Generating Concrete, Multi-Disciplinary Solutions to Sustainability Challenges – Stockholm School of Economics (Part 1)

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 11.35.32The Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) in Sweden recently submitted their first Sharing Information on Progress (SIP) report, which is filled with interesting and unique initiatives. Sweden is home to a range of international companies including Ericsson, Astra Zeneca, Ikea, Skanska, Skype and H&M providing several opportunities for the School to engage and contribute to the corporate sustainability agenda. I recently spoke with Lin Lerpold, Executive Director at the Mistra Centre for Sustainable Markets at SSE about some of the initiatives that they are currently most proud of.

The first of two featured initiatives is SSE’s Mistra Centre for Sustainable Markets (MISUM) that started the first of January 2015, and already includes more than 17 multi-disciplinary researchers. Funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA) for the next five years, the Centre will aim to generate concrete solutions and processes that will contribute directly to sustainable economic development. It is cross-disciplinary and research is meant to be collaborative and draw on actors from academia, business and policy, in order to understand and create business-relevant solutions for sustainable markets. The Centre has three pillars: research, education and outreach, which will develop in concert with each other.

How did this partnership with MISTRA come about?

The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA) supports research of strategic importance for a good living environment and sustainable development. The SSE has a long reputation for conducting collaborative research with Swedish Multinationals such as Ericsson and H&M. Mistra approached SSE some years back and wanted to meaningfully support the already ongoing sustainability research in a major way, not least of all building on SSE’s corporate connections and having an impact on future leaders in society.

What are some of the research projects you are working on now, or are being planned going forward?

A number of research projects are already being conducted in MISUM. Projects include a focus on circular economies in the fashion industry, microfinance and poverty alleviation, global supply chains and human rights, the creation of sustainable food consumption, sustainable capital budgeting, and integrated reporting. A new project is in the works focusing on sustainable systems, including research on how current economic systems can better be used for more sustainable markets. This project is really exciting involving some 50 researchers in Sweden and abroad, and is a collaboration between natural scientists, engineers, economists, management scholars, sociologists, political scientists and even philosophers.

How will this impact teaching and students? Will students be involved? Students are already involved in a number of capacities. Several are helping out in an administrative capacity whilst learning about sustainability research, others are working as teaching assistants in courses and a number are participating in either a MISUM-initiated research project or in MISUM-supported thesis research. Regarding MISUM’s impact on teaching, the SSE mission is that all education is based on science. Thus our teaching relies on the latest research and all MISUM faculty are simultaneously researchers and teachers covering all degree programmes at SSE.

What are some of the challenges/successes of working across disciplines through this centre?

All trans- and cross-disciplinary research collaborations are a challenge. Researchers from different fields most often have diverse views on ontology and the philosophy of science, and approach knowledge with different lenses and methods. This is a challenge and requires time to learn a common language and understanding. Though our pre-understandings may be different, all researchers in MISUM have been recruited on two requirements: one, that they are excellent researchers in their own fields and two, that they share a common passion for sustainable development and the conviction that solving our sustainability challenges require a trans-disciplinary research.

What advice do you have for other schools thinking of doing something similar?

Get top level strategic support from school leadership, and meaningful resources to make it happen. For a long time and increasingly so, academic careers are solely built on publications not easily accessible to users or practitioners. The relevance of academic research to society and stakeholders has been seriously challenged, and the role of universities and business schools in society is being debated. As Brewer (1999) says, “The world has problems, universities have departments.” To address this, leadership must have the vision and the resources to commit to change.

What’s next?

After the initial start-up and the creation of a critical mass in researchers working together, MISUM is well positioned to develop into a knowledge and resource centre of excellence on sustainable markets, its actors, structures and processes. As multi-stakeholder collaboration in research is further ensured and deepened, plans are under way to develop a “Sustainable Markets Action Lab” where financial market actors, companies and researchers can together design and experiment with sustainability initiatives and monitor their actual outcomes as they unfold.

Part two of this post will introduce SSE’s work in redesigning their flagship programme to embed sustainability challenges.

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