Harnessing the power of networks

20 April 2017
Leith Sharp
Summit lead presenter, Leith Sharp from Harvard University’s Executive Education programme for Sustainability Leadership.

Acting more sustainably is a challenge for any individual or organisation, but the power of networks can help them unleash their full potential.

Staff from the University’s Sustainability Office are actively engaged in local, regional and international networks that help build valuable capacity, partnerships and further networking opportunities for sustainability leaders.

Key networks include Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS), Sustainability in Tertiary Education NZ (STENZ) and the Sustainability Managers’ Forum.

As part of this activity the University of Auckland recently hosted a Sustainability Leadership Summit led by Leith Sharp, Director of Harvard’s Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership. This important gathering included contributions from Alicia Duvall from Plan B, Australia and NZ, and Lesley Stone, the University of Auckland’s manager, sustainability and environment.

Hosting this summit, in partnership with ACTS, was part of a commitment to building leadership and action on sustainability in the University and beyond. The University is an institutional member of ACTS, taking an active role through Lesley Stone who has for a number of years been the New Zealand regional director on the ACTS board.

The summit brought together 36 people from Auckland and across New Zealand. This included members of the Sustainability in Tertiary Education New Zealand (STENZ) network of tertiary institutions from across the country, along with members of the informal Auckland Sustainability Managers Forum from organisations such as Auckland Council, Auckland District Health Board, Fuji Xerox, Westpac, Fonterra and Contact Energy.

The Summit’s fundamental premise was that while there is generally no shortage of ideas to make organisations more sustainable, the challenge is to boost the flow of ideas and bring more to fruition.

Participants recognised that ideas often get lost in hierarchies and processes for decision-making. They learnt how to distinguish between these ‘command and control’ operating systems and the ‘adaptive’ ones that involve and engage stakeholders, and the need to invoke both systems at different stages in the life-cycle of an idea.

One of the key tools – idea flow mapping – involved applying a specific framework to sustainability initiatives. Participants were challenged to apply this framework to their experience of past projects, and to use it to forecast trajectories of future initiatives.

The summit was attended by nine University of Auckland staff, representing a range of faculties, service divisions and other units.

Three student leaders from the University were awarded scholarships to attend, and represented clubs and societies such as Help Green our Uni (affiliated with the Sustainability and Environment office), the Sustainable Future Collective (a new club that recently emerged from the Faculty of Engineering and is supported by IPENZ), and Fossil Free UoA (affiliated with 350.org).

One of the students, Rox Richards, has recently been appointed by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network to facilitate student engagement in activities that will raise the profile of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Harvard’s Leith Sharp said she rated Auckland as the best of three Australasian summits she presented, for “group energy and value experienced”.

“It was a really great cross-sectoral balance with some nice big corporate brands in the room: healthcare, local governments and of course a really great higher education presence. Alicia and Lesley were both great as presenters - keeping the energy high for the whole day.”

Lesley Stone shared that enthusiasm. “The response to the Summit was fabulous,” she said. “There was such a buzz generated by everyone’s instant recognition of key challenges faced in facilitating the flow of ideas in large and complex organisations – combined with lots of opportunities to share experiences and apply practical idea mapping tools to maximise the potential for success.”

Charlotte Blythe, sustainability and environment engagement coordinator, said: “I found the summit intellectually invigorating and empowering. The lexicon Leith introduced to us stretched my thinking, and validated the complex process of facilitating organisational change for sustainability. It was wonderful to see so many staff and students immersed in the activities and networking with other change agents from around the country.”