’Sustainability must become a no-brainer within the university’

- EN - NL
Anna Wieczorek. Photo: Lieke Vermeulen
Anna Wieczorek. Photo: Lieke Vermeulen
Sustainability Ambassador Anna Wieczorek looks back on two years of sustainability work at TU/e, but mainly looks to the future.

"The TU/e is like a society in miniature and, therefore, the ideal environment to find out how to set up a successful sustainability movement," concludes Anna Wieczorek, who, as Sustainability Ambassador, has been on the road for over 2.5 years. "Like the general society, we too are polarized regarding our approach to sustainability. But in the end, we all want the same thing: to live in a green, fair, and thriving world. That is a strong foundation to build on." As the first TU/e Sustainability Report comes out, she makes a cautious initial conclusion. "We have institutionalized sustainability; it has become one of the university’s strategic goals, and we have developed a coherent approach to coordinating sustainability at TU/e. We should be proud of that first step."

Before Wieczorek started as TU/e’s first Sustainability Ambassador in September 2021, she was already working in the field of transitions to sustainability as a full professor at the department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences. "After 25 years in the field, I saw that the pure focus on technological innovation will not be enough because of grand societal challenges such as climate change or social inequalities."

"While in the past, it used to be about placing a filter on a chimney that would purify the air pollution, now we need to expand the innovation to the entire system through which we provide our societal needs and to include social innovation as well."

"That further means a different way of doing research: more systemic and socio-technical. Growing urgency to act requires transformative forms of knowledge that productively build on both engineering as well as social sciences and humanities and allow for taking action. Otherwise, any technological innovations we can come up with will remain drops in the ocean if we don’t embed them socially."

Lead by example

As an ambassador, she therefore advocates ’transdisciplinary research’: "Co-creative collaboration of scientists with stakeholders from outside of academia, but foremostly, with the society. After all, we all contribute to sustainability problems. To address them and to really make an impact, we will have to organize our lives radically differently."

"Leading such a change requires different skills, and capabilities. Universities play an important role here because we not only do cutting-edge research but also because we educate a new generation, who will have to deal with the mess we leave. Universities can lead by example, but to do so, they need to have a clear vision and a plan."

Wieczorek cites’ developing an overarching sustainability vision as a great achievement after 2.5 years at the forefront.’ "Before I became an ambassador, the TU/e was already working on sustainability in various ways. Among other things, in the (re)development of buildings and other major operations on campus. However, many of those initiatives were isolated, uncoordinated, and often driven by individuals’ intrinsic motivation."

155 pages of resounding figures
This is reflected in the Sustainability Report 2022 & 2023 that TU/e presented during the Green Week 2024 . "By 2050, TU/e fully embodies sustainability and proactively deals with major societal challenges," it states as an ambitious goal. In other words, the dot on the horizon Wieczorek is referring to. However, the report also presents the assessment of how the TU/e does on sustainability and outlines a number of concrete achievements in recent years in research, teaching, campus & operations, and governance. Four pillars, as it were, together accounting for 155 pages of resounding numbers and new initiatives.

The facts and figures below give an impression of sustainability at TU/e. Please find all facts and figures with their respectible sources in the sustainability report.

"Those four pillars are spaces where further work is necessary if we want to achieve our sustainability vision. It is a complex and time-consuming task to arrive at a common approach. But only if we bring up sustainability from all sides and engage in a dialogue, can we really make a difference. I see it as my job to stimulate the debate, monitor the developments and keep everyone’s nose towards that dot on the horizon."

Beyond triple helix

She also looks beyond the campus, as TU/e has a special connection to the surrounding industry. "Our position in Brainport offers a good start. Collaboration and knowledge sharing are interwoven into the triple helix construction we cherish here. Of the three (academia, government, and industry) however, academia is the only one that can provide seeds of radical change. Companies do not change fundamentally unless they have to; if they do, it does not happen fast. And the governments are set to guard stability and predictability. Radical change is not in their scope."

"Triple helix has given us a good start at TU/e. We can learn from that experience. Yet, in view of grand societal challenges, more is needed. I am missing an important player in this approach, namely the citizens. This is the society from which radical social change usually originates. We, therefore, need to look way further than triple helix and engage everyone in the process if we want to achieve a transformative change."

"We also need to stay critical about the merits of our collaborations with the industry. That’s why at TU/e, we will start an experiment this year by screening research projects to determine how they contribute to that overall approach in terms of sustainability."

Delivering students as change agents

In addition, education plays a special role in the overall approach. "We are educating the next generations; therein lie enormous opportunities, so we must take the responsibility. The societal challenges will only worsen, so we have to prepare our students to provide transdisciplinary and systemic answers to questions posed by the world. Disciplinary or even interdisciplinary responses are no longer enough. We have to deliver students who can act as change agents."

Wieczorek emphasizes that the new generations also expect a new way of thinking from the university as well as the larger society. "If you ask me, what I am most impressed with after 2.5 years as ambassador, it is the ’Chair of the Future ,’ which students offered to the Executive Board during the opening of the 2023 academic year. As a concrete reminder of a sustainable future, with the expectation that this chair will have a permanent place at the decision-making table. This is absolutely brilliant. Students really are the foundation for change; without them, the whole transformation we envision is not possible."

Experimenting with a fundamental change

The same is true for all colleagues who, together with Wieczorek, propagate TU/e’s sustainability policy. "Not only on my own team but also at the Green Office students are working very hard on this. Essential contributions also come from the departments. Although we are not there yet, it really is becoming a collective process, for which I am extremely grateful. As well as for the space and openness we are given to experiment with fundamental change."

"That is perhaps the greatest achievement to date. We are no different from other universities in our motivation, but I think we are different in our way of doing things. More bottom-up, stimulating critical discussions, creating attention across all spheres of university life. Such change does not happen overnight; slowly but surely, we are motivating a transformation."

Yearly ranking

Still, in the yearly ranking organized by Studenten van Morgen, TU/e has dropped from its 4 to 9 position. But it is not so black and white, says Wieczorek: "Rankings are important, but also methodologically debatable and rather subjective. Our ambition to stand out may lead to priorities that do not always align with the general assessment criteria of existing sustainability rankings."

"As a result, the potential outcome may not fully reflect our internal progress and our steadfast commitment to our sustainability goals. While the results are motivating us to be reflexive about what we do, we are also trying to be realistic, and we strongly believe our sustainability initiatives will have a lasting positive impact on TU/e and society."

Read our full reaction to the ranking here.

"What is nice to see however, is that all’universities in the Netherlands increasingly treat sustainability seriously. Almost all’have dedicated sustainability teams and move on with integration based on their expertise and knowledge. That means TU/e has to move on as well and do better."

"We congratulate those who are ahead of us and we want to learn from them because sustainability should become a no-brainer within the university. When that happens, my position as an ambassador will become redundant. That is my dream."