Original post in World Economic Forum
The massive social and economic disruptions caused by the recent pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who finds a false sense of security in stability and predictability. The pandemic highlighted that in the 21st century, change happens at unprecedented speed, is often unpredictable, and can be fundamentally transformative. This new normal is placing increasing pressure on higher education institutions to accelerate discovery and innovation in the interests of society, especially in the global mission of building a sustainable future.
Like many of our fellow universities around the world, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) embraces sustainability as an integral part of our strategic development plan. This starts with the recognition that the principles embedded in sustainability thinking – creating the conditions for people to thrive, focusing on long-term value instead of short-term gains, and living within our planetary boundaries while appreciating the varied stages of development of different regions – are the fundamental touchstones that allow us to measure progress in terms of positive global impact. These principles influence hard sciences, engineering, business and policy development, as seen in our leadership of an international team identifying how China can adjust its overall energy mix strategy in order to reach a carbon peak around 2030, a target for the Paris Agreement.
Most universities now recognize that training students to be prepared for 21st-century challenges means transitioning away from traditional content-based instruction, and embracing active experiential learning where students gain skills to help them solve the kinds of challenges they will encounter during their careers. A sustainability roadmap is essential: Skills like life-cycle analyses, systems thinking and scenario-planning are cross-disciplinary competencies rooted in sustainability thinking.
In 2019, the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) launched a Campus as a Living Lab collaborative to share ideas and case studies as a way to facilitate hands-on sustainability training and skill-building. In the same vein, HKUST launched the Sustainable Smart Campus as a Living Lab initiative in 2018. The concept is simple: We need smart technologies to address sustainability problems, and we need to develop and encourage the right mindset to set the guardrails to create them.
This approach has resulted in the launch of 30 or so university-funded projects, including the installation of indoor air-quality sensors to improve well-being, AI-driven tracking systems for inventorying tree and bird species, self-cleaning multipurpose nano-coatings to improve photovoltaic panel efficiencies, autonomous greywater treatment processes that streamline water recycling, and a digital twin of all campus buildings for a digitized platform for streamlined operations. The goals of such projects are two-fold: to move innovation out of research labs to the campus as a testing ground, and to assess the scalability of these ideas from campus to our city and beyond. For students, the projects provide a clear demonstration how to combine innovation with a sustainability mindset.
COVID spotlighted our great challenges in view of disparate states of different regions regarding wealth, development, access and technology. We take this to mean that our educational efforts cannot support only HK and the Greater Bay Area, but also other less developed regions in the world. This is an important mission of the university; to transform research into real solutions, and to educate future solution-providers. Universities can act as strong convening forces that connect business, industry, government and entrepreneurs to address challenges collaboratively.
We do this by working with local authorities on formulating science-based policies for reducing roadside and ship emissions to improve Hong Kong’s air quality, providing evidence for developing strategies, and being a trusted resource for policy-makers developing our citywide target to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Our contributions to government regulations on pollution controls for ocean-going vessels led to wider influence on similar regional regulations for China’s coastal ports, benefitting 20 million people. These collaborations have the potential to improve lives irrespective of wealth and economic status, and showcase what is possible when using sustainability principles as a lodestar.
As institutions where reflection on society takes place, it is the responsibility of universities to empower our students with a deeper awareness of how they can help shape this rapidly changing landscape. Instead of being passive observers, universities can stimulate students to become “activist consumers”, recognizing the power of their consumption patterns to drive markets towards more positive social and environmental outcomes. In collaboration with the seven other publicly funded universities in Hong Kong, we are facilitating an ambitious new initiative called the Sustainable Consumer Program, aiming to engage over 100,000 students to adopt responsible consumption patterns in food, energy, water and other consumables. Similarly, joint programmes developed in partnership with the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) and Asian Universities Alliance (AUA) aim to nurture responsible global citizens with an aspiration to safeguard and advance the welfare of all. From food upcycling to urban beekeeping, we encourage our members as change-makers and enablers.
This recent pandemic has made it clear how global health hazards impact everyone and can literally bring our global community to a standstill. No country, no society and no one is exempted from these impacts. Similarly, the grand challenges of climate change also force us to focus on the availability of and access to resources, wealth distributions, and equity between regions and societies. Universities are at their best when they engage stakeholders across the spectrum for collaboration and partnership, empower and enable future leaders, and foster novel ideas, innovations and practices. Sustainability is more than a priority for universities; it is a responsibility, a commitment and a key to the betterment of mankind.