Liz Cooper, Research & Policy Manager, reflects on recent sustainability symposium at Manchester Metropolitan University.
I’m writing this on the train back to Edinburgh from Manchester on a sunny Friday evening, seeing plenty of lambs in the green fields out the window. For the last couple of days, I have been participating in the World Symposium of Sustainability Science and Research focusing on the Sustainable Development Goals at Manchester Metropolitan University, organised by the Inter-Universities Sustainable Development Research partnership (IUSDRP). In summer 2016, I had submitted a paper, co-authored with our SRS Director Dave Gorman, about our University as a Living Lab approach, and it was accepted to be presented at the conference, and to become a chapter in a book.
As the name of the conference is quite general, covering any aspect of sustainability research, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the other papers to be presented, or the make-up of the participants. Indeed, the agenda included a wide range of interesting presentations on aspects such as how to teach sustainability, how to measure sustainability progress, and cases of specific hands-on projects. I was pleasantly surprised to be asked in advance if I would deliver my presentation during a one hour plenary slot, rather than the standard twenty minutes, presumably because almost all participants were from universities, and so might be interested in what could be done regarding sustainability at an institutional level.
On day two, after chairing a morning session, I presented our University as a Living Lab approach, which is about linking students, academics and operations/professional services staff to work together to solve sustainability challenges related to University policy and practice. I described our journey so far, what we have learnt along the way and how our role as facilitator has developed over time, and our future plans.
I was pleased to be asked many questions about our Living Lab approach, including how academics view our SRS Department (of course it varies! But we’ve gained more collaborators over the years), how to embed research work while working in an ‘administrative’ function (it’s an interesting place to be – we have to meet numerous operational/strategic indicators etc., but also can take a more long-term approach as most of our work isn’t tied to specific timebound grants or the length of a study programme), whether we have senior management support (we do, with the SRS Committee reporting directly to University Court), and what we do if too many students begin to contact operations staff (we’re working on a new online database with clear contact points within SRS as first point of call for all project areas). Several participants have requested to follow up afterwards or to put others in contact with us, and I was also awarded a ‘best paper’ prize at the end of the conference.
A positive conference experience involving new reflections and insights gained from listening to a wide range of presentations, plenty of networking, and positive responses to our approach, is very useful for encouraging us to take our work further, including developing new collaborations. Clearly we’ve all still got a long way to go: as noted at several points during the conference, the efforts made to date globally to achieve sustainable development, including tackling poverty and climate change, are still insignificant, in the face of the challenges ahead.