Sustainable Curriculum
(appeared in Jan 2015)

(link to main website)

Last week, Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru conducted a three day symposium on ‘Advancing Sustainability Research and Education’. The initiative was in collaboration with the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina and was funded by the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, Asim Premji’s WIPRO was a co-sponsor, through Earthian, its sustainability engagement programme, and they hosted a part of the proceedings in their premises.

Green science in business

Global warming effects were discovered in the 19th century, but it was in 1988 that scientists formally confirmed that heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere, released by humans and industry, were causing grave damage to the environment. The same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up under the United Nations, and in 1992, Governments of the world came together in Rio de Janeiro to decide on what was to be done. One of the first things decided was that all countries maintain National Greenhouse Gas Inventories, to help monitor progress. The next accord was the Kyoto Conference of 1995, where emission control targets were set, at least for the developed nation, which included Australia, the EU and some others. These were valid, in the first instance, from 2007 to 2012. The targets have been refined and detailed in different conferences and at the next major international meet, to take place later in 2015, in Paris, more specific, comprehensive measures to contain the global rise in temperature within 2°C may be decided. This 2°C limit is seen as the level of warming that people and the environment can accommodate, with reasonable adaptation.

But what is alarming is that for all the conferences, parleys and the mass of data collected by scientists, the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere is apace. Much of the reductions reported by developed countries is misleading, as the countries have reduced manufacture within their own borders, but have shifted industry to other places, like China or India (see box). Underdeveloped countries think the west has ‘recognised’ their capability and is ‘investing’, and manufacture and consumption are peaking. The earth is seen to have clearly breached three of the ten ‘planetary boundaries’ set by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and the last report of the IPCC is emphatic that the 2°C target is unrealistic, at best. It may be more optimism than reason to hold that there is still a ‘window of opportunity’ till 2030 to get things under control.

Technology non-transfer

One study that was presented at the symposium examined the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a device for implementing the carbon reduction targets fixed under the Kyoto protocol. Developed countries have the option of reaching their targets by sponsoring an approved, emission reducing project in a developing country. The scheme has an objective of creating efficient technology in the developing countries, which would serve to limit future emissions from those countries.

There were three classes of technology transfer in these projects – where the technology is created by the host country in collaboration with the exporter, where the technology imported is adapted and improved by the host country and where the export is of a finished product with only operational competence being transferred as technology.

A first conclusion of the study of 1000 approved projects was that 77% were cornered by India, China, Brazil and Mexico, but these projects accounted for only 28% of the reduction in emissions. And then, out of the 1000 projects, only 265 included technology transfer. And of these 265, the technology transferred was of the third – operating skills only – category in 259!

Awareness and motivation of business to prefer sustainable avenues along with commercial ends is clearly a priority.

Business steps in

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is an association of over 200 international companies, which thinks private enterprise can and must supplement the role of governments in dealing with climate change. WBCSD then provides a platform for business to share knowledge and best practices, and motivation, to pursue sustainable development. At first glance, it may be ironic that profit-driven commerce, which leads the charge against the environment, should act to rein itself in. But, business does have a vested interest and can act as a powerful driver of reform. “business is responsible too….you cannot do good business in a failed planet,” says Peter Becker, President of WBCSD.

ACTION2020 is a programme devised by WBCSD to apply business solutions to attain environmental and societal targets. “Through collaboration toward common goals, business can address some of the critical…… problems the world faces, while strengthening their own resilience to global challenges,” says ACTION2020. Business schools, which train managers in using formal scientific techniques to isolate and overcome challenges of resources, personnel and markets, have been pressed to use their competence to launch business as a positive force. Academic research is counted on to devise solutions that are measurable, so that we know they are working, scalable, so that they can be positioned to have global impact and, replicable and enabling collaboration of different sectors. And most of all, solutions that are good for business, by redesign of processes, supply chains, consumer preferences, so that having the least impact on the environment still makes business sense

IIM, Bengaluru and the Kenan-Flagler Business School, which have run a sustainability module in their MBA programmes since the year 2000, partnered to get the movement going in India. The symposium at Bengaluru aimed to showcase both research that would impact sustainability concerns as well as curriculum content in management institutes to sensitise managers and society of the need for new thinking. The participants were teachers and researchers from leading management institutes, universities, centres of economic research, in India and abroad, engineering colleges, stake holders like the Forrest Institute and other interested sections, communicators, even a theatre person.

Setting the stage

Vijay Padaki, hon. President of Bangalore Little Theatre Foundation, presented a short play, performed by students of IIMB, during the symposium, which conveyed powerfully the message of the mess that the world has landed in. The play was an adaptation of a 1920 Chech science fiction play, whose title translates as Rossum’s Universal Robots. The original play was about rebellion of artificial humanoids created for ‘forced labour’, the original meaning of the word, robot. The adaptation of the play featured modern day robots which are able to think almost like humans and are programmed to protect humans at all costs.

When the robots see that humans have started to destroy the planet and endanger their own existence, the robots conclude that humans are their own worst enemy, who hence need to be destroyed. The action is set partly in the robot factory shop-floor and partly in the board room of the robot factory, and pure, mechanical objectivity of the robot conclusion, based on evidence before us all, that humans need to be destroyed for their own protection, conveyed the message of environment cost of current lifestyle more powerfully than any classroom pedagogy.

Padaki said there were now genres of theatre which could convey basic and current science, which opens the possibility of art forms, in general, to be used for science and environment awareness.

The papers presented covered different areas of sustainability and social responsibility in the working of industries, research into sustainability at stages of the supply chain, using sustainability for brand equity, effectiveness of international accords, public policy, energy efficiency, case studies of interventions to promote indigenous, rural and low income industries, social equity, and the social web. And one of the three days of the symposium was dedicated to ways and efficacy of including sustainability as a component of management education.

On a realistic note, the Director of IIM/Indore emphasized that his institute was neither drawn by the ‘pull’ of the industry to train students in sustainability nor driven by a ‘push’ of students seeking such training. This undeniable truth, in fact, stated the problem, and hence the need and urgency to open eyes in industry and society. At the same time, a completed study that was circulated to participants was specifically to the effect that in a sample of the leading ICT companies worldwide, limited, though the sector is, it was in the most successful of the companies that the highest incidence of sustainability issues engaging the attention of senior managers and the board was found.

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