Tima Bansal looks back at the 2018 Sustainability Centres Workshop.
The Network for Business Sustainability hosts a workshop every two years that brings together sustainability research centres from around the world. In June 2018, we held our fourth workshop at Cornell’s new Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City. It was an outstanding event. These remarks from one participant seemed representative:
"I cannot describe in words how much I was inspired by everything….For the last couple of years, I’ve been working in an environment characterized by departmental silos; that is partially why I am so excited about the role of our sustainability center as a potential intermediary and a whiff of fresh air.”
"I cannot describe in words how much I was inspired by everything… For the last couple of years, I’ve been working in an environment characterized by departmental silos; that is partially why I am so excited about the role of our sustainability center as a potential intermediary and a whiff of fresh air.”
Eighty people from 63 centres attended the workshop, representing every continent (except Antarctica). We kept to the ‘workshop’ format, aiming to build relationships and collectively work together to address our own challenges, but aim towards something bigger than just one centre. In this editorial, I want to reflect on some of the sentiments that stood out for me.
One major impression was the palpable feeling of progress. In prior workshops, I often felt that the directors of these sustainability research centres felt that they were on the fringe of the business school. This time, I was struck by the number of centre directors who said their sustainability centre was shaping the agenda of the business school.
For example, I heard for the first time that the dedicated degree programs in sustainability were even more successful than the mainstream MBA programs, such as the one at the University of Guelph. As well, the post-experience programs, such as the MSc program at the University of Lausanne were fully subscribed. One participant even said that sustainability is now seen as shaping higher education more generally, as MBA enrolments decline.
But, it is too early to say that ‘sustainability has arrived.’ Although there were many well-established centres, such the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, which began in 1996, many others still struggle to gain traction among research faculty and find sustained funding.
During the workshop, we held sessions intended to help centres gain more traction. These included, for example, ‘developing your centre’s unique identity’, ‘story telling for dissemination,’ and ‘metrics for impact.’ (Slides and video from these sessions will be online soon.) These sessions were very popular and the discussions about the challenges and opportunities of running a centre continued throughout the entire workshop — during our dinners, boats on the East River, and walks through New York’s streets. There was plenty of grist for conversation, as we talked to each other about similar struggles.
One struggle that seemed to gain considerable traction was the challenges that we all face in reaching our audiences and creating impact. Although the concept of sustainability often has a recognized place within business schools, there is still a feeling that the ideas are not really being heard. Representatives from the Harvard Business Review, The Conversation, and Bloomberg offered us advice on reaching our business audiences. These speakers said directly that there is an appetite among their business audiences for sustainability content, yet many centre directors find it difficult to package our content in simple, personal-interest, soundbites.
Jason Jay, co-author of Breaking through gridlock, argued that we need to better understand of our motives and look more favorably at others. He said at one point as we discussed our understanding of motives: “I can see you need more coaching.” Our session on design thinking at frog design asked us to build empathy stakeholders in order to reach them more effectively — yet after several hours of design-thinking, empathy-building and ideating, most of us spoke from our existing worldviews.
I left the workshop feeling both energized by the progress made in sustainability within business schools, but also very aware that we have so much more progress to make in order to embed sustainability in business practices and thinking. I am excited that the door is opening to sustainability worldwide, and we have an opportunity to learn from each other and collaborate to have significant impact. I do hope you join us on this journey.
Want to feel like you were really there? These photos and commentary give a visual sense of the diversity, learning and positive energy that characterized the workshop.
About the Author
Tima Bansal is a Professor of Strategy at the Ivey Business School. She is also the Director of Ivey’s Centre on Building Sustainable Value and the Executive Director (and Founder) for the Network for Business Sustainability, a growing network of more than 7000 researchers and managers committed to advancing sustainability in business. She has received significant accolades for her scholarship in business sustainability: most recently, in 2017, she was presented with the Organizations and Natural Environment Distinguished Scholar Award by the Academy of Management; in 2012, she was awarded a Canada Research Chair to pursue her efforts to make business both profitable and sustainable.
Photograph of the Cornell Tech campus by Thomas Johnson