Building an Equitable, Inclusive and Prosperous Future

Economic justice is a fundamental pillar of the  Sustainable Development Goals , or Global Goals, and a bedrock upon which societies can build an equitable, inclusive and prosperous future. Grounded in the notion that everyone deserves equal opportunities to participate in and benefit from the economy, economic justice is a call to action for governments, businesses and communities to work together to create a world where prosperity is shared, and the planet is preserved for future generations.

A commitment to the pursuit of economic justice, and thereby to a sustainable future, is reflected in Carnegie Mellon University’s research, education and practice. From the classroom to the community, CMU’s students, faculty and staff are partnering to help economies thrive while fostering a healthy environment.

Why CMU is the best place to study sustainability and economic justice

Since 2023, the Global Goals have been integrated into various aspects of CMU’s curriculum, which includes engagement with the university’s Core 4 competencies. Efforts to put sustainability at the forefront of student life have also led to the creation of both a minor and an additional major in environmental and sustainability studies.

"The problems related to sustainability don’t fit into just ecology, or just chemistry, or just engineering or just finance. It’s all’of it, and so the way we approach those problems at CMU is to recognize their interdisciplinary nature and to build tools that reflect that," said Nicholas Z. Muller , the Lester and Judith Lave Professor of Economics, Engineering and Public Policy in the Tepper School of Business.

In his undergraduate class, entitled Sustainability, Energy and Environmental Economics, Muller gets students thinking about the distribution of resources among groups of the population in different areas.

"We spend time thinking about what the data tell us in terms of patterns and the factors that play into the inequality in various dimensions. Pollution levels, air quality, water quality are often worse in lower income neighborhoods, and we talk about why that is the case," Muller said. "We also talk about the fact that lower income individuals tend to be less resilient from a health perspective, and why that’s the case, and when you put those two things together, you get vulnerability. If a given population tends to be more obese, has a poor diet, or has higher rates of illness, the effect of adding pollution to that group is greater than if you added the same amount of pollution to a healthy population."

Muller’s MBA course, The Sustainable Business, focuses less on equity issues and more on the role of business in driving sustainable outcomes. Within the last five years, he has started to focus more on the role of corporations and business in affecting social change as it pertains to the environment and sustainability. To do that, he has developed tools that present an alternative way to value a company.

"Basically, if we total up the costs or damage from the emissions produced by a company and then embed that in standard tools that we use to value companies, what you’re doing is subtracting off a cost that the company would not have used internally to value itself, or that an accountant would use because it’s not reflected in markets," Muller said.

"The tools we build at CMU are really well suited to do that, perhaps better than any other tools that are available," he added. "If someone is going to argue that companies, the private sector, play an important role in affecting social change, then the value of the company should both reflect the benefits it creates, like the value of its product, and the costs it creates in terms of sustainability and pollution. I support my Ph.D. students to do work in that space. It’s a big part of what I do."

Two sides of the same research

With a dual appointment in the College of Engineering , Muller’s research spans multiple scientific disciplines. On the engineering side he and his students build the models that track pollution by using weather and geographic data. On the economics and business side is the human exposure and tabulation of costs. 

Muller hires and supports Ph.D. students in engineering to build and run the engineering models. His Ph.D., master’s and undergraduate students in the Tepper School work on the business valuation side.

"You can’t connect a company’s emissions to the impact it has on the population without doing engineering of various sorts, epidemiology and public health, and valuation. And if you skipped any of that, you wouldn’t build an appropriate tool," he said. "At CMU, that kind of work is in the fiber of the university, and that’s why the best place to do this kind of work is right here because it’s actually in our DNA to have economists work with engineers and put it all together."

In 2022, Muller launched the  ESG Index , which is the go-to resource for accurate data on national trends in monetary damage from pollution. This multipollutant index is helping researchers, investors and asset managers make investment and capital allocation decisions and assist financial and securities regulators in standardizing ESG disclosure requirements, a recent goal of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"This new index stands in stark contrast to most products that track firms’ environmental performance," Muller said.

Taking the initiative

Tepper Sustainability Initiative recognizes both increasing student demand for sustainability studies and the existing expertise among the university’s faculty by providing opportunities to pursue scholarships, coursework and career opportunities. Events such as the Technology, Sustainability and Business Forum held in the fall at CMU have been well received by students as an opportunity to interface in or around content relevant to their classes as well as broader discussions about the role of business in issues relevant to sustainability.

And as university laboratories and corporate research and development centers invest heavily in disruptive technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, the leaders of CMU’s Block Center for Technology and Society , housed within the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy , focus on how the next generation of machines has the potential to transform society, redefining the way humans work, play, earn a living and interact with the larger economy. The Block Center’s Future of Work Initiative is dedicated to rigorous scientific investigation of the impact of emerging technologies on workers at all skill levels, as well as the communities they inhabit.

The Future of Work Initiative charts the impact of disruptive innovation on the U.S. labor market, develops policy interventions that ensure the benefits of innovation are more widely shared, and leverages advanced technologies to address the social and economic needs of those being left behind as a result of technological change.

Connecting with communities

CMU’s faculty, staff and students continue to keep the university’s surrounding communities top of mind as it expands existing programs and builds new facilities.

In April 2024, CMU broke ground on construction for its Robotics Innovation Center (RIC), a new facility designed to expand the institution’s physical space for robotics research, artificial intelligence and automation. The RIC is CMU’s second major project at Hazelwood Green. With the inclusion of community spaces and public art displays, the RIC will make it easier for the university to engage Pittsburgh-area residents and to facilitate its STEM education programs, including K-12 education programs such as Girls of Steel Robotics , the Robotics Academy Engineering Ambassadors.

The first major project at Hazelwood Green was Mill 19, a former steel mill converted into a state-of-the-art research facility. Managed by Almono Limited Partnership, the development of Mill 19 is guided by the principles of sustainability, equity and inclusive economic opportunity for the project’s neighbors and has become a key example of Pittsburgh’s evolution in an innovation-driven economy.

CMU’s Manufacturing Futures Institute Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute (MFI) were among the inaugural tenants of Mill 19. The mission of the MFI at CMU is to inspire, engineer and lead technological and workforce advances for agile, intelligent, efficient, resilient and sustainable manufacturing. The ARM Institute was created in January 2017 through CMU’s successful bid to create a robotics-focused Manufacturing USA Institute. The ARM Institute exists to strengthen U.S. manufacturing through innovations in advanced manufacturing technology, particularly robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), and to prepare the workforce to work alongside these technologies.

"The Robotics Innovation Center is - at its core - a project driven by meaningful community collaboration and Carnegie Mellon University’s record of innovation excellence," said Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato at the RIC groundbreaking in December. "I’m excited by the economic opportunities it’s poised to bring to residents and the region, and especially to the community of Greater Hazelwood."

Center for Shared Prosperity (CSP) at CMU aims to dedicate the talents, energies and innovation of the university and community to dismantle economic, cultural, social and structural barriers to entry. Working with the community to learn what their needs are and what resources the university can provide to help meet those needs is a hallmark of the organization.

Among the many community projects the university is involved in is the Equitable Procurement Program aimed at fostering equality, diversity and social responsibility. Recently, the CSP worked in close coordination with the BEAM Collaborative and in conjunction with minority-owned businesses to develop a website that facilitates easier purchasing from them. In June 2023, CMU hosted an Equitable Purchasing Food Symposium in the Cohon University Center, where buyers could taste samples and get to know food businesses within a 3-mile radius of the university.

"I love the sense of hope and optimism that we can share by demonstrating caring and powerful intention to engage on difficult issues and, together with all’our community partners, enact meaningful, long-term change," said Illah Nourbakhsh , executive director of the CSP and the Kavcic-Moura Professor of Robotics at CMU.

"Sustainability to me means balance," Nourbakhsh added. "It means a powerful form of just living, where the quality of life of all benefits from the holistic decisions we make that take everyone’s rights into account."

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