What lessons have we learned and in what direction should universities focus their actions to contribute to sustainability? I have been working in this area for more than two decades at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC, Spain), and my thoughts on the issue revolve around two conflicting feelings.
On the one hand, there’s a sense of personal and collective exhaustion and failure for having seen how 15-20 years ago sustainability policies never became central issues at universities when they could have been much more effective. But this isn’t a strictly university-related matter, for it merely reflects a society that has ignored the value of foresight that was already raising warnings of imbalances five decades ago (and very particularly in the fields of politics and economics).
However, on the other hand, and paradoxically, I cannot avoid a feeling of excitement that ‘the hour of truth’ has arrived, and what was once marginal has become central. We have a far greater capacity to influence and we are getting heard much more now. Society is finally waking up and appreciating the problems with a system that does not work, with its climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, pandemics, inequalities and so on.
During these last two decades, numerous programmes have been set up at universities around the world, many of which have been identified by the GUNi. There has been no shortage of sustainability plans, global policies (such as the 2030 Agenda), sustainability-oriented research and various government-funded framework programmes and institutional efforts to get the issue included in curricula. Numerous students have graduated in recent years and we can rest assured that their university education has endowed them with a new view of the world and ways to change it.
However, at the same time, unwavering indicators are showing that societies and economies have yet to shift towards sustainable methods. Economic models based on growth, extractivism and inequalities still predominate. In Europe, we are entering an unprecedented energy crisis and there is every indication that the goals of the 2030 Agenda will not be met. We need to ask whether universities have helped to turn this situation around, or whether they have just made the problem worse.
Given the situation, should universities continue to act along the same lines? Before looking at solutions (Part 2), we shall analyse the essential elements of transformative and strategic action, namely clear principles, long-term visions, resources and action plans.
Regarding principles, and from a systemic logic, we know from physicists like Capra that the sustainability of living systems is grounded on interdependence, feedback and learning cycles, cooperation, dynamic balance, diversity and (in a context of limited resources), the assumption that infinite growth is impossible. Every sustainable system works like this. Because ours is a social system, we need to add the layer of human values that guarantee social justice and dignified living. In order for university systems to contribute to sustainability, they need to adopt the same principles that they seek to promote. They can assume interdependence by opening up to society more; they should promote internal and external cooperation rather than competition with other universities; and they must make their programmes accessible to financially disadvantaged and non-neurotypical groups in order to enrich their diversity. These are examples of how the values that govern the most important decisions of university policy condition the real potential to help to make this a better world. Rather than treating sustainability as a checklist of actions, it would be better to revise the principles and values that make a system sustainable.
Another strategic aspect are the visions that we convey to society, and which can mobilise collective energies around a common purpose. But what kind of scenarios for future societies are today’s universities inspiring in people’s imaginations? Should we be projecting expectations of life on Mars (for a few) thanks to technological advances, or should we be talking about towns and cities that are inclusive for everyone? Should we be conceiving new developments that will require the consumption of even more resources, or should we be developing solutions to democratise access to them? Who ultimately benefits from the bulk of knowledge generated in universities? Universities must not be complicit in a neo-liberal circus where the challenge is to see how else we can innovate to surprise a world that is rapidly being stripped of what it needs to be habitable. Getting 10 billion people to live in conditions of social justice and well-being is in itself a great challenge worthy of devoting our full energy, vision and mission. As Daniella Tilbury says, it is not a case of being a mirror of society, we have to be a lighthouse.
Speaking of visions, what idea of university itself should we be projecting? In the countries of the Global North, are we floating obsolete ideas of growth based on more campuses, more students, more resources, more travels... or have we already assumed self-limitation, sobriety and even degrowth? Are we doing this in collaboration with other regions that have not yet had the opportunities to strengthen their higher education institutions?
To generate these new visions, ground-breaking university programmes should no longer envision nature as a resource, as merely ‘the context’ of which we are part, but also as a mentor from which we can learn about the conditions to be sustainable. Let’s not forget that no matter how clever we might think we are, not even today do we know how to design, for example, a tree that lives and grows off the sun’s energy. Let us learn from nature and apply it to the sustainable management of our campuses.
A third front on which to generate impact is resources. Having a sustainability strategy needs people, investments and facilities. Changing the course of an ocean liner evidently requires a lot of energy. But in an area where universities have already enjoyed periods of abundance it is more effective and realistic to redirect existing resources towards sustainability rather than continuing to stock islands of sustainability with additional resources. Maybe it’s already too late if we are still thinking about new sustainability courses, institutes and offices. What we need are policies that guarantee that all university activities are sustainability-oriented. If they are not, then they should be cancelled. Structural resources are still lacking in university systems, but they should conform with sustainability in all its dimensions.
There are numerous opportunities along the way. For example, the greatest and most unique resource that we have at universities is time for reflection, learning and being together. We must make the best use of all this time and look for imaginative ways to foster all activities that help us to incorporate sustainable thinking. And this isn’t only in lecture halls and laboratories. Our campuses themselves are spaces that need to be benchmarks for sustainability, and as several pioneering universities are already doing, they need to be the ‘practical laboratory’ par excellence of university communities, with living labs and other collaborative programmes that connect global challenges with everyday ones.
And finally there is a need for actions. In a recent article, Keri Facer, a professor at Uppsala (Finland) and Bristol (United Kingdom), identified four lines of work for UK universities that can be extrapolated to many university contexts, especially in the Global North:
Redesigning the day-to-day operations of universities and colleges to reduce emissions, nurture biodiversity and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate (operations);
Reinvigorating the civic role of institutions to build ecologically and socially resilient communities (social leadership);
Reshaping the knowledge structures of the university to address the interdisciplinary complexity of climate change (research and knowledge);
Refocusing the educational mission of the institution to support students to develop the emotional, intellectual and practical capacities to live well with each other and with the planet in the era of climate change (education).
These lines are framed within the four major areas of sustainability action at universities: operations, social leadership, research and education. Thousands of conferences, books, articles and projects have been designed to ‘correct’ universities and make progress. Steps have been taken, but as long as we continue to be embedded in unsustainable economic systems, it’s going to be very difficult to bring about change without adding new ingredients to the recipe that connect with the present moment. What might a new ingredient that depends on universities be? In the following article, I examine one element that has been explored very little in all these policies: collaboration.
 Capra, Fritjof (2003). The Hidden Connections: a science for sustainable living. London: Flamingo.
He is coordinator of the Nexus24 Program of collaborative communities of the UPC. His field of responsibility focuses on sustainability and social commitment at the UPC, and he coordinates a team of about 20 people. He is an industrial engineer and holds a PhD from the UPC in materials science. His field of interest has evolved towards the integration of sustainable development in technological universities and, more recently, social and public innovation.