Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
An exchange on the essay A Higher Calling for Higher Education

John Robinson

I read Cristina Escrigas’s paper with great interest. I strongly agree with her suggestions that “[u]niversities play a key part in shaping civilization and thus bear a significant intergenerational responsibility” and that “higher education institutions, now mainstays of the prevailing economic system, must become agents of progressive social change.” And while I agree with much of what is proposed in the paper, I would like to suggest an additional ingredient in the recipe for change. This missing piece is the opportunity to turn our campuses into living laboratories of sustainability, or sustainability test-beds, with research and teaching integrally attached to operational activities, and to work with private, public, and NGO partners to be agents of change in the larger world.

Realizing this opportunity in turn requires what to me is the key institutional culture change: integrating academic and operational sustainability on the campus. Put another way, every university I know is active, to a greater or lesser degree, in both sustainability teaching and research, and in operational sustainability, but these two activities are rarely connected in any meaningful way. I note that this paper does not even mention operational sustainability, but focuses only on research and teaching issues, which is a common approach taken by academics at universities.

The opportunity for the integration proposed here comes about because the social contract between the university sector and society at large is shifting. No longer is it enough for universities simply to educate students and do research. Increasingly, they are being called upon to contribute directly to the big challenges faced by the societies in which they exist and which support them financially.

Partly as a result of this societal demand, and partly for a number of other reasons (student demand, ethical commitments, potential cost savings), sustainability is a growing priority for universities all over the world. Many are developing strong operational sustainability goals and targets, and are giving increasing emphasis to teaching and research on sustainability issues. Yet few have committed at the executive level to integrating academic and operational sustainability in the context of treating their campus as a living laboratory of sustainable practice, research, and teaching. And it is such living lab approaches that offer the largest potential for universities to play a significant role in the sustainability transition.

The reason for this is that universities share a set of characteristics that make them uniquely qualified to play a living lab role:

  • they are single decision-makers (and often owner-occupiers) with respect to a significant capital stock at a highly significant urban neighborhood scale, consisting of multiple academic buildings; energy, water and waste systems; and often student housing;
  • they are public institutions, or have a public mandate, and so can be more forgiving on paybacks, and long-sighted on returns;
  • they educate; and
  • they conduct research.

No other societal institution has this mix of capabilities. As a result, there exists a significant opportunity for the postsecondary sector to become a kind of societal test-bed or sandbox for sustainability, treating their whole campus as an opportunity to implement, test, research, and teach sustainability, and in that way to contribute directly to the significant changes required to reach a sustainable future. In so doing, universities will be able to

  • be at the forefront of the sustainability transition;
  • implement operational sustainability at a neighborhood scale of great interest to cities around the world;
  • do research on the technical, economic, social, and institutional challenges involved in achieving sustainability;
  • develop and test technological and organizational innovation for sustainability;
  • train students in sustainability skills they can use in their career; and
  • work with private, public, and NGO sector partners to take this learning out into the world.

There will most certainly be roadblocks and failures along the way. But that is one reason postsecondary institutions are natural homes for such experiments. Learning from, and fixing, our failures is part of the research and teaching agenda.

In support of this vision, universities can make their campuses available as such a test-bed, working with partners from the private, public and NGO sectors to prove out the technical, economic and behavioral aspects of integrated sustainability solutions at the urban neighborhood scale. This means that the entire campus is an experiment in sustainability, a community in which staff, students and faculty can test, teach, learn, apply, and share the outcomes of their inquiries. Living lab projects—campus initiatives that combine operational needs, partnerships, research, and education components—are tangible manifestations of this idea.

The larger opportunity is that universities around the world could take on this role, creating a network of sustainability test-beds of different types: urban and rural; large and small; ranging from science and technology–focused through to liberal arts institutions. Such a network could make a very substantial difference to global and regional sustainability.

Importantly, this is not about creating new sustainability degree programs, or adding individual operational sustainability projects, but about making the implementation, study, and teaching of sustainability part of the core mandate—the strategic plan—of the university. Treating sustainability as a strategic academic and operational opportunity for the institution itself will not only help to fulfill the terms of the new social contract between universities and society but is also likely to have real benefits to the university in terms of partnerships, funding, and recruitment of students, faculty, and staff.

The integration of operational and academic sustainability on campus is not simply a theoretical possibility, but a form of culture change which offers a real opportunity to transform the whole institution. At the University of British Columbia, we have already seen great progress.1

1. See, for example, John Robinson, Tom Berkhout, Alberto Cayuela and Ann Campbell, “Next Generation Sustainability at the University of British Columbia: The University as a Societal Test-Bed for Sustainability,” in Regenerative Sustainable Development of Universities and Cities, ed. Ariane König (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013), 27–48.

John Robinson
John Robinson is Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto, where he also serves as Presidential Advisor on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability.

John Robinson, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education," Great Transition Initiative (June 2016),

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