WE have overstepped our planetary boundaries, the limits past which our planet cannot rejuvenate. We are facing ozone depletion and with it increased loss of biodiversity and extinctions. Chemical pollution has potentially irreversible effects on living organisms; Our planet is getting steadily hotter. We are passing 390ppmv CO2 in the atmosphere. We are losing polar sea-ice. Around a quarter of the CO2 that humanity emits into the atmosphere is dissolved in the oceans making them hostile to living organisms; we have converted more and more land to human use all over the planet: forests, grasslands, wetlands have been converted to agriculture driving reductions in biodiversity and impacts on water flows; atmospheric aerosol loading – atmospheric pollution and land use change releases dust and pollutants into the air, inhaling highly polluted air causes roughly 800,000 people to die prematurely each year.
The global economy is an engine that uses energy from extracted carbon to generate wealth governments seek to redistribute from rich to poor. The capitalist system is the greatest wealth creator because it is based, fundamentally, on extraction and accumulation. The last two centuries have witnessed the greatest expansion of lives, via population growth, and living standards in our history as a species. These expansions have taken place alongside vast increases in greenhouse gases which now threaten our success as a species. Economies are embedded in societies spatially determined by the patterns of extraction, accumulation, consumption and distribution, culturally determined by a system of power relations which takes perpetual growth in living standards as a given, and featuring increasing inequalities of income and wealth within countries. These are unsustainable processes. What is unsustainable will, eventually, stop.
We have to stop and unlearn these behaviours. We must think and behave in a way that protects the planet and helps life to flourish. We need to co-create a way of life, a way for each of us to live sustainably, all the time, as far as we possibly can.
The United Nations have developed a series of Sustainable Development Goals. These are the world’s collective efforts to meet some of these challenges. There are 17 goals, each of which has a series of targets to be achieved by 2030. Ireland is still a long way off achieving many of these goals. Here in UL we have made inroads towards solving these complex challenges. Two UL sustainability reports capture some of the sustainable work here on campus.
If you’ve met John Breen, retired from UL, you’ll know about his lifelong passion for bees, insects and all flying things. His deep expertise, interest and concern for the future of bees is rooted in his knowledge and love of the outdoors, and his understanding of the role that bees and other insects play in maintaining a health ecosystem. Bees are the unsung heroes of our natural world. They are under constant threat. Every time we use pesticides to control weeds, whenever we destroy natural habitats or the flora that support them we threaten bees and the ecosystem they sustain. # SDGs 15, 17.
Take a short stroll around campus and you will likely bump into John O’Sullivan, Grounds Manager at UL. John understands the implications of natural habitat loss. He is eager to see more rewilding across campus. He is committed to work alongside nature, sourcing native species for the UL campus. We cannot take our wonderful campus for granted, we each must work to protect it, ultimately, we need to relearn how our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. #SDGs 15, 14, 13.
Maybe you are aware of the dedication of the buildings and estates team to sustainability. A conversation with Chris Fogarty, is very enlightening and demonstrates what can be achieved when we tackle issues head on. Chris, together with the Buildings and Estates team, is actively measuring our energy usage patterns across campus, making sure all new buildings are energy efficient and beginning the mammoth task of retrofitting older buildings to bring them up to standard, which will require substantive investment. Chris is acutely aware that changing buildings isn’t enough. Chris sees the need for a huge behavioural shift on campus to reduce and offset our carbon footprint. Chris would like to see us less reliant on fossil fuels at UL. #SDGs 13, 12, 11, 7, 17.
JJ Leahy, might not seem like the obvious TV star, but in his own unassuming way he has shared his engineering knowledge with families across the country looking to reduce and offset carbon in their own homes. In an RTE documentary, he encouraged families to consider a range of actions to counteract our impact. #SDGs 13, 12, 11, 7, 17.
It’s hard not to be inspired by the work of Luuk van Der Wielen from the Bernal Institute. Luuk, along with a large group of scientists, engineers and students from multiple faculties, is working hard to address many of the UN SDGs. Luuk’s ambition is to see more renewable energy generated and used locally to decarbonise main emitting Irish sectors (transport and storage of data, goods and people, materials’ circularity, and ‘low carbon’ food & feed). The aim is to make us less reliant on international fossil fuels, a topic that is particularly pointed at present. #SDGs 6, 3, 17.
If you’ve met Maura Adshead, you’ve probably had the pleasure of meeting her extended community-based team. Each of this group is working to bridge the gap between UL and the community around UL. A project that is particularly inspiring is HAPPEE which facilitates inter-professional placements for UL students from the School of Allied Health and Music Therapy in local schools. A relative newcomer to UL, Sean Redmond’s work is already having impact nationally and locally, engaging with multiple external stakeholders to identify the challenges faced by young offenders who are often marginalised in society. As one of the most important challenges in addressing youth violence, he emphasises the need for positive role models. #SDGs 3, 16, 17.
In 2006, the Ubuntu Network was established in the School of Education, UL, in association with partner HEIs, with a focus on building a collegial and collaborative community of teacher educators that promote and integrate equality and sustainability into post-primary Initial Teacher Education programmes. The Network is led by Deirdre Hogan and supported by Joanne O’Flaherty. This national network of teacher educators, NGOs, governmental and non-governmental stakeholders has contributed to an increased presence of Global Citizenship Education (GCE) and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in education curriculum and policy. Challenges remain, however, particularly in terms of mainstreaming and scaling up such approaches to education in a manner that promotes increased critical engagement and an action orientation. #SDGs 4, 17.
If you’ve met Clodagh Guerin, a master’s student at UL, online or in person, you will know of her limitless energy, and her ability to get things done. You may have heard her speak recently at the UL President’s Volunteer Award ceremony. Her story is inspiring and begins with an insight that there are young women on campus at UL, who cannot afford period products. She was so deeply stuck by this injustice, that she decided to do something to help, enrolling the help of others as she began a national campaign to end period poverty. The initiative now sits under Enactus UL, where over 30 volunteers work for period justice on campus and beyond. Whilst they have made tremendous progress there is still a lot to do in UL to reduce poverty-related inequalities. #SDGs 1, 5, 3, 17.
If you’ve met Amanda Haynes and Jennifer Schweppe you will know about their work which, among other things, sets out to challenge the ongoing issue of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Their campaign ‘Call it out’ resulted in 40 media items with a reach of 1 million, 1 million video views and 5 million impressions. The campaign also won the Silver Award in the “Best in Government and Not for Profit” category at the 2020 Digital Media Awards. At the LGBT+ Awards (the GALAs) the HHRG and the Call it Out campaign were shortlisted for two awards: Best Event and Digital Changemaker. The pair work tirelessly to raise awareness within UL and beyond to breakdown boundaries and build a more connected society within UL and beyond. #SDGs 5, 12.
The urgency to commit to a SDG focused culture at UL, motivated us to seek out all that was happening around campus so that we could learn from, expand on and make those efforts cohesive and aligned. These stories are not exhaustive examples. These are just a flavour of the kinds of people that are already hard at work. They are already aware of the implications of doing nothing.
It is impossible to call out all the individuals and groups who are working hard to make our way of life at UL sustainable and regenerative. We were excited to learn that so many sustainable initiatives were underway at UL. Now we need to facilitate a paradigm shift to a fully sustainable culture: a cohesive, systems-wide, collective approach and way of being day in, day out across the whole UL community.
Preparing for the UL50 celebrations gave us an opportunity to stand at the crossroads between UL’s past achievements and what we could be and do in the next 10 years. With a new president at the helm, we are fully cognisant of the urgent need to lead in a local, national and global paradigm shift to a collective culture of sustainability in line with the SDGs. We reached out to individuals from right across UL all of whom have one thing in common: a commitment to sustainability as a way of life, not just as an abstract or theoretical concept. We invited them to come together to be part of a working group that would explore, drive and model sustainability at UL. We have come together at UL to reimagine UL as a Sustainable University.
The group which became known as the UL Sustainable University Working Group, felt different from the start. It was a group with palpable energy, drive and a willingness to engage. We collectively set some basic ground rules: we did not want to be part of a committee, we wanted to get work done, we did not want to record minutes, but instead lists of actions, we wanted everything produced to be open and transparent, we wanted anything we worked on to be underpinned by a systems-wide approach, we would engage in no tokenism or green washing and finally the door would always be open for anyone new to join and engage. This led to several interesting outcomes:
We split ourselves into four working groups to ensure a systems wide approach. Maura Adshead kindly coordinated the efforts of the Partnership, Society and Engagement group, Jennifer McMahon coordinated the efforts of the Leadership, Staff and Governance group, Anca Minescu coordinated the efforts of the Learning, Research and Students group and Chris Fogarty coordinated the efforts of the Campus community and Operations Group. Each group played a fundamental role in unearthing the challenges, starting points and work already on the go in UL.
The group coined the term ‘workathon’ which came to mean fourhour working sessions. These ‘workathons’ took place online, we created a large digital board, which enabled us to see our work unfold over time and everyone to comment, critique and share insights. We did this by leveraging tools like Miro and Teams. When we came together it was to complete a task, often with coffee in hand and always with a critical and open perspective. Our first workathon focused on attempting to unpack and imagine what a sustainable university was or could be. The group arrived at several core insights: a sustainable university is a university that walks the talk - a role model for society. To be sustainable meant putting sustainability at the centre of every decision and action at every level and across every function of a university. We worked to identify the important areas that needed to be considered, using the UN SDGs as a jumping off point.
‘Check-ins’ were designed to enable the entire group to come together for a short stand-up meeting once a month. This enabled us to make sure that we could see the connections across our four working groups.
Open Door Policy
From the onset, we decided that the Sustainable University Working Group would have an open-door policy, it was not to be an exclusive group of individuals. Starting out with 12 individuals it has continued to grow with people reaching out to join us continuously. The group is currently well over 60 individuals strong.
We learnt that it takes time and patience to listen actively to someone from another discipline or background. We often noticed that we were talking past each other. We had to slow down to understand each other. We reminded ourselves of the importance of the UL community, the glue that holds us together, something that I think everyone had missed during the covid pandemic. We had continued discussion on the scale and scope of our ambition, how bold we could be. We realised that for us to be successful and really bring about the kind of vision we were aiming for, we need everyone to get involved.
We discussed the importance of sustainable governance and the role of procurement in ensuring that we source products and services that are sustainable. We discussed local produce, and producers and how to reduce air miles. We talked about sub-suppliers on campus and the kind of active roles they could play in the future. We were all acutely aware of the need for a radical mindset shift at UL to unlearn some of our inbuilt behaviours and learn new behaviours and ways of being. We discussed our relationships with the community and industry and how we could more actively engage and build bridges to enable increased collaboration across the SDGs. We discussed the UL campus as a fundamental starting point: Our collective space where sustainability should be seen, felt and experienced. We considered our approaches to education and our curriculum, discussing how we could engage more meaningfully with sustainable development. We talked about the central role of research and how it connects with sustainability and how we can actively encourage a deeper campus wide focus and a series of north star projects to drive future activity.
We also reminded ourselves frequently that we have scarce resources: people’s energy, space and funds. This required us to think creatively and build a new kind of engine to enable collaboration on campus. To achieve what we have set out will require us to navigate all the above and so much more. Requiring us to build on each other’s work, to connect meaningfully around challenges while leveraging diverse perspectives, practices and disciplines and by welcoming many cross sectoral voices to the table.
A sustainable world will not happen without determined effort – our actions today determine the future we manifest. The gravity of this responsibility necessitates that we do not drift along with the tides of change. Instead, we are called intentionally to open our mind, heart, and hands to the possibilities that can only be revealed by moving bravely into the unknown. If we become trapped by dogma and incremental innovation, we will find ourselves sustaining a world characterised by the faults of the present. The success of our collective transition will largely depend on the degree to which HEIs claim a role in advancing the critical gaps in our knowledge and nurturing the vital shifts in our culture. To fully leverage the potential for change that HEIs hold, this role must play out across all aspects of our institutions: from boardrooms, to lecture halls, and campus grounds alike.
To become a Sustainable University, we must start by acknowledging that true sustainability will require permanent adaptive responsiveness to on-going change. The prerequisite of adaptability and responsiveness is embodiment. It ensures ideas and intentions are rooted in action. Consequently, embodiment can be seen as the central characteristic of a Sustainable University; a title for institutions that go beyond traditional curricula and research programmes, and actively explore change within their own ethos, practices and operations.
We identified four high-level challenges associated with our four working groups: governance, the economy, society and the planet.
Governance – Stewarding the Transition
As a leading HEI, it is UL’s duty to be a steward of higher education’s sustainability transition. This role requires the adoption of new approaches to leadership and governance. By embracing transformative innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration, we can reimagine the structures, policies, rules and metrics that will guide the action necessary for UL to become a Sustainable University.
Economy – Cosmopolitan Localism
As a regional university with deep international ties, UL is primed to embrace a ‘cosmo-local’ approach to social innovation, this means starting locally and engaging internationally. Doing so will encourage the development of an ecosystem of sustainable communities, achieved through the sharing of ideas, skills, technology, culture and resources. Ultimately, adopting this approach will allow UL to cultivate a creative and reciprocal relationship between the local and the global.
Society – Thriving Communities
As a university with a diverse and growing campus community, UL has the opportunity to pioneer approaches to co-creating ‘thriving communities’. We acknowledge that the interdependence between humans and natural ecosystems is the basis for sustainable living. UL will aspire to foster a deep sense of belonging and to provide equitable access to meaningful opportunity, sustainable accommodation, active mobility, healthy food, and quality education and learning.
Planet – Resilient Bio Region
As a university renowned for its natural beauty, UL has the responsibility to ensure its physical presence does not negatively impact the health of the surrounding Shannon bioregion. We understand that our ecological systems act as the bedrock for the flourishing of all life on earth. Their safekeeping requires UL to take on the role of custodian; restoring the local natural environment to optimal health and protecting it from any future damage.
We identified a set of missions inspired by our four grand challenges. 21 bold ambitious missions that will serve as our starting point for guiding action. Importantly, the missions we have shaped are still malleable, they will require campus wide engagement, ownership and leadership. Each of our UL missions are underpinned by a set of declarations. These declarations are where we hope to be in 2030. Some are very ambitious while others build on work that is already going on in UL. We will learn as we go, shaping and reshaping our missions. Inevitably, some will fail, some will succeed.
We designed an engine that will propel us forward. A mission engine. The purpose of this engine is to enable deep cross-disciplinary, cross-sectoral collaboration, while helping to define and support the missions. An agile engine that will enable experimentation, drive investment and support us in achieving our vision to become a sustainable university.
- On 23 March 2022 Executive Committee approved our vision for UL as a Sustainable University.
- On 28 March 2022 Governing Authority approved our vision for UL as a Sustainable University.
- During October 2022, we will launch the UL sustainability framework
Over the coming months we will work with the campus community to further develop each of our missions. Some will be prioritised to start immediately, others will be launched over the coming years. We will be looking for people to come forward to help us lead the various missions, to help us build educational programs, and connect research to support our mission based approach enabling faculty, students and our community of professionals to engage directly across the portfolio of missions.
As a first step, we have dared to imagine what UL could be like in 2030 (See Speculative Visual UL 2030). What would it feel like to work and learn at UL? How would we experience our campus? Walking through large re-wilded spaces, welcoming nature into our buildings, protecting natural habitats, celebrating our community, producing energy, with a radically reduced carbon footprint and therefore ensuring equality and diversity in the workplace and universal access to education. Working in partnership with local communities and companies towards a world that we would be happy for our children to inhabit?