Dr Marc van Wegberg
SBE master’s course on sustainable innovation benefits companies as well as students
Beer and sustainability are not words that typically go together. But under the slogan ‘People, planet, profit’, the Limburg-based Gulpener Brewery is leading the local charge on sustainability. And not by reducing the amount of beer – or profit – that it makes. Instead, Gulpener is reducing its consumption of fossil energies and water, and sources its raw materials from local farmers who shun pesticides.
These are exactly the sorts of changes that Dr Marc van Wegberg, assistant professor at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE), likes to see. In fact, he’d be happy to see bees thriving in downtown Maastricht. He wants farms to exist in the midst of cities. In short, he wants to see organisations become more sustainable – and in the SBE course Business Innovation and Sustainable Development, he is teaching students to help them do just that.
Linking companies with society
“Our goal is to give students expertise in the field of sustainability, so that they can create sustainable businesses. We think it’s important to teach the leaders of tomorrow how to lead organisations in a sustainable manner, how to make organisations aware of the importance of sustainability, and how to transform organisations into sustainable market players.”
“Maastricht University is doing a lot in this respect. There’s now a Maastricht chapter of Oikos, the international student association aiming to raise awareness of sustainability issues. The Green Office is working on ways of reducing our energy consumption. And the International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS) has launched a Sustainability Lab, which is brimming with innovation and creativity.”
“At SBE, we also have the European Centre for Corporate Engagement. And in the Strategy and Innovation specialisation of the master’s in International Business, I teach around 120 people. Four of the courses focus on innovation, one – Business Innovation and Sustainable Development – on sustainability. We encourage students to look beyond the borders of an organisation. The link between companies, people and society is sustainability.”
So what do students of Business Innovation and Sustainable Development actually do? Required reading in the course is Capitalism at the Crossroads, the seminal work by the Cornell professor Stuart Hart which looks at enhancing sustainability while also avoiding its pitfalls. But the core of the course is practical project work that, Van Wegberg says, benefits both students and local companies.
“Each student spends two months working on a project for a company. Their task is to analyse the role of sustainability and innovation in the organisation. They look at how this influences the company’s market position, what the competitors are doing, and whether the end result is better for society. In short, they examine whether the company’s efforts in sustainability, in doing something good for society, are actually paying off, in terms of both profit and societal good.”
To this end, Van Wegberg and colleagues are constantly on the lookout for companies willing to take part in the projects. “The prerequisite for success is that two-way commitment is needed. Our students see sustainability and innovation as fascinating subjects, and are highly motivated when it comes to these projects. But the company has to be prepared to tell its story, to explain how it deals with sustainability.”
“Ultimately, the projects result in recommendations on how the company can also profit from the costs of or investments that it makes in sustainability. In other words, we at SBE can teach organisations something, and at the same time we as a community of academics can learn from organisations. We want to work together and learn from one another.”
Shift of focus
Finding organisations to participate should not be too hard, given the current climate. “Once upon a time, companies saw sustainability as nothing more than a legal obligation. Today, it’s viewed more as innovation, as the translation of new knowledge into solutions for societal problems. So organisations now have more of a proactive attitude towards sustainability. That’s important, because focusing on sustainability offers opportunities for improvement. It forces organisations to think at a more fundamental level about things like their production processes and how to change them.”
“But also, at the most basic level, there are clear profits to be gained from sustainability. The traditional thinking is that sustainability is diametrically opposed to efficiency. But organisations must realise that what makes us efficient, also makes us vulnerable. Sustainability is the flip side of vulnerability. It’s about thinking about how you can make the system less vulnerable and more robust, resilient, reliable for others.”
“This means that sustainable organisations have long lives; they can go a long way. So it’s about a shift of focus from short-to medium-term thinking to long-term vision. It’s about transforming from the company as an organisation, to the company as a community. In other words, it’s a process of social change – if you want to be a sustainable organisation, you must also change the organisation itself.”
Gulpener is not the only local company working towards sustainability. The Bisschopsmolen, the oldest working water mill in the Netherlands, is putting the craftsmanship back into bread. Connected to a popular bakery in the city centre of Maastricht, it is returning to the use of spelt flour, a type of grain with fewer calories than wheat flour. “They’re playing to a niche, which is helping them succeed in the market”, says Van Wegberg.
“There’s a lot of creativity when it comes to how organisations interact with sustainability and innovation. There can be many different ways to think about how to make products, which components you use. And these processes can take place in very old industrial sectors, but also in newer sectors such as hospitality and tourism. For example, we’re seeing an increase in vegetarian restaurants, in restaurants that use local products. Sustainability is often linked with the local – by delving into local issues you can come up with tailored solutions.”
The local community, then, seems to be a key component in the quest for sustainability. “Look around you”, says Van Wegberg. “Look at the community in which you operate, and at how others look at you. You might think you’re being sustainable, but if society doesn’t think so, you’re nowhere. Sustainability must be recognised to have value. Is your contribution visible, and does the community recognise it as a contribution?”
“For example, the discussion on pollution is only important if people recognise that it has an effect on health, if they know what’s happening in their surroundings. So awareness is important. And take a look at your goals, too. Is profit as a goal a good goal? The answer is simple: focusing only on profit is not a good thing. It shouldn’t be your main priority.”
If your company is interested in participating in a project of the SBE course Business Innovation and Sustainable Development, please contact Dr Marc van Wegberg via firstname.lastname@example.org or +31 43 388 3654.