Kaj Embren

A few weeks ago I witnessed one of many encouraging signs that educational institutions, traditionally centered around management and finance, are beginning to take some of the most pressing global challenges more seriously.
One of Sweden’s leading institutions for training tomorrow’s business leaders – The Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) – hosted a groundbreaking seminar a entitled Sustainable Business in a Sustainable World. It reminded me of when the university’s student groups first took hold of the sustainability agenda ten years ago. In that crowded auditorium, inspirational speeches by students demanded that the theories and practices of sustainability become more sophisticated and insightful.
That was the beginning of an era of pioneering new doctoral dissertations (Niklas Egels-Zandén) and strategy papers (http://www.suregroup.se) from students with a real thirst for knowledge and aspirations to fully understand the field’s underlying theories. For the first time, students were forging links between the economy, ecology and social competence in the markets.
Whether the recent SSE conference is a sign of a similar shift is not yet clear, but there were plenty of exciting new ideas and impassioned speakers. But whilst the seminar signaled a move in the right direction, Sweden’s academic institutions are not leading the debate on sustainability as much as they once did. Although we should not attach too much importance to the various university rankings tables, it is still worth asking why no Swedish institutions featured in the top 100 for MBAs in Sustainable Development (Aspen Insitute http://www.topmba.com/mba-rankings/sustainability-mba). Sweden often features amongst the top nations in economic, ecological and social contexts, so why is it not as recognized in this future-oriented, global field?
One of the reasons is that many of our micro- and, in particular, macroeconomists are traditional thinkers that accept the framework of the established market and refuse to embrace new ideas. I believe it to be a serious problem that these academics come to dominate decision-making positions in our educational institutions, government agencies and government offices. They are our advisers and experts in high posts.
The most recent example is the latest report from the Swedish government’s fiscal advisory board – consisting of leading macroeconomists – that completely excluded areas of knowledge that deal with sustainable development and climate change issues. Without these, it will be difficult for Sweden to meet its pressing new challenges, both domestically and internationally.
So what can be done to establish a new, sustainable paradigm? At the SSE conference, I spoke with Nigel Roome, Professor of Governance, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable Development at Vlerick School of Management. He stressed the importance of understanding the underlying principles of sustainability and the need for change, whilst explaining how some of the implementation processes can be designed. These are key elements of both education and business development. They will be needed if we are to take the next steps in developing the field.
There is one such Swedish organization that is doing just that. Recognized in both educational institutions and business strategy development, The Natural Step [http://www.naturalstep.org] has developed a unifying framework for strategic sustainable development. The model includes several established tools, concepts and standards that encourage better ecological performance, especially in businesses and industries. Initiatives such such as the Global Reporting Initiative, Global Compact ISO, Cradle-to-Cradle, Bottom of the Pyramid, Life Cycle Assessment and Towards a Circulation Economy have received growing recognition from universities and businesses alike. The framework should be the basis for capacity-building within both institutions, corporations and governments.
For those businesses and educational institutions that have not yet embraced these new social challenges, it’s time to take the step towards a new model of society with a growing and integrated social responsibility. There are organizations and individuals with skills and experience, so what are you waiting for?
Read also about the declaration from the Rio Summit at Rio Centro regarding an announcement by more than 250 higher education institutions in support of sustainable development.
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