We propose a framework by which the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability (the School) can track and improve its progress in achieving its stated goals of (1) advancing knowledge, (2) preparing students for leadership positions, and (3) linking research to action by engaging with partners— all toward solving sustainability problems.
The fundamental elements of the framework are theories of change encompassing the activities, intermediate outcomes, and ultimate outcome for the pathways to each of these goals. These theories of change enable the School to determine what activities are needed to achieve their desired outcomes, track progress as plans are implemented, get feedback to determine whether the plans are on course, and make necessary corrections to stay on course and achieve the intended outcomes.
The essence of the theory of change for advancing knowledge is familiar within any research university. It consists of the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of faculty and other researchers working on topics that have the short- or long-term potential to improve sustainability outcomes, recognizing that, while impact-driven research will be one major factor in recruitment, basic research has often resulted in practical applications that were not expected or even imagined. (The two current cluster hire searches seem to reflect both of these considerations.) In addition, the School can promote sustainability outcomes through grants and assistance from the Accelerator (described below) and other programs, and by rewarding faculty’s pursuit of the School’s mission.
The essence of the theory of change for preparing students for leadership positions consists of developing and teaching a curriculum, including capstone projects and practicums, that imparts the core knowledge, skills, competencies, and leadership attributes deemed important for those positions. We propose two sorts of feedback for continuous improvement of the curriculum: (1) a performance assessment before graduation, and (2) feedback from the School’s graduates about their needs and how the School could better prepare future graduates.
We identify three distinct pathways for linking research with action: (1) technology transfer, (2) translation into public policy, and (3) linking with practices by various communities and other actors. Each of these components has its own generalized theory of change, and we believe that a detailed theory of change should be developed, monitored, and modified as necessary for each individual project.
The report focuses on predicting, measuring, and achieving progress toward the intended outcomes of the various pathways with the goal of gaining feedback to enable the School to improve its performance. Whether the School has achieved “impact” by virtue of achieving a particular outcome depends on the extent to which its work contributed to the outcome compared to what would have happened without its activities (the counterfactual). Other than suggesting how impact might be assessed, we devote little time to this question, which must be answered separately for each component of each pathway.