ChapterPDF Available

Learning Partnerships in Sustainability Management Education

Authors:
Adam J. Sulkowski, Chapter Draft, Handbook of Sustainability in Management Education
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UNIVERSITY EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING PARTNERSHIPS
AS LIVING LABORATORIES FOR SUSTAINABILITY
INTRODUCTION
This chapter answers whether and how administrators and faculty can work with students and
partner organizations to create experiential learning opportunities that help to accelerate
social and environmental change. By involving students in the testing and deployment of
solutions, university partnerships can function as living laboratories of sustainability
innovations.
A broad and generalizable theme is to seek sustainability-related practices that are in
nascent or emerging phases of development or not yet perfected in the world outside of
academia, including corporations, non-governmental organizations, and public sector entities.
In creating a learning opportunity for students to implement a practice at their university or in
partnerships in their community, the university and partner institutions facilitate
experimentation, knowledge generation, and acquiring skills that extant curriculum is not
equipped to provide (Blasco, 2012).
In this chapter, following brief primers on learning partnerships and sustainability
reporting, the author will offer guidance regarding how to implement experimental
experiential learning. Specifically, the author implemented the practice of publishing
environmental, societal, and economic impacts as a multidisciplinary learning exercise with
students and partner institutions. The practice resulted in skills development and job offers
for the students, benefits for client institutions, new knowledge, and research publications,
and it has been highlighted and propagated internationally (Ballantine, 2014).
Several lessons and themes can be generalized from this multidisciplinary approach.
These observations are helpful both to those seeking to replicate sustainability reporting in
their institutions and communities and to those searching for educational practices that
similarly benefit all stakeholders of universities and other institutions. This chapter will
proceed by reviewing the literature on experiential learning collaboration, followed by a
primer on sustainability reporting, before describing how to replicate both municipal
sustainability reporting projects specifically and experimental experiential learning projects
more generally. The narrative and suggested steps will help in understanding the
characteristics that make external organizations effective partners.
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BACKGROUND: EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING PARTNERSHIPS
Clearly, as supported by other chapters of this book, innovations are needed to expand the
awareness, knowledge, and skills of managers. Yet the culture, structure, and incentives of
universities stereotypically do not encourage risk-taking or agile, dynamic, and
entrepreneurial approaches that further the goal of producing graduates who are prepared to
integrate sustainability into their management approaches (Jamali and Abdallah, 2015).
Ironically, rather than fulfilling ideals of providing safe havens for revolutionary ideas to
flourish or experimentation with a cutting edge, university administrators, faculty, and staff
can fall into patterns of perpetuating hierarchies and specializations (Zai, 2015).
Experimentation, specifically in the realm of experiential learning, is an approach that
ideally should be stakeholder-centric in terms of soliciting concerns, innovative solutions,
and actionable feedback (Sroufe and Ramos, 2015). Academic societies have a vital role to
play in terms of propagating practices that drive social and environmental change and,
critically, have been shown to advance learning by students in multiple contexts and
disciplines (Gallagher and McGorry, 2015; Kruger et al., 2015).
As others have noted (Deeter-Schmelz, 2015) and as further illustrated by experiences
described in this chapter, universities and their community members are well advised to work
with partner institutions. Partnering with external organizations to test the integration of
theory and practice is one variation of problem-based learning, an approach that has
succeeded in producing knowledge and skill development in various disciplines (Savery,
2015).
Having either an internal or an external client, such as a city or town, fosters
accountability and leads to shared benefits for all those involved (Trencher et al., 2013). It
requires processes and an approach similar to the intrapreneurship practices of entities like
Google (Antoncic and Hisrich, 2003) that allow for experimentation proposals from any level
of the organization. This entails empowering individuals and divisions of the organization to
take the initiative with new approaches and practices, especially in the realm of experiential
learning. Whether or not administrators encourage experimentation, faculty and students have
the ability to become champions for innovation in the classroom, on campus, and in their
community (Solitander et al., 2012).
The following sections will describe in detail the lessons learned in a specific example
of cooperation between municipalities and universities (or muni–uni’ collaborations to coin
a new term) for innovating using open data. Sustainability reporting the choosing,
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researching, and regular publishing of indicators related to environmental and societal well-
being – is an essential step in the evolution of smart systems, in which data are acted upon
between connected operations to optimize efficiencies. The author describes experiences
working with student teams to implement such reporting and the lessons learned before
offering a model to implement this practice.
BACKGROUND: WHAT SUSTAINABILITY REPORTING IS AND WHY IT
MATTERS
The 1929 stock market collapse exposed the catastrophic risks of market failure due to lack
of information (White, 2006). It crystalized awareness that investors and the rest of society
would benefit if publicly traded companies issued regular financial disclosures. The standard
practice and dedicated laws, regulatory framework, and new industries supporting annual
public financial report preparation and auditing were born.
Sustainability reporting, as suggested by several authors since the 1980s, is supposed
to bring the benefits of regular disclosures to other aspects of organizational functioning
(Elkington, 1997). Namely, by gathering and regularly publishing data on the environmental
and societal impacts and governance of an institution, the negative side effects and risks of
activities ought to be similarly reduced. From the perspective of many organizations,
sustainability reporting was given further impetus based on the need to meet with
stakeholders and the desire to proactively disclose data to ameliorate their concerns.
Roughly 93 percent of the largest 250 corporations in the world engage in
sustainability reporting (KPMG, 2013). This fact has led KPMG to assert that such reporting
has become de facto law for business(KPMG, 2011). Further supporting this assertion is
the fact that 71 percent of publicly traded companies in a worldwide sample of 4100 firms
(the largest 100 in each of 41 countries) publish corporate responsibility data (KPMG, 2013).
While the most commonly identified drivers have varied depending on the year of the study
and sampling of companies, executives have regularly cited maintaining a reputation or
brand, stimulating innovation and learning, employee motivation, and relations with
shareholders as significant motivations (KPMG, 2011).
Sustainability reporting among cities and in the public sector in general is at a much
earlier phase of adoption. While a sustainability reporting framework for corporations (the
Global Reporting Initiative, or GRI) was founded in 1997 (GRI, 2015), similar frameworks
for cities did not appear until late 2012 in North America with the introduction of
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Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities, or STAR Communities (STAR
Communities, 2015). The first comprehensive set of indicators suggested for global adoption
the International Organization for Standardizations ISO 37120:2014was not published
until 2014 (ISO, 2014). It was still innovative in 2013 for a city to be engaged in
sustainability reporting (Ballantine, 2014).
The logic supporting city sustainability reporting is arguably even more compelling
than that underpinning such reporting by corporations. First, politically elected leaders are
typically under some pressure to prove or improve the efficient use of tax revenue or even to
cut taxes the regular gathering and disclosure of performance statistics help defend
programs or see where efficiencies could be improved. Similarly, a regularly timed
publication of objective ‘vital signsof quality of life, public safety, public services, and
environmental quality would be a pragmatic step in convincing voters, investors, businesses,
and visitors that a city and its leaders are on the right track.’
Second, with regard to the matter of how sustainability reporting could serve as a
valuable tool for getting society to neutralize its negative environmental impacts, local
governments control building codes and zoning, together with infrastructures for the
provision of water, transportation, energy, and waste management. Therefore, they have
outsized potential to reduce ecological impacts per capita and attendant harms and costs.
Smaller political units tend to be more transparent and accountable to their constituency.
Combine all of these factors with the reality that cities are where the growing majority of the
worlds people live, and it is clear why aggregating actionable data to reduce or eliminate
environmental harms and costs should be seen as an urgent necessity (Koichiro and
Christodoulou, 2012) and even an evolving legal expectation for municipalities issuing
securities (Sulkowski, 2016). The selection of indicators, benchmarking, and measuring
progress toward the attainment of targets have been identified as essential steps that define a
smart city (Cohen, 2012a). Smart city evaluation tools hold huge potential to guide inclusive,
transparent, and holistic strategies (Cohen, 2012b). They ultimately rely on gathering and
assembling a municipalitys data into a clear, comparable, comprehensive, concise, and
credible form (Ballantine, 2014).
OUR STORY
The goal of this section is to provide a brief synopsis of the authors experiences in working
with open city data within muni–uni collaborations. Recurring observations, lessons learned,
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specific steps for replicating this approach to sustainability reporting, and a generalized set of
suggestions for innovation with off-campus partners are summarized in later sections.
Testing the Idea on Campus
As in the history of medical sciences, there is sometimes no more persuasive proof of concept
than testing an idea on oneself or those closest to oneself. Similarly, the authors first steps in
exploring the feasibility of engaging in sustainability reporting as a collaborative exercise
with student teams was to explore whether such reporting was possible on his home campus
at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Dartmouth. Proof-of-concept drafts were
researched and shared internally between 2007 and 2009. As of 2010, the author felt
confident enough to introduce sustainability report preparation for the UMass Dartmouth
campus as a course project for MBA students.
Essential steps have included surveying stakeholders to learn what matters to them
(including current and prospective students and alumni, staff, faculty, local businesses, and
people living close to campus). The author retained a role as editor of the final documents
along with members of the UMass Dartmouth chapter of a student club, Net Impact. Net
Impact is an international organization of business students and professionals dedicated to
making the world better through business, and the UMass Dartmouth chapters homepage
became the repository for UMass Dartmouth sustainability reports (Net Impact UMass
Dartmouth, 2015).
Since 2010, several phenomena could be observed when working on sustainability
reports for UMass Dartmouth that were consistent with later experiences working with cities,
as described in subsequent sections.
Scaling Up to Local Municipalities
By 2012, after two complete cycles of publishing annual sustainability reports for our
university, the idea of engaging student teams to produce sustainability reports for local
municipalities in southeastern Massachusetts was circulated in several conversations with
colleagues and students. The Town of Dartmouth and City of Fall River both had senior
administrators who immediately saw the potential benefits and were eager to cooperate.
The great advantage of working with public sector administrators on sustainability
reporting is the extent to which through election campaigns, constituent and interest group
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interactions, and living and working in their served communities they already are well
aware of stakeholder concerns. In the case of Fall River, the city administrators who met with
our student group additionally had data from recent door-to-door surveying about citizen
needs and concerns. By January 2013 the student-generated sustainability reports for
Dartmouth (Dartmouth, 2013) and Fall River (Fall River, 2012) had been published.
Opportunity: A Partner with a Shared Vision
While the author visited Warsaw, Poland in preparation for Fulbright-backed teaching and
research in that country, the author sought out and met with the Director of Infrastructure of
the city, who understood the merits of reporting and agreed that work should begin
immediately on producing a sustainability report.
Further, it was clear that there was a rare window of opportunity to draw attention to
the worthy idea of cities adopting sustainability reporting. The latest version of the worlds
most used reporting framework, the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines, had just been
released. There was an existing body of knowledge of what mattered to stakeholders and data
that were readily available and pertinent. What better way to draw attention to municipal
sustainability reporting than for a city to be the first entity to implement the latest iteration of
the most widely used standard? The downside might be that the report would be less perfect
than if we had taken additional time, but nonetheless a report of which we could be proud
could be prepared, and enough learned to create a better process and product in coming years.
A goal was set of preparing and releasing a draft by August 2013, in time to discuss
some lessons learned at academic conferences. English and Polish versions were prepared
and published as PDFs online with press releases explaining the purpose and highlights
(Warsaw, 2013).
As the reporting process was completed that summer, the Director of Infrastructure of
Warsaw, the team that he assembled to help, and the author remained convinced of four
broad themes.
First, sustainability reporting for cities was a practice so worthy that it deserved to be
implemented soon and highlighted. Although in retrospect it appears to be the result of
careful foresight and good strategic planning, it was pure coincidence that the UN climate
summit (COP-19, or the 19th Conference of Parties to the UN Climate Convention) had
already been scheduled to take place in Warsaw in November 2013. COP-19 would be the
UN climate summit with the greatest (to date) inclusion of city representatives, and a chance
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to raise municipal sustainability reporting as a necessary practice over several days of
meetings referred to collectively as the Warsaw Dialogues on Scaling Up Local and
Subnational Climate Action (ICLEI, 2013). This opportunity to draw attention to a worthy
cause was an additional impetus to publish an inaugural edition well in advance of the official
start date of COP-19.
Second, the GRI guidelines provided a widely recognized standard that could help
guide us to producing a report that was comprehensible, comparable with others, and
credible, and many of its metrics were relevant to a city. To be clear that we adhered to the
standard and to facilitate benchmarking with other cities and entities in the future, we would
clearly enumerate indicators in the order in which they are listed in the standard, grouped in
topical sections, and include an index.
Third, we would keep it simple and accessible. Given that most people have busy
lives, we concluded that summarizing highlights on the first page in an at a glancelist, and
then fleshing out’ the rest of the data, narratives, explanations, and visualizations on the
following pages, was optimal. It would allow anyone with a passing interest who clicked on a
link to the PDF of the file, within a few minutes, to scan and comprehend a few of the major
vital signsof the city. This approach has analogies in many fields, including reporting
information to medical patients, nutrition labeling on processed food, and financial reporting.
Based on years of evaluating sustainability reports with students and conversations at
conferences, the author believed this approach would address the most common complaint
about sustainability reporting from users: that they are simply too long and not easily
comprehended. In other words, the author and others creating the report sought to produce
something concise, clear, and comprehensible.
Fourth, our 2013 report would be as up-to-date and comprehensive as possible, but in
some cases the most recent complete data might be a year old. We concluded that, as is the
case with corporate reports, it was better to include such an indicator rather than report
nothing. Further, based on studying and discussing the emerging trend of integrated reporting
(combining sustainability data with financial data) at companies, we would include financial
data, including city expenditures.
Propagating a Good Practice
Proof that our model of muni–uni collaboration was replicable and sustainable (and not
contingent on the participation of the author) was provided by the fact that UMass Dartmouth
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students continued to produce sustainability reports while the author was away on a research
sabbatical in 2013 (Dartmouth, 2013). As of 2014, deployment of sustainability reporting by
cities was spreading, and the ISO had just published its applicable standard (Karayannis,
2014).
Based on these facts, the decision was taken to continue sustainability reporting on
behalf of Warsaw as an ongoing partnership between the City of Warsaw and a local
university that would provide student teams to support the research and drafting of the report.
As described below, data largely already existed in separate departments of the city. The
challenge for the student team was to analyze, gather, verify, and compile the data in a
manner consistent with the letter and spirit of the GRI standard. The project entailed regular
meetings with city counterparts for the majority of a calendar year.
LESSONS LEARNED
Below are lessons learned based on the reporting experiences above.
Stakeholders Are More Interested in Sustainability than May Be Assumed
The first lesson is that stakeholders in our university, local US municipalities, and Warsaw all
had more awareness and concern for sustainability-related information than commonly
assumed. For example, many of us at UMass Dartmouth including students working on
stakeholder surveying guessed that students would indicate more desire for information
related to socializing than about what their school is doing to reduce environmental harms.
On the contrary, at least in the context of a report containing statistical indicators, a larger
majority are interested in the profile and offerings of their university related to sustainability
than data related to social life on campus. The results were consistent with national data
related to the concerns of current and prospective college students. When asked if the chance
to work on projects like a sustainability report made prospective students more likely to
enroll, again large majorities indicated that such experiential learning opportunities make
them more likely to attend. One could reasonably surmise and potentially test to confirm
that such projects similarly improve student retention rates.
Similarly, in Warsaw, where 25 percent of the area of the city is green space and 81
percent of respondents indicate satisfaction with their lives in the city, and as indicated in its
sustainability report, residents indicated an awareness and concern for environmental issues
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(Warsaw, 2015). To summarize, awareness and interest in sustainability-related information
have routinely exceeded expectations, including the presumptions of members of the
stakeholder communities.
The Data Often Already Exist Somewhere
The next set of observed phenomena are related to report generation. Data on many desired
metrics exist somewhere in an organization, and often are easier to find and sum up for a
university or even a municipality in comparison to a multi-national company with outsourced
operations. For example, in the context of the direct impacts of campus operations or
municipal services and offices, someone must have paid energy, water, and waste
management bills. The universitys or municipalitys human resources department typically
has statistics related to work environment and employees. Calculating total indirect
environmental footprints becomes more complicated when taking into account residents and
visitors of the communities over which the university or municipality does not exert control.
For calculating aggregated effects of the conduct of all members and visitors to a community,
it must be acknowledged that full-time statisticians or a bureau of statistics can make a
critical difference in collecting data. However, a general take-away based on the authors
experiences has been that, to a greater degree than assumed at the start, data are available
related to most if not all desired indicators.
Length: It Matters – Offer Readers Short and Long Options
A phenomenon related to report length deserves special attention. Generally, as mentioned
above, in the authors experience, almost everyone who first downloads or is handed a
corporate sustainability report is surprised at how voluminous it is. Practically unanimously,
when asked to grade such reports, even the most motivated and interested MBA students
complain they are too dense and long to be useful and too different from each other for firm
performance to be easily compared. Such observations occasionally find their way into
mainstream business media and academic journals, sometimes with the recommendation that
essential sustainability data be summarized into a table similar to those listing nutrition facts
on packaged food products.
However, critiques of our first sustainability report for Warsaw commented that more
and longer narratives were needed, both concerning how stakeholder concerns were
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determined and how management executes positive initiatives. It was foreseeable that this
criticism might be brought up, especially by those who are professionally immersed in
producing or evaluating sustainability reports, and was one of the chief reasons a press
conference or open meeting with stakeholders and media would have been a good idea
immediately after the initial publication of the report. However, as described in the next
subsection, a public relations effort was stymied by the exigencies of a recall election battle.
The best solution to address reasonable differences in expectations from different
communities of readers is to provide a long version of a full report, plus a more concise list of
highlights that can be communicated more efficiently. Observations of a public forum with
stakeholders underscore that the consumers of sustainability reports are not a homogeneous
group. Out of the roughly 50 people in the room during the meeting in question, a majority of
stakeholders had read the first page of the reportas anticipated, they looked at the
highlights. Other than the panelists, two raised their hands to indicate that they had read the
entire 13 pages. Yet, during the panel discussion that followed, the experts all suggested that
longer narrative explanations and greater inclusion of visually appealing graphics would add
credibility to our reporting exercise. While not a scientific study, both the content of the
discussion and the low share of attendees who read the full reporteven among those who
took the time to attend a feedback forum underscore the need for both a long and a short
version of such reports. The first would satisfy the needs of those with the greatest interest in
the topics and those who publish reviews of reports. The second would serve to inform those
with an interest in the livability and environmental performance of a city, but perhaps without
the time to read a long document. To summarize, it is consistent with expert opinion, best
practices, and our own experience that a longer version of a report is advisable, plus a shorter
summary of selected highlights.
Publicity and Feedback in a Political Climate
One of the recurring questions since Warsaw’s publication of a sustainability report in
August 2013 was why there was not more publicity and the reason highlights a generalized
risk when engaging in muni–uni collaborations. The answer is that the mayor (referred to
locally as the president of the city) was locked in a tough mid-term recall campaign. Any new
effort, initiative, action, or statements could potentially have been portrayed as political and
partisan, not as a well-intentioned, pro bono publico project of apolitical civil servants and a
volunteer academic. The communications professionals of the city judged that any effort to
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proactively reach out to media or stakeholders to explain this pragmatic exercise in
transparency would ironically backfire and become a lightning rod for election season vitriol.
After the mayoral recall election, COP-19 was the next opportunity to draw attention
to the citys sustainability report. Specifically, as part of the events, at the Warsaw Dialogues
on Scaling Up Local and Subnational Climate Action, representatives of cities and other
subnational governments promoted their best practices (Warsaw, 2014). This included a
presentation and discussion about the host citys report. On balance, several constructive
items of guidance were gleaned from coverage that the report received (Cohen, 2013), and
the report made a list of the top 10 sustainability reports of 2013 (Cohen, 2014).
In the summer of 2014 an open public meeting was held to discuss the future of
sustainability reporting by the City of Warsaw. Three experts with a background in
sustainability reporting enumerated their critiques. The major items of feedback and input
(which echoed the feedback in media coverage) are included in the following subsections.
A ‘Checklist’ Approach May Not Satisfy Everyone
Ironically, using a succinct checklistapproach actually detracts from credibility in the eyes
of reporting professionals, even though the author and collaborators believed this facilitated
faster reading, benchmarking, and helping readers see that requirements of a standard were
met. A cynical perspective might lead one to guess that this is a self-serving assertion,
inasmuch as it could be used to justify longer and therefore pricier engagements. This is the
case to such an extent that taking a checklist approachis a derogatory term among some
sustainability reporting consultants. Instead of enhancing the ease of comparability across
reports, to people involved in the field, presenting an enumerated list of indicators appears to
reflect a less involved process. Possibly this perspective is not shared by most average
members of society if a broad cross-section were to be surveyed. This points to a great
question for future research: perhaps most stakeholders would actually prefer standardized
synopses of sustainability data analogous to a dashboard, nutritional data table, or vital
signs summary after a check-up with a physician, possibly with some capacity to register
approval or disapprovalfrom companies and public sector entities.
A narrative describing how materiality was determined the story of how the
reporting entity determined what matters to stakeholders is critical to sustainability
reporting professionals. In the case of Warsaw, the author and his counterparts among city
employees both because of the exigencies of wanting to seize an opportunity to draw
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attention to a worthy idea and because it was presumed most residents do not want to read
through a long narrativedeliberately did not write out many pages of text on how
stakeholders are impacted. Based on our open public meetings and reviewing surveys, this
perceived weakness was subsequently addressed.
Pros and Cons of Moving Quickly with MuniUni Collaborations
Some phenomena were connected to the decision to execute projects quickly. There were
foreseen and unforeseen benefits related to speed. There were also foreseen and somewhat
unforeseen risks. In terms of acknowledging a risk, there may sometimes be more enthusiasm
and interest in an institutions sustainability report outside of the organization than inside it if
widespread awareness and support are not secured both at the highest levels of the
organization and across departments. The author and colleagues have at several stages of this
narrative proceeded when there was adequate support and cooperation to produce a factually
accurate document addressing stakeholder concerns but less than a wholehearted awareness
and buy-in from all levels or departments of an organization.
This raises interesting questions, and reasonable people could disagree on the
responses. In the absence of a total organizational endorsement, can and should sustainability
reporting be adopted? What if there is adequate support and cooperation to produce a
factually sound document that communicates progress in meeting stakeholder concerns? To
generalize the question such that it applies to any management decision, if an idea makes
sense but for whatever reason fails to have the theoretically ideal support that one would
want, does one go ahead with the deployment, with the hope that the idea is validated and
implementation and support improve over time? Abstracting the question to its most
theoretical level, such that it is applicable to any decision in life, does one wait for conditions
to be ideal and risk losing an opportunity to advance a worthy cause? Or does one act before
conditions are ideal and risk less-than-perfect execution? The author and key partners
preferred erring toward the second scenario at every phase in this narrative.
However, this is a vital strength of the muni–uni collaboration model – university
communities and their partners in other sectors should, of all actors in society, be engaged in
bleeding edgeinnovation, meaning beyond leading edge: trying things that may or may not
succeed. State-of-the-art knowledge and practices come from experimentation.
Experimentation by definition entails some failure. As it has become fashionable to say in
entrepreneurial circles, it is useful to fail fast, and hopefully learn more quickly as a result.
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Muni–uni collaborations and other off-campus collaborations should be embraced
especially for the entrepreneurially mindedas perfect testing grounds for honing ideas that
could yield tremendous positive rewards in the long term. Universities and their
multidisciplinary natures are among the elements of a successful entrepreneurship ecosystem
(Cohen, 2005).
Minimizing Risks and Boosting Benefits of Working with Student Teams
One potential risk of proceeding with sustainability reporting (or any other collaboration)
with student teams is that reports may contain inaccuracies. That risk may be controlled by
only using official sources within the institution for which the report is being prepared, by
citing them, and allowing individuals to review information they had submitted prior to
publication. It is also possible to retain a third party audit of sources, as a sustainability
reporting team recently did at UMass Dartmouth. There is a related risk that a report
generated by students may look less polished than one generated by professional graphic
designers. In some years at UMass Dartmouth, that risk was addressed through collaboration
with a graphic design student.
On balance, several benefits accrued as a result of pushing forward with sustainability
reporting as the author and his collaborators did.
First, by virtue of the reports being researched and authored by students with the
editorial oversight of a faculty member, the reports arguably had more credibility than if they
had been produced by the administration for the same reason we trust a third party audit
more than a self-audit.
Second, several students have been hired by organizations in both the private and
public sectors to implement sustainability reporting, with their new employers specifically
citing their experience working on sustainability reporting as the reason for them being hired.
Third, some students have had their choice of university, specialization, and careers
affected by having worked on the exercise.
Fourth, excellent research questions were provoked by working on the sustainability
reports, including questions that later turned into a student thesis and published research
articles in peer-reviewed publications (Walsh and Sulkowski, 2010).
Fifth, the positive impact of encouraging publicity was that two sustainability data
analytics companies reached out and sought collaboration. Cooperation with these companies
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has resulted in research with students that led to additional findings related to the impact of
sustainability reporting.
The Benefit of Testing a Concept with Multiple Partners
The greatest lesson of testing an idea with several partner municipalities is that it is difficult
to predict when an idea will succeed or fail. In our case, we would have guessed that one of
the partners with more resources, greater environmental and economic redevelopment
challenges and opportunities, and pressures to show progress would have been the entity to
more aggressively pursue, expand, and invest in reporting. As it turns out, one of the smaller
partners was the entity that not only pursued reporting more vigorously, but even hired a
former student to continue the project as a full-time coordinator, and announced that
managers would use the annual reporting exercise to judge the success of initiatives and to
help decide upon future investments. A generalizable lesson is that sometimes circumstances
beyond ones control can be just as important to an initiative’s success as the merits and
benefits of the concept itself. As is the case in other endeavors, it is therefore useful to pursue
several experiments and be prepared for results to vary.
A MODEL FOR MUNIUNI COLLABORATION IN SUSTAINABILITY
REPORTING
It is a challenge to develop one definitive checklist that could guide a reporting project
anywhere. Clearly cities differ drastically in terms of size, growth, levels and rates of
development, organization, and capacity. Similarly, students, organizational culture,
incentives, and degrees of autonomy of faculty also differ tremendously from university to
university. Finally, the importance of individual personalities and luck cannot be overstated.
Having acknowledged all of these factors, the author suggests that the following are
generalizable steps to consider for implementing sustainability reporting as a collaboration
between a university and a municipality:
1. Study the conceptual background of sustainability reporting, standards, and examples.
Certain tactical questions, such as deciding on report length, order of contents, and so on, will
later be easier to answer if one is aware of the evolution of the theory and implementation of
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sustainability reporting and available standards and guidelines. Similarly, studying examples
and critiques of existing work can help clarify a vision of how a final product should appear.
2. Find an enthusiastic partner in a local city government. This cannot be overstated in
terms of importance. As somewhat illustrated in the examples described above, the size of the
city and its information gathering infrastructure may be less important to the long-term
success of a reporting project than having an individual with a shared vision and enthusiasm
for realizing and promoting the project. Although the individual’s ability to gain support from
the executive level is important, the formal title or position may be less vital than an
awareness of what support can be secured from what individuals within the organization.
3. Share a vision and plan and divide the work. This kind of creative work requires
getting the buy-in of those involved. Beyond clarifying the goal and motivations of the
project and anticipated learning that will result, it may be necessary to convey some sense of
enthusiasm and sellthe activities as fun. As with any team, the project leader will need to
judge how much the team can plan their own work and how much oversight and regular
checking-in will be needed.
4. Identify what matters to stakeholders. City leaders and departments likely already
have channels for learning what matters to citizens and may even have reports that already
summarize stakeholder opinions and concerns. In some cases, given enough time, the project
team may have the time and ability to use focus groups, surveying, or other means to gather
some statistically valid data about stakeholdersdesire for information and their concerns.
5. Choose whether to reference a standard. As summarized above, GRI, ISO, and STAR
Communities all have standards and guidelines for executing reporting. Even if every
criterion for full compliance is not fulfilled, it may be useful to consult these frameworks to
decide which indicators should be included in the report. Declaring or seeking certification
that a report meets a certain standard may add credibility or differentiate the report produced
by a team.
6. Research and prepare the report. As mentioned above, often somebody somewhere in
a municipality has much of the data needed to prepare a sustainability report. The author
suggests reviewing what other organizations have produced to decide what is effective and
Adam J. Sulkowski, Chapter Draft, Handbook of Sustainability in Management Education
16
what is not effective in terms of presenting data. All of the standards above allow for a great
amount of latitude in terms of the order and means in which data are presented, so even
among reports that are fully in accordance with any given standard there can be significant
differences.
7. Consider a summary of key indicators plus a longer full report. Almost universally,
students start out expressing their wish that sustainability reports should be more succinct and
readily comprehended snapshots, and wind up producing a lengthy document by the end of
the project. It may be useful for the report authors, city, and stakeholders if the authors ask
the question So what?and synthesize the few most important take-away lessons in an
executive summary.
8. Submit the report for final editing and verification to the city. In every case, to some
extent, the municipalities involved wanted to review the report before they published it on
their websites. This transpired in a variety of ways. In some cases student teams personally
presented and reviewed data and sources with city employees. In other cases city employees
conducted the review. In all cases, since almost all of the data ultimately came from city
sources, the review and verification step should ultimately be fairly quick, sometimes
possible to accomplish within a few hours of dedicated attention from a team that has the
source material available.
9. Consider alternative communication media. One of the refrains in online commentary
from experts and in-person feedback sessions is that highlights and take-away lessons, if not
all of the report content, should ideally be available in other communications media other
than a static online PDF. Dynamic interfaces accessible on mobile devices are one
foreseeable next step. Further into the future, the data could be made usable in real time in the
course of daily life to help make better decisions. One example is the anticipated integration
of real time coordinates of buses and trams into public transportation navigation apps
produced by a firm called City-Nav (author’s conversation with the founder and president of
City-Nav Navigation Systems, 20 November 2014). City-Navs genesis is another illustration
of a municipality (Poznan, Poland) sharing data with university students (at Poznan
University of Technology) to create a new service: a mobile application that facilitates public
transit navigation known as www.jakdojade.pl. While not per se founded as a company
involved in sustainability, the firm in question has manifested one of the aims of open data
Adam J. Sulkowski, Chapter Draft, Handbook of Sustainability in Management Education
17
reporting, which is to encourage decision making that reduces negative environmental
impacts and improves quality of life.
10. Plan a communications and use and response and follow-up strategy. A deliberate,
open, and proactive communications plan is essential. There is a risk, as with any report, that
the product of this activity will be a document of which no one is aware and that delivers no
tangible benefit. In terms of advertising, cities have many avenues of communication that can
be used for public service announcements such as space on public transit vehicles and open
meetings. In terms of follow-up, a press conference and releases and other proactive steps are
needed to address foreseeable questions and possibly not entirely justified critiques. Upon
publication of a report, the process and deadlines for gathering feedback the following year
should already be tentatively planned.
11. Search for and incorporate feedback. Reporting is ideally an iterative process that
involves regular stakeholder consultations. This necessitates open communication channels
and public meetings where critiques can be thoroughly documented and understood and used
to improve the process and outcome of the reporting exercise.
A MODEL FOR OFF-CAMPUS COLLABORATION IN TESTING OTHER IDEAS
While university collaborations sometimes involving companies and NGOs have been
described before (Lukman et al., 2009), the aim of this section is to describe specific yet
generally applicable steps:
1. Ascertain to what extent an idea contributes to solving a significant problem (Senge,
2008; WEF, 2015). Compelling ideas sometimes start with recognizing a problem or that
something needs to happen to improve a situation locally and globally, rather than starting
with the question of how one can immediately generate revenue. Explore what ideas can be
implemented that improve local and ultimately global conditions (Brown, 2009).
2. Start with testing the idea on campus. In our model we tested the notion of student-
executed reporting on ourselves first. Besides building credibility it allowed us to learn from
mistakes and better understand the effort and benefits involved.
Adam J. Sulkowski, Chapter Draft, Handbook of Sustainability in Management Education
18
3. Find partners and test the idea where you are located. As stated and illustrated above,
the best partner in local government may be defined by enthusiasm for the idea and ability to
function in the organization and to communicate, more than by title or position. Some critical
mass of individuals in the organization must have an interest in transparency,
experimentation, and learning.
4. Tell your story and listen to feedback. Whether through specialist periodicals or
media intended for general consumption or conferences geared for the public, private, or
academic sectors, telling ones story and sharing experiences can result in unforeseen
benefits. These benefits include suggestions for improvement and partnerships and
introductions to individuals that can help in both refining and propagating a good idea. A key
blind spot of smart cities initiatives is that they can leave out bottom-up’ citizen involvement
(Wakefield, 2013). Seeking and incorporating stakeholder input is critically important.
5. Try out the idea in a different context. A lesson that can be generalized from the
experiences above is to be open to both well-planned and serendipitous chances to test ones
idea in other contexts. Clearly not every chance should be accepted, but where interests align
and mutual benefits are clear it is good to be receptive to unplanned but sensible
opportunities to spread a good practice.
6. Take an open source approach to sharing lessons learned. One of the generalizable
lessons learned is that including more partners and sharing credit and then making expertise
and guidance freely available may be critically helpful in generating further innovations and
enough awareness and support to make a good practice sustainable and widespread. This
approach is consistent with the concept and observed benefits of open innovation, or the
phenomenon of companies sharing and cooperating outside of the boundaries of the firm
rather than attempting to keep innovation strictly internal (Chesbrough, 2006).
7. If there is money to be made, make it as a consultant advising on how to implement a
model that you have published for free. In the model of muni–uni collaboration using open
data discussed here, it is important once again to emphasize that throughout the early stages
there was no money made although there could have been. In a comparison of several cities
fostering innovation with open data, it was found that their approaches differed, with some
characterized as collaborative communities while others constituted competitive markets, and
Adam J. Sulkowski, Chapter Draft, Handbook of Sustainability in Management Education
19
that an integrated approach was also possible (Almirall et al., 2014). In the examples
described here, a form of collaboration has been proposed and improved and is being
published and propagated. If it grows in acceptance, as in other contexts, the market for
consulting on implementation could grow and allow for monetizing the expertise gained. The
same model is replicable, including the potential to generate revenue, in the context of other
ideas for using open city data. A related concept‘collective entrepreneurship’ – has been
described, where universities, the public sector, and businesses work together to innovate
(Etzkowitz and Klofsten, 2005). Part of the logic of taking this approach is that the spread of
a good practice that is a sine qua non of making human civilization sustainable should not be
slowed by the ability of cities especially those with fewer financial resources to pay for
essential knowledge.
8. Be open and flexible to how ideas are operationalized within a curriculum. Students
have at times worked on sustainability reporting projects as a module of an MBA course, an
honors undergraduate course, independent study projects, and part of club activities.
Sometimes different phases of one report were completed by students operating within
several of these different contexts, with, for example, undergraduates gathering data, MBAs
drafting the report, and Net Impact club members editing and double-checking accuracy. As
in employment contexts, it is critical to agree upon criteria of what constitutes success, and
back-up plans for what to do if any team member fails to deliver an item for whatever reason.
9. Begin, maintain, and conclude the entire exercise by communicating the key ideas in
the title of this chapter: that the projects and everyone involved constitute a living
laboratory’. In other words, remember and convey the spirit of experimentation. This attitude
should entail that, regularly and throughout the process, those involved should reflect on what
they expected and what they observed. Key questions may remain even after several
iterations of a project with the same partners. For example, in the context of reporting
projects, a key question is how much reports are indeed delivering such perceived benefits as
encouraging efficiency and accountability.
10. Revisit the first principles outlined above, especially when initially considering plans
and goals and subsequently when appraising results. Do all involved see the connection
between the project and a significant problem in the world? Do all involved see how the
project serves both to deliver value to a partner institution and as an experiment to acquire
Adam J. Sulkowski, Chapter Draft, Handbook of Sustainability in Management Education
20
new knowledge about the practice? Finally, do all involved see the project as delivering
value, including marketable skills and career opportunities for students? Following the first
principles above should result in a project that bridges theory and practice and creates a
holistic and cross-disciplinary learning experience
11. To optimize benefits, including furtherance of adoption of sustainable practices, it is
advisable to dovetail practice and learning with a research-and-publication agenda. Several
research questions and articles were directly inspired by these experiential learning projects
(Walsh and Sulkowski, 2010).
12. Again, a partnership can be a powerful lever. In our experience, Net Impact an
international network of students and young professionals dedicated to driving societal and
environmental change through their education and careers played a role in propagating
awareness of what we had done, as did media correspondents. Members of our local campus
chapter of Net Impact played a role in both completing the projects over the years and in
institutionalizing the process; this partnership added an extracurricular element that has been
shown to strengthen cross-disciplinary integrated sustainability management education
(Rusinko, 2010).
CONCLUSION
Universities can and must do more to sensitize future leaders to unfolding crises, provide a
holistic worldview, and encourage risk-embracing, agile, dynamic, and entrepreneurial
approaches. Business school administrators, faculty, staff, and students have roles in helping
their institutions to fulfil the ideal of being safe havens for experimentation with the cutting
edge.
All members of the university community can play leadership roles in fostering a
curriculum that is conducive to learning partnerships. Administrators should encourage
faculty and students to take the initiative and experiment with new approaches and practices,
especially in the realm of experiential learning. Regardless, faculty and students can become
champions of innovation on campuses and in their communities. Authentically stakeholder-
centric approaches are recommended. Academic societies have a critical role to play in
disseminating practices that stimulate student learning and research and that drive progress in
fixing critical social and environmental problems. As highlighted in the narrative and the
Adam J. Sulkowski, Chapter Draft, Handbook of Sustainability in Management Education
21
suggested steps above, ideal partner institutions have at least one internal champion of the
cooperation, are transparent, and have some minimum critical mass of interest in
transparency, experimentation, and learning.
Muni–uni collaborations and other partnerships with off-campus institutions are
valuable as living laboratories to test and deploy and propagate ideas for improving quality of
life and environmental conditions. They allow great potential for realizing the gains of a good
idea including the potential for viable businesses to emerge to provide valuable services
while minimizing the inherent risks of experimentation and innovation. Regardless of
whether an external partner is a business, NGO, or public sector entity, the key recommended
steps are to identify a problem and an innovative solution, and to deploy the concept with the
help of students at a partner institution. Certainly the potential benefits to all participants
outweigh the costs and risks of government, education, and business as usual.
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