How Lund University can contribute to sustainable development

Illustration of the university building

Lund University is organising its first ever all-faculty research conference on sustainable development. The pro-vice chancellor for research, sustainability and campus development, Per Mickwitz, and Emily Boyd, Director of Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, are both moderating sessions at the conference which aims to highlight how research can contribute to change, and spread knowledge about the complex sustainability challenges that lie ahead.

Both Per Mickwitz and Emily Boyd were recruited to Lund University a couple of years ago to lead the development of Lund University’s sustainability research and education.

In this interview, ahead of the conference, they share their thoughts on how Lund University must pave the way for sustainable development, how to broaden sustainability research, and increase external and internal collaboration and societal impact.

How can Lund University contribute to sustainable development?

Per: The most important thing we can do is to identify where and how we as a university can have a positive impact. The most important areas, I believe, are within our research and education.

We also need to be more self-critical. Researchers in general are good at identifying problems and highlight gaps – but maybe we need to become better at also analysing solutions and ways forward for society. Otherwise, I think it is too easy for different sectors to avoid systemic change. If our analysis becomes more solution-oriented and multifaceted – and if we deliver knowledge in such a way as to inspire change – then I think we can start to make a difference with our research.

However, we need to do this together with all of society. Collaboration – and fostering long-term relationships – really is the key forward, especially since positive research impacts are dependent on uptake and integration of knowledge.

Collaborations within the university also need to increase, and we need to create arenas for new ideas – one good example is the newly launched Lund University initiative focusing on opportunities for PhDs and postdocs to work on interdisciplinary research projects related to Agenda 2030.

Emily: I believe that we need to continue to work hard on making Lund University an attractive, caring employer – that invests in, supports and enables career progression and opportunities to achieve excellence. Care is a key factor in driving change and in retaining our staff. The corona pandemic has highlighted the important facets of the well-being of our staff and students, and in particular how important a thriving academic environment is for good mental health – we need one another. Our strength, breadth and overall societal contribution ultimately rests on the quality of our ability to do good research and provide quality education – which is delivered by those who work for Lund University.

How can we broaden research and collaboration within sustainability?

Emily: We are dealing with major global challenges – impacting every facet of our society. I think it is critical to develop sustainability research. Insights from STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), including climate modelling, technical solutions and biodiversity changes more than ever need to be brought together with SHAPE subjects (social sciences, humanities, arts for people and economics) to better understand how our analysis could become more solutions-focused, as pointed out by Per.

To bridge silos for sustainable change, we can examine attitudes, emotions and motivations – and how different groups differ in their view on climate change, political intervention and available solutions. We also need to shed light on trade-offs between different sustainable development goals, and where the tensions lie. SHAPE disciplines can help us advance this type of knowledge – and hopefully improve our ability to enact just and transformative change. Basically, we need to understand our place in the world from a more existential and political systems perspective – since it is people who drive change.

As a university, we must now up our game to modernise – we can build on inter- and transdisciplinary engagement, set out good practice for how we work in collaboration, and engage in diversity in higher education. If we work proactively with creating more arenas for dynamic interdisciplinary research collaboration, and collaboration with external research partners, I believe Lund University can continue to deliver knowledge that is of acute social relevance.

How can the education at Lund University contribute to sustainable development?

Per: integrating sustainability into the education of all students is one of Lund University’s key goals. All of our students should leave with an understanding of what sustainability is, and be able to relate it to their own education and future career.

Our environmental, climate and sustainability courses and programmes should include up-to-date sustainability research, and more research components. Ideally, we want to include students in active research projects already from a Master’s level – to engage them in shaping our output. We should never forget that our students have the freshest minds, asks the most probing questions, and often help to reinvigorate our research.

Once our students leave, they take knowledge with them to the different places in society where they work or participate. As such, their knowledge and expertise can have direct positive impact on innovation, politics and behavioral change. Therefore, delivering a education where sustainability is integrated, and where research and teaching is intertwined, is as important as to support cross-university research on sustainable development.

The Conference, Knowledge for Sustainable Development, takes place 4 May. The Conference is part of Lund University Sustainability Week, 3-8 May. Sustainability Week is an annual event in Lund organised as a joint venture by Lund University and the City of Lund. It serves as a platform for bringing together ideas, for cross-disciplinary collaborations, for raising public awareness and for inspiring sustainable change.

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