In November this year I had the privilege, courtesy of the TropEco Scholarship competition, to attend the conference for Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability. The conference was hosted at Sunshine Coast University and consisted of a range of keynote speakers, workshops and tours. This annual conference is a chance for university representatives from all across Australia to showcase their sustainable initiatives. It was the perfect opportunity for passionate professionals and skill-seeking students to share innovative ideas, projects, programs and plans that tackle the environmental issues facing each unique institution. This year's theme was 'Connect-Innovate-Ignite!' and it was certainly evident that it lived up to this motivating theme. I connected with a range of fascinating individuals, from inspired students looking to become leaders in the field of sustainability to current leaders and speakers looking to ignite and connect the minds of attendees. The true overarching purpose of the event was achieved before I even reached the conference venue. It was getting to know these people who want to create a meaningful and lasting change in the systems and motivations dominating today's world, and where it can be made sustainable for future generations. The moment I met these sustainability officers, environmental practitioners, scientists, researchers, and students, I immediately knew that these were dedicated individuals out there looking to leave the world in a better state than how they found it. Throughout the conference, we all worked together to share our thoughts and frustrations.
When entering the campus, I immediately noticed the presence of waste recovery stations at the side of each building. It was satisfying to see a smart waste system that easily encourages the public to dispose of waste responsibly with minimal effort. The compostable bins were transported to an On-Site Composting Apparatus, or "OSCA". The system works as a catalyst to speed up the decomposition of compostable waste produced on the campus, which is then used and sold within the community.
I learnt of other universities making a sustainable transition in waste, transport and energy sectors, and gathered a few ideas that I can see JCU adopting in the years to come. The most ambitious and inspiring project that influenced me was that of the University of Technology Sydney’s plan to transition into a 100% renewable campus by 2020. This target had undergone feasibility studies, business cases, support letters and signatures from students and staff, and financing campaigns. If implemented with maximum efficiency it could pay itself off in under 10 years and could serve as a leading example to other universities. The skills which individuals and teams need in order to accomplish such feats involve a great amount of collaboration, purpose-driven goals, and emotional resilience. The range of workshops taught us how to handle any frustration involved throughout this process. A heap of psychology is involved in progressive thinking and persuading stakeholders into supporting new projects. It was all quite fun and interesting to learn from creative thinkers and quirky characters.
Attending the Green Gown Awards let us recognise the achievements of these amazing people, and also gave us the opportunity to enjoy the Sunshine Coast nightlife (which made for a very peculiar evening). I can easily say this conference has motivated me to embrace what JCU has and how we can transform it into a more sustainable campus. I hope for movement to spark within this great university that will create everlasting change for our institution, our community and our planet.
Finally, a big thank you to TropEco for this amazing opportunity, and most notably Kerryn O'Connor and Adam Connell who joined me for this conference.
You can find David's blog, with additional photos here.
The ACTS (Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability) Conference spanned all areas of University life with the aim to increase sustainability on campus. It recognised the imperative of this mission; Universities, as the creators of knowledge and society’s leaders, set a standard for the rest of society. As a student I attended seminars that were related to student life in the hope that I would be empowered to make changes in the area in which I have the most influence. However, the conference gave me valuable insights into the workings of a university as a whole, and indeed, wider society.
Daniella Tillbury, the keynote speaker on the first day, stressed the importance of integrating sustainability into all facets of life. It cannot be considered as something extra or additional, as costing time or energy aside from the ‘necessary’ functions. I saw Daniella’s ideas exemplified in seminars throughout the week. To name just a few, I learnt about UTAS’ amazing sustainability internship program which utilized students with skills from all disciplines, the incorporation of recycling information into a simple smartphone game which provides an enjoyable study break, the way that a University in Christchurch integrated sustainability into their campus while rebuilding after the 2010 earthquakes. Behavioural psychology was applied to sustainability, project management was applied to sustainability, engineering was applied to sustainability. Native gardens were being cultivated on campus that attracted wildlife, filtered water, and inspired all.
Successful projects brought together the need for practical experience in courses, open-minded students and the abundance of academic specialists and resources to create something that everyone can benefit from and value as their own contribution. Therein lies the biggest lesson I gained from the conference: the value of integration and collaboration.
Something that struck me in particular was the University of the Sunshine Coast campus where the conference was held. The buildings were wide and tall, capturing natural wind currents for cooling, and enclosing a large central area where people sat and ate and talked. I reflected that the very design of the campus cultivated a feeling of community, connectedness and belonging. The built environment worked collaboratively with the natural environment, which in turn created synergies with the people that used the space.
My own experience at the conference confirms the value of collaboration. After a week of connecting with like-minded, motivated and empowered people, sharing what we had learnt and teaching what we knew, we perceptively changed, and we had a lot more hope. Sustainability is a journey (two steps forward, one step back!), and at ACTS I realised for the first time that everything that we need to do has been done before, and that even now there are others taking the first steps just as we are. We need to connect, to confer and to motivate one another, for we are not alone in our thinking and in our struggles. We a part of a growing movement. I left the conference re-invigorated and empowered in my work to create a better future.
Day 1 Reflection: First Experience Travelling Solo
I have never had the chance to travel alone by myself to a foreign country. The short flight from Singapore to Brisbane has had given me many opportunities for learning. Recalling back, despite being anxious and nervous, I eventually overcame my fear of travelling alone and realized that help could be easily found as long as one is willing to initiate to interact with strangers.
I consider myself reserved and I usually experience difficulties in interacting with strangers, thus, initially I was adamant about approaching strangers or the information booth for directions. However, after arriving at the Brisbane’s International Airport and realizing that the designated meeting point was located in their Domestic Airport, a fair amount of distance away, I was forced to make a decision. Eventually, I garnered enough courage and did what I had to. To my surprise, it was not as difficult as I have had initially imagined. I believe this was my first step that I have taken, and in which, I realized that I have had lesser anxiety issues or problems in engaging professors and sustainability practitioners in the conference.
The highlight of day 1 was the fire alarm that sounded in the hotel, followed by the quick evacuation of hotel guests, and the arrival of the fire brigades. Although it turned to be a false alarm, it had my adrenaline pumping. Only after this incident have I realized the importance of taking precautions when I am abroad and not to take my safety for granted. It has also served as a reminder to be mindful of my surroundings and how situations can turn nasty in a blink of an eye.
Day 2 Reflection: First Day of Conference
I woke up early in the morning, a couple of hours prior to the meeting time, and headed off to explore the nearby beach and town. My little exploration was done with the objective of observing the local’s behaviour and their culture. In which, I was certain that I could apply or make sense of the theories and knowledge that I have learned from the business modules that I have taken.
I was not disappointed. Like what I have learned in lessons on how variations exist in both culture and behaviour in different countries or even between different states from the same country, Sunshine Coast was truly different. Unlike Singapore, the sun rises early, at around 5:30 AM and to my surprise, at that hour, the beach was already filled with a sizeable crowd consisting of mostly families with children. The town looks almost vacant with most shops closed and very few people going about their businesses and the roads had slow and little traffic. The morning in the town of Sunshine Coast seemed rather slow paced, a huge contrast from that of Singapore’s and it speaks volumes on the perspectives of the locals on life.
After the short walk in town, I met up with the rest and took the shuttle bus to the University of Sunshine Coast, where the conference was held. The campus was significantly larger than JCUS and was strategically designed to increase ventilation, light penetration, and reduce energy consumption.
Having taken the module ‘Events and Conference Management,’ last trimester, the ACTS Conference itself was an excellent learning opportunity for me to link theories with practice and observe how a legitimate conference was actually run. The ACTS Conference was different from many of the conferences I have heard of. Its programs were organized in such a way that three sessions of different themes were running concurrently. Each session was heavily packed with information and ran on a strict and tight schedule. The participants which consist of professors and sustainability practitioners, were less critical, sceptical, and aggressive when compared to other academic conferences that I have seen online. This is perhaps due to the topic and nature of the conference where everyone wants to share their results and do their part in creating a more sustainable future.
One of the main takeaways I have for today was the snake and ladder board game analogy on sustainability. The session was conducted by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Gibraltar, Professor Daniella Tilbury. She made an analogy of how pushing for sustainability practices is like playing a game of snake and ladder. The ‘ladder’ represents the opportunities that are around us that will allow great advances up sustainability board, while the ‘snakes’ are the challenges that may sometimes push us backward down the sustainability board. Therefore, it is important for us to first identify the various opportunities and challenges before implementing sustainability processes or activities. Additionally, she has also mentioned that a big opportunity up the sustainability board is to incorporate compulsory sustainability modules across all fields of studies. The integration of sustainability into all modules will help develop the generation and leaders, helping them to realize the serious importance of economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
In my opinion, the snake and ladder board game analogy is similar to the SWOT analysis and can be easily applied to our life. It has also shown me a new perspective on how sometimes we may take a few steps forward and end up taking a few step back and that the most important thing is to never stop trying and pushing for the main objective and what you believe in.
Day 3 Reflection: Second Day of Conference, Gala Dinner Night
I had little sleep during the first night as I was busy planning, arranging and liaising with my team members, sponsors, and the primary schools for the upcoming ‘Hearts for Our Mangrove’ event in Singapore. The combination of the lack of sleep and jet lag made it extremely difficult to concentrate. That paired with the dry and technical topics of some of the sessions made it a real struggle to stay awake.
Out of all of the sessions, the most impactful session I had was the session called “The Emotional Rollercoaster of Making a Difference.” It was something similar to a group therapy session that gives us an opportunity to discuss and reflect on our motivations and challenges in our pursuit for sustainable changes.
In one of the activities conducted in the session, we were tasked to approach a random stranger and talk about our story, our motivations, and the things that kept us going. A sustainability practitioner approached me and we had a short conversation. She talked about how humans are polluting and destroying the planet, how the animals and biodiversity are going extinct due to anthropogenic actions, and how poverty is running rampant in the developing countries. I remembered vividly how tears welled up at the corner of her eyes while she was talking and how she had that look of frustration, desperation, and almost, resignation.
I experienced an epiphany that real passionate sustainability enthusiast exists and plenty of them exists in our society, desperate to change the world. It was a really inspirational session that taught me to recognize and acknowledge my frustrations and that although there are not many sustainability practitioners, we are not really alone, and many others are pushing for the same sustainability agenda.
The day ended with the Gowns Award Gala Dinner where prizes were given out to outstanding schools for achieving substantial improvements in the various fields of sustainability. It was also a networking session where everyone interacts and exchange contacts. Being the usual awkward me, I felt out of place that I pardoned myself and then hid in the toilet. Only after composing myself with deep breaths and lots of self-convincing, then I managed to muster enough courage to exit the toilet and approach professors and practitioners. I guess the alcohol also played a part in calming my nerves.
Thinking back, the struggle out of my comfort zone was worthwhile. A couple of days after the end of the conference, I received an Email in regards to an internship opportunity from a company, through the recommendation by Adam from JCU Townsville. I guess interpersonal skills and networking is an essential skill that is required in our society, something that I will definitely pay more attention to and work on in the future.
Day 4 Reflection: Last Day of Conference, Trip back
The feedback session and panel session was scheduled on the last day of the conference. Both of which, in my opinion, wasn’t really relevant. Instead of attending either, I explored the campus and took note of the differences and interesting sustainable ideas and designs that were implemented.
For starters, the labels on their recycling bin stood out a lot. Instead of labels such as cans, plastic, paper, and others, they had compostable, recyclables, paper and cardboard, and landfill. Additionally, a print of a variety of items was shown on the top of the recycling bins. Although it doesn’t seem like a big difference, I believe that the choice of words used for the labels, especially the word ‘landfill’, can generate awareness among students. This may subconsciously affect students and cause them to be more conscious of their contributions to the environment; people tend to not realize that their use deposal of plastics, non-recyclables, and non-decomposable materials, eventually ends up in the landfill which may poison our environment. In my opinion, these labels may create a subtle but eventual movement towards sustainability and material awareness.
Another interesting technology that caught my attention was the water and carbonated water dispenser. Instead of purchasing plastic water bottles that are incredibly unsustainable, students can choose to use the dispensing machine to refill reusable bottles. Furthermore, environmentally friendly reusable bottles could be purchased on campus at a discounted price and the dispensed drink are sold cheaper than bottled waters. Something that I have always noticed on the JCUS Campus is that majority of the students, especially the international students, refuses to drink or refill from the drinking fountains. Many dislike the chlorine taste or feel that it is unhygienic, thus, opt for the bottled water from the cafeteria. Perhaps surveys or studies could be done in JCUS in the future to review the feasibility of installing such a machine.
I have learned a lot of things through this short journey, be it the new perspectives I have gained through the conference, the innovative ideas that the professors has shared, or the realization of the importance of networking. But, in my opinion, the biggest takeaway I had from this trip is the painful recognition of my weaknesses, the eventual acknowledgment of my imperfections, and the self-promise to work and strive towards becoming a better person in order to create a more sustainable future.