Sustainability network highlights the value of co-operation

I attended the inaugural conference of the International Sustainable Campuses Network (ISCN) in 2007.  It was held at Science City, then a new campus of ETH Zurich built using best practice design in sustainability. While a relatively modest affair, the programme covered a wide range of campus sustainability issues.

Despite this, and the obvious enthusiasm of both organisers and participants, I was not really sure the group would last.  Their goal of ‘providing a global forum to support colleges, universities and corporate campuses in the exchange of information, ideas and best practices for achieving sustainable campus operations and integrating sustainability into research and teaching’ seemed overly ambitious in a world divided by distance, cultures and languages.

However, when I attended their 10th annual conference held at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver last month any doubts I may have had were quickly dispelled in conversations with delegates from all parts of the globe, both in the formal sessions and during the casual lunchtime chats over sustainably produced food nibbled off biodegradable plates.

The theme of this year’s gathering, Climate. City. Campus, emphasised the importance of the relationship between municipalities and universities in achieving significant regional improvements in sustainability.

These partnerships, though often focusing on local issues, provide smart practices that can be exported to communities nationally and internationally.

They also demonstrate an obvious truth: the value of co-operation. This co-operation provides opportunities for shared knowledge and resources, as well as building an environmentally literate population, whose consequent engagement with issues fuel the change needed for a more sustainable future.

Vancouver – a fitting host

It was no surprise then that the conference was co- hosted by the UBC and the City of Vancouver – a fitting example of a collaborative approach between partners committed to achieving things that matter.

Vancouver, often ranked among the most liveable cities in the world, is also one of the greenest.  This is evident in a multitude of ways, from electric buses to a comprehensive network of well trafficked bike lanes, or through to the small solar panels powering street lights on the waterfront to the various recycling bins scattered around my hotel room.

And it seems that Vancouver is not satisfied by what has already been achieved. The city has launched its Greenest City 2020 plan with the intent of keeping it at the leading edge of urban sustainability.

Similarly, UBC has been a leader in campus environmental management for more than 20 years. In fact, when I was writing the first environment plan for my university in that late 1990s, it was their work I turned to for both direction and inspiration.

The university’s commitment to sustainability emphasises innovation and change, as well as a genuine desire to reach beyond the boundaries of the campus to create a more sustainable and engaged society. This can be seen not only in the integration of environmental awareness into the curriculum, but also by the way the campus is used as a living laboratory.

The physical infrastructure is functional but also provides opportunities for research and teaching, as well as acting as a visual cue. You see sustainability in action everywhere, from innovatively designed buildings like the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability to a constructed ‘wetland’ that runs through one of the main boulevards on campus.

The conference was perfectly located in these surrounds and the inspiration they provided was complemented by a programme that blended working groups looking at the practical demands of day to day environmental management with key note presentations ranging from Leadership and System Thinking by Peter Senge (MIT) and John Robinson (University of Toronto) to research into the symbiotic relationship between trees in forests by Suzanne Simard (UBC).

Inspiring sustainability projects

However, perhaps the most interesting and inspiring moments came when several universities presented short case studies which showed how broadly the tertiary sector is approaching sustainability. These included a student-led initiative at the University of Chiba, Japan, which was instrumental in establishing a campus environmental management system. The project won one of the annual awards presented by the ISCN and will be detailed in another article.

They also include emerging sustainability programmes at the University of Chile and University of Minho (Portugal), the integration of sustainable development into education at KTH Stockholm, Siam University’s support of the community during the 2016 Bangkok floods, and the development of a global sustainability knowledge base by the University of Zagreb – as featured in Environment Journal. While all of these were extraordinary projects, two that particularly stood out for me came from the University of Pennsylvania and the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid.

Penn State, needing to generate capital to undertake an extensive energy reduction programme decided to take advantage of historically low bond rates and issued its own 100-year bonds, which will be redeemed using the savings from the projects. This initiative cleverly combines good business with sustainability to achieve a win – win outcome for the university and the environment.

Madrid, in an exceptional example of how sustainability research reaches into all areas of globe, has co-partnered with three Spanish companies, as well as the UNHRC and the Norwegian Refugee Council in a project that will provide energy to three refugee camps in Ethiopia using renewable sources.

This has the potential to add energy – a key requirement for livelihood and advancement – to the mix of humanitarian services provided to the world’s (sadly) increasing population of displaced peoples.

At the end of the three-day conference, it was clear to me that from that modest meeting ten years ago in Switzerland, the ISCN has grown into a genuine global forum for the promotion of sustainability.

I have no doubt that the discussions and knowledge exchange on the big issues will continue next year, when they meet at KTH in Stockholm.

Bart Meehan
Visiting fellow and research associate, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University


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