Technology and Sustainability: Keys for Leadership

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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
By Veronica Omeni
Illustration by iStock/ookawa
Students who want to make an impact in the business world should look for programs that teach—and often combine—these two important trends.
  • As more businesses adopt sustainable practices and integrate new technologies into the workplace, corporate leaders must master new skills in both areas.
  • Business schools are adding programs that focus on environmental, social, and governance issues—and explore how artificial intelligence can support sustainability initiatives.
  • More than two-thirds of students believe it is important for AI to be integrated into the business curriculum, and 65 percent want their institutions to participate in sustainability initiatives in the community.

Two top trends are poised to transform the workplace: ongoing advancements in technology and deepening commitments to sustainability. Students who are currently considering careers in business will find that business schools all over the world are offering adaptive and enriched programs that emphasize one or both of these elements.

And students wholeheartedly approve of such programs, especially where sustainability is concerned. Of the more than 116,000 students who participated in the 2023 International Student Survey from QS International, 65 percent said they believe that institutions should encourage and facilitate participation between students and local communities around social sustainability efforts.

Schools that are making such efforts are focused on preparing responsible leaders who can balance profits and purpose. These leaders will require a range of technological skills to promote economic prosperity, while simultaneously achieving societal impact and embracing stewardship.

Sustainability Steps to the Fore

As more environmentally conscious clients and stakeholders begin to demand heightened accountability from businesses, sustainability has become a top priority for most companies. Executives are focusing on environmental, social, and environmental (ESG) objectives; setting goals for reducing carbon emissions; and finding ways to balance the competing interests of diverse stakeholders.

This means tomorrow’s leaders must know how to look beyond economic growth and consider the social and environmental consequences of their companies’ actions. No longer is it merely desirable for business leaders to understand sustainability processes; it’s an absolute necessity.

To prepare these future executives, many business schools are offering undergraduate and graduate programs that address complex environmental and social challenges. They are designing their curricula to embrace ESG principles and to explore the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

More than 800 schools have become signatories to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME). Through this initiative, multinational institutions, business schools, and corporations have joined together to nurture responsible leadership and foster transformative education on corporate sustainability.

Tomorrow’s leaders must know how to look beyond economic growth and consider the social and environmental consequences of their companies’ actions.

Another way schools are promoting sustainability is by forming partnerships with external stakeholders who can provide students with internship opportunities and capstone consultancy projects. Through these hands-on experiences, students have a chance to use their new knowledge in the real world, where theory meets practical application.

For instance, at ESMT Berlin, the Responsible Leaders Fellowship enables graduates to volunteer pro bono at social impact organizations in emerging areas of the world, while earning a salary from the school’s donors. The initiative focuses on the concept of “paying it forward” and makes it clear that leadership comes with responsibility.

Technology Leads the Way

In addition to understanding the importance of sustainability, tomorrow’s top executives will need to be comfortable with emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence (AI). While schools are integrating more tech into their programs, they aren’t necessarily shifting all classes into the digital realm. In fact, the popularity of exclusively online education has waned in the post-pandemic era. Instead, schools are holistically bringing innovative technologies into traditional teaching methods.

The good news is that a significant number of today’s students are already familiar with many emerging technologies. The QS Generative AI Student Survey 2023 found that 49 percent of students use AI for personal projects, and 35 percent use it for research and study projects. More than two-thirds of the respondents who say they are very or extremely familiar with the technology also believe it is very important for AI to be integrated into the curriculum.

Because students will play a major role in the way AI is adopted in the classroom, some administrators are seeking student feedback when they start integrating tech into the curriculum. But most students don’t yet know how to maximize AI tools to enhance learning, complete collaborative projects, and address sustainability challenges, so professors will cover these topics in the classroom.

Additionally, most professors will strive to instill in students a sense of responsibility and ethics and to promote a culture of responsible behavior that will have an impact beyond the classroom. The goal is to ensure that graduates will use AI ethically once they are in the workplace.

Two Trends in One

Fortunately, many business schools are combining both of these critical trends—they are using technology to give students deeper insights into sustainability issues. Here are three examples:

  • Henley Business School at the University of Reading in the U.K. is offering a course called “Climate Intelligence: Using Climate Data to Improve Business Decision-Making.” The school’s Master’s in Climate Change, Sustainable Business, and Green Finance trains students to use real climate data to measure and manage the risks that climate change presents to companies. These include both the physical risks caused by rising sea levels and temperatures and the transition risks stemming from the forced adoption of different operational and financial strategies.
By incorporating new technology into the classroom, schools equip future leaders with essential knowledge, personalize learning, provide student support, and create engaging learning experiences.
  • ESSEC Business School in France offers a Global MBA program that facilitates sustainability by harnessing digital technology and virtual reality (VR). Through VR, students partake in immersive experiences that transcend geographical boundaries, enhancing their understanding of sustainability while minimizing the necessity for physical travel.
  • IE University in Spain is pioneering the application of extended reality (XR) technologies, which include VR, mixed reality, and augmented reality. IE also draws on the immersive technologies available through the metaverse to allow students to make risk-free decisions in a safe and controlled space. In a recent cross-disciplinary initiative called the IE UN Challenge, students used XR technologies to work on projects related to the SDGs.

These initiatives exemplify best practices in sustainability education and leadership training. They actively promote SDG research and teach business leaders how to utilize sustainability data to benefit their organizations and the broader community.

By incorporating new technology into the classroom, schools not only equip future leaders with essential knowledge and skills; they also personalize learning, provide student support, and create engaging learning experiences. In addition, by taking advantage of online tools, schools make sustainability education more affordable and accessible for a diverse range of students.

A Sustainable Tomorrow

As outlined in an article from Griffith University in Australia, today’s business schools are shaping a generation of responsible leaders who can use technology to combine economic growth with societal impact and environmental stewardship. Their graduates will have the knowledge and skills necessary to become responsible, competent, and skilled managers who lead positive change in the business world and, by extension, in society.

Today’s students are the architects of the future. Those who pursue strong foundational training in societal impact and emerging technologies will become the trailblazers who shape politics, innovation, and business for decades to come.

Veronica Omeni
Principal Consultant at QS Quacquarelli Symonds
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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