Reflection on the Sustainability Dialogues: turning ideas into action

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We launched the Sustainability Dialogues with the UT community in February with great drive and determination. It suits the diversity and urgency of the climate change issue, and also the value the UT community gives to contributing to solutions. Now that we have had the final in-depth session, we pause to take stock, look back at the Dialogue’s outcomes, and look ahead to how it will help us accelerate our sustainability transition, knowing that science, technology and innovation - in concert with the social sciences and humanities - will be important factors in addressing climate change and its impact. It is our contribution to the systemic change needed to address the climate crisis.

Understanding each other’s perspectives

We have had a critical but respectful dialogue with each other, where everyone could speak out, as befitting an academic community. We have found that staff and students are open to sharing their own insights as well as understanding each other’s perspectives. It remains important not to be afraid to express conflicting views, if we then also look for what unites us in finding solutions. This is the only way we can move forward as a community. A word of thanks also to the organisers of the Dialogues for contributing to that.

Identifying opportunities

Ultimately, we held these Sustainability Dialogues with a purpose. To move forward in our sustainability ambitions and to shape our future impact strategy on climate: to focus our efforts in one concerted direction so that we make the most impact, do the things we do as well as possible, and identify opportunities that will catalyse our progress to transition towards sustainability.

The many conversations have yielded a wealth of information. Sometimes wild, unorthodox and perhaps ideas that are not (yet) feasible to execute, but there were also a lot of insights that help us to make small and big steps in the right direction. Bold ideas are also required to inspire the innovative spirit that drives our students and staff.

A small selection of the suggestions: for instance, we could make it clearer what opportunities students could choose in climate change-related education, either within their own study or within the elective space. As UT, we could make it clearer which UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) we are contributing to. There should be room on campus for a food forest and the tiny house project could perhaps be revived. In our research, we could have a renewed focus on green textiles such as hempand eucalyptus-based materials, as textiles are one of the most important pillars in the history of Twente’s economy.

We are grateful for all the input we have received in recent months. In addition to the actions we have identified below, we are keen to take all input further in places in the organisation where it will be useful and actionable. By doing so, we will ensure that this input contributes to further shaping and implementing our sustainable efforts in different places in the organisation. Some suggestions have already found their way to the right place. For a full overview of all input gathered during the sessions, please visit www.utwente.nl/sust­ainability­-dialogue.

The outcomes of the Sustainability Dialogues were presented at the final session on Tuesday, 27 June 2023.

Turning ideas into action

Several ideas that emerged from the sessions will be implemented in the coming period:

  • Increase the visibility of successful sustainable initiatives, both in education and research and organisational development.
  • Ensure that all study programmes will pay substantial attention to climate change-related issues in the curriculum in a way that fits the study programme.
  • Increase transparency of our sustainability efforts.
  • Review our collaborations with the fossil industry critically.
  • 1.      Increase visibility

    We agree that we need to highlight successful sustainable initiatives even more than we do now. In this way, we can play a transparent and pioneering role that will also inspire others and spur them into action. It is a task for ourselves as UT in line with the ambitions recently expressed by the Climate Centre, and one that we wholeheartedly embrace.

    2.      Integrate climate change into the curriculum

    From the sessions came the call for more attention to sustainability in education. Although a lot is already happening, sometimes it is still fragmented, or there are opportunities for improvement. We could for example ensure that every study programme clearly articulates how its curriculum contributes to combating climate change or dealing with potential negative impacts on people and the environment.  

    We find it important that all study programmes within the university integrate attention to climate change and its consequences into their curriculum in a way that is relevant to the study. For that, we will explore more deeply for each study programme whether this is present. This insight is needed to consider if additional or redesigned programming is required. We will be doing this in close collaboration with the vice deans of education of the faculties and programme directors.

    3.      Increase transparency

    The sessions also taught us that there is a great desire to provide more insight into the sustainability aspects of everything we do. In recent years, we have already made great strides in providing insight into how sustainable we actually are as an organisation. We feel that we could be even more transparent and will look into how we can do that adequately.  

    As a public institution, we find it very important to make the impact of what we do visible. Reporting on sustainability issues in a clear way, on our website or in accountability documents such as the annual report, helps us to keep improving ourselves in making our organisation more sustainable, but can also inspire others to do the same.

    4.      Reviewing collaborations with the fossil industry

    Collaboration with organisations in the fossil industry is a complex topic where there is not necessarily one right solution. What is clear is that work needs to be done. The Dialogues strengthened our idea that we should focus on working with organisations that are committed to the energy transition and share our knowledge with other organisations to commit to this, too.

    There are various ways in which this can be done. For instance, one possibility is to develop a UT-wide framework that helps to decide who to partner with on which goals, including long-term and short-term effects. Another possibility to ensure that we always weigh up things properly is to adopt a working method more or less similar to the work of the ethics committees within UT. And so there may be other ways to think of. Together with those involved, we will take a good look at which solution best suits UT. We think it is important to develop a framework not limited to the fossil industry, but usable for the wider energy domain. In close consultation with the Strategic Board of UT, comprising all deans and scientific directors, we will come up with a proposal before the end of the year.

    Until we have established an adequate approach, we will not start any new strategic research or education collaborations with fossil industry companies. Activities and projects that will contribute to the energy transition can be pursued and started as before.

    In any case, we find it important to stay in dialogue, also with those whose sustainability ambitions and goals do not align with our own. We need to be at the table with them to be able to communicate our expectations, hopes and dreams powerfully. After all, it requires everyone - both at the organisational and individual level - to adequately combat the climate crisis.

    Making all UT knowledge actionable

    The Sustainability Dialogues have shown how important bottom-up initiatives can be and how they lead to action. We look back on this fruitful process with sincere pride and appreciation. It is also a process that both deserves and necessitates follow-up to galvanise and honour all the energy, passion, drive and intelligence there is among staff and students. This, too, is one of the action points we want to work out with the invested community members in the coming period: how can we continue to engage and make the best use of all that knowledge in the organisation?