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Left to right: Bob Lax, Stephanie Streaty, Karis Hackmann, Jillian Bolak, Caitlin Ryan, William Thompson, Eric Overby, and Judy Adler. Photo courtesy of Selen Beduk.
Left to right: Bob Lax, Stephanie Streaty, Karis Hackmann, Jillian Bolak, Caitlin Ryan, William Thompson, Eric Overby, and Judy Adler. Photo courtesy of Selen Beduk.

“Time-Traveling” MBA Students Discuss Progress Solving Global Sustainability Issues

Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business entered a time machine on August 20, 2019—and came out ten years in the future. During the “Reports from the Future” symposium, MBA students, pretending it was the year 2029, spoke about the progress society has made addressing global issues related to environmental and social sustainability.

Eric Overby, associate professor of information technology management, included the project in his Summer 2019 course, MGT 6059: Analysis of Emerging Technologies. Throughout the semester, students learned how to develop scenarios about the future, with particular emphasis on the effects of emerging technologies. Crafting “Reports from the Future” gave students the opportunity to put what they learned into action.

Overby, who has included the project in both undergraduate and graduate versions of the course for several years, said, “I have students develop forecasts and scenarios about how things will develop in the future, so that we can identify actions to take now to make the most desirable future come to pass.”

In their reports, students analyzed topics related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a blueprint of 17 goals for global environmental, social, and economic sustainability—over a 30-year period from 1999 to 2029. Although students had the freedom to choose their own topics, Overby said, “The SDGs provide a convenient way to ensure that the topic is important. Using the 1999 to 2029 time period prompts students to think about how the history of their topic affects what will happen between now and 2029.”

Eight teams completed projects in the class, and Overby selected three of the top projects for the public symposium, which was open to community members and key stakeholders. Each team discussed how their topic developed from 1999 to 2029 in 15-minute TED-style talks.

The first team discussed school shootings in the United States through the lens of SDG #4, “Quality Education.” The team reflected on how political and legislative changes impacted the frequency and devastation of school shootings. They presented several developments and technologies that contributed to a decline in shootings by 2029. Smart technology, such as biometric locks, became mandatory for firearms, they said, and an AI platform (linked to a popular song about mental illness) connected students in need with assistance.

SDG #13: “Climate Action” provided the lens through which the second team reviewed carbon capture technologies. The team said that prior to 2019, convincing CO2 emitters to capture their carbon was a challenge due to a dearth of economic incentives. They imagined that by 2029, commercial uses for captured carbon were steadily increasing and making a dent in emissions.

Pavel Karabanov, a student in the Evening MBA Program and member of the carbon capture team, said that what surprised him most while working on the project was discovering the availability of direct air capture technologies, which are already developed and on the brink of profitability. Even though broad, commercial uses for captured carbon must be identified in order to make the technologies profitable, he stated, “It’s surprising to see how far we’ve come.” Overby’s class made Karabanov think more seriously about pursuing a career that can contribute to sustainable growth. He said, “It opened my eyes to the lack of individuals currently contributing in this space, mostly due to inadequate funding. I’m more focused now on doing my part.”

The third team focused on India’s looming water crisis, which relates to SDG #6: “Clean Water and Sanitation.” They said that India is the second-most densely populated country, and that rapid growth occurred in cities without consideration for the resources that would be needed. The team described innovations that in 2029 would prove successful (e.g., rainwater harvesting and wastewater treatment) and unsuccessful (e.g., river interlinking—which works only if there is water to move).

Three judges (Bob Lax, managing director at Accenture; Stephanie Streaty, senior director of corporate social responsibility at Cox Automotive; and Judy Adler, president of Turner Foundation, Inc.) selected the school shooting project as the best presentation. Members of the prize-winning team included Jillian Bolak, Karis Hackmann, Caitlin Ryan, and William Thompson. Ryan, a first-year dual-degree student enrolled in the Full-time MBA Program and the Masters in Industrial Design Program, reflected on the value of the AI platform her team included as a tool to help young people understand and get treatment for mental illness. “It comes down to education,” she said. “We need to educate students about how to treat things like guns—and how to treat each other. A general trend towards greater awareness of these issues will move us into a more sustainable direction.”

Beril Toktay, faculty director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, which sponsored the event, remarked, “We aim to graduate students who are sensitive to their responsibility to the future—and who think deeply about how to solve our world’s biggest challenges.” She congratulated all three teams for “taking on high-impact issues and striving to propose durable solutions.”

Overby reflected on what he considers to be the valuable practice of developing scenarios that are plausible and well thought-out in regard to how things will unfold. “This helps you identify the actions to take today—so you can make sure that the best predicted aspects happen and the worst do not happen,” he said. “The future is not preordained; we have the ability to shape it. This assignment helps students think about how to shape it.”

 

Written by Jennifer Holley Lux

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