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Entrepreneurship and sustainability: is there a need for a new harmonised approach?

28 Oct 2020 | Professor David Kirby Entrepreneurship is being seen as a solution to the global sustainability challenge. Here Professor David Kirby considers the issues and advocates the need for a new more harmonious approach to entrepreneurship.


In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the problem of sustainability and to the role that entrepreneurship might play in its amelioration. New forms of entrepreneurship have emerged but if entrepreneurship is to address the problem successfully, I contend that a completely new approach is needed. An approach that recognises and addresses the interconnectedness of the sustainability problem and integrates or harmonises the various individual approaches to entrepreneurship.

The Challenge

 While it has been recognised that entrepreneurship has the potential to address sustainability issues ((Vilar and Miralles, 2019) and some see it as a panacea hypothesis, classical entrepreneurship, while bringing about change and creating jobs and wealth, can have negative consequences, particularly for the environment and society. Accordingly, new forms of entrepreneurship have emerged, most notably ecopreneurship (Kainrath, 2011), social enterprise (Borzaga, & Defourny, 2001). and, most recently, humane entrepreneurship (Kim, et. al.,2018). Each of these addresses an important aspect of the sustainability problem but does not address the issue of sustainability per se. The problem is that the sustainability challenge is multi-faceted embracing economic, environmental and social concerns that are inter-related. This means that efforts to address one facet will have implications for all other, inter-related facets. As Popper has observed “every solution of a problem raises new unsolved problems”.

The solution?

In accordance with Ashby’s Law (1968) of Requisite Variety, any potential solution needs to be equal to or greater than the number of factors involved. Thus if entrepreneurship is to help resolve the sustainability problem it has to provide a holistic, integrated solution that does not address just one facet but all three – economic, environmental and social. This is the Harmony approach propounded by HRH The Prince of Wales,(2010) and my definition of “Harmonious Entrepreneurship” is:-

“A vision for the future that is rooted in ethical innovation, which results in change and improvement in economy and society without harming or damaging people or the environment. Preferably it improves and replenishes them and leads to development that is both long term and sustainable”.

In practice, 'Harmonious Entrepreneurship' combines the traditional economic/commercial approach to entrepreneurship with the more recent eco, humane and social approaches to provide a coherent, integrated solution to the sustainability problem. However, this has to be the objective from the outset and has to be integrated into the mission and vision of the enterprise. As an example, I would cite SEKEM (Abouleish and Kirchgessner, 2005) an Egyptian commercial enterprise that employs some 2000 people and sells a range of products including organic foods, herbal teas, medicines and organic cotton products, by introducing sustainable agriculture through the holistic development of the individual, society and the environment. In 2003, SEKEM received the Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Prize), for the way it combined:

 “profitability and engagement in world markets with a humanistic and spiritual approach to people and respect for the natural environment…a business model for the 21st century in which commercial success is integrated with and promotes the social and cultural development of society through the ‘economics of love’”.

As a study of the SEKEM case demonstrates, the entrepreneur needs to possess a concern not just for wealth and job creation but for the environmental and social problems the world is facing. He/she needs to possess, therefore, not just the competences of the traditional business entrepreneur but to have

- an understanding of systems thinking,

- the ability to think strategically,

- ethical, environmental and social consciousness

- a concern for people and the ability to motivate and empower them

- the ability to be both a visionary and an activist.

Several of these competences have been recognised previously by Lans (2014) and more recently by Ploum (2018). They are the sort of competences that will need to be developed in our young people if the sustainability challenges the world is facing are to be addressed now and in the future. Clearly this will have implications for the education system and will require a paradigm shift in the teaching of entrepreneurship and sustainability, something that appears to be more established in Entrepreneurship Education (Kirby, 2007) than it does in education for sustainability (Christie, et. al., 2013).


In “Harmony: a new way of looking at our world”, The Prince of Wales and colleagues claim that “the many environmental and social problems that now loom large on our horizon cannot be solved by carrying on with the very approach that has caused them”. Do you agree with him that a new, harmonised approach to entrepreneurship is needed and, if so, how would you prepare young people for it?

Advance HE will shortly be launching our second Embedding Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in the Curriculum Collaborative Project. The project aims to bring together a multidisciplinary cohort to provide and share practical guidance and advice to support colleagues in embedding enterprise and entrepreneurship within their curriculum. You can register your interest here


Abouleish, I., & Kirchgessner, M. (2005). Sekem: A Sustainable Community in the Egyptian Desert. Edinburgh: Floris Books

Ashby, W.R. (1968). Variety, constraint and the law of requisite variety. In W. Buckley (Ed), Modern systems research for the behavioural scientist. Chicago iIl: Aldine Publishing Co.

Borzaga, C., & Defourny, J. (2001). The Emergence of Social Enterprise. Abingdon: Routledge.

Christie, B.A., Miller, K.K., Cooke, R., and White, J.G., (2013), Environmental Sustainability in Higher Education;how do academics teach? Environmental Research. 19(3), 385-414.

HRH The Prince of Wales, Juniper, T., & Skelly, I. (2012). Harmony: a new way of looking at our world. London: HarperCollins.

Kainrath, D. (2011). Ecopreneurship in theory and practice: A proposed emerging framework for ecopreneurship. Lambert Academic Publishing.

Kim, K., El Tarabishy, A., and Bae, Z., (2018), Humane entrepreneurship: How focusing on people can drive a new era of wealth and quality job creation in a sustainable world. Journal of Small Business Management. 56(sup.1),10-29.

Kirby, D.A., (2007), Changing the entrepreneurship education paradigm. In Fayolle, A. (Ed) Handbook of Research in Entrepreneurship Education, Volume1: A General Perspective. Cheltenham Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

Lans, T., Blok, V., & Wesselink, R. (2014). Learning apart together: Towards an integrated framework for sustainable entrepreneurship competence in higher education. Journal of Cleaner Production. 62. 34-47.

Ploum, L., Blok, V., Lans, T., & Omta, O. (2018). Towards a validated Competence Framework for Sustainable Entrepreneurship. Organization & Environment. 31(2) 113-132.

Villar, E.B., & Miralles, F. (2019). Sustainable Entrepreneurship in Response to Grand Challenges: What Do We Know and How Do We Move Forward? DLSU Business and Economics Review. 28(3), 102-111.


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