To trigger one’s imagination and think of novel solutions and approaches, collaboration is key. The university plays a crucial role in inspiring societal partners to be in part of the transition. Consistently positioned as one of the top 25 universities in Europe, and one of the top 75 in the world, Utrecht University has included, since 2013, sustainability as one of its key strategic themes. This February was the third edition of Utrecht University’s Sustainability Conference, it was the first proactive concrete step forward for the university to engage with societal stakeholders, as approximately 15 percent of the participants were representing external partners. This conference represents an open space to explore collaborations. “With the Pathways to Sustainability programme, Utrecht University will invest in collaborations with societal partners. It is an invitation for bright minds to work on a better future”, emphasized Utrecht University’s President and Professor Anton Pijpers.
Transdisciplinary cooperation was experimented with during the interactive break-out sessions where Utrecht University researchers teamed up with external stakeholders focusing on four topics:
▪ Future Food Utrecht: Pathways towards Healthy Planet Diets
▪ Towards Industry with Negative Emissions
▪ Transforming Infrastructures for Sustainable Cities
▪ Water, Climate & Future Deltas
Discussions were facilitated in smaller working groups.
Aside from the rich sustainability knowledge sharing aspect of the conference, the execution of the event is also based on the principles of reducing ecological ‘footprints’. Some of these principles were easy to be spotted; in terms of catering, all the meals and snacks on site were meat-free, the paper disposal and waste was kept to a minimum, badges of the attendees were re-usable, and there was no ‘goodie bag’ for the visitors, but instead, all the event information (agenda, venue maps, and guest list) was available online and communicated digitally.
Image by Ivar Pel via the UU
In the transition towards sustainability, the role and capacity of universities are important, as seen in the conference when a renowned scholar, John Robinson, Professor at the University of Toronto, on transdisciplinary and problem-driven fields was invited as guest speaker. Robinson advised Utrecht University to use its campus as a living laboratory for sustainability. He shared his vision of a university campus where staff and students, along with private, public and non -profit partners, can maximize the opportunities to work together on sustainability issues in a green, emissions neutral environment.
As Robinson illustrated, the university can act as a living lab, where the education provided and its research capabilities are used to experiment, study, teach, apply, and share lessons, technologies, and policies. The idea is to increase both human and environmental well-being, through what he calls ‘regenerative sustainability’.
Image by Ivar Pel via the UU
With all these topics and opportunities for transdisciplinary cooperation in mind, what will the world of tomorrow look like? Lessons captured during the day were reflected in the final panel discussion by Bert Weckhuysen (Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis at Utrecht University), Marjan Minnesma (Director of Urgenda), Roald Laperre (Director General for the Environment and International Affairs at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management) and Marco Waas (Director RD&I and Technology at AkzoNobel). The panel discussion was moderated by Maarten Hajer.
Image by Ivar Pel via the UU
Hajer asked the panel some questions like: “Can we imagine a truly sustainable society? What would be different? What are game-changing innovations, for instance in the field of industry and chemicals, in what we consider waste and what is regarded a resource? How can we facilitate the transition? What should be Utrecht University’s role in this transition? Which key players can join us to create a sustainable world?”
Marco Waas described his vision for the future: “My dream is that science, government, and industries really start working together. We should all adopt the same vision and work together to make the energy transition within twenty years a reality. A lot of solutions are already on the table, they just need extra effort. And for that, we need all stakeholders on board.”
As a university with a broad range of disciplines, Utrecht University utilizes its transdisciplinary-and-in-depth scientific research as a competitive advantage towards sustainability. During the interview with Werner Most, Managing Director of the sustainability theme at Utrecht University, he quoted; “creating and facilitating an interactive platform for all disciplines within the campus and actively engaging external partners is our added value”.
Image by Kees Rutten via the UU
Regarding the role of the university, Most illustrated two courses of action. Firstly, the knowledge-pursuing and vibrant learning environment must continue to generate scientific knowledge to understand how things can function sustainably in our society. Secondly, the university must make efforts to combine public engagement with scientific debate beyond the endless pursuit of knowledge. The university has to not only inform and communicate scientific findings to the public in a transparent and appealing way, but it should also mobilize other actors in the society through inspiring approaches by demonstrating and exploring better paths towards sustainability.
Image by Michael Brunek via the UU Image by Dick Boetekees via the UU
Since 2013, Utrecht University has included ‘sustainability’ as one of the four strategic themes, creating a testing ground of the transdisciplinarity of science. Within four years of growing and learning, Utrecht University has further established its own role through the Pathways to Sustainability approach as a part of the sustainability transition by making best use of its core value and strong competence. Moreover, the university has been evolving from interdisciplinary collaboration across different disciplines to transdisciplinary integration, and further forming its unique way of involvement with society. And this annual sustainability conference is living proof of its progress. With the official launch and mobilization of the four scientific hubs, Utrecht university took up the role of a world-class university, showing not merely an optimistic attitude towards sustainability transition, but an open-minded heart that dares to imagine sustainable futures through collaboration.
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