Article based on research by Pedro Aznar Alarcón

The United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has identified 17 distinct sustainable development goals (SDGs), which are essential challenges that must be met for the survival of humanity on our planet.

Achieving these goals and the associated long-term shifts in global policy and behaviour at a societal level will depend on future generations of decision-makers – and this means those who have grown up immersed in digital technology, in an environment very different to that of their parents.

Esade’s Juan Pedro Aznar set out to research the mindset and aptitude of a cohort of Spanish business students with regard to engaging with the SDGs, in association with Llorenç Bagur-Femenías from UPF Barcelona School of Management, and Marian Buil-Fabregá, Pompeu Fabra University.

Achieving the sustainable development goals will depend on future generations of decision-makers

They started with a detailed literature review around the issues relating to "digital natives," i.e. those born around the turn of the millennium and currently typically in higher education. Not only have their lives and learning experiences been defined by technological immersion, they have known preferences for experiential learning, which aligns well with the strategic management framework of individual dynamic capabilities of sensing, seizing, and transforming opportunities for change.

The research team wanted to explore the relationship between digital native characteristics and these specific traits/competencies. A better understanding of how digital natives learn, and the relationship between the characteristics associated to digital natives and individual dynamic capabilities will help in the design of curricula, academic programmes and the design of learning activities, with the final aim of proposing new ways to educate coming generations to deliver on the SDGs.

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Digital natives and individual dynamic capabilities

Surveying students from various programmes connected with entrepreneurship at Tecnocampus Pompeu Fabra, the researchers’ statistical analysis confirmed the existence of a provable relationship between the digital native traits the questionnaire defined (which related to a range of behaviours and preferences), and the individual dynamic capabilities, among which those of sensing and innovating in particular, stood out.

For educators, identifying this relationship between their intrinsic values and alertness to new opportunities can be used to foster a commitment to sustainable development, and future achievement of the SDGs. The researchers concluded with several recommendations for higher education institutions, while being careful not to over-generalise from findings associated with 500 questionnaires generated from a single business school.

Education that fosters commitment to the SDGs will ensure that as these new generations enter the workforce, they help to shape a positive culture of change

Education that fosters commitment to the SDGs will ensure that as these new generations enter the workforce, they help to shape a positive culture of change, bringing their fresh thinking and propensity to innovate and transform to organisations that might be stuck in their ways. Entrepreneurial skillset development can encourage this; it emphasises critical thinking and problem solving as the fundamental drivers for the urgent action needed on the environmental and social problems of contemporary globalised societies.

Furthermore, if higher education institutions take steps to transform their own relationships to sustainable development and the future of the planet, for example by integrating the SDGs across the curricula, or considering them in the design of learning activities, this will help the internalised idealism of the younger generation to flourish in respect of real commitment to environmental goals regardless of their field of study.

All of them will have the potential to influence their workplace and future institutional behaviours, and indeed the earliest members of the millennial cohort – all of whom grew up with significant digital-native factors in their lives – are developing seniority in varied careers across the globe.

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Businesses need to embrace change

It follows that the researchers have recommendations for businesses too, which align with commercial competitive objectives as well as the SDGs: to respond to the economic uncertainties and continual changes of the present business and technological environment, the value-driven thinking of this new generation is essential to their success.

As such, businesses that nurture and promote digital natives through their organisations and embed their thinking and ideas in the organisational culture will help drive innovation and sustainability within their own businesses as well as across global society. If they offer training and development opportunities focused around empowering them with individual dynamic capabilities, they will build the individual and institutional capacity to sense, seize, and transform.

Businesses that nurture and promote digital natives through their organisations will help drive innovation and sustainability

For legacy businesses with long-established ways of making policy decisions, this means having a genuine openness to new ways of doing things. It’s only by acting together at a societal level we can begin to embed the mindset shifts needed, and step back from the brink of environmental disaster.

Change from the ground up – before it’s too late

It has to start with education, as the researchers conclude:

"According to the Education for SDGs (UNESCO, 2017), the education system design of programmes and syllabi must include some concrete competences to achieve the objective of making the SDGs a part of the skills and values acquired through education; among others, the document cites system-thinking competences or anticipatory competences, which are competences with a clear link to the dynamic capability of sensing and which was one of this research paper’s main results."

Embedding an awareness of the SDGs, along with inclusion of dynamic capabilities in the higher education system, is the clear call to action that the world cannot afford to ignore.

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