Review of the Sustainable University Day 2016

On April 21, 2016, I participated in the third Sustainable University Day. This time, it took place at the University of Lausanne. Its topic was about “knowledge of limits and limitations of knowledge: dealing with the earth’s limited life-sustaining capacity”.

The day was framed by the following two keynotes framing the topic of the day:

The Professor of climatology and environmental sciences and IPCC-member Jean-Pascal van Ypersele gave a brief summary about current events and milestones in climate change and climate politics over the last centuries. According to the latest IPPC report, he pointed out very clearly the fact that we KNOW about the resource limits as well as about humans‘ influence as the cause of climate change and that we have the means to change something.

Jørgen Randers, Professor of climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School and co-author of “The LIMITS to Growth“, presented a forecast of the economic development until the year 2052. In his opinion, this forecast should be the starting point for universities in order to create a picture and measurements for change.

SUD_2016The other program parts, which I participated in, can be summarized with the help of a similar formulation of the main topic: What we know and what we don’t know with regard to change management at universities in order to deal with limited resources.

In the Workshop conducted by Clemens Mader, Sofia Getzin Linde Warland and Ruth Förster, barriers and opportunities of change agents in Higher Education were discussed. We identified four fields (education for sustainability & pedagogy, awareness & engagement of stakeholders, policy change, critical thinking) and elaborated on them with the help of Geoffrey Scott’s characteristics of good leaders: Listen-Link-Leverage-Lead. It was obvious that several stakeholders have to be included in a change process and that each of them can be a change agent for Sustainable Development (SD) in Higher Education: The deans as well as students or even parents or stakeholders outside the university context.

Especially in the animated student project exhibition, students‘ engagement in sustainability and their perspectives were highlighted: All presented projects were united in the presentation of the “Positionspapier Nachhaltigkeit an Schweizer Hochschulen” published by the VSS and the VSN. In this position paper, the aims of the integration of SD at universities are summarized and mirror students‘ needs and demands.

In addtion to the students‘ point of view, expectations of industries, NGOs, politics and universities were contrasted in the panel discussion in the afternoon. The UN Sustainable Development Goals were used as reference point. In order to decrease the limits of knowledge, one idea is remarkable in my opinion: The discussion about Sustainable Development is desired to become more “public”. This means that research results should be made accessible to the public on the one hand. On the other hand, insights from the field should be transferred into the university context (see also the idea of inter- and transdisciplinarity, e.g. in our blog post). One project which could fulfil this mentioned demand was presented by Hannes Weigt in the morning: the “Swiss platform for sustainable development research”.

The main message of the day for me was the following: We all can contribute to change BECAUSE we already know enough about the limits as well as about opportunities to change. ALTHOUGH there are still limitations of knowledge about future development and about how to make the change possible, it is important to start NOW, not just to talk about and demand it!