Leaning Into Sustainability

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Tuesday, April 20, 2021
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/Boonyachoat
Whether through simulations, courses, or broader research initiatives, business schools are embedding sustainability into their courses and cultures.

As we approach Earth Day on April 22, it’s a good time to take stock of where the world stands in achieving the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How likely is it that the SDGs will be achieved by the U.N.’s target date of 2030? And how are business schools working to make a difference?

For its part, the U.N. monitors progress on its SDG Tracker, where it posts multiple datapoints across all 17 categories. For example, under SDG No. 13 (climate action), the data show that in 2019 humans produced a record level of carbon emissions, 36.42 billion metric tons. Although emissions dropped during 2020, due to pandemic-related lockdowns, levels are expected to rise once again as business activities resume. Under SDG No. 12 (consumption of resources), our collective “material footprint”—a measure of the biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores, and nonmetal ores used globally—rose from 10.49 metric tons per person in 2009 to 12.18 tons per person in 2017.

As the world enters the last 10 years before the 2030 deadline, the U.N. is using such benchmarking data as a rallying cry to inspire a Decade of Action. According to officials, achieving the SDGs will require concerted efforts on global, local, and individual levels, “by youth, civil society, the media, the private sector, unions, academia and other stakeholders, to generate an unstoppable movement pushing for the required transformations.”

Luckily, business schools worldwide have embraced the challenge, as evidenced by submissions to AACSB International’s 2021 Innovations That Inspire initiative. Below, read about three initiatives that were among those that AACSB highlighted this year. Then, learn more about five other submissions that also had sustainability at their center. These examples are just a sampling of the many ways that business schools are working to raise awareness of the SDGs, mitigate the climate crisis, create circular economies, and graduate responsible business leaders who have the SDGs at heart.

Sustainably Inspired

Among 24 Innovations That Inspire highlighted this year were three that focused on mitigating climate change, promoting environmentally responsible policy, and preserving the planet’s precious resources:

■ The Sustainable Wealth Creation Through Innovation and Technology (SWIT) program at EGADE Business School at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico provides training to help organizations and communities in developing countries build wealth without depleting the planet’s resources.

Created in 2007, SWIT is supported by five pillars: sustainable disruptive innovation inspired by nature, a systems view of growth, a circular economy, clusters of industrial ecological systems, and an entrepreneurial approach to problem solving. Using the SWIT model, EGADE has helped develop a circular economy community in Higueras, Mexico; supported the circular production of coffee and palm oil in Colombia; and created a sustainable single-use plastics initiative in Mexico and Ecuador.

Carlos Scheel, professor of sustainability and technological innovation and leader of the SWIT team, stresses that the methodologies, practices, and experiences of SWIT “can be replicated in other business schools as a sample of how to involve academia with the sustainable growth of the planet.”

■ The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) is a five-year project coordinated by the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School in the United Kingdom; the Centre for Global Challenges at Utrecht University in the Netherlands; and Ingenio, a joint research center of the Spanish National Research Council and the Universitat Politècnica de València in Spain. Through its hubs in Africa and Latin America, as well as partnerships in China, Ghana Senegal, and Kenya, TIPC “brings together policymakers and researchers to co-create transformative innovation policies and practices that help meet the SDGs and can be adopted worldwide,” the school notes in its submission.

So far, TIPC researchers have partnered with the South African National Biodiversity Institute on its Living Catchments Project, a roadmap to address water scarcity in South Africa; as well as with the European Institute of Technology’s Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community on three projects related to the rapid reduction of carbon emissions, responsible governance of nature and landscapes, and nature-based solutions in urban environments. Through its Latin American hub, researchers have explored the role of recycling in the circular economy, the inclusion of small organic farmers, and equitable access to clean water.

The U.N. has called for the concerted efforts of “youth, civil society, the media, the private sector, unions, academia and other stakeholders, to generate an unstoppable movement pushing for the required transformations.”

■ The Climate Action Simulation at ESB Business School at Reutlingen University in Germany is a daylong role-playing simulation held each semester. With the help of data provided by the U.S. nonprofit Climate Interactive, students take on roles of national delegates and other global stakeholder groups affected by climate change. The delegates must work together to create a plan for keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius through the year 2100.

“The objective of this role play is for students to learn about the complexity of climate change—one of the most important [examples] of system dynamics in the real world,” says Florian Kapmeier, professor of strategy. After each round of negotiations, the delegates’ pledges to reduce emissions are run through a computer model called En-ROADS, where “we can see the impacts right away,” says Kapmeier. If the results show that their first-round pledges will not reduce emissions sufficiently, student delegates return for a second round of negotiations to pledge to further reductions.

Sustainable Mentions

Several other submissions also were notable for their work toward the SDGs:

Sustalab, “a learning, leadership and consultancy for good” at the University of Antwerp’s Faculty of Business and Economics (FBE) in Belgium, is raising awareness of the United Nations’ SDGs. Sustalab’s founder Hans Verboven, professor of corporate social responsibility and business ethics at the university, received funding from the Flemish government to create Sustatool, an open-source tool that helps businesses translate the SDG framework into real-world business action.

Sustalab encompasses what Verboven calls “the battle of the boards,” in which a Millennial Board consisting of about 50 graduate students and young alumni face a company’s own board of directors, using research to “attack” its business model and outlining best- and worst-case scenarios. The millennials then challenge the company’s board to adopt more sustainable practices, with the help of Sustatool.

As of the end of last year, more than 1,000 companies were using Sustatool. The school had organized more than 20 “board battles,” and companies were offered more than 2,000 suggestions for action toward the SDGs.

■ The One Planet Leadership MS degree (OPL) was launched in 2018 at the College of Business Administration at Texas A&M University–Central Texas in Killeen. The program, which the school plans to rename the Master of Science Leadership in Sustainability, represents a conversion of a previous MS program in management and leadership.

The 30-hour program includes 10 courses on topics such as the responsibilities and ethics of leadership, global leadership for sustainability, cross-sector partnerships for sustainability, and a “one planet approach” to sustainable business. According to program coordinators, students who earn the degree should be able to recommend sustainable and socially responsible business practices that take into account their impact on all stakeholders.

■ The one-year full-time Sustainable Innovation MBA at the University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business in Burlington includes five modules: Foundations of Management, Building a Sustainable Enterprise, Growing a Sustainable Enterprise, Focusing on Sustainability, and Sustainable Innovation in Action. Students also complete a three-month summer practicum project, in which they help established companies or startups complete projects related to sustainable innovation. Course modules are supplemented by workshops and speaker presentations on topics such as biomimicry, life cycle assessment, and clean technology, as well as activities related to professional development.

Business schools can do immeasurable good by inspiring members of their campus and local communities to embrace sustainable innovation.

Sustainability Games is a course designed by Laura Marie Edinger-Schons, professor of sustainable business, and Carmela Aprea, chair of economic and business education, at the University of Mannheim in Germany. When first offered in spring 2020, the course proved so popular that around 60 students vied for just 24 spots.

In the course, students first learned the basics of design thinking and gamification, before forming teams to design their own games (both board and digital) to teach people about issues related to climate change. For example, one team designed a game in the style of Jenga, in which players pulled bricks out of a tower, with each brick containing a question about the SDGs. Another team designed a game called “Escape from Poverty,” which taps the traditional escape room experience to introduce players to the complexity of poverty.

The hands-on nature of the course, along with structure provided by the Game Design Canvas, provided students with a great deal of motivation to be as creative as possible, Aprea noted in an interview she and Edinger-Schons gave on the ProfessorGame podcast. The course was “very minimalist from our side, but we were there to give them feedback and guidance,” said Aprea. The game development process provided students with an engaging way to learn and reflect about sustainability, while they created a game “to help other people learn about these topics.”

■ The STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) Centre, another initiative at the University of Sussex, is a think tank where researchers use the SDGs to address global challenges through interdisciplinary research projects. Housed within the business school’s Science Policy Research Unit and the university’s Institute of Development Studies, the STEPS Centre was launched in 2006 as a 15-year initiative to complete wide-ranging research in sustainability. This research has been conducted through its Pathways to Sustainability Global Consortium, a network of six hub locations in Africa, China, Europe, Latin America, North America, and South Asia.

Each year, the center also has run its Summer School, a program that encourages early-career researchers to pursue work related to sustainability, activism, or policymaking. Its last Summer School will be held this year.

For each of the last four years, the center has focused on an annual theme. These have included transformations (2018), the idea that radical changes should be made only in collaboration with the populations most affected; uncertainty (2019), the idea that the world must be able to withstand the unexpected; natures (2020), the idea that there are different “natures” that humans must work to understand and respect, rather than exploit; and methods (2021), a focus on how research is conducted and linked to concrete action.

Now in its last year, the center still has several ongoing projects. These projects include studies of the ability of farmers to cope with financial, political, and environmental uncertainty; efforts in India and Bangladesh to protect vulnerable coastal areas; the economic and social impacts of land reform in Zimbabwe, which refers to the effort to redistribute land more fairly among Black and white farmers; and transformations now occurring in the Global South in the areas of energy, agricultural, and urban digital infrastructure.

One Starfish at a Time

Initiatives such as those mentioned above bring to mind this popular parable: An old man is walking on a beach covered in starfish, when he sees a young boy occasionally stop to pick up a starfish and throw it back into the ocean. “Why do you bother doing that?” the old man asks him. “You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy reaches down to throw another starfish into the sea before replying, “I made a difference for that one.”

For this year's observance of Earth Day, the story is a powerful metaphor for the immeasurable good that business schools can do by inspiring members of their campus and local communities to embrace sustainable innovation. By encouraging each of their graduates to throw just one starfish back into the water, business schools will go far in creating a better world for 2030 and beyond.

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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