Universities must walk the talk on sustainable development

Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology has integrated sustainability into all parts of its business, says Göran Finnveden

April 3, 2019
Park in Stockholm, Sweden
Source: iStock

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The year 2015 was remarkable in many ways. Countries around the world agreed on the United Nations’ Agenda 2030, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and committed themselves to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Both initiatives require significant transformations of societies around the world.

It is obvious that higher education institutions have fundamental roles in these transformations. We are educating future leaders and citizens who will be responsible and should be able to contribute to sustainable development. We must develop new and more sustainable solutions, engage ourselves in evidence-based policymaking, provide platforms for societal learning and interactions, develop indicators and participate in the monitoring of development, and be a societal actor that takes a long-term perspective. We must also make sure that our own operations are in line with sustainable development.

KTH Royal Institute of Technology is committed to sustainable development. Our work in this area started before 2015, but the SDGs are now used as a framework for this activity. Looking back, we can see that we have used a double-track strategy in three different ways.

The first double-track strategy is to work on both core activities (education, research and collaboration) as well as on our own internal initiatives. We have learned that if we are going to be credible in education and research, we must “walk the talk” on sustainable development. This is relevant for environmental issues, but equally so for social aspects. We need to create good working environments and job security, promote gender equality and support innovations from students and faculty, to name a few examples. Innovation is vital, and we see more and more examples of innovations fundamentally contributing to the SDGs.

The second double-track strategy is integration and specialisation. We often get asked whether sustainable development should be integrated into normal activities, plans and programmes, or be a specialised activity. Our conclusion is that we need both, but integration is the overarching goal.

For example, sustainable development should be integrated into all of our educational programmes at all levels so that our graduates can contribute to sustainable social development. Sustainable development should also be integrated into all everyday decisions, programmes and plans at the university, and we are currently working to incorporate it into our quality systems. However we also need specialised knowledge in education and research, as well as in administration. We have, therefore, created a sustainability office that can support administrators and academic departments with relevant specialised knowledge.

The third double-track strategy is to combine top-down and bottom-up approaches. It is important that senior management sets priorities and goals, provides necessary resources and makes sure that there are follow-up mechanisms. But in a complex organisation, top management cannot decide on how goals should be implemented in detail. For example, in education, programme directors and teachers know their programmes, students and faculty. They should decide on how sustainable development should be integrated into their courses.

This can be supported at the central level. KTH has, for example, developed a pedagogical course on learning for sustainable development that is open to all teachers. We have also developed a web-based toolbox with suggestions for learning activities and course literature, as well as shorter course modules on topics such as social sustainable development and sustainable business development. It is also important to be able to support bottom-up initiatives for new courses or collaborations.

Sustainable development requires long-term commitment and a strategy to institutionalise the work. This can include educational programmes, faculty positions and institutional arrangements that have a long-term perspective as well as a certified environmental management system. Having implemented these arrangements, it is up to us to set the goals. Our stated goal is to be a leading technical university in sustainable development.

Göran Finnveden is vice-president for sustainable development and professor of environmental strategic analysis at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.


The THE University Impact Rankings will be published at 3pm BST on 3 April during the THE Innovation and Impact Summit in South Korea.

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