A Multidisciplinary Approach to Global Challenges

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021
By Richard Taylor
Photo by iStock/Nastco
At the University of Sussex, an ambitious center seeks solutions to some of the world’s most pressing concerns.

What can business schools do to address society’s most important challenges? How can they work with partners worldwide to connect development opportunities with investments in science, technology, and innovation?

Since its formation in 2006, the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre has been working to tackle complex global issues and bring about positive social change through multidisciplinary, collaborative research. The center is co-directed by the University of Sussex Business School.

The STEPS Centre began as a joint venture between the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), an independent think tank based on the university campus, and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), which is now part of the Business School. The STEPS Centre and its work were described in a submission to AACSB’s 2021 Innovations That Inspire challenge.

Partnering for Progress

From the start, the motivation behind the founding of STEPS was to show how international development connects with ideas and investments in science, technology, and innovation. This means academics are poised to tackle challenges that range from sustainable food to technological innovation.

Researchers work with local partners around the globe on projects related to agriculture, water, health, energy, and climate change. While focusing on interactions between social, technological, and environmental dynamics, they explore how poor and marginalized people can be involved in identifying problems and solutions.

For instance, a project called Governance of Socio-Technical Transformations studies the interrelations between energy systems, agriculture, and urban digital infrastructures. One of the scholars participating in this project is Andy Stirling, professor of science and technology policy, who co-directs the STEPS Centre. Also involved are researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research at UFZ Leipzig in Germany; the Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi, Kenya; the Environment Support Group in Bangalore, India; and the German Environment Agency.

In addition, since 2015, the STEPS Centre has been part of the Pathways to Sustainability Global Consortium, which tackles sustainability challenges through transdisciplinary research, policy engagement, teaching, and communications. Partners within the consortium form hubs in Africa, North America, Latin America, China, South Asia, and Europe to address these challenges.

Researchers work on projects related to agriculture, water, health, energy, and climate change. They explore how poor and marginalized people can be involved in identifying problems and solutions.

Over the past few years, around 10 staff members from the Business School have been involved in STEPS research, and much of their work has implications for sustainability policy and practice worldwide. Here are just a few examples:

  • Robert Byrne, a senior lecturer within SPRU, collaborated with colleagues to develop a new policy approach that ensures climate technology policies better serve low-income countries. The approach, based on STEPS research, has been adopted as a funding mechanism by the Green Climate Fund, a 10.3 billion USD initiative from the United Nations.
  • Fiona Marshall, professor of environment and development, led a project that had an important influence on urban waste management policy in India, bringing benefits for the environment, economy, and society.
  • Adrian Ely, a reader in technology and sustainability at SPRU, worked with colleagues to develop insights about ways that science, technology, and innovation can reduce poverty and achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The resulting book describes sustainability initiatives that range from open-source seeds in Argentina to solar homes in Kenya that buyers can purchase through mobile-enabled payment services.
  • Ely and other members of the Business School also are part of the STEPS Centre’s Pathways Network, which explores how grassroots alliances can provoke change in energy, water, and food systems. Researchers are joined by civil society groups and policymakers in Transformation Labs designed to develop inclusive solutions to socio-ecological challenges. These range from helping China weather the economic shock of a green transition to improving urban development and water management in India.

Serving as a Hub

It is not just through the STEPS Centre that the Business School at Sussex promotes an interdisciplinary outlook and focuses on solving societal problems. The school is a hub for inter- and cross-disciplinary research that combines expertise in fields as diverse as finance, psychology, economics, development studies, energy, innovation, sustainability, health, management, public policy, and strategy.

“Our aim is to gain a broader understanding of the world than can be afforded by any single discipline in isolation,” says Constantin Blome, associate dean for research at the Business School. “We believe that problems faced by business and management often cannot be fully addressed without taking account of broader socio-political, regulatory, technological, and environmental issues.”

To pursue cross-disciplinary scholarship, faculty develop relationships with individuals and organizations through funding bids, academic networks, and collaborations with like-minded researchers. But researchers don’t simply collaborate with academics in other fields—they also engage with multiple stakeholder groups, including policymakers, business executives, and local community leaders. Such cross-boundary interactions ensure that business schools are uniquely placed to understand societal challenges and address them at various levels, says Susan Smith, associate dean for education and students.

Cross-boundary interactions ensure that business schools are uniquely placed to understand society’s grand challenges and address them at various levels.

To make sure any collaborative project succeeds, Blome says, researchers must identify stakeholders at the outset. “Look at who might use the research, who has influence in the area, and who they already work with,” he recommends. “By bringing relevant parties on board early in the research process and involving them in designing the study, you can ensure that your research is what’s really needed and that it will have a significant impact in the world outside of academia.”

Sharing Vital Information

The school is committed to widely sharing any new knowledge uncovered by its researchers. In 2012, the STEPS Centre established an annual summer school, which has since been adapted into a free online course on pathways to sustainability.

The course challenges early-career researchers to consider key concepts and theories, learn from practical examples, and explore a range of methods. The goal is to help researchers and practitioners understand the politics of sustainability, learn to negotiate pathways to sustainability, and master tools and methods for researching complex issues on the topic. So far, the course has reached around 1,000 people.

The school also is a member of the United Nations Global Compact—a global network of organizations working toward a more sustainable and inclusive global economy—and has signed on to the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME).

“This means we incorporate global social responsibility and sustainability values into all our teaching and research,” Smith explains. “We’re working to increase the visibility of PRME with all colleagues and students to advance our commitment to responsible management education.” For instance, the school offers specialist Master of Science degrees in fields such as energy and climate change, sustainable development, and sustainable accounting and finance.

Building on Strengths

Since its establishment in 2006, the STEPS Centre has been primarily funded by the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council, but this year that funding will come to an end. Nonetheless, the organization’s work will go on. Researchers from SPRU will continue to collaborate with IDS and other partners, and the STEPS Centre website will remain online with a searchable database of resources, a repository of publications, and a free online course.

The Business School at Sussex is able to fund most of its research projects through grants. However, school leaders stress that institutions with fewer resources also can address major societal issues by building on their historical strengths, by taking advantage of their specific locations, or by beginning their research on a small scale.

“Schools might not be in a position to tackle challenges at an international policy level, but they can focus on more local needs,” says Blome. “Perhaps they can look at inequality, biodiversity, or sustainability in their own regions, or they can find local solutions to pervasive problems that can be subsequently replicated elsewhere or scaled up for wider benefit.”

Smith wholeheartedly agrees. “Rapid environmental and social changes—such as climate change, population explosion, urbanization, and globalized economics—are posing urgent practical, moral, and political challenges for organizations and people across the globe,” she says. “These issues have profound implications for many of the primary users of business and management research, including businesses, governments, NGOs, and regulators. As part of our role shaping the leaders of the future, it’s vital that business schools lead work to address these challenges.”

Richard Taylor
Research Manager, University of Sussex
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