Universities – pioneers of change

The Free University of Berlin and its partner universities of the University Alliance for Sustainability pursue a holistic institutional approach.

Blühender Campus der Freien Universität (FU) Berlin

When Katrin Schweigel looks out the window, she sees a flourishing campus – flower meadows instead of dreary lawns. To achieve this, scientists at the Free University of Berlin teamed up with the university technical department and sustainability and energy department. The campus is now not only colorful and diverse, but students are also researching the test areas for their master’s theses. They study how the flora and fauna are developing. “This is a good example of our holistic approach to sustainability”, says Katrin Schweigel. “It’s about the systematic linking of research, teaching, campus management and knowledge transfer.”

Schweigel is manager of the project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The Free University of Berlin, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Peking, the Saint Petersburg State University and the University of British Columbia make up the UAS, which is sponsored by the DAAD programme . Through the alliance, the five partner universities combine their strengths to contribute to the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations (SDGs).

“We see ourselves as a living laboratory”

“With more than 30,000 students and 4,500 employees, the FU Berlin is rather like a small town”, says Schweigel. “In the area of sustainability, we see ourselves as a living laboratory that tests innovations in reality. The results can then radiate into society.” This is also what the partner university in Vancouver, Canada, is about. The University of British Columbia (UBC) has been committed to sustainability in all areas since the 1990s and is one of the leading universities worldwide in this field. With its many years of experience, UBC is an inspiration for the other alliance partners.

Teilnehmende des „spring campus“, einer Konferenz der UAS

In particular, UBC’s SEEDS (Social Ecological Economic Development Studies) program was a model for the “Sustainable Development” competence area at the FU Berlin. So as to anchor sustainability at the core of the university, students have been able to choose courses from this new competence area since the 2018/2019 winter semester. The four associated modules “Managing Sustainability”, “Researching Sustainability”, “Designing Sustainability Concretely” and “Communicating Sustainability” are part of the General Career Preparation study area of the bachelor's degree programmes. The courses on offer address the 17 SDGs and are based on the teaching and learning concept of “Education for Sustainable Development”. In the 2020 summer semester alone, 280 students from various departments attended nine seminars in this field of competence.

“We also learn a lot from others”, emphasizes Victoria Smith, director of regional and international sustainability at UBC in Vancouver. The heart of the cooperation is the annual UAS conference in spring with 120 to 160 participants. Teaching and management workshops there discuss innovative approaches and exchange examples of best practice. Workshops also present the latest research results and develop possible cooperative projects. In addition to students and teaching staff, other university employees also take part – for example, from energy management. This fits the holistic approach of integrating people from all over the university in a dialogue on the SDGs.

Networks in virtual space

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the UAS relied on live streams and virtual keynotes to reach as many students and professionals as possible. In 2020, the UAS went one step further and organized from Berlin the big network meeting as a fully digital event. New digital paths include the Sustainability Toolbox: an online teaching and learning platform that offers comprehensive information on sustainability topics in teaching, research and campus management, and will sustainably support the UAS’s international exchange in this area.

“The UAS is one of the best examples of international university collaboration on sustainability”, extolls Smith, who is a Canadian and engaged in many cooperative projects with the UBC around the world. She is excited about the post-pandemic era. In spite of the diverse digital possibilities of collaboration, she thinks “nothing can replace personal contact”. Because only in intensive exchange can we find viable solutions for the central issue of sustainability.



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