When Leïlah Sory was a structural engineering student at Montreal’s McGill University, she won a scholarship in 2020 to participate in a sustainability program hosted in Toronto. There, 140 students from universities throughout Canada were divided into small interdisciplinary teams exploring sustainability challenges in global communities. Sory’s cohort focused on transportation solutions for San José, Costa Rica.

For several days, they combined what they knew from their respective fields of study, guided by industry professionals and community experts, to design an electric bus infrastructure to support underserved parts of the capital city. 

“We were teamed up to develop a project based on pairing our interests with SDGs [UN Sustainable Development Goals] that are critical there. Because I study engineering, I was paired with a project that focuses on the UN Sustainable Cities and Communities goal,” says Sory. Originally from Burkina Faso, she came with an appreciation for collaborating on projects pertaining to the communities that were foreign to her. But this project brought new aspects of that lesson home. “Everyone has different backgrounds and knowledge they can contribute and learn from one another. But you also need to remember the importance of the specific community and think about what their needs really are before you start thinking about a solution straightaway.”  

When she returned to McGill, she had gained more than hands-on, real-world problem-solving experience and a digital portfolio. She came away with a new way of looking at sustainable development, a mentoring network, and a place in a budding alumni network of young people developing critical skills and passions in a world ready and waiting. 

The program that enabled Sory to focus on the challenge in Costa Rica was How to Change the World, a London-based social enterprise connecting diverse students, educators, industry professionals, and community stakeholders in experiential learning programs.The goals are as pragmatic as they are lofty: Namely, tackling some of the world’s thorniest sustainability challenges while training students in the skills of tomorrow, and introducing them to the companies that will need them. Students use the 17 UN SDGs as their north star addressing substantive global issues – poverty, transportation, education, climate change, waste management -- on the local level, designed to target specific communities all around the world.

It started—as many things do that later catch fire—as a college course. Prof. Jason Blackstock started as a quantum physicist in Silicon Valley, originally from Canada, and then made his way via a master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School to work on global climate and sustainability policy. In 2012 he was invited to the University College of London (UCL) to set up a new department encompassing science, technology, engineering, and policy-making, and to examine critical bits missing in current disciplines. UCL queried both employers about what recent graduates were missing when they started in the workforce, and alumni about what they wished they’d learned in their years as students.  The answers came back from across disciplines – accounting and engineering, business and computer science: there had not been nearly enough exploration of real-world problems to prepare recent graduates. Employers had to retrain them to learn how to tackle problems when there were no answers in the back of a textbook. Alumni felt the solutions required more than technical excellence in their fields; they needed collaboration with people in entirely different disciplines, an understanding of what they did – and how it would be useful in concert with their expertise.

The final ask from the Dean was not what Blackstock had expected. “When all the input came back, he told me, ‘We’ve got all this data. Can you add one course to the program that addresses that please?’ ’” Blackstock recalls. “And I told him, ‘What you want is me to teach students how to change the world in one course.’ And he was like, ‘Yes. And you should call it that.’”

UCL’s Engineering program had just completed a rebranding, and conveniently enough, the side of the building had been painted with the motto, UCL Engineering – Change the World. For the pilot course, students would be assigned project-based work challenges in highly interdisciplinary teams, combining their shared technical excellence on corporate challenges, government challenges, economic challenges…anything, really. 

Blackstock asked students, ‘What kind of things would they like to work on?’

“It was summarized best by one young British student who stood up and said, ‘Well sir, you old people broke the planet. We’d like to know how to fix it, please.” 

In 2014, the initially 500-student program began tackling stubborn sustainability challenges for communities around the world. It flourished for several years, and in 2016 it became a required capstone for over a dozen engineering and business degree programs. By then word had spread through conferences and summits to a wider horizon of universities, and the requests began to trickle in: Could you do one for us?

In 2019, Blackstock spun the program out of UCL as an independent social enterprise, partnering with global entrepreneur Alana Heath, who’d spent a decade mobilizing businesses as a force for good across the financial inclusion, energy access and impact investing sectors. In their newly formed enterprise, partnerships were developed with communities, professionals, and educators who could bring object lessons to life.

​“We’d officially launched,” recalls Heath. “It was February 2020, and we had almost 150 students from more than a dozen Canadian universities gathered in Toronto for a fantastic in-person program. And when the program finished, we’d run this incredible experience, and basically flew back into lockdown.” The response from participants and stakeholders was overwhelmingly positive. But the model had to shift immediately. “We had a bunch of deans very excited about what we’d done, getting rave reviews and feedback from their students. And they said to us, ‘We’re all online right now. Can you figure out how to do what you just did in person, virtually? Our students really need these types of opportunities.’” 

"Companies need both current employees and a future talent pipeline who are able to apply a sustainability lens to their work."

“Need” is an apt word. In January 2023, new research released by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) examined some of the employee-talent obstacles that stand in the way of global companies reaching their sustainability goals. From 2017 to 2022, the number of large companies setting science-based targets grew by 36 times, to over 4,200 companies. But only 17 percent are on target to meet those goals. BCG partnered with Microsoft to research the experience of 15 companies trying to reach their goals, a project that included polling sustainability leaders at a wider selection of companies. 

Responses showed that companies are relying heavily on their internal talent. Of sustainability leaders surveyed, 68 percent are “homegrown” (hired from within the company), while just 32 percent are brought in from the outside. Sixty percent of people on sustainability teams say they were not hired for their sustainability expertise; 32 percent consider themselves an expert in another field, while 28 percent did not consider themselves an expert in any field.

​“There’s a massive sustainability skills gap within industries and corporations today,” says Blackstock. “Businesses are hungry for talent, and hungry to upskill and develop their employees to understand how to apply a sustainability lens. That’s the only way companies can hit the sustainability targets they’ve set – and that regulations are increasingly requiring them to hit.”

​The most common corporate-sustainability pitfall Blackstock hears about is having the whole effort rest on one individual or department instead of having knowledge, and accountability, spread throughout multiple departments. “It’s a great way to fail ethically, having one sustainability officer burdened with the success of something no one else understands or acts upon. But more than 75% of corporate leaders today expect every job will have a sustainability component by 2050,” Blackstock says. “That’s why we support the idea that every employee should have a sustainability lens to their work.”

To support companies with this challenge, How to Change the World is now developing programs that combine students from higher ed with working early career professionals from the companies. This provides businesses with a way of upskilling their existing workforce, investing in their future talent pipeline, and generating innovative ideas that can help them reach their sustainability targets – and ideally develop new sustainable products and services along the way.

This model has strong benefits for higher ed, Blackstock says, because the students get to learn and engage directly with the companies they want to go work for. To support this connection, How to Change the World has also started running Careers Nights, bringing program alumni together with sustainability professionals and leaders and interested companies. Two of the most common questions he gets from participants who feel their career-view expanding after an eye-opening project: How can I get a job with a sustainability angle? And, What’s the role of private industry here?

“That's generating just a huge amount of interest, sort of a built-in recruiting process. It's integrated as a follow-on from our boot camps and courses to provide a bridge between higher ed and the future of sustainable work,” says Heath.

“If you can bring higher ed to the table with the students bringing in new ideas, employers can pick the best-fit ones to hire,” she says. “It's that mix of value that can significantly benefit businesses.”

Post-covid, the virtual programs that grew to take the place of in-person ones had the same practical problem-solving focus through the lens of sustainability. Blackstock initially worried that remote programs wouldn’t pack the same punch as they did in person. But in fact, he found that they had all that and more. 

“It proved to be as good, and in some ways better than, our in-person experiences. We didn’t try to replicate the in-person ones. We really asked ourselves, ‘What’s different about virtual? How can we access extra benefits and still retain the human connection and real-life problems?’” he says. “You’re not going to get the hugs, but whole new virtual collaboration skills can bloom, and that’s going to be needed in the future, too.”

“I chose to join How to Change the World exactly because I was seeking a connection to the real world. We need to be mindful of never losing track of the big picture.”

As How to Change the World continued to grow, the target audience of their programs was also expanding. Students were being trained in the same creative questioning and community-oriented approach, with a growing understanding of the sustainability skills needed for the solutions, as well as the careers they wanted to step into. Companies were increasingly interested, very much in need of the types of skilled students stepping out of these programs. Educators were interested in learning too; foundational lessons in guiding experiential learning ‘at scale’ is a valuable form of professional development, while increasing knowledge base in sustainability for themselves as well. 

​Francesco Ambrogi is a teaching fellow in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Ontario. When he was a second-year PhD there, he received a departmental email looking for engineers to volunteer as teaching associates for university students participating in a How to Change the World bootcamp. He signed up, thinking, ‘I like teaching, I’d love to get more experience and learn about this.’ Since then, he’s become a teaching member and course lead for many How to Change the World programs, and calls it tremendously influential in his development as a professor. 

​“It’s had a huge effect on my career. I’ve taken a lot of what I learn from How To Change The World and implemented it in my own classes,” Ambrogi says. He cites the skillful use of virtual resources, so important for how students learn today, from short-form video and online resources to synchronous, collaborative virtual discussions with industry leaders and visionaries, a wider range of whom are accessible to How to Change the World in virtual format than in-person programs. He reserves the most praise for the multidisciplinary approach.

“It forces students to go out of their little comfort zone, which is mainly engineering, and expands a discussion with someone from business school and law school and the biological sciences, which I think is the key to actually solving any real problems these days,” says Ambrogi. “Otherwise, you could go through four years of undergraduate studies never having the opportunity to brainstorm with class members in other fields. You iterate the process, and the new ideas are kind of raw, but it’s exactly through this kind of repeated process that the solution comes up.”

​The lens of sustainability, he admits, wasn’t one that had been a focus in his studies, something he’s grateful to have changed.

​“I never heard much about it, to be honest. When you’re working on your PhD you’re so focused on your small tiny problem. My research area is very abstract, computer simulations of fluid flows, and can be very isolated,” he says. “So I chose to join How to Change the World exactly because I was seeking a connection to the real world. We need to be mindful of never losing track of the big picture. We need to go in that direction now more than ever, because of climate change and pollution and the economy, and at the end of the day, we’re teaching students how to solve problems. You never know what the course might spark in their mind, what they might be able to do.”

A few months ago, Blackstock and Heath received a message through LinkedIn from a student who’d participated in a 2021 bootcamp. She’d wanted to reach out and let them know How to Change the World had changed her life. The University of British Columbia student, Anastasia Kiku, had worked on a coastal community challenge for Lagos. Now, she was co-founder of a startup providing reusable containers for take-out food service and had just been named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30. 

“The most influential part of the program for me was an introduction to systems thinking,” says Kiku, of reusables.com. “There were so many lasting lessons. Before you implement something, you really have to work within the local context to understand what the core problems are. You can’t assume what the answer is. And to address one area, like customer behavior change, you have to move one piece of the puzzle at a time, instead of closing your eyes and creating policy.” 

To her, the real value of the program is creating an excellent experience by bridging academic ideas with very tangible problems, in terms of both employability and inspiration. 

​“It’s all about that transformational experience for the student, and how we help create it,” Blackstock says. “How do we make an educational experience about more than how to do math or thermodynamics? Okay, checkmark, you’ve learned the basics. But if you don’t know how to connect it, and it hasn’t been given meaning and purpose, you’ve missed a piece. You can always go back and learn bits of math you missed. But it’s harder to relearn purpose.”