Sujit Sur, associate professor

A day in the life

Sujit Sur, associate professor


Liberal arts majors could be the next leaders because of their holistic thinking and integrative approach that starts with ‘Why or how can we do something?’ – the regenerative mindset required in the future.

Taking a "design thinking" approach to management

In Sujit Sur’s view, corporations cannot survive unless they are equally focused on “the three ‘P’s: people, planet, and profit,” he says. He’s a big proponent of taking a holistic view, one that considers all possible stakeholders in a “design thinking approach.”

And what is “design thinking”? Instead of basing management practices on a set of formulaic templates, solutions need to be based on each particular issue,” Dr. Sur explains. “The thinking starts with what is desirable, and then moves to figuring out how to make it viable and feasible.”

Championed by Tom and David Kelley, co-founders of design firm IDEO, design thinking incorporates human behaviour into product and process design. It’s also a “transdisciplinary” approach – apt, given Dr. Sur’s cross-appointment in the Rowe School of Business and the College of Sustainability. One of his roles at the college is to co-teach the fourth-year ESS capstone course (SUST 4000). “It’s a natural fit,” he says.

Working in teams to solve real-world problems

The ESS capstone requires students to work in teams, and Dr. Sur believes it’s important to develop teamwork skills because to solve sustainability issues “you need good collaborators,” he says. He’s got one in co-teacher Peter Mushkat from the Environmental Science program, whose style is “very complementary” to his own.

In the ESS capstone course, students progressively build up to taking active roles as sustainability consultants for an organization. To make the transition from classroom-based learning to the real world, Dr. Sur and Prof. Muskat provide various levels of “scaffolding.”

“We begin with case studies,” says Dr. Sur, with situations that involve “applying analytical skills toward crafting integrative recommendations and an implementation plan. This process enables the student teams to think about transdisciplinary opportunities and creatively develop hypotheses and test small-scale experiments, instead of jumping straight to solutions.” The motto, he adds, is to “fail early to succeed sooner.”

“Once the team starts working with the organization, “It’s really heartening to see them jump right in and work very hard to develop their own creative and professional sustainability solutions,” says Dr. Sur. “By the final presentation, it is very clear to everyone that the students are the experts in the room.”

Presently, Dr. Sur’s own research looks at how the ownership and governance structure of a corporation dictates its sustainability initiatives. “The preliminary findings are quite startling,” he says.

He cites an example of a multinational corporation that raised a few thousand dollars through a philanthropic initiative. “The marketing department thereafter spent a million dollars to develop a campaign to promote what they were doing,” Dr. Sur critiques. “This is counterproductive to the original goal, and occurs due to compartmentalized specializations. We have to get people to see the big picture, and operate beyond their silo-based mindsets.”

With his cross-appointment, Dr. Sur will be able to promote such thinking to twice as many students – while developing his research on the strategic imperative of sustainability.