Guest Articles

March 23

Aline Laucke / Ella-Maria Gollmer

Educating the Sustainability Generation: How Universities Can Advance Social Business and Innovation

From social and economic injustice to the devastation of natural resources, the world is facing unprecedented challenges and growing calls for change. It has become more than obvious that if we want a future worth living in, we must change the economic systems that have led us to this place. We need alternative visions, structures and strategies that can generate respect for our planet and wealth for all. 

Increasingly, young people are leading these demands for radical and sustainable change. One result of this movement is the growing integration of innovative concepts such as social business into higher education — a trend that can ultimately help bring this new thinking to mainstream business practices. 


Academia is Embracing the Concept of Social Business

Today’s academic institutions, including universities, schools, departments and curricula, mostly build on ideas that have grown over centuries. In economics and business studies, concepts such as competitive advantage, economic growth and shareholder value are the core around which the majority of theories and recommendations are built. While considerable innovations and advancements in social and economic development have emerged from these principles, significant shares of the global population are not (yet) benefitting from the way most economic systems are structured, or from mainstream business practices. Economic growth, for instance, brings about tremendous progress, including social development. Yet it often happens at the expense of the environment, and leaves those living at the very bottom of the pyramid behind. It’s time to reconceptualize the way we build our economies, and educational institutions can play a central role in this process.

Schools and universities have significantly contributed to ingraining the traditional business mindset in our society: From early childhood on, we learn that doing business primarily means generating as much income as possible, either for oneself or for the employing company. So it’s natural that in many higher education institutions, the focus lies on transforming students into attractive candidates for the most lucrative jobs, rather than teaching them to become shapers of a better future. 

However, change is happening. It is inspiring to see how many business schools and universities are starting to integrate more sustainable concepts into their activities. To give just one example: Today, 87 universities around the world have created courses, departments, incubation programs and other initiatives that allow students to understand and implement the concept of social business as defined by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. The Academia Report on Social Business 2020 reflects on these activities, and explores other aspects of the academic landscape that can and should be adapted in order to boost the impact of doing business in a more sustainable way. For instance, it explores questions like: How can patented innovations developed in universities be made available in a way that maximizes their impact, while at the same time protecting research and development efforts? How can we encourage more impact-oriented research — and bring it to the attention of influential players such as big corporations? Published by Yunus + You – the YY Foundation, Yunus Centre and Studio Nima, the report seeks to promote the integration of social business and social innovation into mainstream higher education by illustrating how universities across the globe have developed and implemented innovative research and study programs. It features a number of prominent contributors, including Jeffrey Sachs (world-renowned economist and professor at Columbia University), Andrea Jung (CEO of Grameen America and Board Member of Apple), Ron Garan (decorated NASA astronaut), Michael Møller (former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations) and Muhammad Yunus himself. They each advocate for a world in which all businesses are social businesses, discussing how groundbreaking social innovations can be implemented.


How Universities Can Contribute to Social Business and Sustainability

As a concept that puts society’s and the environment’s needs at the center of organizational strategy-making, social business has garnered substantial interest from many stakeholders in academia. Students in particular have shown great enthusiasm about reconciling the twin goals of making a living and contributing to society. But beyond the concept of social business, sustainability in general is also gaining momentum in the academic landscape. 

Since 2019, the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings has listed academic institutions that have successfully advanced the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Analyzing these universities’ activities yields two key best practices: First, they have made social transformation a strategic goal. Second, they’ve explored many ways that universities can actively promote social transformation. Old structures must, at least to some extent, make room for new ones. 

To steer future generations in the right direction, a hands-on-mentality fed by both theoretical and practical evidence is required: Only a combination of the two can enable young people to turn their ideas into feasible solutions. At the same time, university faculties of different fields must align to interconnect their research, teaching and incubation capacities, as interdisciplinary cooperation tends to provide the best innovations. Furthermore, academia can act as an intermediary between inventors and existing social initiatives, raising these innovators’ awareness about impact organizations and promoting the application of their innovations in social business models. Universities can accomplish this by introducing new educational formats for teaching theoretical and practical knowledge about social business; organizing incubators, business plan competitions and entrepreneur mentoring programs; pursuing partnerships with social enterprises that expose students to their business practices; and integrating research that refines and improves the concept of social business. 

However, offering a platform for the development of social business and social innovation can be quite challenging for institutions of higher education. One of the key barriers is that these concepts are tangible yet not clearly defined, so researchers often find them difficult to approach. However, the more they take on the challenge of integrating social business and social innovation into their research programs, the more knowledge they’ll generate to support these new ways of doing business. Social business can only grow if meaningful evidence on its characteristics and impact is available, and if factors that influence its emergence, success and growth are known. 

Networks like the Yunus Social Business Centre are important platforms that help universities overcome those obstacles by learning from each other’s experiences. These networks help illustrate how new programs, structures and activities that promote social transformation can be implemented. In particular, they show how new theoretical concepts can be incorporated into existing structures, and thereby contribute to a more impact-oriented academic landscape.  

As Michael Møller points out in the Academia Report on Social Business, based on his many years of professional experience in international institutions, the young generation is not only willing but also entirely capable of participating in global decision-making. We fully agree. In fact, we argue that it is a moral imperative to empower the youth to build a sustainable future, by providing them with an academic landscape that prepares them for careers centered around social impact. The more that educational systems can enable the young generation to develop a holistic mindset that sees business as more than individual profit-making, the more we will see impactful social innovations emerge and grow.


Aline Laucke is a Chief Impact Officer and Ella-Maria Gollmer is a Project Manager at Studio Nima.


Photo courtesy of UC Davis College of Engineering.




Education, Social Enterprise
business development, corporations, innovation, social enterprise