for example, the first nuclear power protest in 1974 persuaded Northeast Utilities to postpone, and then permanently cancel, its plant. This reaction, Piazza and Perretti found, catalyzed local protestors. In the years that followed, the region became one of the United States’ strongest bastions of anti-nuclear activism.

In order to quantify how company actions affected protests, the researchers first measured the number of U.S. protest events by geographic location from 1970 to 1995. They then compared this number to the number of nuclear facilities either completed or cancelled over a one-year time period within 100 miles of a given demonstration. They included controls to account for local economic and political differences upon local activism, and for any geographic bias of the newspaper sources used to identify protest events.

The patterns they found were intriguing. Proposing a new plant for construction boosted anti-nuclear protests by 18 percent in a 100-mile radius. Cancelling construction of a plant drove a 27 percent increase in anti-nuclear protests. And when a new nuclear plant was completed and connected to the grid, the researchers witnessed a 2.3 percent increase in the number of protests not directly aimed at nuclear power plants.

The reason for the increase in other protests when a company prevailed and built a power plant? The researchers hypothesize that each time a plant was completed, demoralized activists attached themselves to other movements.

These results raised a related question. Did company decisions on one type of controversy, such as a nuclear power plant, lead to greater support for related protest movements or for unrelated ones? The former, it turns out.

To measure this, the researchers again looked at protests within given regions and categorized them into anti-nuclear weapon protests, environmental protests, public policy protests, anti-war protests and protests against the proximity of a given plant to a specific property, that is, “not in my backyard” protests.

Nuclear power opponents, they found, were most likely to turn to adjacent issues such as protests against nuclear weapons. Protest activities, in other words, have a domino effect.

While most research tracks the effects of activism on companies, Piazza and Perretti’s study shows that the way companies act is also a critical event driver. Company choices can actually drive the evolution of activism, triggering activist mobilization in other causes.

The research represents a challenge to traditional explanations of activism, which usually assume that mobilization and protests are most effective early on then dwindle over time, regardless of the behavior of the organization.

Piazza and Perretti’s findings suggest a valuable lesson for companies, especially those operating in more than one location: Their decisions in one place may actually escalate activism elsewhere. Pacific Gas & Electric successfully acted on this insight in the 1980s. Working with the Sierra Club, the company swapped the cancellation of one site at Bodega Bay, California — the target of frequent protests — for support of a plant at a second site elsewhere in the state at Diablo Canyon.

The findings also offer important insight for activists choosing a company on which to focus. These activists should keep in mind that the companies most likely to capitulate are also the ones most likely to feed a movement going forward — providing, in effect, the possibility of a double win.

Meanwhile, even if they fail in one effort, activists can take heart that their energy isn’t necessarily wasted. Only a little further afield, a similar movement may gain momentum from demoralized protestors looking for a new cause.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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