Finding solutions in a sandbox: The role of universities

Finding solutions in a sandbox: The role of universities

Overcoming obstacles that lie on the road to a sustainable, low-carbon future is not child’s play. Yet there’s inspiration to be found in a favourite childhood gathering place.

Visualize a giant sandbox, a place in which there is the freedom to explore—creatively and collaboratively—solutions to many of today’s most pressing sustainability challenges. Imagine researchers within that sandbox, testing the technological, economic and behavioural aspects of solutions such as green buildings or bioenergy or innovative education models,with a view to applying outcomes in the wider world.

Universities can—and, in fact, must—take on the role of societal test beds for sustainability.

In this scenario, universities turn their entire physical plants into testing grounds where the institutions and their private, public and NGO partners test, study, teach, apply and share lessons learned, technologies created and policies developed.

Of course, universities are more than just buildings and utilities. The University of British Columbia is a community of some 50,000 students, staff, faculty and residents, with over 50 per cent of campus households occupied by someone who studies or works at UBC.

We are making great strides in transforming our campus into a vibrant and complete sustainable community. And, importantly, we are working at a scale that is interesting to other communities. The hope in the long term is that, because we are representative of any community, any community can become a sustainable community.

Universities are uniquely suited to this role. In most cases, they are single owner-occupiers of significant capital stock. Many of them have their own energy, water and waste systems. They are public institutions that can be a little more forgiving on payback and long-sighted on returns. They have mandates to research societal problems and create solutions. And they teach the next generation of leaders. No other organization has this mix of capabilities.

At UBC, we are exploring different aspects of the Trottier challenges. In the case of buildings, we are thinking beyond net zero to an approach we call regenerative sustainability. It might best be explained with a question: To what degree can human activity actually improve both environmental conditions and human quality of life?

In 2011, we opened the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, a 60,000-square-foot building designed to be net-positive in seven ways—four environmental and three human—and to help seek answers to our regenerative sustainability question.

On the bioenergy front, in September 2012 we opened the Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility, the first demonstration of its kind in the world of a community-scale heat and power system fuelled by biomass. We are exploring smart grid applications for our campus and with other jurisdictions, including the City of Vancouver.

Our efforts in transportation have yielded significant results. For example, by putting a transit pass in the hands of every student, transit ridership nearly quadrupled in 15 years. On the education and training front, we offer more than 480 sustainability-related courses and are developing pathways so that every student, regardless of their degree program, can incorporate sustainability in their studies.

It is through students that our efforts have the greatest possible impacts. When a university acts as a societal test bed, students can integrate their learning through research and demonstration. And when those students graduate, they take their sustainability skills into the world.

Finally, experimentation is a fundamental part of university culture. Failure is seen as part of a circle of learning in which solutions are developed, demonstrated and researched. When universities act as test beds, society benefits from research, demonstration and integration that might not otherwise happen.

John Robinson is the Associate Provost, Sustainability at The University of British Columbia and a professor with UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and Department of Geography. Robinson was a report co-author and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, awarded the Nobel Prize with Al Gore in 2007.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *