Chapter 3 Transformative education
Driving businesses towards the SDGs
Reading time: 6 minutes
The 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed by world leaders and adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September 2015. Building on the earlier Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs provide a 15-year roadmap for stimulating collective action in tackling economic, social and environmental challenges designated of critical importance for humanity and the planet.
Sustainable development is nothing new at RSM. The School has a long history of engagement in sustainability issues that, at the very least, can be traced back to the formation of the department of Business-Society Management – the first of its kind in a European business school – in 1998. The department’s founders understood that business and society are inextricably intertwined, and because of this, business has the power to be a force for achieving positive societal gains.
Actions around sustainability issues were further embedded at RSM with a Greening RSM initiative, launched in 2006 with the purpose of addressing and minimising the ecological footprint of the School.
The formation of the Sustainability and Climate Research Centre in 2007, and the Erasmus Centre for Future Energy Business in 2011 further strengthened RSM’s commitment to develop credible management solutions for achieving global sustainability. Ongoing and expanded engagement in sustainability issues drives the School’s sense of strategic purpose, leading to a commitment in 2017 to be a force for positive change in the world, and the adoption of the 17 UN SDGs as a reference framework for research and education.
“We use the SDGs as building blocks for creating positive change.”
Developing the right mindset
One person who has played a central role in RSM’s sustainability agenda is Eva Rood, Director of RSM’s Positive Change Initiative, Managing Director of the Centre for Eco-Transformation, and Project Leader of ENABLE, a sustainable landscape restoration initiative.
“We use the SDGs as building blocks for creating positive change,” Eva says. “Through our education programmes and research we show that everyone has an impact on the world around them and that they can contribute to the SDGs.”
In aligning the School’s programmes with its mission, the emphasis is not just on students becoming successful personally, but also on them creating value for the societies and environments in which the organisations they work for operate.
To do so requires changing the mindset of students by making the relevancy of the SDGs tangible, and by teaching them how their skills and knowledge can be applied positively. “What does a macro economist have to do with eliminating hunger? And how do companies and activities have an impact on the SDGs? Interconnectedness, relevancy and responsibility must be made clear to students,” says Eva. “So if, in addition to knowledge, we equip the next generation of managers with the right mindset, we have an enormous impact as a business school.”
Understanding the SDGs
There are numerous ways the School teaches this relevancy. One is an extensive series of videos – currently 77 in total – each of which addresses aspects of a specific SDG and the business challenges around it.
RSM’s SDG teaching cases explore the complexity of sustainable development in greater detail. Showing how the 17 SDGs are interlinked, the cases compel students to think beyond the content of their own specialisations and to view sustainable development as an integrated concept linking environmental, social and economic dimensions. At the same time, where the SDGs can sometimes be seen as broad and possibly abstract, the teaching cases show students how systems thinking can be translated into concrete actions in day-to-day management.
Engagement through positive action
But it’s not just in the classroom that students are encouraged to think about the SDGs. Since 2019, and as part of RSM’s Positive Change Initiative, students can apply to become ambassadors for the SDGs – with each student championing a specific SDG – with the purpose of raising awareness of the issues and to inspire local action. These students are in turn mentored by RSM alumni, and encouraged by RSM professors – creating a lively ecosystem of change agents.
“I want to increase circular consumption on campus by setting up a project that allows students who leave Rotterdam to hand in items that they cannot take home and would otherwise throw away.”
- Luisa Zabel, RSM student and student ambassador for SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production
And even though issues might be international in nature, local action can make a difference, as highlighted by the efforts of Luisa Zabel, MSc Global Business & Sustainability 2021, and student ambassador for SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production): “I want to increase circular consumption on campus by setting up a project on campus that allows students who leave Rotterdam to hand in items that they cannot take home and would otherwise throw away,” she says.
The RSM Hummingbird Fund is another way to encourage students to experience what it is to take on responsibility: it provides grants to projects that aim to spark positive change in and around the RSM community. Examples of funded projects include the planting of flower beds to encourage bee populations in Rotterdam, online classes on forward thinking, upcycling initiatives, and coaching secondary school children on sustainability matters.
How will the students and employees involved know if their efforts, and indeed those of the School, have made any difference? Thanks to a team of eight master students the proof will be forthcoming. Labelling themselves as the Metrics Matrix, the students are collecting, collating and quantifying sustainability-related data in four key areas: education (through programmes and research), engagement, operations, and planning and administration.
The results will be presented as a real-time SDG Dashboard, which will provide a baseline from which RSM’s progress can be monitored and at the same time serve as a means of gaining the trust and support of stakeholders so the progress made in achieving positive change can be sustained and built upon.
Spreading the message beyond campus
RSM has taken its mission to be a force for positive change beyond the confines of campus and classroom and into the world at large. In developing a massive open online course (MOOC) – Driving business towards the SDGs – RSM gives everyone the opportunity to understand the role and responsibility of business, how business can make a positive impact, and how individuals can contribute.
Explaining how all the SDGs are interconnected, why synergy is the key to solving the world’s wicked problems, and what the contribution is that every individual can make, the MOOC has attracted over 15,000 participants and won the 2019 Award of Excellence from SDG Academy and UNSDSN, a global initiative of the United Nations.
Two MOOCs have also been developed on the subject of sustainable land restoration and are offered by The European Network for the Advancement of Business and Landscape Education (ENABLE), an initiative co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union, and led by RSM.
“Land degradation is a wicked problem which can only be tackled by ecology and economy working together,” Eva Rood explains. “Only by creating awareness about the added value of collaborating with experts from different disciplines can we raise a new generation of professionals equipped with the skills and knowledge required to restore landscapes.”