ACTS Conference 2015 - student blogs

TropEco Get Involved ACTS Conference 2015 - student blogs

2015 Australasian Campuses Toward Sustainability (ACTS) Conference - student experience

Two JCU students were lucky enough to receive a TropEco bursary to attend the 2015 Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability Conference in Geelong last November. PhD candidate Max Burns and Chemical Engineering student Yasmin Jayawardhana were selected to represent JCU students at the conference. 

The conference brings together staff and students from tertiary institutions around Australasia and encourages institutions, educators and practitioners to collaborate and reflect on their achievements, and the important role they play in achieving sustainability.

Max and Yasmin were asked to provide a reflection on their experience at the conference and their responses show the deep understanding of sustainability they have gained from attending.

Max Burns

In October 2015, I was given the opportunity to travel to Geelong to attend the Australian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) conference. The conference covered ideas how Australian universities play a part in the community and the world in achieving sustainability. The theme of the conference, ‘refocus and renew’ investigated how universities can maintain commitment to long term goals of sustainability and resilience in the face of short term uncertainty created by policy change and restructuring. While the conference offered many individual examples of on the ground sustainability initiatives, the key messages I took home covered topics of governance, education for sustainability (EfS) and the socio-cultural drivers for sustainability. It was exciting to see the level of investment being placed into sustainability initiatives, on all levels, in universities across the country. This highlighted the importance of achievements JCU has made but also illustrated that there are still many opportunities which we are yet to address in what is an inevitable change. Fortunately, there are many others out there who are willing to collaborate and share their experiences. The following report details some of the key learning outcomes of this conference.

Governance – better organisation and communication for sustainable outcomes

Three key themes related to management of successful projects were reiterated in various presentations and workshops: 1) collaborate - make connections within your local community; 2) horses for courses - use site specific solutions; 3) celebrate the win - measure and report successes. Making connections within your region and collaborating is very effective. If universities work with each other, with councils, community groups and industry groups, they can achieve better outcomes which benefit all stakeholders. Universities are leaders and need to invest in this process. Examples given of this included collaborations between Wellington university student bodies, upper management, and the city council to provide better solutions in various public transport and revegetation initiatives. While these are all great examples, and similar problems exist in all regions, it is essential to remember that solutions are site specific. The implication is that no organization should wait for a solution to be produced elsewhere. The large problems will only ever be solved by a concerted effort by individual people and organisations. This means that even if the outcomes of your projects may seem insignificant, they still matter. The key to understanding how much they matter is data collection and analysis. Finally, a successful project has the potential to exponentially increase its impact by sharing methods and results. Sharing information of success stories inspires others and reduces their technical risk.

Education for Sustainability – the great connector

When considering sustainability education of future students, it is important to remember that sustainability is not a topic to be learned in addition to other subjects but an idea which needs to be applied to teaching. Sustainability principles already underlie many disciplines, it only takes time to identify the connections between these concepts and the learning outcomes. One significant benefit of this is the opportunity to promote inter-disciplinary learning, a key area of future development in higher education. Sustainability science offers a great opportunity to consider problems from multiple perspectives. This is because sustainability science can only really work when whole system interactions are taken into consideration. This idea is reversible in that interdisciplinary collaboration (when practical), fosters sustainability, both in research and teaching. It encourages people to identify both common ground and differences between disciplines, enabling development of solutions which support multiple perspectives/ from a whole system perspective. One example of is the recent changes to healthcare policies around the world. It is now widely recognised in legislation that human health is intrinsically linked to environmental, social and economic sustainability. As a result, many universities teach broader topics into healthcare courses, increasing understanding of systemic causes rather than symptoms.

Socio-cultural drivers for sustainability – social engineering

Solutions to many of the problems we face already exist, meaning that the bottleneck in the transition to sustainable human existence is cultural rather than technical. Various behavioural psychologists I spoke to were of the opinion that understanding and influencing people’s behaviour can contribute significantly towards achieving sustainability outcomes. Initially I was sceptical of the ethics of behavioural manipulation, but then I realized that our behaviour is continuously being manipulated by every experience we have (usually to make us consume things), so why not make the outcome positive for everyone. The fact of the matter is that your subconscious is about 10x larger and 1000x faster than your conscious mind, so it does most of the processing and decision making for you.

Achieving behavioural change with respect to alarming problems which you can’t see and won’t be affected by immediately is very difficult. This is because of evolutionary lag - the world is very different to the one humans developed in and your subconscious still makes decisions based on the old rules. It is less stressful for people to ignore a problem or deny its existence, than to consider approaching it, even if they know it to be logically true. This can be overcome by discussing problems in a positive light to encouraging people to feel more able to deal with problems, rather than avoiding them.

Practically, behavioural change can be affected in a number of ways. There is the traditional method of imposing regulations, but this has a downside. Simply put, one size does not fit all and if you treat people like idiots, they will behave that way. Giving people responsibility for their own actions allows more complex and efficient solutions. The second traditional influencer of behaviour is the built environment – make something easy for humans and they will do it. This method must be wielded wisely though, because easy does not imply efficient or robust. In addition, we must be careful not to hide how things work from people because understanding a problem is one step towards becoming part of a solution. The less commonly, but very effective methods of social change are intrapersonal and socio-cultural, which mean leading by example and making something popular/unpopular to do. An interesting example of this occurred in Bogota Columbia 1995, where mayor Anatoly Mockus replaced formed community security groups and replaced traffic police with 420 mimes to publically ridicule traffic violators. He also donned a super-hero costume and travelled the city cleaning graffiti and helping local businesses. His methods, while absurd were inexpensive and highly effective; traffic fatalities dropped by 50% and 63000 citizens voluntarily paid higher taxes when asked.

One final lesson I learned is that it is important to continuously reassess the meaning and goals of sustainability. In recent years is that the word sustainability has in some cases become synonymous with what is known as ‘greenwashing’, which is to make an organization or initiative appear to have environmentally conscious intentions, while making only a token effort. The reason for this conception is that sustaining the business as usual model is obviously not going to work. What I learned at this conference is that while the word sustainability is around to stay, the concept is being replaced by regenerative solutions, where improvements are made by taking actions which have a net positive effect.

Yasmin Jayawardhana

The Australian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) Conference covers an incredibly vast number of topics within the category of sustainability. From presentations on the very technical methods of quantifying scope 3 carbon emissions, all the way to workshops focusing on the importance of self-reflection and evaluation - the conference has it all. It takes a very holistic approach to the topic of sustainability, taking it past the science and the politics, to educate on a more personal level.

This year, the event took place at Deakin University in Geelong, over the course of three jam-packed days. The main theme of this year’s conference was ‘Renew and Refocus’. A keynote speaker delivered the opening presentation each morning at 9am, after which we’d disperse to attend 1 of 4 concurrent sessions. In this sense, it is somewhat disappointing that you can only directly access 25% of the total content shared throughout the conference; however, this then facilitated engagement and discussion during meal breaks when you’d approach people who’d attended a different session to get the low down.

Collaboration was a strong underlying theme of the event, and every opportunity was taken to network and form mutually beneficial connections with people from all over Australia.

I’ve mentioned this before, but there is nothing better than meeting people in a forced environment. Small talk was skipped entirely and all conversation was an open insight into the ideas and opinions of others on sustainability. People were encouraging, positive, respectful, genuinely interested and genuinely interesting. It’s a very unique experience to be surrounded by so many people of the same mindset, who want to see you and your endeavours succeed. It’s invigorating and also incredibly humbling.

Having managed to compile in excess of 4000 words of notes over the three days between myself and Lucy, I’ve got no hope of summarising them in this entry. But I will highlight some of the messages that stood out to me.

I was really impressed with the recurring theme of educators wanting to empower students. It came up in multiple presentations, the issue of student engagement and the massive untapped potential that they possess. People in high level management, teaching and research jobs made themselves accessible to the students attending and I was always made to feel that my opinions and observations were valid and valued. I can’t emphasise enough, the atmosphere of equality and mutual respect that existed throughout the event’s entirety. What I will say though, is after 8 hours of employing my most articulate and well-structured conversation skills, my brain was absolute slush.

The importance of integrating sustainability studies across all faculties was another recurring theme. Educators ahead of the game spoke on the trans-faculty subjects that they were piloting in their universities and the benefits that these were already seeing. Students at university are time poor and me-centered. It is not common for us to give time to things that do not directly benefit our degree. (This is a shortfall of the current youth culture). In this way, to encourage engagement amongst students who haven’t actively sought out the topic of sustainability, it requires putting sustainability into a context that is assessable and therefore mandatory. You can have the sustainability clubs and the degrees, but these will only attract the self-motivated. In order to see large-scale institutional change, we can no longer just target those who are climate-aware.

The whole idea of a trans-faculty subject is also about facilitating collaboration between different kinds of expertise. The discussions, solutions and answers to climate change are not going to come solely from scientists. They will come collectively from teachers, doctors, nurses, economists, parents, children, politicians and farmers (the list goes on). By putting these students in the same room and fielding the same questions, the scope of the response is increased ten-fold.

As a student, the conference opened my eyes to the workings of the ‘system’. Students can not be effective contributors to anything without an understanding of the bureaucratic nature of decision-making in institutions such as education. I say this with a small bit of cynic, but mostly sincerity, as some of these bureaucratic processes are what keeps things moving. Learning about waste management and scope 3 carbon emissions made me realise how idealistic students can be in their approaches to tackling climate change. There are some very basic and fundamental changes at a university (such as cleaning and building contracts) that can actually have huge benefits on the environment, but don’t seem to have the same appeal. This is not to undermine the powerful weapon that is the creative and unbounded mind of the student. We often approach causes we care about with much less caution and much more zeal than those who know better. But teaming this enthusiasm with knowledge of the system and how to jump through its hoops, makes for a world-beating combo.

On the topic of the ‘system’, one of the fabulous keynote speakers, Professor John Thwaites, spoke on the importance and role of government and legislation over the coming years in achieving the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Setting goals and benchmarks in government help to mobilise and incentivise otherwise apathetic communities and partnerships. Again, a holistic approach was taken, whereby it was stressed that a sustainable future will be the result of progress in other areas. These areas being peace, poverty, education, gender equality, hunger and economy.

The conference was wrapped up with the Green Gown Awards, which was another opportunity to learn more of the amazing things people were achieving in the area of sustainability. In a more relaxed environment. The awards not only provide acknowledgement for those who have worked hard, but also inspiration. There is so much that we are capable of.

Overall, it was an honour to attend the conference as a representative from James Cook University. The lessons learned and shared will continue to influence me, not only at university, but also in all aspects of life. It is with hope, passion and a renewed focus that I look forward to 2016.