Cambridge sustainability lessons for future-fit leaders

The world is moving inexorably from the ‘what’ of sustainable development to the ‘how’. This is the tricky part. Universities are uniquely placed to help leaders understand what sustainability is and – crucially – how their organisations can achieve it, says Ben Kellard of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

Within the higher education sector, education for sustainable development is “transformational and urgent”, he says. “With sustainability going mainstream in business, finance and governance, there is a huge demand for equipping those sectors to manage the sustainability transition, through knowledge production and sharing, collaboration and convening.”

Kellard is director of business strategy at the influential institute, which is part of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He argues that universities play a critical role in educating tomorrow’s leaders in sustainability, as well as in providing an evidence base for understanding and responding to global challenges, and for identifying and scaling up innovations that advance sustainability.

“Frankly,” Kellard tells University World News, “I think that increasingly the social licence of universities to operate will depend upon this role. Like any organisation, universities need to be demonstrating how they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

The sustainability institute

The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership was established in 1988 and is located in the school of technology at Cambridge.

The former HRH The Prince of Wales was CISL’s Royal Founding Patron and has inspired and supported many of its initiatives.

This began with a Prince of Wales Business and Sustainability Programme, which was aimed at very senior leaders and held over two to three days and is still running around the world.

The institute says that it “activates leadership globally to transform economies for people, nature and climate”. It has hubs in Cambridge, Cape Town and Brussels and works across business, finance and government “to accelerate action for a sustainable future”. The website says the CISL has a global network of more than 30,000 leaders and innovators who are acting to accelerate transformation for sustainable societies and economies.

There are four main areas of operation. One is ‘foresight’: “We develop pioneering ideas, research and resources for better decision-making and system design,” says the institute. There is a great deal of research. All research is published in the public domain and is free to access. This is important, Kellard says, as the institute works to share and promulgate its thinking.

A second is ‘education’ aimed at empowering people and organisations to lead change at scale. There is a range of online and contact programmes. The institute has postgraduate students but is unusual at Cambridge for not having undergraduates. There are custom courses for leaders, such as the executive teams of multinationals. “That’s what we’re best known for,” says Kellard.

A third area is ‘convening’, which brings together leaders who influence policy, to build “transformative alliances” across business, finance and policy.

A Corporate Leaders Group has been running for more than 15 years and has strong links with Brussels and Westminster, says Kellard: “For example, we are decisive in enabling the net zero regulation in both jurisdictions. We do the same in banking, working with all the different arms of banking to look at how to enable more sustainable flows of capital.”

The fourth area is ‘innovation’, which works to “catalyse entrepreneurial leadership to accelerate solutions to global challenges”.

The CISL has a 10-year plan, ‘Rewiring the Economy’, ambitiously intended to lay the foundations for a sustainable economy: “It has a simple logic: six sustainability ambitions to be delivered by three economic actors (business, government and finance) via 10 interconnected tasks,” the institute says.

According to Kellard: “Because we’re one of the foundation institutions in this area, and because we work directly with businesses – we’re not in an ivory tower – often our outputs are seen as reference points to what good looks like and what is influential.”

Kellard has “always worked with one foot in research, one foot in practice”, he told University World News. He has worked in the private and civil society and higher education sectors, and has more than 20 years of experience advising big companies on leadership strategy and change. He has been with CISL for five years, and has produced multiple reports and strategies.

Just this month, the CISL Business Transformation Framework Preliminary Diagnostic report was produced. It is described as a “diagnostic tool that sets out 12 enablers presented onto four organisational typologies, distinguished by different levels of alignment to sustainability and purpose, against which businesses can self-assess”.

The what and how of sustainability

Says Kellard: “The market is driven by financial value creation, which ladders up to GDP maximisation. This leads to quite a short-term focus on financial value creation through capital markets and into businesses.

“Business-as-usual is part of what is driving the sustainability crisis because it externalises costs and only looks at financial value, ignoring natural and social value.”

The Cambridge institute is exploring alternative responses to business-as-usual, to enable individuals and organisations to transition to sustainability.

“But we also recognise that businesses can’t transition on their own, because they are operating within unsustainable systems – capital markets, infrastructure, supply chains, value chains and so on and so forth, all of which need rewiring,” Kellard says.

“The key actors of finance, business, government and civil society all need to change in a coordinated way, because if they’re out of kilter it won’t work. That’s why we work with three of those key actors, and we don’t look at them in isolation. That’s why we talk about all the roles they need to play in rewiring the economy,” Kellard says.

The leaders who pass through the CISL are usually very senior heads of corporations or financial institutions or senior government people. “They’ve heard about climate change and biodiversity loss and other global challenges, but don’t always understand the extent and the urgency and the interconnectedness between them,” Kellard says.

“For the leaders, it is a change journey. They learn what sustainability means for their sectors, how economies tip, and how to respond to sustainability pressures. They look at what this means for corporate governance, and the limitations of business-as-usual – we say business-as-usual is dead. Then they start to look at alternatives. That’s where we bring in our foresight research,” Kellard says.

While some businesses still have an issue with ‘what’ sustainability is, increasingly, says Kellard, the focus of the institute’s teaching and research is on the ‘how’ of sustainability. “We are increasingly clear that we know what the problem is, and where we’re starting from. We know where we need to get to. The question is how to get from here to there,” he explains.

CISL research is trying to unpack the ‘how’ of system transformation. “What are the mindsets, behaviours, strategies that business can use? What is their ‘playbook’, to use the American term. What are the range of ingredients they can work with to create new recipes?

“Of course, they’re dealing with a lot of structural headwinds coming from business partners, capital markets, access to capital, all of those elements. Even though they are often very powerful, the leaders we work with say they feel limited in how much room they have to manoeuvre because they’re operating within an unsustainable system.

“Those tensions and challenges are where a lot of our work is focused,” says Kellard.

There has been much work around the generic roles of business, but there is also increasing interest in what sustainability means for specific economic sectors. For instance, what transition is needed for a particular sector to get to a nature positive outcome?

This work is important, because currently the sustainability efforts of private and public sector organisations may be undermined by the unsustainable economic sectors and systems they operate in. “There is almost nothing between organisations and the global goals. Working on the sustainability of sectors is helping to bridge that gap,” says Kellard.

Sustainability at Cambridge

Is the work of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership useful to Cambridge, as the university strives for sustainability? The answer is ‘yes’, says Kellard, within the bounds of possibility at a university with a highly devolved culture supporting academic independence.

There are numerous informal networks across the university that are working on sustainability. A few years ago, Cambridge Zero was initiated, a group that facilitates work across the university on all things to do with climate. With a new vice-chancellor just joining, there is an opportunity to explore what sustainability means across the university.

“That’s all work in progress. So, we are increasingly connecting the dots across the university. And we realise that there’s still a long way to go,” he says.

A lot of Kellard’s work is around how to link the purposes of organisations with sustainability. He referenced a 2022 paper, by fellow Cambridge researcher Victoria Hurth and Iain S Stewart of the University of Plymouth, on the re-purposing of universities for sustainability.

Their research found, among many other things, that universities’ responses to issues of sustainability had been “widely criticised for being wholly inadequate. Universities can be observed to engage with sustainability issues in ad hoc ways, with the scale of attention and commitment dependant mainly on the level of pressure exerted by stakeholders that works to overcome aspects of inherent inertia,” write Hurth and Stewart.

“Sustainability initiatives can therefore be regarded mainly as bolt-ons. This mirrors how other sectors, including businesses, have tended to respond.”

For universities and other organisations, Kellard argues, a question is what sustainability means for its core function. “There is a real risk of people looking at sustainability as a peripheral issue,” he says. Universities might believe they can carry on with education as the core function and think about sustainability on the side, or as a separate course.

“That’s a classic bear trap universities fall into, rather than thinking about what sustainability means for their fundamental practice,” he explains. He mentioned the concept of ‘double materiality’, in terms of which organisations must report both on how their business is impacted by sustainability issues, and how its activities impact on society and the environment.

Where to start? There are myriad examples. Kellard chooses psychology. It might not seem directly connected to sustainability, like engineering, but it is important to look at psychology research around sustainability challenges, or to see how psychology might help rewire human behaviours to create more sustainable lifestyles.

“It’s hard to think of a discipline that’s not impacted by sustainability,” he says.

It is also hard to think of an organisational system less conducive to change than that of an autonomous university with a collegiate structure.

There are, further, considerable challenges lurking within higher education’s siloed approach to learning and research. A multidisciplinary approach is pretty much a prerequisite for holistic sustainability efforts – teaching or research.

There are questions around whether students are being equipped with the skills and knowledge that they need for tomorrow, such as understanding and skills to advance sustainability. “The world is changing. Unfortunately, I think a lot of education institutions are caught in teaching students what they need today, not what they need tomorrow,” Kellard says.

There are some ‘positive’ developments.

Many universities are coming under pressure from the outside, from key stakeholders such as governments or philanthropic organisations. “Increasingly, we’re seeing them build in sustainability outcomes and requirements as part of research and funding bids,” Kellard says.

Also, increasingly students are being attracted to education institutions that align with their personal values, and the same applies to attracting talented faculty and staff. Businesses are wanting sustainable solutions, as well as employees who are well educated in sustainability.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” says Kellard.

Email the article author, Karen MacGregor, here: macgregor.karen@gmail.com.