Sustainability starts with you, but you can’t get it right 100 percent of the time. Even when you’re holding a conference devoted to this subject, as becomes clear when the brainstorming instructions are handed out. The organisers have accidentally printed them single-sided.
The conference is an initiative of the Executive Board and the University Council. The Board is busy drawing up a new university strategy, and hopes to use the university community’s input to determine which course EUR should be taking over the next few years when it comes to sustainability.
Every campus denizen is welcome, in other words. But most participants are the ‘usual suspects’, as we can hear one of them whispering in a slightly disappointed voice. Most of the attendees are either professionally involved in the sustainability theme or active within one of the university’s participation bodies. In addition, we encounter a sizeable group of students from RSM’s Global Business and Sustainability master programme. As well as one apparent outsider: an entrepreneur who turns out to be the father of one of the organising students.
The group is parcelled out into ten ‘round tables’, each of which is invited to ponder one of the following themes: how the university can contribute to a better climate in 2023; more sustainable education and research; a carbon-neutral campus; and EUR’s role in sustainable transitions. The brainstorming sessions are organised on the ‘backcasting’ principle: you start off by describing the ideal campus in 2023, and then work back to determine which steps you need to take to get there. At the end of the sessions, the participants are invited to present the best suggestions to the other attendees and Board Chair Kristel Baele.
The organisers also encourage the participants to think outside of the box. This leads the tables from various intriguing but difficult-to-realise plans (‘integrate the campus and Kralingse Bos’) to abstract vistas that won’t be bearing much fruit in the short term (‘change the mind-set of students and staff’).
The members of Table 4 have some difficulty ‘getting in lane’. First, they try to define sustainability as a concept: does it also extend to inclusion? Should the university also try to change the world for the better? Each time round, the answer is ‘yes’. As a result, the issue gains so many dimensions that it is difficult to deal with in a single discussion.
With some ideas, backcasting proves an effective approach. One of the people at Table 5, for example, suggests that by 2023, half of all doctoral research should focus on sustainability – either in part or entirely. This immediately spawns four extra sticky notes: 10 percent in 2019, 20 percent in 2020, etc.
But other ideas are less easy to interpolate. For example, one table suggests devising a different weighting for academic publications’ impact factor. This system would take stronger account of other forms of impact than just the citation score – also focusing on the publication’s impact on government policy, for example. And there’s the idea of rewarding sustainable research.
Another idea that crops up quite often – although some participants believe it will be difficult to carry out – is integrating sustainability in all EUR curricula. ‘In Tilburg, they require every student to complete a philosophy subject – we could do the same here with sustainability,’ someone suggests at Table 4. A neighbour predicts a ‘protracted fight’ with the programme directors of the different faculties.
Other ideas also resurface at more than one table. Integrating the wide range of different sustainability initiatives – Erasmus Sustainability Hub, GreenEUR, Sustainable RSM, Foodlab, Thrift Hub, LDE Centre for Sustainability, Erasmus Duurzaam and so on – within a single sustainability centre, for example.
Green I WILL
At the end of the day, the groups have the opportunity to pitch their best idea to the Chair of EUR’s Executive Board Kristel Baele. In response, she proposes setting up a ‘green team’ of students and staff members who can think along about the university’s strategy over the next few years.
The Chair also endorses the idea of incorporating sustainability in each of EUR’s degree programmes – although she does emphasise that it depends on the programme which shape this will take. And sustainability should also play a role in research at the university. Although this doesn’t mean that researchers should flat out reject the fossil-based industry according to Baele. “If you plan to establish how these companies could make the transition, you will need to research them.”
Baele concludes by announcing a campaign inspired by RSM’s ‘I WILL’ initiative. “I propose we all formulate our own personal statement about sustainability, similar to what the RSM students did in I WILL. People shouldn’t just talk about sustainability – it’s about deeds, not words. And making changes to your lifestyle isn’t necessarily easy.”