Impact Investing at Business Schools – 7 Impact Investing Competitions for Students

Last week, as part of this month’s special series on impact investing, we looked at ten ways business schools are engaging their students in impact investing on campus. An eleventh way is through a range of mostly new impact investing competitions open to business students globally. These competitions, mostly based at US schools, offer students the opportunity to not only learn about impact investing but to apply this knowledge to real cases that often impact actual businesses. Here is a selection of seven such impact investing competitions either run by or with participants from PRME Signatories.

 

  • The IESE Impact Investing Competition is an all day session that simulates an investment process including entrepreneurial pitches, due diligence, term sheet preparation and investment committee meetings, followed by intense negotiations with the entrepreneur of their choice. The event happens annually as part of the Doing Good Doing Well Competition at IESE’s campus in Spain. Participants this year included CEIBS, Cranfield School of Management and IE Business School.

 

  • UBC Sauder School of Business hosted the National Strategy Consulting and Conference event that brought students from across Canada and the United States to compete on an impact investing case based on Brighter Investment, a social venture supported by the Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing. Competitors were judged based on their strategy recommendations, as well asthe potential social impact their recommendations would yield. Students across different disciplines were challenged to integrate their financial, marketing and impact measurement skills into a coherent strategy for a social enterprise.

 

 

  • Duke University was one of the schools that recently participated in the Invest for Impact Competition, hosted by UNC Kenan-Flagler in the US. The invitation-only Competition is an experience that includes a wide variety of challenges that bring together top MBA students, sustainable entrepreneurs and successful impact investors, who have an opportunity to learn from and network with each other. Student teams from around the world play the role of impact investors and review business plans of three companies and select the ones they would invest in based off of both financial viability and their social and environmental impact.

 

  • INSEAD in France and Schulich School of Business at York University in Canada both take part in the MBA Impact Investing Network & Training (MIINT). MIINT is an experiential lab designed to give business students knowledge and skills around impact investing. MBA students create teams at the start of the academic year and identify an impact company that they will focus on during the programme. They then present recommendations to a judging committee composed of industry leaders for a potential investment of up to $50,000 in the companies that they chose to represent during the process.

 

  • Cornell University was one of the finalists in the first Impact Investing in Commercial Real Estate Competition hosted by the University of Miami School of Business Administrations in the US. The Competition focuses on investments made in commercial real estate projects with the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside an appropriate financial return. The competition takes place yearly in the US and is open to teams of business schools globally.

 

  • Lagos Business School in Nigeria organised its Impact Investing Competition in 2016 as part of the Lagos Business School MBA Entrepreneurship Investors Forum. The Forum is a new initiative introduced by students as part of their entrepreneurship course and coordinated by Dr Henrietta Onsuegbuzie, Impact Investing Project Director at the school. During the event, students present business ideas that bridge the gap between economic growth and lagging social development through profitable businesses that solve social problems. Judges are post MBA students who are currently working in this field or have developed businesses that have a social impact.

Impact Investing Series – 10 Ways Schools are Bringing Impact Investing to Campus

Tsinghua University Net Impact event on Impact Investing

This month PRiMEtime is focusing in on the important and increasingly popular topic of impact investing. So far we have looked at what impact investing is and summed up a range of resources on the topic and have looked in depth at the Social Finance Academy, a new programme coming from Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Canada.

There are a number of ways that business schools are bringing impact investing to campus. Here we look at ten ways that business schools are specifically engaging students in impact investing on campus.

1. Events that bring impact investing actors onto campus to discuss the state of the industry: The University of St. Gallen in Switzerland organises an Impact Investing and Social Finance Conference. For its first three years the event was held in Sao Paulo and focused on Latin America, but has since moved to the St. Gallen campus in Switzerland. The event brings together impact investing practitioners to meet and discuss with students. The business school also offers students the course Impact Investing 2.0: Building the Impact Economy, a course focused on the fundamental context for impact investing and its requirements, that aims to train students to be able to spot impact investing opportunities.

2. Student engagement through clubs: The Net Impact Club at Tsinghua University in China organised a special session on impact investing for students, inviting experts and practitioners to campus to share their knowledge with students. The University has also recently partnered with UNDP and other leading universities to develop a research agenda around impact investing that will better leverage private investment to finance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This includes undertaking research to improve the analytical frameworks, evidence, and policy environment that encourage and guide commercial capital flows in support of the SDGs.

3. Funds for students to invest: The Haas Social Impact Fund at Haas School of Business University of California Berkeley is the largest of the student-managed socially-responsible investments funds with more than USD$2.5m of assets under management. Student fund managers are chosen yearly from the business programmes to evaluate investment opportunities by analysing traditional indicators of business quality and valuation metrics along with environmental, social, and governance policies and practices. Students that participate also have the opportunity to receive a certificate in Social Investing upon graduation.

4. Selecting MBA students to be Impact Investing Fellows: SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University’s Environmental Finance and Impact Investing Fellows Programme aims to train students for emerging opportunities at the intersection of sustainability and finance, including project finance that addresses climate change, ecosystem services, and poverty alleviation. Through a series of courses, coupled with applied projects, Fellows learn how to invest in, manage, or regulate businesses or projects seeking financial, environmental and social goals.

5. Engaging students in consulting projects with business: Duke Fuqua School of Business’s CASE i3 Fellows are selected second year MBA students who complete coursework in impact investing, support the centre’s research and operations, and complete a consulting project and apprenticeship. The fellows work with a broader set of CASE i3 Associates, often first year students, in teams for their Consulting Programme which pairs students with leading organisations on impact investing projects, including developing impact due diligence guidelines for investors, doing market analysis, and investment landscaping.

6. A selection of elective courses focused on impact investing: Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Canada offers a course on Impact Investing: Social Finance in the 21st This course provides an introduction to the impact investment sector. It describes the evolution of impact investment, the growth of new asset classes, and the opportunities and challenges faced
by investors seeking meaningful impact investment vehicles. Through a combination of readings, discussions, guest lectures, research, a pitch competition and a portfolio allocation project, students will gain deep insight into the different perspectives brought by the impact investor who is concerned with stimulating social and environmental impact while generating financial return.

7. Providing a regional focus: The Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town offers a course on impact investing in Africa aimed at wealth managers, consultants, funders, lawyers and other financial intermediaries looking to gain an understanding of the field. The workshop is (next sentence addresses them) led by a diverse group of leading experts in the field. They have also collaborated with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford to create twelve teaching case studies on impact investment in Africa.

8. Creating MOOCs on impact investing: ESSEC offers a MOOC (‘Massive Open Online Course’ – a type of free online course) about impact investment available in French. The course explores what impact investing is, which companies are involved and what are they investing in, what kinds of solutions are proposed and the ingredients necessary to create a favourable impact investing ecosystem in the north and the south. The latest offering of the course started on September 25th, 2017.

9. Creating new courses aimed at an executive audience: The Fundamentals on Venture Philanthropy and Impact Investing  at ESADE Business & Law School is a new executive education programme aimed at providing managers with effective tools for a high-engagement approach to social investing and grant making across a range of industries. The course combines online learning materials with two days of face-to-face interaction at ESADE’s campus in Barcelona with leading lecturers and practitioners. The programme is taught jointly with the European Venture Philanthropy Association, a network of 2010 investment firms, banks, business schools and other organisations committed to creating positive societal impact.

10. Pushing Impact Investing forward through Research: The Impact Investing Lab at SDA Bocconi School of Management in Italy focuses on scalable business models that can create economic and social value through innovation in products, services, and processes. The lab acts as a platform and point of reference at a national and international level to support the development of impact investing as a new asset class able to attract public and private capital. It generates research, organises seminars and workshops, and contributes to the spread of a culture and a knowledge of impact investing.

Student Run Sustainability Events as part of the Core Curriculum – University of Greenwich Business School

Every year the University of Greenwich Business School hosts a full day conference in May which is themed, organised and delivered by the current cohort of full-time Executive MBA students. Unlike many other similar events at other business schools, this one is a key part of the students’ curriculum.

I spoke with Petros Ieromonachou, Head of Systems Management and Strategy and Director of Connected Cities Research Group at the University of Greenwich Business School in the UK, about this student led event.

What is the Executive Business Conference?

For the 13th year running, the University of Greenwich Executive MBA students held a Business Conference to present and discuss global issues/trends and current business topics. To come up with the business conference theme the MBA students brainstormed several ideas concerning today’s business environment. Topics such as sustainability, globalisation and technology frequently appeared as hot topics for discussion. Looking at recent changes in politics such as the proposed Brexit and the US elections, students realised that they are living in an uncertain world that is not easily predictable and changes are becoming more rapid. These changes bear opportunities and threats for businesses and are important considerations for Responsible Leadership. It was important to all MBA students that the business conference theme should evolve around these topics.

How is the event organised?

The event is completely organised by the current cohort of full-time Executive MBA students as well as those studying the second year part-time Executive MBA programme. The students appoint a conference committee, decide on the conference title and theme and organise all of the marketing and logistics over a three-month period. The students also invite and coordinate presenters for the conference as well as develop their own presentations around the topic to be delivered at the event.

How is the event embedded into the curriculum?

The University of Greenwich Business Conference is integrated into the MBA programme as a core component which serves to build on each student’s leadership and professional development. It is a side-event of the Leadership and Professional Development course. Apart from being part of the organising committee, all students in the programme need to present. Students are also expected to provide a written reflective report on their learning and professional development as a result of the experience which is graded.

Tell us about this year’s event

After much thinking, the Greenwich MBA students choose the theme “Shaping business opportunities in a world of uncertainty.” The business conference took place on March 11th 2017 at the University of Greenwich in London. Full and part time Greenwich MBA students as well as guest speakers from industry and academia presented. Keynote speeches were given by Professor Victor Newman – an Industrial Fellow at the University of Greenwich Business School, Chief Innovation Officer at the Milamber Group, and Innovation Adviser to Erisa together with Peter Bonish- Chairman of Kage Strategy.

MBA student presentations topics included: ‘The future of energy markets’, ‘Is there a sustainable future for small charities?’ ‘Is the future sharing?’ and ‘The future of solar energy in Saudi Arabia.’ Most of the MBA students presented a topic that was closely related to their professional career or a business they want to pursue. This gave students an opportunity to put together a professional presentation and present it to academics, professionals, and other students of the business school. Also, during the breaks and the networking event there were opportunities to receive feedback, giving the MBA students different ways of thinking about their business ideas and subjects.

How has the experience been received by the students?

One of the key skills needed by executives is ‘communication’. Together with ‘creativity’ and ‘project management’ the Business conference allows students the opportunity to showcase these abilities in front of a wide audience of business professionals and academics. Layla Mohammad, one of the MBA students reported: “By being a member of the conference committee who organised and co-ordinated the whole event, I watched the MBA students form their ideas, practice weekly and professionally present on the day. It was amazing to see how MBA students that started from thinking they could not put together an interesting topic or present confidently on their own, to delivering some of the most captivating and professionally delivered presentations I have ever experienced.”

Each year students remark on how they have developed as a result of this experience. Often, students remark “I now know what you meant at the induction when you said I would be a different person by the end of the MBA“.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

Start early, hand over the responsibility for success to the students and provide continuous mentoring and support to help them realise their capacity and skills as well as future responsibilities in the ever-changing world of business.

What’s next for the initiative?

The department and programme leader are considering extending the business conference to other post graduate programmes and organising a faculty wide conference with different break-out sessions focusing on a variety of themes.

Engaging Students in the Reporting Process – an example from KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Business

A number of Sharing Information on Progress reports were recognized at the PRME Global Forum in New York this past July. The nine reports that were highlighted show only a snapshot of all of the interesting approaches to reporting that are coming from the PRME Signatories globally. Another interesting approach comes from KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Business (KU Leuven FEB) in Belgium. Their report, which was prepared in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative standards, includes a materiality matrix which was prepared by students across a number of Masters level courses. I spoke with Talia Stough, Sustainability Coordinator at KEB, about this unique approach.

What is your materiality index and why did you decide to do one?

The KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Management engages in the process of sustainability reporting in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The GRI standards provide high-level guidance to help organizations identify and prioritize sustainability-related topics for reporting and communicating. Organizations consider their main sustainability impacts and, in dialogue with their stakeholders, prioritize topics onto a materiality matrix. The results can be visualized on a materiality matrix, which displays issues of increasing materiality to the organization on one axis and to stakeholder on the other axis, where the highest priority issues are located in the upper right section of the chart.

How were students engaged in the process?

In-class stakeholder engagement activities were carried out in the courses Corporate Social Responsibility (available to students of: the Masters of Business Administration; Master of Business Engineering; Master of Environment, Health, and Safety Management; and the Master of International Business Economics and Management programs) and the course Strategic Management: Execution and Control (Master of Business Administration) to identify material topics to student stakeholders.

In the course Corporate Social Responsibility, following a lecture on sustainability reporting and the methodology of the GRI and a short overview of the faculty’s sustainability initiatives, students worked in small groups to discuss which sustainability-related topics they considered most important for the faculty (and greater university) to work on. Students were given a simplified list of GRI topics, augmented with education and research-related indicators from AASHE’s STARS criteria. As a small group, they rated each topic as low, medium, or high priority. Each group also identified its top three topics. Afterwards, there was a group discussion with the whole class on which topics were most material and why.

A group of master students have been assigned to work on stakeholder engagement in their course Sustainable Management. This group of students assisted in the in-class engagement exercise in the Corporate Social Responsibility course, were given material from the exercise to analyze, and developed their own extra-curricular engagement.

How was this input used in the materiality index?

The results of the in-class activity were analyzed by the Faculty Sustainability Coordinator as follows: individual group responses were given a score of 1, 2, or 3 to each topic depending on the response of “low materiality”, “medium materiality”, or “high materiality” respectively. Topics were then categorized as low, medium, or high materiality based the weighted average score. One new topic was proposed during the in-class engagement exercise: impact of cafeteria operations. Since we have no other input on the materiality of this topic, we will need to include this topic in future engagement exercises to collect more information on its cumulative importance to stakeholder.

The content from the activity was analyzed by the Sustainable Management students using qualitative content analysis. Although the results of this were not included in the 2016 materiality index but they have been integrated into our 2017 Sustainability Report.

How was it involving students in the reporting process?

The KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Business embraces the ideology of utilizing the campus as a living laboratory in sustainability integration. While involving students in stakeholder engagement activities and the sustainability reporting process can be a labor-intensive process (students are not yet experts on the GRI or the topics included in the standard), the potential for two-way learning makes the involvement of students worthwhile, especially in the case of stakeholder engagement.

In-class stakeholder engagement exercises ensure the participation of students in sustainability engagement processes. In our experience, voluntary, extracurricular engagement activities are not well attended, so conducting engagement activities in class helps overcome that barrier. It also offers a manner to communicate about the sustainability initiatives to students who may otherwise not become aware of such activities.

In both capacities (students leading and participating in engagement activities), time is always challenging. In the course Sustainable Management, students have one semester to understand a topic (in this case stakeholder engagement), the faculty’s approach to this topic, and to develop and analyze activities. In the case of the in-class engagement activity, after the introductory lecture on sustainability reporting and materiality, there is only one hour remaining for the engagement activity and discussion. The engagement activity is then analyzed and the results are presented by the lecturer at a later class.

Where there any surprises? Anything you would have done differently?

This is our fourth year doing such activities (both the in-class engagement and the use of master students in the reporting process). Each year, we reflect on the successes and room for improvement and adapt the activity. Last year, I was not able to attend the Corporate Social Responsibility course in person, so I created an online survey for students to rank the materiality of topics on their own. This actually produced more interesting cumulative results, and we plan to re-integrate this back into the activity next year. The idea for next year will be to have students rank the materiality of topics online on their own, then in-class have group discussions on ranking these as a group.

Utilizing the master students in the preparation of the sustainability report is something we believe strongly we should do, but many challenges arise. In the past, we broke students into groups based on sections of the report: economic, environmental, social, education, etc. We found that this resulted in an overwhelming assignment for the students and group work that lacked new analysis. Now we focus group work on themes (based on material topics from past materiality prioritization). Before the semester, the sustainability coordinator contacts internal people responsible for data management on the topic to ensure that data will be available for students (in the past is was difficult to ensure students had timely access to the information their requested; some data required quite some time to generate from the SAP). By working on less topics, the depth of the group work has increased.

Any tips for other schools looking to get their students engaged in their reporting process?

Including students in the reporting process can foster fruitful two-way learning. Students bring energy and fresh perspective into sustainability reporting. One semester is a relatively short timeframe for students to become familiar with the reporting process, the GRI standards, the topic they are working on (e.g. stakeholder engagement, diversity in the workforce, environmental performance, sustainable purchasing, etc.), and to then make a new contribution to the reporting process. This means that there is a relatively high time input for the sustainability coordinator, but limited useable output for the sustainability report. Another option, that we will be exploring more in the future, is the use of master thesis on topics in the sustainability report. This would allow a longer timeframe for a student to go more in depth into a topic, but limits the number of students involved.

What has been the impact of the index?

Based on previous year’s in-class engagement activities, it was identified that students highly prioritize anti-discrimination because there were incidents of students feeling uncomfortable/discriminated against. However, there were very low rates of reporting such incidents. Therefore, based on the in-class engagement activities, we know there is a gap in student experience and formal procedures to report and document discrimination.

Based on the 2017 in-class engagement activity, the topic of: impact of cafeteria operations was identified as a unique topic. This is in line with a common trend we find in that students (and staff) tend to give more priority to tangible topics that they often come in contact with (e.g. paper, heating of the buildings, etc.).

What’s next?

What’s next is the preparation of the Faculty’s 2017 sustainability report (intended to be completed and published online September 2017). Next year, we will open the topic of stakeholder engagement for sustainability at the faculty up as a master thesis topic for our students (max. 2) to work on. We will continue to keep our eye on gender balance based on the high priority this topic receives from the organization (our own gender policy) and student and staff stakeholders. We will continue to use the sustainability reporting process (including stakeholder engagement activities) as a living laboratory activity and include students in this activity. Eventually, we would like to incorporate external stakeholder input in the future, but this remains a challenging task to approach in a systematic and meaningful way. We would also like to engage with other reporting higher education institutions to share experiences with reporting and using the reporting process as a living laboratory activity.

Integration Programmes for Asylum Seekers – Hanken School of Economics

In September 2015, The Principles for Responsible Management Education Secretariat issued a call to action to business schools and management-related Higher Education Institutions in response to the refugee crisis. Over sixty million people have been displaced by conflict. Although the primary responsibility for peace rests with Governments, the urgency of the global refugee crisis is a challenge that requires support from all actors in society on a short-, mid- and long-term basis.

Business Schools have been stepping up, responding to this call to action with a range of new initiatives and programmes. At Hanken School of Economics in Finland, several new initiatives were put in place that target educated asylum seekers and immigrants including, but not limited to, the Business Lead Programme and a Finnish Business Culture course. As Nikodemus Solitander, Director of the Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Hanken puts it, “the issues pertaining to displaced people have been visible for a long time, if anything academia at large, including our own institution, has been slow to react. I would be interested to see what kind of institutions can say they are not affected by this.” I recently spoke with him to learn more about their initiatives in this space.

Why did Hanken choose to engage in this topic?

The way the question of integration of asylum seekers gained strategic priority at Hanken is very clearly traced to the e-mail we received from Jonas Haertle from the PRME Secretariat in September 2015 containing the “Call to Action – Mobilizing Academic Community Action in Response to the Refugee Crisis”. Of course, there had been informal talks about the situation and Hanken’s possibilities to contribute prior as well. Hanken hosts the Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Research Institute (HUMLOG Institute), which has at its aim“to research the area of humanitarian logistics in disaster preparedness, response and recovery with the intention of influencing future activities in a way that will provide measurable benefits to persons requiring assistance”. But in the Call for Action, we saw a possibility for an impetus, a strategic lever, to come up with something concrete and execute it.

What was the result?

In October 2015 Hanken formed a working group to think about possible action and to form a pledge in relation to the call, the most tangible outcome from this was to create a course, Finnish Business Culture, a 2-day live learning course that is geared towards a larger group of asylum seekers who have a high school diploma. The aim of that course was to provide the participants a general overview of factors influencing business operations in Finland (history, political, legal and economic systems, culture), in particular, the operations of companies.

At the same time, but separately Hanken & SSE Executive Education had triggered their own planning processes, largely inspired by ideas around corporate responsibility they got by visiting Slush, an international startup and investor event organized annually in Helsinki. They were able to develop and roll out the plans very quickly; it was rolled out in February 2016, and the programme started in June 2016. Hanken together with the Finnish mobile company Funzi is a partner in the programme, but all delivery and planning have been carried out by Hanken & SSE Executive Education.

What happens in the mes?

The aim of the Business Lead is an integration programme for educated asylum seekers, geared for creating value for both the asylum seekers themselves and for Finnish business in general. It is a joint venture between Hanken School of Economics and Stockholm School of Economics. The programme aims to introduce and integrate educated asylum seekers into Finnish working life. It consists of four live modules delivered over 7 days in total addressing the Finnish and European business landscape and organizational culture, strategic leadership, finance and sales and service mindset. The participants in the programme also had access to a mobile learning service developed by Funzi and will have the opportunity to take part in Entry Point Mentoring arranged by the Helsinki Region Chamber of Commerce. The programme ends with a two-month internship in a Finnish company.

The Finnish Business Culture course is an intense two-day programme which focuses on business legislation, Finnish consumer behavior, marketing to Finns, Finnish negotiation style and management styles, and hands-on guidelines on how to establish a company in Finland.

What kind of interest was there?

The Business Lead Programme is targeted towards educated asylum seekers who already have a Higher education degree, speak fluent English and have been working within the business sector or have been an entrepreneur for at least two years. Candidates for the programme were identified through different stakeholders: service centres, Red Cross and Start-Up Refugees project. 64 asylum seekers (also some with resident status) applied to take part in the programme. Applications were received from candidates of 13 different nationalities, with the majority hailing from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Having fit programme criteria and gone through the application process, 38 (of which 6 were women) educated asylum seekers were offered a place in the programme.

The Finnish Business Culture course had 12 asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea. Most participants in the Business Lead Programme and Finnish Business Culture Course were well-educated with an engineering background – IT and Civil engineers, some also had accounting and business background.

What kind of interest are companies showing (for internships etc. or engaging in other ways?)

The initiative was well received and raised immense interest among companies in Finland. The programme partners in Business Lead, who offered internships as part of the programme, are Accenture, Agency Leroy, Ajatar, Amcham Finland, Camaleonte, Dazzle, Elisa, EY, Etera, Federation of Finnish Financial Services, Fennovoima, Fingrid, Finnish Red Cross Blood Service, Folksam, Fortum, Hanken & SSE Executive Education, HUMLOG / Hanken, IBM Finland, Iwa Labs, Juuriharja Consulting Group, Kallio Elementary School, Kone, Konecranes, Lumi Accessories, LähiTapiola, Microsoft, Miltton, Nokia, Ramirent, Roschier, Seedi, SOK, SOL Palvelut, Supercell, Elo, Valmet, Varma, Virala, Wapice, and Wärtsilä.

Upon completion of the programme and internships, around 25% of the asylum seekers who participated were offered employment or continuation of traineeship by various companies (as stated before) which had participated in the internship programme.

Do these students engage within the rest of the business school/other programmes?

Not much to be honest. My personal opinion is that I think several people attached to this have had a wake-up call about the ‘realpolitik’ of ventures that are not historically planned to be attached to the curriculum or initiatives that can be seen to be innovative and different. I think it is evident that there are possibilities for great journeys of learning between the student populations. But, amidst this critique it needs to be said that unlike most other institutions at least the structural barriers were low enough to execute the idea, and I think everyone involved should feel very proud of the venture insofar!

What other projects is Hanken working on?

Hanken has been working on some collaborative projects along with PRME Champions group and locally at the Nordic level, most notably being the Nordic Ph.D. course and the upcoming 5th CR3+ conference.

 

For the month of June Primetime will be featuring examples around the Special Focus area Equality and Diversity (SDG 10). Click here to see the rest of the articles in that feature.

 

Interdisciplinary Teams Developing Solutions for a more Sustainable City – Kemmy Business School

Developing more sustainable cities require interdisciplinary solutions. It is this mindset that has framed the Heath Futures Lab, a five-week long interdisciplinary unit focused on ‘Innovations in Health and Well-Being for Limerick City’. The lab utilises design principles to organise the interaction between 14 recent graduates across a range of disciplines including Economics, Marketing, Architecture, Engineering, Interactive Media, Product Design and Occupational Therapy. The researchers were guided in their work by a team of academics representing each of these disciplines, as well as regular input from representatives from local and regional authorities, business chamber, charities etc.

By tackling local issues as opportunities & problems and harnessing social capital, within and outside the University, the five weeks aimed to explore how the combining of disciplines could bring about new perspectives as well as thoroughly achievable innovative solutions. I spoke with Dr Annmarie Ryan who co-led this unit with colleagues in the design faculty of the University of Limerick.

How did it work in practice?

The participants were all recent graduates (within two years) from either undergraduate or postgraduate courses and were integral members of the trans-disciplinary teams bringing specialist expertise and perspective to the challenges. The structure of the HFL followed a Design Thinking Process or a Design Process where the main focus is on making things, testing and iterative development and embodiment of ideas. Those operating within the process must be open to change, comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity as the process itself is non-linear and in continuous flux. Reflection, critique and constant questioning ensure all ideas are robustly tested and refined ideally leading to the emergence of one or a number of solutions that best address the challenges under exploration.

The Lab was deliberately held in an unused city centre industrial building as it allowed for a physical and emotional connection with the city, the civic society and the stakeholders in the project. The facilitators chose the building as it had the added benefit of anchoring the participants in a new physical space which was unfamiliar to them. This encouraged the development of a new set of norms and working practices which would have been less possible in the University environment.

This centralised location enabled the researchers to access the field easily whilst also allowing stakeholders and interested parties to ‘drop-in’ and see the work in progress. Through this engagement we enabled key stakeholders (education, public sector, community and the sponsor of the event Johnson & Johnson) to co-imagine and create solutions for the betterment of health and well being in Limerick.

What were some of the results from the Lab?

Three important proposed themes emerged from the project: a new initiative that tackles the growing obesity epidemic through innovative technology and health promotion to prompt a permanent and personalised cultural and lifestyle change (Saol Nua); A service to ensure timely and aggregate flow of information through a persons life as they interact with the health system (LifeBase) and a city-wide policy to introduce preventative measures and increase resilience amongst grassroots organisations that focus on mental well-being (Minding Minds). Each of the propositions offered independent, but interconnected, ways to address pressing issues around Health and Well-Being experienced by citizens of Limerick.

The final output of the HFL was a pop up exhibition where large scale posters explained the detail of the three proposals. These were tied together with a floor-based timeline that highlighted key moments in a fictional person’s life. The stories of these moments explain the pivot points where interventions offered by one, two or all of the proposed solutions might have prevented or lessened the impact of challenges an individual might face as they journey through their lives. The outcomes of the HFL not only proposed a bold future vision for health in Limerick City it also offered a detailed roadmap on how we might get there.

Was the impact of the lab measured in any way?

The academic team was very keen to understand the experience of graduates working in a new inter-disciplinary team, in the context of a ‘live’ project. An ‘Ethnographer’ was employed as an independent researcher to record the processes, follow the ideas and observe peoples actions and behaviours. The participants were interviewed at various intervals throughout the process. The data was then mapped and analysed to identify key themes and trends. Through this unpacking process the facilitation team and the partners (including J&J) began to understand how it could be modified and applied across longer-term projects that are situated in different research areas. A key emerging insight was that for high achieving, high performing graduates becoming part of a team with people outside of their discipline was a real challenge for them. In order to work well as a team they had to be able to articulate the value added of their knowledge and discipline specific expertise. This required a kind of objectified understanding of their discipline and how it might be different in terms of values or approach to others; for instance how can an occupational therapist and an architect find common ground? How can a marketer inform an engineer about healthy lifestyle choices? These were the day to day challenges and opportunities afforded to the group.

What was the role of the advisory board and have they taken on any of the project ideas?

Every week the groups would present their work in progress to a gathered audience. As such the advisory board evolved over the course of the lab as experts were found to match the direction of the groups emerging project ideas. Representatives of the local authority were invited, along with visiting academics, directors of charities and regional representatives of the National Health Service Executive (HSE). Following the lab the HSE representatives along with 2 of the lab’s academic team began discussions to progress Limerick’s application for WHO European Healthy Cities Network, whose goal is to put health high on the social, economic and political agenda of city governments.

Any advice do you have for other schools?

At the University of Limerick we have been modelling a form of engagement with the city that is particularly rich. Of note in the approach is the interdisciplinary and response nature of these engagements. The HFL was a follow on to the IU Designing Policies lab in 2013, and was followed by The IU Culture Lab in 2015 which looked specifically at supporting Limerick’s bid for European Capital of Culture in 2020. The design studio approach supports the interdisciplinary work by giving a framework for each participant to bring their own disciplinary specific knowledge to bear and work iteratively with other disciplines to create a rich knowledge base to support innovative ideas to complex problems. Rather than a single discipline carrying out one piece of research, the lab encourages quick iterations through different pieces of research where the output of one becomes the input to another. For cities coming to their local university for support, this kind of rich but fast, research that they themselves participate in, ensures that the research is meaningful and impactful.

What’s next?

My main goal would be to find a way to ‘institutionalise’ the lab without loosing the spontaneity and sense of ‘getting away’ from mainstream teaching environment.

For the month of May Primetime will be featuring examples around the Special Focus area Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11). Click here to see the rest of the articles in that feature.

 

Universities Collaborating with Cities Around Sustainability – UWE Bristol

In 2015, the Bristol became the first city in the UK to achieve the honour of being named European Green Capital. The award is given to a different city yearly by the European Commission and aims to promote and reward sustainability initiatives in cities, to spur cities to commit to further action, and to showcase and encourage exchange of best practice among European cities.

UWE Bristol played a key role in the year, not only working closely with Bristol City Council and others in supporting the bidding process for the award, but also as a founding member of the city-wide Bristol Green Capital Partnership (now made up of 800 local organisations). The year provided an opportunity to weave sustainability into the curriculum, undertake focused research on sustainability and celebrate and get people thinking and inspire action for sustainability.

I recently spoke with Georgina Gough, James Longhurst and Svetlana Cicmil from UWE Bristol about the insitution’s engagement in progressing SDG11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities and their involvement in Bristol’s Green Capital year.

How is UWE Bristol engaged in the topic of sustainable cities?

UWE Bristol’s teaching and research mission explicitly supports the development of sustainable cities. We have a number of degree programmes and research centres located across the university academic portfolio that focus on this topic. A few examples include our

World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Healthy Environments which is part of the European Healthy Cities network, the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments which aims to develop understanding of how to achieve places that are environmentally sustainable, socially just and economically competitive: the Centre for Transport and Society which aims to to improve and promote understanding of the inherent links between lifestyles and personal travel in the context of continuing social and technological change; and the Air Quality Management Resource Centre which is widely recognised by air quality and carbon management practitioners, nationally and internationally as a leader in this field. The Bristol Leadership and Change Centre is further internationally and locally recognised for developing leadership practices driven by the vision of sustainable cities and the global sustainability agenda

How was UWE Bristol involved in the European Green Capital in 2015?

Our campuses were buzzing in the Green Capital year. Social media channels were used extensively to connect students and staff and promote activities. Budget allocations encouraged engagement and innovative action from academic departments, professional services, the Centre for Performing Arts, the Students’ Union at UWE and others, embracing research, teaching, music, work in schools, volunteering, internships and extra curricular activities. Over 5,300 staff and students attended presentations/stalls specifically about Bristol Green Capital 2015 including 200 events either led, co-ordinated or facilitated by UWE. Over 3000 students engaged, volunteered, interned or undertook Green Capital projects. We had some 600 students sign up to be part of UWE Green Team working on student-led sustainability projects on campus. This is just a brief snapshot.

What was the Whole Earth Exhibition?

One of UWE’s busiest thoroughfares was transformed into an outdoor art gallery for The Whole Earth Exhibition, a powerful visual statement of the environmental and sustainability challenges facing the world as we struggle to provide for the needs of more than 10 billion people while safeguarding our planetary life-support systems and conserving the non-human lifeforms that make up those systems. The Hard Rain Project and the National Union of Students (NUS), who curated the Whole Earth exhibition, invited students and universities to share the sustainability work that they are doing and approaches they are taking that might underpin future security for all. Embedded in the exhibition were a series of challenges to the university sector. When UWE Bristol opened its Whole Earth Exhibition, the President of the Students’ Union at UWE formally requested that the university publically respond to the University Challenges presented in the exhibition.

What was the MOOC on ‘Our Green City’ and how did it come about?

Our Green City celebrated and showcased UWE academics and Bristol based sustainability organisations to develop public understanding of sustainability issues in Bristol’s year as European Green Capital 2015. Based on a free, open, online course format, c2000 learners signed-up to gain insight into themes of food, nature, energy, transport and resources through a range of video presentations, tasks, quizzes and community discussion forums.

Our Green City featured the work of 14 academics, 24 organisations including The Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Bristol 2015, Bristol City Council and the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

We have archived all the materials for future use, including by schools and will soon be creating a series of school engagement and outreach products from the learning materials that will form part of our BOXed project, an outreach programme of STEM related activities aimed at youth aged 11-18.

Did that year change the way the institution interacts and works with the community?

UWE is an initial funding partner of Bristol Green Capital Partnership (BGCP) and serves on the Board of Directors of this Community Interest Company. The 800 organisations who are part of BGCP work together in pursuit of the Partnership’s aim to develop a sustainable city with a high quality of life for all. The research activity of the university supports the work of the Partnership and current activities include Urban ID, a study diagnosing the sustainability issues and challenges in the city region. An innovative multinational Horizon 2020 project ClairCity is exploring solutions to air pollution in 6 cities including Bristol. UWE is actively engaged with and supports (with financial and in kind support via time of students and staff (including very senior staff)) the work of sustainability minded organisations and networks in the city (which in Bristol are many in number!).

What have been some of the challenges? Successes?

Delivering enough support, given the extremely high demand for knowledge, research and action, is a key challenge. Aligning the rhythm of the academic year to the needs of the city and its communities can also be challenging at times.

UWE’s activities to support Bristol Green Capital complemented those in and around the city and our commitment was recognised by key Green Capital players. UWE staff have produced a number of research papers and reports on the Green Capital year which are available in our Research Repository.

What advice would you have for other institutions thinking of putting something similar into place?

Consider the strengths of your institution and the needs of your potential partners in order to identify the most fruitful project partners. Have an open mind and willingness to work through challenging situations. Commitment to the objectives of the project by senior management is important in working through challenges. A diverse project team is useful for enabling action across the institution.

What’s next for the initiatives?

The Green Capital Student Capital project has formally ended. However, much legacy work continues. The project team continue to disseminate their experience via publications and conference presentations in order to support other HEIs to undertake similar projects. An online portal, SkillsBridge, has been established by the project team to facilitate the development of opportunities for students to support sustainability work of organisations in the city of Bristol. This work is being undertaken in conjunction with the Bristol Green Capital Partnership. UWE, Bristol’s sustainability work is ongoing, in accordance with commitments made in our Sustainability Plan.

For the month of May Primetime will be featuring examples around the Special Focus area Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11). Click here to see the rest of the articles in that feature.

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