The Future of Sustainability Professionals: report on a transdisciplinary workshop

Examples of job tasks and the key competencies which the participants linked them to (click to enlarge in a new tab)
In the waning weeks of 2016 a diverse and exemplary group of sustainability professionals gathered together in a classroom on the campus of Arizona State University to explore the question of whether the key competencies in sustainability are indeed the framework of what transformational future professionals in sustainability need. Our full report on the day’s event is available for download but we wanted to give you taste of it here.

A previous post summarized our approach from the key research questions to a methodological overview. Here we will briefly present what we learned about these questions.

What are examples of tasks carried out by Sustainability professionals and how can those be linked to the key competencies?

The participants of the workshop were highly knowledgeable about the key competencies in sustainability which made for insightful conversations. While it was agreed that these made a good framework there was a clear in-balance when job-tasks were linked to the specific competencies. As can be seen in the figure values and futures thinking lagged which was attributed by the participants to the fact these are less explicitly important
Count of key competencies linked to job tasks by participants
to specific tasks but are indeed foundationally important to virtually everything.

How did the participants attain their personal level of competence?

The general sentiment was that professional and other experiences outside of the classroom were the most important opportunities for improving one’s level of competence. It was widely agreed that the academic environment needs to change significantly if it is going to be equipping students with sufficient levels of competence in the key competencies for sustainability.

Is there a gap between current sustainability professionals and the requirement for future professionals?

There was a clear sentiment that our education system needs to change in order to yield a crop of professionals equipped to solve our problems for the future but not the specifics we hoped for. In large part this can be attributed to the fact that the use of the key competencies for sustainability as the qualifications for a sustainability professional is already a significant departure from the status quo. And while the participants saw this as a much needed step (for today); it being already a reach made it challenging to think even further beyond the key competencies when looking into the more distant future.

“I think futures thinking is a lot about questioning your values. That’s why people have such a hard time with it. Cause you start to question your values, then you have to question what you did in the past, and that’s a scary thing for people. It really is.”

Does having demonstrated development of the key competencies support the employability of an individual and in what ways?

There was a clear consensus on the importance of the key competencies in the success of a graduate as a change agent but there was little agreement that it would sufficiently support their employability. In large part this was attributed to the fact that universities do not give graduates credibility that they are able to actually do anything because success at a university is measured very differently from how an employer measures it. The key competencies could be the framework that brings this together but as yet it does not translate out in the field.








Using Focus Groups of Sustainability Professionals to Validate the Key Competencies—Our Approach

The principal focus of this research project is how the key competencies in sustainability1)Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in Sustainability: A reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6(2), 203–218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6 can best be attained2)Keeping in mind employability as well., but first we are seeking to validate our competence framework through various dialogues with stakeholders. These dialogues are taking place in parallel between the USA and Germany in line with the overall approach of this project to look at Sustainability programs both at Arizona State University (ASU) and Leuphana University (LUL). Interviews with exemplary Sustainability professionals and alumni of both programs are ongoing but given the format and time limitations do not enable a meaningful discussion of the key competencies in Sustainability with the stakeholders. Therefore, building off of what is being learned from the interviews, we carried out a focus group with a new set of Sustainability professionals and alumni at ASU on December 2, 2016. This effort was guided by the following questions:

  1. What are examples of tasks carried out by Sustainability professionals and how can those be linked to the key competencies?
  2. How was competence attained by the participants in the key competencies?
  3. Is there a gap between current sustainability professionals and the requirement for future professionals?
  4. Does having demonstrated attainment of the key competency support the employability of an individual and in what ways?

What We Did–In Brief

We selected an exemplary sample of Sustainability professionals who lived in the metropolitan area surrounding ASU and ended up with fourteen participants who could speak to the wide range of jobs a Sustainability professional might have to tackle. There was a mix of more senior personnel and fresh graduates, eight of them having gotten some type of degree from ASU’s School of Sustainability. The participants joined us for an hour and a half session on December 2, 2016.

Two groups of seven were created with a balanced mix of experience and job types in each one. Each group was led by a facilitator with a note taker and additional helper on hand. The session began with a welcome and a brief presentation explaining the key competencies in sustainability. Participants also had two page handouts on the key competencies as an additional reference source throughout the day. On a provided worksheet, participants were asked to write their three main Sustainability-related tasks and then to connect them to the key competence most relevant to that task.

From here on out the two groups ran independently, guided by facilitators working from the same script. The participants wrote their tasks on sticky notes and placed them on a poster under the key competence they believed to be most relevant for that particular task. This visual display of the group’s tasks and relevant key competencies was the focus of the first discussion. One or two tasks were picked out for each competence and the person who posted it was asked to explain the tasks and their reason for picking that particular competence. Probing follow-up questions were asked to explore the key competencies a bit deeper. Competencies with fewer tasks were the final discussion point for this first part.

Next participants were asked to pick one competency and describe how they themselves acquired competence in this. Everyone was given a chance to answer and a facilitated discussion among the groups took place afterwards. Finally, a short narrative of a future scenario was read which called for the hiring of a change agent in their community3)Imagine the year is 2030, when the UN sustainable development goals expire. The U.S. still faces sustainability challenges in government, industry, and civil society. Yet, a new grass-roots organization has formed to address them across the country, on the local scale. After much discussion, organizations across the Phoenix metro area have decided to join this organization. The decades-long drought continues to have significant detrimental impacts, and has strained relations between various communities. Likewise, the moratorium on flights brought on by the fuel crisis has resulted in a wide-reaching economic fallout. As representatives of your organizations, this new organization has turned to you to develop a profile for their official representative in your local community – a change agent, so to speak. They are looking for a recent graduate from ASU who can be your contact and get work done on the ground. . Each group was asked to work together to write a job description for this position. The facilitator pushed the participants to think about what would be different about this job description for 2030 versus something that they might advertise for today.

All in all it was a great day. In a future post we analyze the discussions and summarizing the key results.

References   [ + ]

1. Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in Sustainability: A reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6(2), 203–218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6
2. Keeping in mind employability as well.
3. Imagine the year is 2030, when the UN sustainable development goals expire. The U.S. still faces sustainability challenges in government, industry, and civil society. Yet, a new grass-roots organization has formed to address them across the country, on the local scale. After much discussion, organizations across the Phoenix metro area have decided to join this organization. The decades-long drought continues to have significant detrimental impacts, and has strained relations between various communities. Likewise, the moratorium on flights brought on by the fuel crisis has resulted in a wide-reaching economic fallout. As representatives of your organizations, this new organization has turned to you to develop a profile for their official representative in your local community – a change agent, so to speak. They are looking for a recent graduate from ASU who can be your contact and get work done on the ground.