Environmental, Social and Economic Sustainability

Collaborative culture, the missing piece at universities [Part 2]

Part 2. In order to have an impact we need more dynamic collaborative organisation

You need to do things differently if you want to get different results. In recent years, we have observed (more outside of universities than within) that ideas that lead to meaningful progress towards sustainability work on a different kind of organisational basis. Social movements are organised more horizontally and less hierarchically, they relinquish control in order to empower people, and they not only celebrate their diversity, but they trust it too. They react quickly to unexpected situations because they are more adept at managing interactions. They are governed by the purpose of the common good, by joint management of commons and not so much by strict rules, they learn by doing more than by theory, and they apply the instruments of collective intelligence. Their organisations are in a permanent ‘beta’ status, prototyping and applying models for change such as U Theory[1], Teal[2] and NER[3]. Less structural and rigid, more adaptive and liquid, they take the form of cooperatives, associations, unexpected movements on social networks like Fridays for Future[4] and MeToo[5] and responses like Frena la Curva[6] (a collaborative platform against the effects of Covid), and even companies that compete in ordinary markets[7], and by encouraging self-management they are able to avoid wasting time with red tape. These organisations put cooperation at the centre and observe all of the principles that I mentioned earlier, thus meaning that they are far better aligned with sustainability.

My analysis is that at universities we have failed to make proper use of the new network and collaborative community-based models of change management, instead continuing to apply methods that are far too rigid and non-transformative. At best, we have studied them from academia, but as is so common in the divide between universities and society, we have not applied them. What I propose agrees with a recent GUNI-published article by Snick and Sharar that called for more attention to complexity and transdisciplinarity[8].

In the last eight years, our university has been exploring this kind of organisation in the form of the experimental Nexus24 collaborative community programme[9], and we have reached two conclusions.

The first is that the public university system, which is robust because it has solid structures, would make huge gains in sustainability if, without renouncing formal management mechanisms, it were to complement this clumsy, sluggish way of working with more streamlined collaborative mechanisms, combining both systems in the same organisation. The formal system ensures consistency, continuity, guarantees, standards and rights. It is essential for establishing knowledge, and for providing a platform for steady reflection and credibility in this world of fake news. The ‘network’ system is based on flexibility, exploration, change and innovation, and can provide dynamism, connection with the surrounding environment and adaptation to a changing world. The reality today is that the former (majority) system often stifles the initiatives that are created out of the genetics of the latter. When degree programmes are filled with regulated activities and leave no room for associationism, we are stifling student initiative. When we flood academia with control mechanisms based on our lack of confidence, we are stifling their creative capacity. When we fail to allow campuses to become places for experimentation and apply the same strict rules that govern any public space, we are stifling the possibility for practical and sustainable innovation. When we limit the potential of administrative staff to the strict functions of their jobs, we are stifling their initiative too.

The dual model

The second conclusion we reached is that most people, when they participate in this second, more collaborative, organisational model, feel much more comfortable, learn much faster, are more creative, offer the best of themselves and are focused on the common good. This last aspect is crucial, and we have come to realise that this model of collaborative organisation can be applied to the four strategic areas of university sustainability described above, because it fits much better with the principles of sustainability than formal organisation does. Let’s have a look at a few examples.

What does the collaborative model contribute to university sustainability?

Regarding campus management, instead of running universities as traditional hierarchical operating systems, we should apply the idea of ​​self-managing communities to many areas. Whether it’s to find solutions to reduce energy expenditure, to maintain the biodiversity of the campus’ natural environments, to propose creative ideas to improve the environment, to decide budgets in a participatory manner or to look after each other’s emotional well-being, it’s all about realising that communities can find new and better ways to manage common goods and challenges, be they economic, ecological or social. Or, as is done at several universities, entrust the management of services to student cooperatives. We can also create spaces for collaboration with our neighbourhoods and local councils, deciding on priorities together and viewing such practices as advanced participatory urban management models to deal with resilience issues. Campuses tend to be empty for many hours of the year, times when they could become veritable refuges of education, climate shelters and/or leisure spaces for the general public, thus breaking down barriers that are still too big.

There is no better way to exercise the social leadership and civic and community role than by doing so collaboratively, because any approach to communities that is arrogant or hierarchical is doomed to failure. We need to break down the barriers and borders between universities and the society around them, establishing knowledge dialogues with different actors and media and stop talking about one-way transfer. As Wals says, we must realise that in some cases leadership needs to be about transgression and resistance, and must tackle the conflicts and tensions that will emerge from critical awareness and a desire for profound change[10]. We must start from democratic principles and university autonomy, and resist any totalitarian, even eco-fascist, tide or drift. For example, the Scientist Rebellion[11] and Fridays for Future movements are illustratively promising signs, but are still viewed with certain discomfort from an institutional angle. In order to listen, we need to ensure diversity and new perspectives, for otherwise we won’t be able to understand reality. It is crucial for this social leadership to serve as a role model for ordinary people. Making the public good of university knowledge accessible for the sake of a fairer and more viable world is a core mission. And governments need to help by pledging support for exemplary projects that feature inter-sector, citizen or intergenerational collaboration, whereby the everyday person in the street, of whatever age, will know what their gateway to university is, whether that is in a classroom, a radio show, or an artistic performance in the local park.

The third area, that of knowledge and research, is today the paradigm of compartmentalisation. The academic world has tended towards hyper-specialisation and peer-to-peer collaboration, but has not done so enough between different disciplines and even less so outside of academia. This jeopardises our hopes of contributing to sustainability, which always raises challenges across disciplines. Fortunately, we are witnessing more and more interdisciplinary programmes, but much remains to be learned about transdisciplinary collaboration and looking outside of our own specialist fields. For example, in citizen science and collective intelligence programmes, where academic and non-academic knowledge meet, there is huge potential for rapid transformation in response to the challenges we are facing. It is also essential to bring technology and the humanities together, and to stimulate dialogue between science and the arts, thus integrating knowledge and emotions, if we want to promote behavioural changes that are rooted in more emotional than rational aspects. This involves coordination by means of new spaces and roles that are not afraid to venture outside of their areas of expertise, and recognition mechanisms that reward collaboration instead of punishing it.

In the field of education, the collaborative method has a lot to offer. It is essential to advance towards an education system that recognises the integral nature of learning rather than treating it as a strictly individual challenge aimed at finding a job[12]. We need to understand that our students aren’t only here to gather knowledge for employment, but also to develop as people, and to gradually learn how to get by in increasingly more complex contexts. An understanding that they will have to face and make decisions on ethical, technical or social dilemmas in a changing world should inspire us to offer them open, collaborative learning environments where they feel in control of their learning processes[13] and discover a purpose or vocation in life. We are already seeing signs of this when recent graduates renounce their professional careers because they say we have taught them to destroy the planet[14]. Rather than feeling distraught, let’s make proper use of the criticism. Sustainability can no longer be treated as afterthought at the end of the lecture or curriculum, but as part of the core context and an inspiration for the profession and life ahead. Why can’t we view campus life as a learning community for sustainable living? We have examples like KU Leuven with its promising intergenerational student coaching programme, where it has been found that when students are interviewed for jobs, they are asked much more about this transdisciplinary experience than any other learning activities[15]. There is also the new PISTE semester at INP Grenoble that integrates the principles of co-construction, collaboration and open science for students who have completed a degree and want to broaden their understanding of “energy-efficient and eco-responsible engineering”[16]. A lot of academics are now not only imparting knowledge and getting their students to work in groups, but are also working in collaboration, for example by engaging in service-learning programmes with their communities, or in innovation challenges with other disciplines, rather than shutting themselves up inside their own subjects. We all know people like this at our universities. They are swimming against the current and they are exhausted. They need support and resources.

We have seen that a culture of collaboration can do a lot to enrich strategies in all four areas. But at least two major barriers need to be overcome before we can truly change the way we do things, and they are interrelated. The first is the fear of losing control, and the second is that we still don’t master collaboration.

As for the former, the new breed of university leaders are not afraid to open collaborative spaces in all areas, and especially for students, and are getting changes to happen much faster than before. They know that they don’t have to bring all the ideas to the table because the communities themselves will contribute them, and they trust in shared self-responsibility. They are also aware that they don’t need many more resources, because the collaborative system draws on so much underutilised potential. For example, by reducing the time spent on control, to concentrate instead on making communities sustainable through inspiring interactions.

And regarding the latter, promoting this approach means unlearning and learning by doing, progressive experimentation and generating learning cycles. It means embracing environments that work collaboratively, many of which are in the society around us, and becoming an active part of them and thus being enriched by them. Getting the traditional academic method of knowledge generation and management to cooperate with new, more dynamic arenas for community action is the challenge for the next ten years. The alternative is for universities to gradually become less significant.

In conclusion

There is an increasingly greater demand to stop using rhetoric and not to be part of a paradigm that wants us to grow infinitely in a limited world, disconnected from the biodiversity that sustains us and where millions of people are living in subhuman conditions.

Universities need to contribute to a new, socially sustainable paradigm, one that cannot be built using the same old mechanisms. In all areas of universities, teaching, research, management and leadership, we need to keep working on programmes for change, but they need to be organised differently. It won’t work if we continue to use the same tools and organisational structures as before. Instead, we need to learn and reinvent new ways of working, teaching and generating knowledge.

Faced with this reality, the only fair, social and profoundly academic way for universities to deal with the challenge is to promote a community and collaborative logic of mutual assistance, one that is more diverse and linked to both our local and global surrounding environments, and which is already beginning to emerge. This is the natural space for contributions from the new generations at our universities, who are committed to people and the planet, and who no longer want to be part of a world that is stealing their future.

By adopting new, more dynamic forms of action, we will be introducing two major and complementary skills, namely reflection and action, and we will become both refuges for knowledge and also real drivers of change to advance our societies.


[1] https://www.u-school.org/

[2] Frederic Laloux (2014) Reinventing organizations, Frederic Laloux

[3] https://www.nerbyk2k.com/

[4] https://fridaysforfuture.org/

[5] https://metoomvmt.org/

[6] https://frenalacurva.net/

[7] https://www.buurtzorg.com/


[9] https://eua.eu/downloads/events/didac%20ferrer%20balas.pdf

[10] https://www.guni-call4action.org/article/transgressive-learning-resistance-pedagogy-and-disruptive-capacity-building-levers

[11] https://scientistrebellion.com/

[12] https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000376150/PDF/376150eng.pdf.multi

[13] https://www.guni-call4action.org/article/learning-process-ecology-transform-higher-education-anthropocene#gu-utils--authors-view-block-as-dsfield

[14] https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2022/05/11/des-etudiants-d-agroparistech-appellent-a-deserter-des-emplois-destructeurs_6125644_3244.html

[15] https://www.guni-call4action.org/article/learning-process-ecology-transform-higher-education-anthropocene#gu-utils--authors-view-block-as-dsfield

[16] https://ense3.grenoble-inp.fr/fr/formation/piste

  • Didac Ferrer Balas

    Didac Ferrer Balas

    Head of the Innovation and Community Office of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC)

    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.


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