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5 Ways B-Schools Can Accelerate SDG Progress in the Context of Covid-19

It’s not as if the world was on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Of the 38 targets assessed in 2019, the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development declared we hadn’t made sufficient progress on 37 of them. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact across all 17 Goals and threatens to turn back progress by years in several areas, such as poverty, hunger, education, and justice.

Meanwhile, in business schools, scholars have been engaged in an epic struggle to replace the dominant intellectual foundations of business with new ones that better reflect the needs of society and the changing rules of business. While there has been steady progress, anyone familiar with higher education knows that paradigm shifts can be painfully slow. It’s not just about what we should start teaching, it is especially challenging to identify and remove the content we should stop teaching.

And business schools have been busy. For the last year, their leaders and faculties have been working hard and fast to ensure safety and continuity in learning and research activities, and inventing new models for just about everything, including student recruitment, instructional delivery, experiential education, faculty development, and more. The professors I know have never been more stretched; the deans I know have never been more stressed.

So, how can business schools accelerate progress on the SDGs right now, even while dealing COVID-19? Here are five suggestions.

1. Prioritize social impact and responsibility when supporting local business.

Many business schools have stepped up to help local businesses to navigate the crisis and become more resilient. Like IE University’s Center for Social Innovation and Sustainability, which has committed to assisting 70 small business in Madrid to develop digital strategies, business schools are doing their part to save jobs and help economies bounce back. Almost any kind of business needs help now, but what if we prioritized organizations by their potential for societal impact and helped selected businesses to develop more inclusive and sustainable business practices? I think we would accelerate progress on the SDGs. Indeed, I believe local initiative is as important as global leadership to achieve the Global Goals.

2. Align student experiences towards sustainable development.

The Gies College of Business has committed to doubling the number of students participating in experiential learning each year. Despite the pandemic, other business schools have been doing the same—requiring more project-based learning, internships, and apprenticeships. The activities have moved online and become shorter, but students are doing more. They are doing work that matters in practice, and we can and should orient that works towards sustainability. We don’t necessarily have to give up the other experiences, such as writing a social media plan, modeling a business process, or coding a chat bot. It might just mean engaging different kinds of organizations, such as non-profits and social enterprises, and asking different questions during the process. Our creative, purpose-driven students are a tremendous resource. Why not deploy them towards the SDGs.

3. Take the lead role with data and information.

Early in the pandemic, the Helsinki Graduate School of Economics (a collaboration between Aalto University, Hanken School of Economics, and University of Helsinki) served the community well by opening the Covid-19 Situation Room “to support fast decision making amid the coronavirus crisis.” The pandemic and other events, such as the U.S. presidential election, have drawn serious attention to limitations and problems related to data and information. Experts say that the absence of good data and relevant metrics has hindered progress on the Global Goals and I believe business schools have a huge opportunity to take a lead role.  I’m excited, for example, about the Aggregate Confusion Project at MIT Sloan, which is a program of research “to improve the quality of ESG measurement and decision making in the financial sector” and the “biodiversity accounting” initiative at the University of Otago Business School, which will  to help companies recognize and quantify the environmental impact of an their operations.

4. Bring together different perspectives.

Covid has demonstrated how connected everything is—across borders, sectors, and disciplines. It’s not just about global health, it is an economic crisis, logistics challenge, racial justice problem, and more. Similarly, the SDGs are not defined by silos and are, by design, not the responsibility solely of government. Indeed, the kind of innovation we need for the SDGs will happen mostly at the intersection of different perspectives. Business schools have an opportunity to reach beyond business and convene across sectors and disciplines, as well as across industries and borders. Last fall, I was impressed by the breadth of perspectives convened for the Victoria Form led by the Gustavson School of Business. For its part, GBSN has created the Talent for Africa Forum with Ecobank Academy.

5. Capture new insights for responsible education.

We are in the middle of an incredible learning moment. Covid has produced many experiments and, in some ways, is demonstrating that large scale systemic transformation is possible. Yet, I’m consistently surprised by the shortness of our memories and inability to learn from mistakes. Every business school can act now to capture insights in the form of new curriculum content—cases, simulations, problem sets, and more—for the future we are building. We want to translate current experiences into the lessons for sustainable development, and #buildbackbetter. To give just one example, I learned recently about a case compendium being developed by the Berkeley Haas Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL) that “includes case studies with diverse protagonists and case studies that build ‘equity fluency’ by focusing on DEI-related issues and opportunities.”

Since 2003, GBSN members have led efforts to build management education capacity in and for the developing world. That is, we were built for SDG4. Our work has enabled the development of leadership, management, and entrepreneurship skills for economic and social development.

“Now we also believe that business schools contribute more directly to achieving other SDGs. In addition to building education capacity, we do projects and programs that engage business schools—their students, faculty, and leaders—in activities the can improve health, create more inclusive societies, fight climate change, build sustainable cities, and more. “

By connecting business schools to business, government and civil society we are making a difference now, not just by educating students for the future and publishing articles in journals. Check out the GBSN network, what we do (programs, projects, thought leadership), and who we engage (students, faculty, administrators).

Dan LeClair is CEO of the Global Business School Network (GBSN). Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries. As a lead spokesperson for reform and innovation in management education, Dan has been frequently cited in a wide range of US and international newspapers, magazines, and professional publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, China Daily, Forbes, Fast Company, and The Economist.