QUESTpedition: Smith Undergrads Compete as Countries to Grow
GDP and Manage Carbon Footprint
couldn’t have been louder. Green bid sheets flew back and forth across the
auditorium and students huddled in intense conversations, sometimes pulling a
professor over to consult. The commotion was part of an experiential learning
game for the QUEST Honors Fellows program that challenged participants to grow a
nation’s economy while simultaneously managing its carbon footprint. The event
was organized by Joseph Bailey, research associate professor of decision,
operations and information technology and executive director of the
QUEST program. The result was an energetic, sometimes
raucous exploration of decision-making, negotiations, and strategy.
The students were divided into teams, with each team representing a country;
five countries were assigned to each of five continents. Teams were given points
to invest in either growing their country’s GDP or green technology through 8
rounds of the game. With only 100 points to invest, teams faced a tough decision
every round. Growing GDP resulted in greater economic growth but also higher
rates of greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in green tech lowered GDP but
lowered emissions as well.
Higher emissions resulted in a penalty for a country’s GDP. And when a
country’s emissions rose above a certain point, every country on its continent
took a GDP penalty. When an entire continent’s emissions exceeded a certain
point, all continents in the game were affected for several rounds.
Teams spent the 8 minutes of each bidding period furiously calculating and
re-calculating, trying to find the perfect balance between their economy and
environmental stewardship. After each round, scores were posted, letting teams
see how their strategy had worked. To the consternation of many, their own
scores were negatively impacted by the policies of nearby countries. This
initiated some earnest and occasionally heated conversations among teams, as
countries began to negotiate among themselves to decide how—or if—they would
spread the pain of investing in green technology.
By round 4, halfway through the game, teams were feeling the strain. And then
Bailey dropped a bombshell: continents that had kept their emissions low enough
were granted an additional 20 points for each country to spend every round,
effectively allowing them to better balance the needs of their economy and their
environment—and giving them an edge towards potentially winning the game. There
was an immediate outcry of groans and cheering, depending on how each continent
Two hours flew by as teams struggled to find a winning strategy that wouldn’t
earn them the ire of their peers. “Did you enjoy it?” Bailey asked students at
the end of the game. They cheered.
“It was emotional,” one called out.
The ups and downs of the game, with its frustrations and “a-ha” moments,
illustrated some important lessons for students. They saw firsthand how one
team’s choices affect others, how difficult it is to coordinate and align
incentives across teams, and how unexpected events can be game-changing in both
good ways and bad.
The game explored those concepts in the context of nations balancing economic
growth and environmental policy, but they have equal application to businesses.
In a global business environment, future business leaders will have to learn how
to negotiate and compromise in a way that creates the best outcome for their own
organization while also considering their role in a complex, interconnected
“Action learning is an important part of the QUEST experience,” says Bailey.
“The game was designed to teach students about global stewardship through an
innovative teaching tool. We wanted to bring our QUEST community of sophomores,
juniors, and seniors together and recognize how important—but how difficult—it
is to take care of our planet, because we are all interconnected in our global
society. I’m happy that we were able to do these things while making it fun.”