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What next for our universities? The Lessons from COP26

09 Dec 2021 | Professor David Kirby Following COP26, we have to ask ourselves what the outcomes mean for our universities, not just in the UK but globally. Professor David A Kirby shares how he believes universities should respond if they are to address the sustainability challenge in general and the crisis of climate change in particular.

The challenge

While the world "leaders" were somewhat indecisive, the main message coming out of UN’s November 2021 climate change Conference of the Parties (COP26) was the need for action, not just on the part of our leaders but everyone. This includes our universities and doubtless many in academia will engage in the profession’s traditional advocacy role. However, it was not the protests of Greta Thunberg that demonstrated, on this occasion, what is needed but 16-year-old Indian Entrepreneur Vinisha Umashankar from Tiruvannamalai in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu. Vinisha told the delegates, in no uncertain terms, that her generation was angered by the empty promises of previous leaders and their failure to deliver. She implored them to stop debating the old debates and instead come up with a new vision for a new future. If they did not, she said, “we won’t wait for you to act. We will lead, even if you don’t. We will act if you delay”.

Vinisha is a pro-active entrepreneur who has invented an ironing cart that uses solar energy to heat the iron. The roof of the cart is a solar panel that produces the necessary electricity and reduces the pollution created by the country’s 10 million ironing carts, each of which uses some 11 pounds of charcoal a day. Apart from not contributing to the pollution her solar cart will reduce deforestation and help reduce the 1.6 million deaths each year in India caused by atmospheric pollution. Already she is working on five further projects aimed at addressing other environmental problems the earth is facing and, as she says, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the innovativeness of the human population and how it can adapt to overcome adversity. She believes “we can take the same initiative for the future and for our planet”.

A proposed response

For me, Vinisha’s message for our universities is clear. Not only do they need to become more sustainable, themselves, but they need to become more entrepreneurial. They need to embrace the third mission, encourage and support staff and student spinouts and develop in their students both a pro-active entrepreneurial mindset and an awareness of the fact that they can address the environmental challenges the planet is facing. Clearly much is being done, already, but there is still more that is needed as the recent European Universities Association (2021) report has acknowledged. Indeed, it is my belief that:

  • all universities need to recognise the challenge and encourage and incentivise their staff to conduct innovative, disruptive research that addresses it
  • all students, not just students of business administration, need to be introduced to entrepreneurship education and encouraged to become pro-active, creative problem-solvers
  • all entrepreneurship education programmes need to include modules on sustainability and ethics and should equip students with the knowledge and skills to innovate and bring about change.

For the past 50 years or more the purpose of business has been shareholder satisfaction and to “make as much money as possible” (Friedman 1970). This has meant that the focus of entrepreneurship has been on wealth creation and job generation, often at the expense of both people and the environment. If we are to address the environmental challenges the planet is facing, and specially the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, this will have to change and a new business model will have to be developed and taught that embraces Elkington’s (1999) Triple Bottom Line of Profit-Planet-People. Accordingly, in Global Entrepreneurship Week 2020, we (Felicity Healey-Benson of UWTSD and I) launched the Harmonious Entrepreneurship Society ( This is based on research I conducted in Egypt (Kirby and El-Kaffass, 2021), which introduced a new, more holistic model of entrepreneurship based on systems thinking and the Principle of Harmony. Since then we have spent the year promoting the concept at conferences, in journal articles and book chapters, and via the production of 50 plus case studies to exemplify and prove the concept in different contexts

Also, we have developed an educational MOOC that we will use, together with the case studies, as a resource for an International online student Harmonious Entrepreneurship competition that we plan to launch in 2022. The intention is that the competition will not just raise awareness among the student population but will inform teaching and generate innovative, enterprising solutions to the environmental and people challenges the planet is facing.


After COP26 we need our universities to be the catalysts for change. We need them to be role models, to be at the forefront of innovation to help solve the problem and to produce the graduates who have the knowledge, understanding and skills to address the challenge.

Certainly we need more academic entrepreneurs such as Oxford’s Sarah Gilbert and more academic spinouts like Carbon Re (Cambridge-UCL), but we also need more enterprising graduates like Global Student Prize Winner, Jeremiah Thoronka (Durham University – Optim Energy), or Rodrigo Garcia and Pierre Paslier (Imperial – Skipping Rock Lab), Charlie Guy, Jack Farmer and Ben Crowther (Bristol – LettUs Grow), Lucy Hughes (Sussex – Marina Tex), and Geoffrey Knott (Surrey – HOP).

As the EUA report concludes innovation needs to be incorporated into the mission of the university, staff need to be encouraged and incentivised to innovate, partnerships need to be developed with industry and entrepreneurship education and training need to be introduced to all programmes.


How is your University addressing the Sustainability Challenge and the crisis of climate change?


Elkington. J., (1999), Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Capstone

EUA (2021), “Innovation Ecosystems for a Sustainable Europe: How to enhance the contribution of universities”

Friedman, M., (1970) The Social and Ethical Responsibility of Business is to increase its profits. New York Times. September 13. 122-126.

Kirby, D.A. and El-Kaffass, I., (2021), Harmonious Entrepreneurship – a new approach to the challenges of global sustainability. The World Journal of Entrepreneurship, Management and Sustainable Development.17(4), 846-855. First online 12th July.(

Professor David A Kirby is a Holder of The Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion and an Honorary Professor at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Almaty Management University, Kazakhstan. In global Entrepreneurship Week 2020 he founded the Harmonious Entrepreneurship Society to promote a new systemic approach to entrepreneurship that addresses the sustainability challenge.

Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in higher education –  find out more about Advance HE's guidance and best practice for embedding enterprise and entrepreneurship in the curriculum.

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