Collaboration
What Does the Future of Sustainability in Academia Look Like?

This is the final question from a roundtable discussion with the directors of sustainability research centers at six top business schools.

Through Georgia Tech’s new QEP (Quality Enhancement Program), we will develop very deep educational partnerships with a few key institutions, be those NGOs or local government or corporations.

In terms of our research vision, we would like our Center to be the model for integrating excellent research that is both scholarly and published in top journals, and has real-world impact that drives sustainable solutions and business value. Faculty doing research-based teaching, and research and education being part of our industry engagements – that’s the aspirational vision.

The other aspirational vision is for our Center to be a vehicle of transformation and thought leadership around issues of sustainability in our region.

As the topic of sustainability increases in popularity, it’s becoming more critical that we understand where we have been as a field and ensure we are moving forward based on data and evidence — not just restating aspirational goals that make us feel good.

As more companies deepen their knowledge of sustainability, there are increasing opportunities to engage with industry on more challenging questions of innovation and change.

As sustainability issues become more complex over time, we expect to continue engaging in projects that are longer, more multi-disciplinary, and involve a variety of partners. We’ve seen that evolution occurring over the past several years.

Also, Cornell has a new $150 million initiative for engaged learning. As part of that, we will make a push to increase sustainability-related opportunities for field-based education. In line with this trend, I also expect that we’ll be focusing more on developing better tools and metrics that will allow professionals from other domains to better understand and apply business analysis to their own work.

Well, we’ve launched an Office in Transformational Learning to help align pedagogy, research and collaboration with industry partners.

As my colleagues and I have often said, we’re trying to develop the MBA we always wanted, but never got.

Further development of an Institute will continue to align innovative pedagogy, marketplace impact and scholarship. To move other academic institutions down a path of integrating sustainability into business school pedagogy, we hope we can become a model as a small yet nimble program.

Also, within our business school, we’re using our own building diagnostics to work on the business case for sustainability within high-performance buildings. We already have faculty and students looking at our building as a living laboratory and model for experiential learning.

The space we live and learn in should be high-performance, but most buildings are not. Our building is representative of about five-and-a-half million buildings in the United States at over a hundred thousand square feet and over 50 years old.

So I want to use buildings as learning laboratories. To this end, the classrooms of the future are going to be out onsite with our project partners. The MBA of the future should include student experiences outside of a university campus where students get to research and analyze management situations, buildings and supply chains in which they will one day work.

The one thing that really comes to mind, since we are a public university, is that we are increasingly focusing on giving back to the state of North Carolina and working with local communities to support their economic development.

Much of rural North Carolina is in transition, so I see that as an increasing focus, along with an increasing focus on innovation and social entrepreneurship.

Also, our business school is really focused on preparing students to operate in a globalized world. So having a tighter connection between our global offerings when our students go and study abroad or do global immersion electives, ensuring that there is a more robust sustainability component to that.

And as far as our vision for industry engagement, we’ve been on a path of increased engagement with higher quantity and quality of projects. I see that continuing.

When we’ve looked at the landscape and learned about all the awesome things our colleagues are doing at other schools, we’ve seen a need to differentiate and focus on our distinctive contribution.

Those two things, I think, are a really rigorous analytic approach to management and a focus on innovation for sustainability — given that we’re part of MIT, which is an innovation powerhouse.

So on the analytic aspect, that’s about making MIT Sloan a destination for management tools around sustainability: understanding the business case, understanding the environmental and social impacts of efforts. We are targeting our action learning engagements at the development of tools that we will make available through a platform that we’re developing with company allies.

On the innovation side, it’s about developing thought leadership, together with leading companies, about what it takes to do innovation for sustainability, bringing new products, new services, new business models to market that have a significant impact on a sustainable economy.

So we’re looking for the companies that are very serious about hard-wiring sustainability into enterprise in that serious analytic way, and companies for whom sustainability is going to really affect their R&D and what they’re bringing to market.

We’ve spent a lot of time out on the road talking with alumni all over the country, with business partners, academic partners, and our peer sustainability institutes. Three key themes are emerging.

I think we need to be fully global in our perspective on sustainability. We need to include more social, labor and human rights issues as part of our definition of sustainability. And we have to include more systems thinking in response to complex global sustainability problems.

But the key underlying theme that cuts across all of these discussions is the tension between incremental change and transformative change.

I think that sustainability education up until now has been focused on change agents at the enterprise level to help make companies more sustainable. And now we’re asking ourselves, “Is incremental change happening fast enough? Is it deep enough?”

The response we were getting, especially from our students and alumni, is that incremental just isn’t fast or deep enough to achieve the true sustainability we all aspire to. We need a transformative change — of companies, entire industries, even new markets and new economies.

The world’s sustainability challenges are outrunning us. We need a transformation of business models and markets to get out ahead of the challenges again.

Download the full series here to read the entire round table discussion.

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