How universities are using tools to accelerate sustainability
By Alan AtKisson
Photo: Masters students at University of Iceland completing an AtKisson “Pyramid” workshop.
Just how central are universities to advancing the practice of sustainability? Most professionals would say, “Very.” Universities create knowledge relevant to sustainability, they train sustainability practitioners and they often act as beacons of sustainability leadership in their communities or even nations. A good example of this would be the ambitious climate commitment, to which more than 90 colleges and universities in the United States have signed on, facilitated by the nonprofit organization Second Nature.
Given that universities play such a central role, how much do we know about how universities pursue sustainability, in a whole-systems way?
The answer: Not much.
But now we know a little bit more, thanks to a new academic research paper on sustainability in higher education, co-authored by myself and three colleagues, and published in the Journal of Cleaner Production this summer. Lead author Dana Kapitulčinová, a researcher from Charles University in Prague, led a two-year process that involved a broad literature survey on tools and methods being used in university sustainability programs, followed by a deep dive into the use of one specific set of tools for integrated sustainability planning: AtKisson Group’s Accelerator suite. (The other two authors were Joanne Perdue, chief sustainability officer at University of Calgary in Canada; and Marcus Will, a researcher at the University of Applied Sciences Zittau/Görlitz in Germany.)
To continue with full disclosure, we initiated this study first and foremost to find out how universities were using Accelerator — in their sustainability program offices as well as in their classrooms — so that we could improve it. We surveyed university-based users from 17 institutions in 13 countries across four continents. We crunched the numbers on their answers and looked for patterns we could learn from.
But one thing led to another and soon we also found ourselves broadening our research. We wanted to understand the tools and methods being used to affect every dimension of sustainability in higher-education (HE) institutions, including teaching and learning, research, campus operations, outreach and administration, including assessment and reporting. We wanted to put our specific findings about the Accelerator tools into a general context.
The fact that no one else had performed this type of general review before is what ultimately got our study published in a major international journal.
TFMAs in the SCATs
We started by highlighting the documented importance of key individuals — “change agents” — in university sustainability processes. These processes usually involve significant organizational transformation, which means they require careful planning and facilitation. Then we asked, how were these change agents — who typically operate with very limited resources — approaching the challenge of facilitating a transformation, especially given the extremely complex nature of large higher-education institutions? What tools and methods were they using?
To deal with our results, we had to invent a new acronym: SCAT — the “sustainability change agents’ toolbox.” But just one new acronym was not enough. People promoting sustainability in universities come at this daunting challenge in so many ways, using so many terminologies, that we invented another acronym: TMFAs, for “Tools, Methods, Frameworks/models and Approaches.”
When we catalogued all the TMFAs in the SCATs that we could find, in the context of higher education and sustainability, here’s what we found:
- So many TMFAs were in use — from various kinds of footprinting, to formal sustainability management and reporting systems, to tailored processes with complex names such as “the Cleaner Production Infused Academic Program for Sustainable Development” — it was impossible to list them all. Some TMFAs were used in just one institution; some were used in hundreds. We could provide only examples for illustration purposes, otherwise our very long academic paper would have become a multi-year Ph.D dissertation.
- Most TMFAs we looked at were single-purpose, focused on just one dimension of university life, such as teaching or reporting. They usually did not get applied across multiple dimensions in an integrated way. But we did find a few exceptions, including environmental footprinting methods (carbon footprints and ecological footprints) and participatory assessment and reporting methods (such as the widely used STARS program of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education). Fortunately for us, our Accelerator training and planning tools also made this list.
- The choice of TMFAs in the SCATs were all over the map, meaning it was difficult to find any simple recurring pattern. HE institutions tended to develop their own tailored toolbox of TMFAs, depending on the kind of institutions they were, as well as on the specific change agents who were driving sustainability. The choice of TMFAs also seemed to be influenced by the institutions’ participation in various national or international initiatives. Here’s how we summed it up in academic language:
Integration of sustainability principles in higher education therefore happens on different levels and along various pathways including via international as well as national channels (sustainability-specific projects or programs), via sustainability-aware university leaders (establishing sustainability leadership positions within institutions) or via committed individuals (including faculty, researchers or students).
After describing this rather turbulent marketplace of tools and approaches, our research article moved on to the question of how people were using our tools, known as the Accelerator. The Accelerator is an integrated toolset that includes the Sustainability Compass for orientation and assessment; the Pyramid Workshop for planning and teaching sustainability; the Amoeba Model for training and supporting change agents; and a 360-degree strategic planning module called StrateSphere. The tools are undergirded by a generic sustainability methodology that we also developed called VISIS, which stands for Vision, Indicators, Systems, Innovation and Strategy. The VISIS method is open source, and it has been used by the U.N. Secretariat as well as being included by the U.N. Development Group in a new, recommended catalog of tools and methods to support implementation of the SDGs.
Accelerator, based on VISIS, has been around in its current form for 15 years, but we never actually had gotten around to documenting these tools, as an integrated package, for the academic press. The toolset is proprietary, but we make a simplified free version available to educators, NGOs and individuals for non-commercial use.
Despite this long history, we did not have a clue about what people in universities were doing with the Accelerator tools once they acquired them. We especially wanted to know if they were using the tools as intended: to support an integrated approach, infusing sustainability throughout management, operations and classroom teaching, using similar tools, methods and symbols (such as the Sustainability Compass).
Why did we think that universities might be using our tools this way? Because a number of primary and secondary schools — mostly in Asia, and mostly associated with the prominent International Baccalaureate (IB) network — already had been doing so. The Sustainability Compass formally has been integrated into the IB’s global curriculum for middle-year students. Demand among IB educators for our integrated approaches to sustainability had proven strong enough that a new organization had formed and spun off from our commercial enterprise. Compass Education, a non-profit based in Thailand and the United States, provides training on the Accelerator tools (and other systems-based approaches to sustainability) to hundreds of teachers and administrators from dozens of countries every year. The program has spread from Asia to other continents as well.
But success at the primary and secondary levels of education did not automatically imply that the tools would work similarly at universities. Compared to secondary schools, universities are much larger and much more complicated. Universities also have a culture of individual autonomy that touches every level of institutional life.
Compasses, pyramids and amoebas
Secondary schools, in sharp contrast, are quite regimented organizations. There is often a specific curriculum that all must follow and a relatively tight command structure that flows from rectors to teachers, administrators and operational staff. It is quite possible for schools to adopt our “Sustainability Compass” as a framework at the management level, use our “Sustainability Pyramid” workshop to plan action at the operational level, then mirror that process all the way out into the classroom and even into the early grade-levels, supported by “Amoeba”-trained change agents.
We know that it’s possible, because it has already happened.
But that scenario is decidedly not a description of how a university works. In the academic culture, models are meant to be questioned. Pre-packaged tools and methods are met with skeptical criticism. The idea that a university president or chancellor simply could instruct professors, administrators and operational staff to use a common sustainability framework is unlikely in the extreme.
The deeply democratic and inherently critical nature of university culture creates special challenges for sustainability change agents. They cannot rely on a chain of command. They must convene, convince, facilitate, instruct and lead people in highly participatory and inclusive ways. Our Accelerator tools are designed to support such inter-disciplinary, participatory processes. But were they helping university change agents achieve their goals? Additionally, was Accelerator being used in the integrated fashion we intended, across multiple parts of the institution?
The answer to both questions was a resounding “sometimes” — and certainly not as often as we would like. We were gratified to receive a lot of positive feedback on the effectiveness of the tools. In the situations where Accelerator tools were being used, they clearly worked. But we were surprised to learn that classroom teaching was the most common setting for the use of our tools (we had expected to see planning and operations dominate). At the same time, in those institutions where tools such as the Sustainability Compass or Pyramid Workshop were being effectively used in management, they had not spread much into teaching.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, they had not spread very quickly from one type of use to another. There were exceptions to the rule, and the cut-off for our data gathering was 2014 (that’s an indicator of how slow the process of getting academic papers published can be). We know anecdotally that in several institutions, use of these tools has continued to spread into other dimensions of those universities — out of the office for sustainability setting, for example, and into student engagement programs or graduate research applications.
What’s next? First, given the importance of universities, our paper concluded that — brace yourself — more research is needed in this area. We think there is a general need for better knowledge about change processes within institutions of higher education, and about how their integration of sustainability can be accelerated — with a special focus on the challenging role of change agents and on their ability to master key skillsets. We are not likely to be the ones who take up that research challenge, but we have done the first survey and introduced some useful analysis concepts (TMFAs and SCATs). We hope others will be willing to carry the ball forward.
Second, in our study, we barely touched on the role of students in this process — and as everyone who works in universities knows, students are very often the most effective drivers of change in those environments. Numerous Ph.D dissertations and masters theses could be written around this question.
And finally, we concluded that our own tools need some updating and improvement, if they are to meet the needs of the rapidly changing sustainability movement. Accelerator is still one of the few options available for integrated and inter-disciplinary orienting, engaging, mobilizing, training and planning work around sustainable development. But if the aim of these tools is to accelerate transformational change in complex environments, we will need to “accelerate the Accelerator.”
We look forward to seeing what others do, to carry on this research. Understanding how people can change universities, so that universities can help change societies, might turn out to be one of the most powerful leverage points we have for advancing sustainable development.