Regenerative Sustainability at University of British Columbia

Programme Manager Matthew Lawson reflects on a very special lecture from John Robinson, Former Associate Provost of Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, which took place at the University of Edinburgh on the 4th March 2016.

Regenerative sustainability. This was the subject of John Robinson’s public talk on Friday 4th March, which was hosted by the University’s Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability. John is very much regarded as a leader within the higher education sector for his leadership on developing the regenerative sustainability approach during his time as Associate Provost of Sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The audience included a diverse range of students, academics and professional staff – all with a clear interest in learning about the innovative approach developed at UBC.

Attendees were provided with an insight into how sustainability has been framed and embedded within UBC’s Vancouver campus and how a living laboratory approach was developed to encourage collaboration between research, teaching, industry and operations.

The way sustainability is framed at UBC challenges approaches commonly adopted by organisations. John highlighted how the framing of sustainability at UBC moved away from a sole focus on the environment, reflecting how UBC’s efforts could regenerate both the environment and individuals.

UBC’s approach went beyond the current and most commonly used discourse when framing sustainability strategies or campaigns, that of reducing/limiting the negative impacts of our activities. This approach causes a number of problems and doesn’t exactly inspire creative and innovative action. More importantly, as John highlighted during his talk, it also limits the scope of ambition an organisation has. Regenerative sustainability was an attempt at UBC to create a positive narrative, committing the university to go beyond limiting its negative impacts and instead focus on the active restoration and regeneration of the environment; and the active pursuit of improvements in the well-being of the community.

John described universities as ‘sandboxes’, stressing the unique opportunity that universities have to test innovative solutions to societal challenges on campus. UBC is very much a leader in this field, championing a living laboratory approach which breaks down barriers between staff and students, and encourages collaboration between operations, industry, research and teaching.

On example of this approach provided by John was UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability. The building used a regenerative design, to pushing the envelope of sustainable design by integrating passive design strategies with the most advanced sustainable technologies of the time to achieve an off-the-chart level of performance. The building systems and infrastructure, as well as the process of planning, designing, building and operating the facility are part of an ongoing research programme, used for teaching and provided extensive opportunities to engage with industry. Unlike typical building projects which increase the carbon footprint and resource use of organisations, the centre strives to achieve net positive performance in terms of both the environment and human wellbeing.

Gaining an insight into UBC’s approach to regenerative sustainability was beneficial in many ways – John’s talk inspired, reinforced the direction of the University’s current work on social responsibility and sustainability, but also provided a reminder that there is much more work to be done at Edinburgh. The achievements of UBC and John should be the benchmark that all universities strive for.

Watch a recording of John’s lecture at

Further information on UBC’s approach to sustainability is available online at