Whether automobiles or agriculture, raising efficiency and doing so in a sustainable fashion takes ingenuity. And that, in turn, is driven by a solid knowledge of not only how things are done, but also why they’re done a certain way.

At a Barcelona Challengers Conference today, Mazda (a carmaker) and Thomas Rippel (an organic farmer) talked about their experiences being inventive about efficiency to students and media at Mazda Space in Barcelona. Their stories feature real-life examples of how to achieve innovation in their respective fields by shedding new light on old ways.

Mazda was forced into a rethink after suffering four straight years of losses following the financial crisis of 2007. With limited time or money, it needed to come up with a completely new line-up of vehicles: appealing models that met increasingly stringent fuel efficiency and emissions targets. And they needed to make Mazda profitable again fast – no small task in a brutally competitive industry known for long lead times and burdensome capital investment.

Mazda succeeded by getting its engineering, design and manufacturing experts together to learn the reasoning behind what the others were doing. This new awareness led to breakthroughs, enabling Mazda to by-pass prevailing doctrine about building automobiles. The result: an immensely successful line-up of efficient yet fun-to-drive cars that has not only bolstered Mazda’s reputation as a company not afraid to do things differently, but also propelled the carmaker to two consecutive years of record operating profits, with a third expected for the 12 months ending on 31 March.

“We had the know-how, but what we needed to do was understand the ‘know why’ by taking the conventions that have been handed down to us and putting them under the microscope,” said Jeff Guyton, Mazda Motor Europe president & CEO. “Our current vehicle generation is the result: the product of a genuine culture of knowing why.”

Others, like Thomas Rippel, have also taken this kind of know-why approach with success. Following a food-related illness, the globetrotter developed a close interest in healthy, sustainable food, going so far as to become an organic farmer. His special focus is on better and more efficient ways to use cow manure as fertiliser by turning it into “black gold”. Rippel is confident that cattle farming (and beef consumption) is not only sustainable if done correctly, but could also help alleviate critical problems like climate change, hunger and soil fertility.

The Barcelona Challengers Conference was the latest in a series of gatherings at Mazda Space. It followed three sessions held at the carmaker’s European event hub in 2015 to discuss important global issues like women’s leadership in the 21st century and how technology will influence the future of work.