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S-Lab stimulates sustainability at MIT Sloan

Insights and energy from several engineering disciplines, architecture, urban planning, management, public policy and the humanities inspired the 60 students enrolled in Sloan's innovative new Laboratory for Sustainable Business (S-Lab) this year. Teams collaborating with 14 clients to craft business approaches to environmental and social issues showcased their final projects in the lobby of Building E52 on the afternoon of May 16.

Coordinator Sarah Slaughter, an expert in sustainable infrastructure and construction, said that S-Lab "was a life-changing experience for many of the students, giving them an opportunity to make real change happen … in environmental restoration, economic development and social equity." Eight Sloan faculty co-taught the course, using case material, internship experience and integrated analytic tools and frameworks to identify business opportunities presented by the real-world challenges of sustainable energy, the impacts of globalization on social structures and the widening gap between the world's "haves" and "have-nots."

The experimental offering drew students from several MIT departments, including advanced undergraduates and master's and doctoral candidates, and students from other area universities. The initiative represents a new wave of concern over environmental and social responsibility at business schools in the United States and abroad, many of which now have course requirements in those areas. The Sloan subject focused on sustainable business planning in recognition of the key role climate change is playing in both public and private sector policy and practice.

According to Richard Locke, the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and professor of political science, the S-Lab approach is unique in that it synergizes multiple disciplines. "Up until now we have considered aspects of sustainability--climate, energy, water, food, poverty and social development--in isolation," he says. "S-Lab is developing an integrated framework to consider the system-wide dynamics of human society, along with tools and methodologies for measuring and monitoring sustainability efforts and their applications."

Acting as entrepreneurs, students used interactive computer-based simulations to invest in firms using renewable resources in a framework of existing policies and business models. The simulations enable them to see how changes in any set of factors might affect sustainability and profitability. "Students engaged in deep learning," observed Slaughter, as they "worked with the organizations to identify the nature of sustainability and developed new systematic approaches to help each organization reach its sustainability objectives."

Primed with this innovative learning, the wisdom of eight faculty members, extensive case study and theoretical reading, and the practices reported by guest speakers, students worked in teams to develop solutions to real-world sustainability challenges presented by participating groups. These included large established firms, such as Disney Imagineers, Intel and Nike. Start-up and small firm participants were GoLoco, a social network facilitating ride sharing; Mibanco, a Latin American microcredit group; Good Energies, a fund investing in renewables; Greenfuel Technologies, a biofuels firm; the Spark Group, an investor in schools and microfinance in Chennai (formerly Madras), India; and Merida, a maker of natural fiber floor coverings.

NGOs and government groups included the World Bank; the Universidad Francisco Marroquin program in microfinance; Health Care Without Harm, an organization for improving the environmental quality of buildings; and Friends of Petit-Anse, a Haitian group empowering the poorest of the poor. The Sloan School and the MIT Energy Initiative's Campus Energy Task Force also worked with S-Lab students on campus-level problems.

Students were eager to explain their processes and results. Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) graduate student Sharleen Leurig worked on a project for Intel, which is not usually pegged as an environmental company, but, like a growing number of influential firms, is giving serious thought to its environmental footprint. S-Lab enabled Leurig to "add business concepts to the DUSP emphasis on regulatory, scientific and resource aspects of environmental management." Her team, advised by Slaughter, developed a set of sustainability indicators for Intel's construction and materials division. Other team members included Sloan graduate students Sylvia Dizon, Elizabeth Prior and Stephen Rockwell.

Disney Imagineers are interested in making the energy use of the firm's theme parks more sustainable. The S-Lab team compared various alternative energy options with the needs of the company and determined that, like many very large firms, Disney's greatest contribution at present would lie in the purchase of carbon offsets. At the same time, alternative energy demonstration projects at the parks and other initiatives, in, for example, trash reduction and disposal, could raise public awareness among thousands of visitors. Sloan student Lina Montesalve used her team's colorful poster filled with familiar Disney characters to demonstrate how the team reached this conclusion.. The team was advised by Rebecca Henderson, the Eastman Kodak Leaders for Manufacturing Professor of Management.

A new, small company creating natural fiber floor coverings, Merida challenged an S-Lab team to develop a business strategy that would enable managers to operate sustainably in this competitive field. Advised by Locke, Team Merida included two Sloan Fellows--Pascal Marmier, a lawyer from Switzerland, and Zairo Cheibub, an academic from Brazil; Nhan Chiang of the systems design and management graduate program; and physician Basmaa Ali, also a graduate student at Sloan. Part of the challenge was to develop a definition of sustainability for the company to use in gauging its effectiveness.

According to Slaughter, "The commitment and enthusiasm of the faculty and students was invigorating, engaging an ever-widening community for sustainability." In addition to Locke, Henderson and Slaughter, S-Lab faculty included Simon Johnson, professor of entrepreneurship and chief economist of the International Monetary Fund; Nelson Repenning, associate professor of management; Anjali Sastry, assistant professor of management science; senior lecturer Jeff Shames; and John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management and director of the MIT System Dynamics Group. The teaching assistants were management student Margo Corral and technology policy student Pragnya Alekal, both looking forward to receiving the S.M. in June. "It was exciting," said Sterman. "We're looking forward to offering S-Lab again next year."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 6, 2007 (download PDF).

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