Sustainability Labs Project

The role of universities, schools and local communities in promoting advanced sustainability culture




Recent research findings increasingly highlight that individual behaviour is crucial in tackling global societal challenges, like for example Climate Change. Indeed there is a growing interest and need to actively involve citizens/consumers in the search for possible solutions to govern and manage change. Citizens/consumers indeed are increasingly assuming a more proactive role in many sectors and will become active individuals ("smart citizen") in the emerging Smart Cities and Smart Communities.
The underlying assumption is that knowledge about sustainability is able to trigger a discontinuity in the interpretative models and decision-making processes at all levels (individual. collective, corporate and governmental), in particular by including also ethical dimensions. This may also induce a qualitative change in the organizational and cultural paradigms.
In this direction, schools and university are an interesting ground that is well suited to develop and test the new organizational models opened by sustainability in the emerging ‘knowledge society’.
This work will present the concepts, the tools, and the main results of the first preliminary real-life testing of the ongoing project Sustainability Labs, developed for EXPO2015 by the University of Milan.

The main objective of the project is to identify ways of creating a distributed culture about sustainability in an open manner engaging with schools, local communities, socio-economic actors and all possible stakeholders. The aim being including sustainability evaluations in decision making processes. The tools proposed aim at enhancing the cultural and social responsibility of schools and universities, and their ability to aggregate people and trigger changes in consumption patterns, and at analysing how local resources (financial, organizational, environmental, socio-cultural) can be enhanced to promote practical sustainability projects and their multi-level spillovers.
Indeed, the main focus of the project is to build a partnership between universities and schools so that the former may support the latter in building sustainability projects, that should include students, their families, the local (and global) community.
The idea is to promote a participatory and interactive approach where there is no unique strategy imposed but initiatives are devised with the schools and communities and supported by the knowledge and competences of universities.
Moreover, the approach is also “glocal” as it aims at integrates self-organized initiatives - that take advantage of local and global opportunities and resources - in an interactive network where experiences, ideas, suggestions, initiatives and funding schemes may be shared, with the aim of identifying successful pathways for the promotion of sustainability. The ultimate goal is indeed to go beyond the single school/university and to identify possible pathways for the creation of a network of "sustainable schools and universities" (also connected to their local communities)
We promote an approach whereby schools diffuse culture of sustainability by concretely improving their own sustainability in a transparent and participatory way. This project looks also at the option of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, that can represent an interesting and dynamic tool that can be be integrated with public funds, not only because it is able to generate funds, but also because its organisational architecture is able to produce additional effects, such as citizen empowerment, diffusion of sustainability culture and awareness, social aggregation, etc..

From a methodological point of view we propose a "sustainability function" (SF) that includes 9 integrated dimensions: environment, health, energy, technology, economics, organisation, society, culture and geopolitics,

SF = f (Environment, Health, Energy, Technology, Economics, Organization, Society, Culture, Geopolitical)

A function that is an extension of the classical "three pillars of sustainability" (People, Planet & Profit) in order to increase the practical usefulness of the concept of sustainability. This function can be used to assess any initiative, action or strategy, at the individual, family, organisation or policy level. Indeed, it differs from the most widespread sustainability indices that are in general very technical and for experts only. The aim is to provide simple tools that allow citizens (but also organisations and policy-makers) to form a "conceptual map" for a transparent assessment of the impacts of their choices. Theoretical tools that have a strong link to practice as they can be easily applied to increase choice awareness.
We also discuss the need for innovative, interactive, and collaborative tools for diffusing sustainability initiatives.

This website will also describe the outcomes of the first pre-testing phase of the project. We are currently working with some schools of the Milan area. We started by analysing current initiatives and education programs and assessing their impacts on the different domains of the sustainability function.

E.C. Ricci

- Versione italiana   -  Versione inglese -





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Dipartimento di Scienze e Politiche Ambientali

Università degli Studi di Milano