Opportunity evaluation in the context of sustainable entrepreneurship

What kind of knowledge, skills and attitudes do entrepreneurs need to understand the social and ecological aspects of a business opportunity?

By Tina Larsen

The world is facing major societal challenges related to climate change and the way we as a society are structured and live today cannot continue. Sustainability has therefore emerged as a concept and sustainable development is perhaps the most prominent topic of our time. In the following, the concept of sustainable entrepreneurship will be discussed.

Sustainable entrepreneurship

Erik O’Donnell is a Ph.D. candidate at Engage and “Opportunity evaluation in the context of sustainable entrepreneurship” is the title of his research project. The purpose of the thesis is to understand the relationship between knowledge, skills and attitudes and opportunity evaluation. For example, how does someone’s knowledge, skills and attitudes affect the opportunities they pursue in the context of sustainable entrepreneurship?

“I think entrepreneurs must know something about sustainability to be able to discover opportunities that, when exploited, will lead to an actual sustainable impact.”

Erik O’Donnell, Ph.D candidate

Entrepreneurship is about identifying business opportunities and realizing these opportunities to create and capture value. In the emerging research field of sustainable entrepreneurship there is a discussion whether entrepreneurial knowledge and economic motivation are insufficient for recognizing sustainable development opportunities.

Erik O’Donnels’s view is that it is hard to reason about the social and ecological impacts of a perceived opportunity. “I ask what kind of knowledge, skills and attitudes entrepreneurs need to understand the social and ecological aspects of a business opportunity”, he says. There is a distinction between actual sustainable impact and what just seems like it. O’Donnell believes you need to have an understanding of sustainability to be able to make a distinction between alternatives and to what extent they are actually sustainable.

What kind of knowledge, skills and attitudes do entrepreneurs need?

As of today, there is little or limited knowledge about sustainability in for example entrepreneurship education. Over the past decade, the number of sustainability programs in higher education has grown significantly, but for many the curriculum about sustainability comes too late or never in the course of study.

Through studies there has been highlighted key competencies in sustainability. Systems-thinking competency is one of these key competencies. Systems-thinking competency is “the ability to collectively analyze complex systems across different domains (society, environment, economy, etc.) and across different scales (local to global), thereby considering cascading effects, inertia, feedback loops and other systemic features related to sustainability issues and sustainability problem-solving frameworks” (Wiek et al., 2011). This means that systems-thinking is considered a crucial competency in sustainability.

Since systems-thinking competency is identified as crucial for understanding sustainability, O’Donnell asks whether systems-thinking competency is crucial for entrepreneurs if they are to understand the social and ecological aspects of a business opportunity. He will try to answer this question through his research project. There is still no consensus in the field of research for what entrepreneurs need to know about sustainability. Still, O’Donnell believes systems-thinking competency is important.

“I believe being a good systems-thinker can give huge competitive advantages as an entrepreneur.”

Erik O’Donnell, Ph.D candidate

Sustainability in Engage

Sustainability is also a focus area in Engage. Engage’s vision is to develop higher education to increase the number of students in Norway and around the world with entrepreneurial skills and mindset to become change agents and innovate for the better. In 2020, Engage will focus on the development of abilities that identify and exploit opportunities that alleviate the global environmental and societal challenges.

For example, since 2016 Engage and NTNU have been part of The Journey which is the world’s largest climate innovation summer school offering transformative learning and hands-on business experience. 

At Nord university, which is one of Engage’s partners, they offer a faculty course in sustainability. The students get to use theory of sustainability in practice and the goal of the course is to develop skills and mindset to act entrepreneurial for creating and capturing sustainable value.

Further reading

Brundiers et. al. (2020). Key competencies in sustainability in higher education – toward
an agreed‑upon reference framework

Patzelt, H. & Shepherd, D. A. (2011). Recognizing Opportunities for Sustainable Development.