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Business Schools Can Use Systems Thinking for Sustainability

Find out how business schools are using systems thinking to advance sustainability — and get involved!

Do you work in a business school and care about sustainability? 

Maybe you’re faculty, staff, or a student. You want your business school – and the world beyond – to become more sustainable. 

Jason Jay (MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative) believes systems thinking is the most important tool we have to achieve change.  

Business schools have typically focused research and teaching on incremental change. They focus on efficiency within existing economic systems. Students learn to create single solutions to single problems. 

But grand challenges like the UN Sustainable Development Goals won’t be solved incrementally. They require an approach that’s “much more substantial, ambitious, and multi-stakeholder,” says Jay. 

What’s the role of business schools in driving substantial or systems change? How could they build this goal into their core activities, like convening, educating, researching, and engaging?  

Jay and NBS Director Jury Gualandris are working with members of the NBS Sustainability Centres Community (SCC) to answer those questions. The SCC is a global network of business school sustainability centres.  

Jay and Gualandris want to accelerate individual schools’ activities and find ways to share insights across schools.  “Many of us are engaged in different research and teaching activities that could potentially accelerate and catalyze a sustainability transition,” Gualandris said. “But sometimes we are so busy doing that we forget about learning from others.”

This article describes a virtual session to explore business school action related to systems change.

Want to know more? See “How to Change a System in Three Months,” the next installment, which reports from an in-person workshop on system change in June 2023.

Watch the Virtual Session on Systems Thinking 

Members of the Sustainability Centres Community joined Jay and Gualandris on May 8 for a 1.5-hour session on “How Business Schools Address Systems Change for Sustainability.” 

Excerpts are below. 

What Is Systems Thinking?  

Systems thinking recognizes the complexity of our world. We live amid systems large and small, from our body’s circulatory system to our institutions, supply chains, and natural environment. Systems have features like uncertainty, interdependence, and feedback loops. That means that truly grappling with challenges can’t be done using simple linear models of cause and effect.  

Thinking in terms of systems is powerful partly because it is such a flexible approach, says Jay. Specifically:  

  • There are many different places to intervene in a system to catalyze change 
  • You can scope systems change at different scales, from the global to the local 
  • Systems change goals range from optimizing an existing system to totally transforming it 

Three graphics below show these ways of thinking about systems change. 

Ultimately, all these change approaches are valuable, Jay told participants in at the May 8 virtual session. “Change requires multi-level, multi-issue systems change. So it’s great to have everyone working on their individual efforts, ideally in conversation with one another through forums like this.”

Different Places to Intervene in a Systems  

Six factors shape human behaviour within a system, according to researchers John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter Senge.

Six conditions of systems change, includes structural, relational, and transformative change.


Different Scales of Systems Change 

Projects can be scoped by their geography (local, regional, global) and their issue focus (single or multiple SDGs). Jay provided this graphic. 

Systems boundaries that describe different scales of systems change, organized by specific or general issues, and local, national/regional, and global change.


Different Goals for Systems Change 

Systems change can focus on optimization, partial redesign, or transformation. These are generally linked to time horizon. This model comes from researcher Frank Geels and colleagues.

meeting sustainable development goals, directionality of system change


Applying Systems Thinking to Business Schools

In the survey and virtual session, Jay and Gualandris asked: 

  • What are the roles that business schools can play in systems change for sustainability?  
  • How is your business school engaged, or how could it be?   
  • What are the similarities and differences across business school efforts?  

Systems change for sustainability involves an effort to change a real-world “socio-technical” system. This could happen in business schools through applied research, a targeted learning experience, engaged scholarship, action learning, partnerships, and other approaches.  

Session participant Jost Hamschmidt (University of St. Gallen) offered a vision: “The role of education must shift from mass-producing leaders for the status-quo to the curation of learning communities grounded on peer-to-peer learning, empowerment, and self-reflection.”   

Members of the SCC shared current and potential projects. These looked both inward towards the systems that compose a business school, and outward at issues in local communities or across the globe.  

Here are some projects tackling grand challenges, with links to more information.  

Through a broader survey, more than 25 universities shared their work on systems change for sustainability (see compilation here). A next step will be classifying these and other projects by scale, to make overlaps and connections across projects clearer. The goal is enabling learning, support, and perhaps collaboration.

Insights and Provocations around Business Schools and Systems Change

It wouldn’t be an academic discussion without intriguing and provocative ideas. During the virtual session, participants shared insights and unanswered questions. Here are some themes.  

How to change the business school itself? Faculty incentives focus on individual achievement rather than systems efforts. Yet, many within business schools want to “create a systems change culture.” They want to know what kinds of structure and leadership facilitate change in the business school. They recognize variation: For example, at a school in Brazil, many faculty are still skeptical about climate change, while at ESADE in Spain, faculty seek out sustainability integration.  

Mapping and sharing efforts. People want to avoid duplicating efforts and instead share approaches. One person said: “Too often all of us experiment on our own. We might create bigger impact / make more research and reflection, if we share & replicate pedagogical strategies among us.”  

Process. What are the nuts and bolts of successful systems change? In particular, people talked about “safe spaces” for learning (and even ‘unlearning’ outdated ideas). What is “the role of the learning space, diversity of learning community, combining reflection and action.” 

Getting used to Systems Thinking. What if systems change remains a novel concept? An anonymous commenter, who may also be the author of this article, asked: “What if you don’t naturally think in terms of systems? You know they’re important, but your mind doesn’t work that way?” The group provided a host of helpful advice, for anyone else who may face this problem:  

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  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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