Heinnovate for earth day: Knowledge exchange and collaboration for sustainable development

To mark Earth Day, the HEInnovate webinar on the 22nd April highlighted the importance of collaboration and knowledge exchange for sustainable development. With over 100 attendees, the webinar was moderated by Rebecca Allinson, Managing Partner at Technopolis Group.

The first speaker, Dr Darren Reidy, the Acting Sustainability Officer at University College Cork, Ireland presented on the implementation of a sustainability strategy at University College Cork (UCC). The culture of sustainability at Cork was inspired by students (including Darren himself) who in 2006 began to voice concerns about the lack of attention given to sustainability issues in universities. In Ireland, primary and secondary schools already benefitted from a guiding sustainability framework called the Eco-Schools programme, known as the Green Flag Programme in Ireland. UCC used this, along with the ISO50001 framework, to inform the student-led green campus programme at UCC and became the first university to adapt the Eco-Schools programme at the higher education level.

UCC is now recognised in international metrics as one of the greenest campuses in the world: it is ranked ninth in the UI Green Metric among over 1,000 universities around the world for its environmental sustainability performance and was the first institution outside of North America to achieve a gold star rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).Darren explained that this was achieved through taking incremental steps and identified five key enablers:

  • People – The process of embedding sustainability at UCC was built with the commitment of all stakeholders; students play a central role driving change, and the leaders of the university enable this change. Senior management inform sustainability policies from the top, staff implement sustainability practices from the middle, and students hold the university management to account from below.
  • Fostering bottom-up activism and behavioural change by encouraging participation, removing barriers to positive behaviours (e.g. provision of reusable cups to incoming students), creating friction to negative behaviours (e.g. disposable cups are not permitted in the library, but reusable cups are welcome), and living by example (e.g. UCC has committed to becoming single-use plastic free by 2023).
  • Leading by committing to invest responsibly (e.g. 100% in energy from renewable sources) and to promote social sustainability
  • Linking with research, teaching & learning by embedding sustainability into curricula and by fostering trans-disciplinarity with a view to enhance sustainability literacy
  • Finding new entry points to continue to improve the ecosystem of sustainability at UCC: UCC bought a farm and its produce is sold on campus; the first plastic free coffee shop in Ireland was in UCC

Johanna Bernhardt, consultant and researcher at Terra Institute in Brixen (Italy), presented knowledge exchange practices for sustainable development implemented in two Erasmus+ funded Knowledge Alliance projects: CASE (Competencies for a sustainable socio-economic development) and its successor SDGs Labs. These projects sought to identify competence needs and attitudes to SDGs respectively through a programme of interviews with stakeholders and focus groups to understand the attitudes businesses had towards SDGs.

The knowledge alliance CASE focused on addressing the needs for new ways of teaching and learning through identifying the competencies necessary for universities and companies to implement sustainable development. These competencies have been embedded in a joint master programme on sustainability-driven entrepreneurship as one of the outcomes of the project. Following the success of CASE, another knowledge alliance, SDGs Labs (Sustainable Development Goals), was set up which is currently in its third and final year. As a multistakeholder initiative, this project is focusing on getting businesses to engage with the SDGs through fostering a better understanding, testing innovative tools and creating an environment that is conducive to exchange of ideas and learning. Two tools were developed to study and tackle the SDGs and explore their opportunities: the Innovation Labs and the Co-learning Labs. Johanna underlined the importance of setting up collaborations between companies, university associations and educational institutes to achieve the green transition and said: The ultimate aim is to build a long-lasting network, an SDG community that can survive the life of a project.

Laura Laringe, an EIT InnoEnergy Master student in Energy Engineering at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and at UPC Polytechnic University in Barcelona, and Felix Hübner, MBA student at Grenoble Ecole de Management with specialisations in entrepreneurship and sustainability, won The Battle of Green Talent, an online student entrepreneurship game run by the EIT InnoEnergy KIC. The entrepreneurship game offers the possibility for students to compete with their sustainable energy-related business ideas. Laura and her co-founding team saw an opportunity in re-using retired batteries from electric vehicles. As the batteries still retain 80% of their capacity, they have the potential to provide a sustainable, more affordable and reliable energy storage solution for solar power energy. As the winner, Laura and her team were awarded 10,000 euro to develop a prototype of her idea. She said how important the game was as an opportunity to engage with ideas from within the team (composed of six students), as well as from experts, other students, and from the team’s mentor.

Felix played the role of ‘investor’ in the game, carrying out an investment analysis and providing ad hoc critiques to the business plans of the participating ventures. Although the game took place entirely online, he explained how it gave students a real-life experience in having to solve problems, such as assessing ventures holistically or providing them with the first-hand experience of the process of venture creation. As an MBA student, Felix was able to build and reflect on concepts he had learnt in the classroom. An added value was that student interaction occurred at a European level, which worked very well.

The final reflections from the contributors focused on a question from the audience which enquired about the challenge of integrating themes related to SDGs in the university curricula. Darren explained that specific training has to be provided to lecturers to help them integrate trans-disciplinary elements related to the SDGs into the curriculum. Currently a toolkit is being developed to assist lecturers identify where there are discipline links with SDGs. The toolkit will be publicly available from June 2021. However, sharing training materials across universities is also a good practice. Johanna commented on the importance of listening to the needs of different stakeholders and trying and understand them because the challenges to meet the SDGs can only be overcome putting together different competencies. She concluded by saying that today’s students will be tomorrow’s employees and they will be able to carry this transition forward.

The recording of the webinar can be accessed at the following link.

We look forward to seeing you at 5pm CET on the 20th May for our next HEInnovate webinar:

Transforming higher education: the role of micro-credentials and collaboration


Please register in advance for this meeting.

  • Webinar summary
Submitted by:
HEInnovate Admin
Submitted on:
17 May 2021
Related event date:
22 Apr 2021