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The SDGs cover everything from gender equality to climate action to quality education (Image: Getty; additional design: Archi Banal)
The SDGs cover everything from gender equality to climate action to quality education (Image: Getty; additional design: Archi Banal)

PartnersJuly 5, 2023

The innovation initiative asking local students to think for the world

The SDGs cover everything from gender equality to climate action to quality education (Image: Getty; additional design: Archi Banal)
The SDGs cover everything from gender equality to climate action to quality education (Image: Getty; additional design: Archi Banal)

With recent world events having delayed progress on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a new programme led by the University of Auckland Business School is giving students the opportunity to be part of the solutions.

Some of the best solutions come from unexpected places. In 1714 the British government offered a sizeable prize to anyone who could come up with a way to measure longitude at sea – something mariners and astronomers had until that point struggled to achieve. 

Two ideas were eventually awarded prizes. One involved sophisticated and time-consuming lunar measurements which eventually led to the international adoption of the still-used Greenwich Meridian. 

The other was a chronometer developed by an unknown Yorkshire clock maker and carpenter called John Harrison, who looked at the problem from a completely different perspective. His marine chronometer helped to revolutionise the shipping industry. 

Through this exercise – posing a challenge and harnessing multiple minds – we managed to solve our navigation problems, but 300 years later, the world is facing some much bigger existential problems, 17 of which have been laid out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Image: Archi Banal

In 2016, UN member states committed to improving them by 2030 and 20 third-year University of Auckland students from a range of different faculties, as well as a number of academic staff, are doing their bit to find solutions as part of a new course called Future17.

Andrew Patterson, deputy dean at the Business School, says Future17 (also run as Business 301: Special Topic – Future 17) is a global education programme that brings students, academic mentors and industry partners together to work on challenges related to the 17 SDGs. It was developed by academic ratings agency Quacquarelli Symonds and Exeter University and is available at just seven universities around the world. 

Brooke Kingsbury, who is in her final year of a Bachelor of Commerce, was one of the 20 students (and one of 200 from around the world) to be accepted into the inaugural Business 301 course, which started in January this year. 

Studying full-time and working part-time in a consultancy, Kingsbury was attracted to the course because it offered the opportunity to work on a real-life business problem and go deep into the SDGs. 

“It’s very different to what we normally do, in a very positive way,” she says. “When you enter the workforce you are thrown off a cliff and you either sink or swim. So this is basically what it would be like in the working environment, except you have the academic leads around you to support you if things don’t go so well.”

Kingsbury’s team consisted of another University of Auckland student and three female students from Stellenbosch University in South Africa who were at different stages of their degrees. Their mentor was from the University of São Paulo and they were asked to look into the best way for a Sri Lankan natural dye company called T-Hues to enter the US market. 

They had to learn about the organisation, the landscape in Sri Lanka, the manufacturing process and the US clothing market. The New Zealand pair also had to work across different time zones, which was one of the most challenging parts of the project, Kingsbury says (they also had to deal with South Africa’s unreliable electricity situation). 

“We gained a lot educationally and culturally. It’s been a great experience and I really value the opportunity to apply what I’m learning. In the real world, you don’t just work with people who studied commerce, you work with a wide variety of people. It’s about thriving in a team, leveraging each other’s best skills and helping each other where they need help. That’s the secret to working in a team. You deal with the cards you’re given.” 

The university worked quickly and collaboratively to make the course available for its first intake – with a multidisciplinary team from across the university helping to bring Future17 to life.

“It’s a really good example of different areas of the university working collaboratively with a shared purpose in mind,” Patterson says. 

It’s also a good example of a course that aims to foster practical skills like time and project management – skills that many employers are looking for – rather than focusing too heavily on theory. 

Image: Getty Images

“It’s a university and there needs to be academic rigour, but I think sometimes it’s too textbook focused,” says Patterson, who also helped launch the innovative Business 202 course. “We should allow students to stretch themselves in ways that aren’t delivered in a typical university setting.”

Students weren’t given the chance to choose their projects, but in the future Patterson says they want to offer more scope for students to suggest the SDGs they want to work on, based on their interests. In keeping with her ‘deal with the cards you’re given’ mentality, Kingsbury wasn’t particularly worried about that.

“Whatever I got was going to be an exciting challenge and an opportunity to learn about an SDG… You wouldn’t want to know everything about it because you’re never going to learn.”

Patterson says Kingsbury was exactly the kind of student they were looking for. 

“They needed to be conscientious but also be able to handle self-learning and cross cultural teamwork. I don’t think the word ‘problem’ came out of Brooke’s mouth,” he says. “It was ‘opportunity’ or ‘challenge’. That’s the mindset we’re hoping to nurture.” 

Many of the 30 students were from the Bachelor of Global Studies, but that degree can be taken through different faculties, he says. And while the course is housed in the Business School and he is the academic lead, it is a university-wide programme and his role is to “make sure the credit is spread”.

“Our students are studying different things – commerce, law, engineering, arts, science. We’re not not looking at this from a particular business or art lens, and that’s really important.” 

But there are some things that link all of these students. 

“The students in the first year of the course tended to have a global mindset, a passion for sustainable values and a willingness to contribute to society and something greater than themselves,” he says. 

It’s not just the students who benefit, however. Dr Asaad Shamseldin, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Auckland, mentored a team trying to find ways to promote the SDGs. The main challenge was identifying the target niche so they could tailor the material to the right ages and cultures, he says, but eventually, his team came up with a template for an educational booklet and also developed a board game. 

He believes the most important aspect of the course is that the learning is led by the students and, perhaps like the UN itself, they need to learn how to manage conflicts and find ways to work with people who may have different beliefs and cultural contexts. 

“I think it has enriched the student experience, here and elsewhere, and it should be encouraged. Even here at the University we should be doing more of this multidisciplinary work that’s focused on solving challenging problems,” Dr Shamseldin says. 

While not all of the projects that students worked on ended up being used by the businesses or organisations involved in the Future17 programme, Patterson says many students have expressed an interest in being involved again and some have already been picked for internships. More top-ranked universities are set to offer the course, the University of Auckland eventually hopes to expand the number of places it makes available to 50, and QS is already looking at developing another similar course because of the success of Future17.

The pandemic, climate change and the war in Ukraine have slowed global progress towards the SDGs, and while Patterson knows one course isn’t going to change the world, reaching any of those goals has to be a team sport. 

“I strongly believe the course is helping to develop really strong future leaders and allowing them to learn more about the global challenges we face.”

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