Accelerating the sustainability agenda in learning and education


During this year’s EFMD Executive Development Conference held in St. Gallen, the topic was how business schools and the associated learning and development ecosystem can create stronger momentum around one of the most burning topics that humankind faces: Sustainability. 

It was hosted at “The Square” – a brand-new learning facility and centre at the University of St. Gallen to foster collaborative and inter-generational learning.

Facilitated by the University’s sustainability faculty and experts and the Custom Team of the Executive School, more than 100 participants explored and discussed ways to boost the role of business schools and their corporate partners to shape the agenda and how to integrate the topic of sustainability into executive learning and education. What are the key insights and take-away’s?

Changing mindset

Prof. Judith Walls, Chair of the Institute for Economy and the Environnment outlined the importance of shifting our mindset and thinking from “Business AND society/nature” to “Business IN society/nature to change the way we think about business models and value creation.  As such, the topic of sustainability needs to be integrated into all facets and dimensions of business education, acknowledging it has a significant responsibility as future leaders are trained today.

Make it circular

A circular economy offers huge opportunities to innovate new business models that impact resource consumption. Dr. Fabian Takacs – one of the leading experts in the field – has researched this topic and, together with his team, has developed more than 40 patterns to define circular economy business models.

Participants applied some of the patterns to a real company example to experience the creative ideation process to come up with alternative business models. Key learning is it’s not an art but a craft, and it can be done with fun, focus and feasibility.

The approach highlights the business opportunities that go along circular business models, which is why it has gained growing importance as a key lever to drive a company’s sustainability agendas. Oliver Brunschwiler, the former CEO of Freitag, one of the first truly Swiss circular economy companies creating a global consumer brand, shared his practical experience.


It’s intergenerational

Mobilising the younger generations is going to be key in the future. Often, they are better informed, sense a higher urgency and bring the necessary energy to act fast and decisively. “Student Impact” is a student consultancy from the University of St. Gallen that focuses exclusively on sustainable consulting for companies.

They showcased an example of what a successful partnership of student consultants and the European Helicopter Association can look like to shape the sustainability agenda of even an entire industry. It was specifically highlighted how important the entrepreneurial and intrinsic motivation of the young generation is. Companies, L&D providers and Business Schools can leverage students much more to drive sustainability.

Think “heart – head – hand”

Sustainability is one clear outcome that cannot be simply “taught”. Learning sustainability calls for a holistic personal and professional learning and development approach not limited to cognitive understanding of the issue and solutions.

What is needed is equally a perspective of “doing” and “feeling” to achieve a more sustainable effect for learning. Engaging, activating and stimulating methods are needed to create the necessary energy and momentum.

Dr Jost Hamschmidt from the Institute of Sustainability Management and Johannes Tschiderer from Student Impact shared the didactical approach of an innovative course design of the course “Be the Change in Education – Transformational Learning for Sustainability” that was designed and delivered at the university.

Core ideas were to be in a true setting of co-creation where faculty only played a minor role, and students engaged in course design and delivery actively. In an executive education setting, an impressive example was provided by the work that Bookbridge – a small experiential learning provider – did with Swiss Re over the last years, leading executives to becoming social entrepreneurs with social & environmental impact in developing countries. The program consisted mainly of “doing” and building a company instead of only learning about it in the classroom.


Bridge building

Collaboration is king. Learning in sustainability needs to happen collaboratively, and the entire array of methods needs to be put in place: peer exchange, learning from experts and practitioners equally, learning inter-generationally and learning in eco-systems (rather than “ego-systems”)
and learning between start-ups and large corporates.

Business Schools here, in particular, can play a vital role in facilitating dialogue and exchange between different stakeholders and partners, and the conference itself provides evidence of this: from “IQ” to “WQ” as the guiding principle.

So what? There is a clear call for action, and the conference provided lots of meaningful input on how to contribute to reaching the Paris 2023 goals by learning, transformation, capability building and last but not least, fun and innovation.

Also, during this year’s conference, we had the opportunity to bring the 2023 Excellence in Practice award-winning cases to centre stage, adding to the true sharing and community vibe in the professional ecosystem. The kind of spirit we plan to foster again with the 2024 edition of the awards and next year’s conference on 2-4 October 2024 at London Business School.

For additional insights, trends and perspectives about sustainability in business schools, visit the conversation here.