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How MIT Sloan Teaches Sustainability

Students at MIT Sloan. Courtesy photo

Students at MIT Sloan. Courtesy photo

Every educational institution these days talks about innovation. But MIT’s Sloan School of Management is among the very few that can actually back that claim up, particularly in the world of sustainability. That became clear to us at Poets&Quants when we started learning about the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative.

Starting with just one class in 2006, the Sustainability Lab — now known as the renowned “S-Lab” — grew to become the initiative, spanning both Sloan and the entire Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jason Jay, director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, knows just what kind of challenges a university-wide program deals with when it aims to tackle the world’s greatest problems. “How do we provide access to energy to the one billion people in the world who don’t have it, and the six billion people who have it, while reining in climate change and other environmental impacts? How do we provide access to food and clean water while reining in the impacts of the way we do agriculture?” he asks. The Sustainability Initiative was developed to tackle those problems, with the goal of finding workable, sustainable, solutions. “Those are big innovation challenges, and we have to figure out innovations in management practices, in the supply chain, and in new products and technologies,” Jay says.

The MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative leverages the knowledge from the entire university: Students in the MBA program are working on energy policy projects with nuclear physicists. Sloan students working on water solutions are working with Ph.D.s in materials science and bio-oceanography. And it’s not just scientific expertise — urban planners are working with MBAs on social impact projects, and finance specialists are developing best practices for impact investing.

To find out more about MIT’s Sustainability Initiative, Poets&Quants sat down with Jason Jay. See the full transcript, edited for readability, below.

How did MIT Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative evolve?

MIT’s sustainability initiative traces itself back to a class that was launched in 2006, and that is still taught today, called Laboratory for Sustainable Business, aka S-Lab. It’s an action learning class where students form teams to work on real problems faced by real companies trying to advance sustainability strategies.

Over time, this effort has grown to new course offerings, such as Leading Sustainable Systems, taught by Peter Senge, Wanda Orlikowski, and Sinead O’Flanagan, the MIT Sloan Sustainability Certificate, and an active effort to infuse sustainability topics into the core of how we teach management at MIT.

The Sloan School of Management has come to see the Sustainability Initiative as a key strategic initiative for the school. We get a lot of support from Dean (David) Schmittlein’s office, particularly because they see it as a way for us to embody our mission to develop principled innovative leaders who improve the world, and to develop ideas that advance management practice.

Concentric Circles

As director of the Sustainability Initiative, I see our portfolio of opportunities for students as concentric circles where people can dip their toe as deeply into the waters of sustainability as they want. If they want to just come to the weekly lunch series to learn about a particular career direction in sustainability, they can do that. Or they can go a little deeper and take an elective in, say, energy policy or system dynamics, or the S-Lab.

The sustainability certificate is for people to go much deeper and do six courses in sustainability and join a cohort of people who are knowledgeable, committed to impact, and self-identifying as sustainability certificate graduates. But this group is not isolated from the rest of the Sloan community.

We are working with admissions to bring sustainability-focused students to MIT, working closely with the career development office to make sure that they were getting really great jobs. Among our immediate peers — the top-tier U.S. business schools — we have been ranked the best in sustainability by both the NetImpact Business as UNusual rankings and the Corporate Knights Better World MBA rankings.

How many students take advantage of Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative?

About 80% of our master’s-level students graduating from Sloan take at least one elective in sustainability, between 30% and 35% take three or more electives in sustainability, and last year 41 people from all of MIT completed the sustainability certificate program.

How do you teach sustainability? And how do you infuse sustainability topics into the core curriculum?

Here’s how we think about it: Tackling the big social and environmental challenges of our time requires significant innovation. For example, how do we provide access to energy to the one billion people in the world who don’t have it, and the six billion people who have it, while reining in climate change and other environmental impacts? How do we provide access to food and clean water while reining in the impacts of the way we do agriculture? Those are big innovation challenges, and we have to figure out innovations in management practices, in the supply chain, and in new products and technologies. We have to figure out new business models and new market infrastructures, policies or institutions that enable all those things to thrive.

It’s an innovation challenge. We need to be educating people who are innovators — who are generating and advancing those solutions. We can educate the innovators by allowing people to go deep into the topic. That’s why we have a sustainability certificate. It’s also why people will take classes at the MIT engineering school or will study disciplines like green supply chain management or energy technologies.

Infusing Sustainability into the Curriculum

And at the same time, we need to be educating the customers or adopters of those innovations and solutions. To do that, we have to have everybody who is going to be in a position of management to be somewhat knowledgeable about sustainability. We realize that 80% of MIT Sloan students might take one elective but we need to have everyone who graduates knowing something about sustainability and can be adopters or proponents of these innovations.

Two examples of how we infuse sustainability into the curriculum include a case on Nike’s sustainability strategy in our Organizational Processes core class, and a case on Vermont Electric Power in our Data, Models, and Decisions core class. We’re developing a new case on solar energy that we hope will be part of the first-year strategy elective class.