What is a ‘living laboratory’, and why should all universities become one?

1 Last year, the Planet chapter from the 2016 GEM Report formed the basis of the keynote presentation that kicked off the Education day at the COP22 in Morocco. UNESCO’s former Director-General Irina Bokova and the GEM Report’s Manos Antoninis were joined by HRH Princess Lalla Hasna of Morocco and the Minister of Education of Morocco to discuss the importance of education in the climate agenda.

One year on, at the Education Day at COP23 in Germany, the GEM Report continues to underscore the importance of education as a key element of any solution to climate change as well as a fundamental part of creating a safer, healthier, cleaner and more prosperous future for all. Successful sustainability education must be transformative. Formal education is critical to improve awareness of environmental challenges as well as our individual and communal responsibilities to address these challenges.

In this blog, we look at the role of higher education institutions in teaching and embodying environmental sustainability.

Universities are micro-cities where sustainability initiatives can be trialed

Higher education institutions can play an especially important role in incorporating environmental sustainability in urban planning by promoting and developing multidisciplinary research, minimizing their own environmental impact, and by serving as “living laboratories”.

Being a living laboratory means that sustainability principles should influence the daily interactions of a university’s students, professors and other employees with lecture halls, learning spaces, dormitories, and the broader campus. Living laboratories are an important contribution to building a better understanding of factors influencing the chance of success (or failure) of sustainability initiatives in order to implement them in the context of cities. Eventually, partnerships between higher education institutions, local governments and the private sector are essential to achieving sustainable eco-cities.

University of British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Julian Schüngel

Successful examples of living laboratories include the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and the University of British Columbia in Canada. The University of Gothenburg was one of the first universities to develop and implement an environmental management system. Some elements of this system include the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from travel and energy use, improving separation of waste and recycling, and reducing the use of hazardous chemicals in laboratory methods.

The University of British Columbia is notable because of its bioenergy research, which led to the construction of a biomass gasification plant combined with head-and-power plant. What’s more, this University has built one of the largest projects in North America for the conversion of its district energy system from steam to hot water. Both projects will allow the university to meet its future emission reduction targets.

A Chinese university setting a high standard in sustainability on university campuses

Another university that is an example of a living laboratory is Tongji University in Shanghai. Sustainability is particularly relevant at the moment in China: high economic growth has been accompanied by significant challenges related to energy and the environment. The forecasts of global energy shortages, the increase in energy supply costs, and evidence of severe environmental imbalances demand strong strategies for energy-saving, optimization of water use, and carbon dioxide emission reduction. The per capita energy and water consumption levels are significantly higher on Chinese university campuses than in households due to the fact that Chinese universities provide housing to all their students. Additionally, the number of universities and students are growing dramatically in China: in 2010, there were 2,358 universities in China.

Tongji University, Shanghai. Credit: Mr Thinktank

Tongji University’s sustainability initiatives have focused on transforming its buildings to be energy efficient, implementing systems for water resource recycling, and reducing emissions from academic buildings and dormitories. The university has a close relationship with the local government through the project “LivingLab SHANGHAI”, which implements innovation processes in a real-world context in the city of Shanghai. Tongji University has taken the lead among Chinese universities in building sustainable campuses and established the China Green Campus Network (CGUN) aimed at transforming universities campus through sustainable initiatives.  The CGUN has 12 universities as core members and over 120 universities as associate members, and is financially supported by the Ministry of Housing and Rural Development and the Ministry of Education of China.

The Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, a partnership to support the role of higher education institutions in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, recently made a call seeking input for future activities it could take on. It could do far worse than promote the success of the encouraging examples in this blog, which underscore the importance of universities in sustainable development and the fight against climate change. It could also build on the underutilized potential. Governments, universities, students and other stakeholders could work better together to determine how best to capitalise on this potential, and start building some of the essential frameworks that will ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for all.


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