March 19, 2024, by lzzre

A quest for sustainable solutions: Reflections on the HUMANE Sustainability Summit

This is a blog on a sustainability conference attended in May 2023 by one of our academics, Chris Ives, and a third year Geography student, Bryony Jarman.

We (Chris and Bryony) met on a sunny spring morning ready to depart on our long journey from Nottingham to the HUMANE Sustainability Summit, to be held in Konstanz, Germany. As the train pulled up, we caught up on how we were feeling about the days ahead. We were excited to share our own experiences of sustainability at Nottingham, but we were especially looking forward to the interactive sessions the students would lead and to hear stories from delegates from other European universities. We were whisked to Zurich by train through stunning countryside where we acclimatised to the new time zone. After a day’s stopover in Zurich, which included a taste of some amazing food from at world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant (established in 1898!), we headed on, sad to leave Switzerland behind but looking forward to what the next few days would hold.

Upon arrival in Konstanz, the diverse and inclusive nature of the conference was clear from the start with our welcome meeting brim with conversation both between those of varied nationalities as well as between faculty and students. The atmosphere was warm as introductions turned into evening conversations with new friends. Throughout the conference the inclusion of student voices was essential and valued for each topic of conversation. This was a theme of the varied immersive experiences provided, with nature walks and a guided tour of Island Mainau typifying how the location and people were drawn into the environmental issues discussed. Sustainability and engagement were at the heart of all our activities, with presentations encouraging open discussion and our accommodations focused on limiting environmental impact: our transport was supplied through bikes and locally produced wine sampled during our evening meal.

Each person brought with them their own unique set of challenges and successes of varying scales. For example, different geographical locations of home institutions meant that low carbon transport was easier to promote in some universities than others. The University of Groningen has been able to implement a policy of no air travel within 800 km because of the excellent rail network, yet this is not possible for the University of Galway (despite it being designated as a national Sustainable Development Goal Champion for 2023-24!). However, it was striking how each University found similarities in their issues arising from the same challenges. These included how to embed students and maintain momentum in sustainability strategy, how to bridge the gap between ambition and action, and how to address cultural and structural divides between the University administration and the student body.

We share here a few well-developed examples, chosen from the many resources and examples introduced at the conference, which we think can help us at the University of Nottingham to keep pursuing our sustainability ambitions. Firstly, the idea of inclusion and maintaining a clear conversation with students was addressed well by the University of Helsinki, where the university collegium (representative decision-making body) has an equal representation of academic professors, administrative/professional staff and students. Similarly, other Universities such as Delft University of Technology and University of Konstanz had “Green Offices” where students were employed to tackle issues as paid officials, often enhancing their studies through part-time work/study arrangements to ensure the student voice had the time and resources to be heard and to act within itself. One product of this work is an online database of all volunteering opportunities in Konstanz to increase awareness, communication, and understanding. This “Green Hub” is set to launch soon with cooperation from local authorities, charities, and student groups alike. These structures of radical student inclusion have led to innovative ideas being brought forth in the spirit of collaboration and partnership.

It was clear from the universities represented in the room that we are in a time of accelerating ambition on environmental sustainability. Each institution shared targets of carbon reduction and sustainability-oriented KPIs. Nottingham’s plan to be carbon neutral by 2040 is in good company. Yet, it became clear that many challenges to the delivery of such plans and strategies are cultural as much as they are technical, and that the use of metrics and statistics can be used to stall action as much as to stimulate it. In many cases, stories were shared of how serious challenges of the last few years had stymied ambitious strategies due to changes to resources or lack of engagement. It became evident that if an idea was to succeed in the fast-paced University environment connecting student engagement with practical strategy was essential and that this was an evolving and continuous issue constantly needing attention. As HUMANE secretariat, Prof. Ian Creagh, shared: “Strategy isn’t written in documents; it walks around on two legs”.


The questions on our minds were now how could this ambition be funnelled into a useful toolbox of practical ideas; how could they be adapted to an English University; and could students be key to delivering change? A recurring theme across many Universities was the idea of “living labs”, drawing together departments within each institution to work on solutions using the expert minds already on campus and using the campus as a space for experimentation. Colleagues from Ruhr University Bochum and the University of Groningen both shared examples of these on their campuses, which allowed interaction among research staff, students, and the sustainability office. Other innovative examples included using recognising practical student action projects in module credits. For example, the University of Padova has built a sustainable laboratory using Masters and PhD students alongside faculty, which not only is sustainable in its lifecycle but was a cornerstone for learning and student development.

Actions taken were often controversial, such as the purely vegetarian cafeteria in Delft University of Technology, where local news entitled it “A Punishment”, despite it being largely well received by staff and students. This example again showed how vital communication and cultural change is when enacting sustainable initiatives. This theme was often brought up during presentations when discussing the process of scaling out solutions from a small group of passionate individuals to a broader university community. It is clear that effectively pursuing sustainability as a University requires weaving together radical inclusion of different voices, courageous ambition, and committed action across all different parts of the institution.

But as we set off back home, ideas racing, there was still one big question left unanswered: what is the University of Nottingham going to do now? That will be up to all of us as a university community, but after this conference we now have a network of friends and allies from across Europe who can accompany us on this journey.

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