Universities, innovation and the quest for sustainability

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, adopted last year by the United Nations have placed particular obligations on higher education. At the same time, the concept of innovation continues to dominate the agendas of higher education institutions around the world. How can universities harness innovation in pursuit of sustainability?

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

This was a key question explored at the semi-annual meeting of the International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, held in October in Cape Town, South Africa, and hosted by the Central University of Technology and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. IAUP Secretary General Professor Alvaro Romo said there was a strong need to alter parameters in order to have higher institutions embrace sustainable development.

He said his own association – made up of several hundred university leaders from nearly 100 countries – had recognised the particular value of innovation in addressing current challenges by adopting innovation as a central theme of the IAUP’s next triennial conference to be held in Vienna in July.

Describing education for sustainable development as “inherently innovative” Romo said universities around the world should reflect their commitment to the 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in their research and teaching and by actively promoting the idea of global citizenship and reflect the 2030 Agenda in university strategies and policies.

“Importantly, universities should engage in strategic collaboration around sustainable development objectives,” he said.

Setting out the relevant parameters of the SDGs for IAUP delegates, Professor Yusuf Sayed described the 2030 Agenda as “the largest and most ambitious development agenda ever set.”

Sayed, who is the South African research chair in teacher education, research professor in education, and the founding director of the Centre for International Teacher Education at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, said Goal 4 – “Inclusive and quality education for all and lifelong learning” – and its 10 targets spoke ‘consciously and consistently’ to the global higher education sector in a way that previous development goals had not.

He reminded delegates that achieving the goals would require the application of strong political will and capacity and investment in higher education.

In a session specially devoted to the role of science and technology in addressing the SDGs, South African National Research Foundation CEO Molapo Qhobela said while the SDGs created “heavy” expectations, it was widely recognised – and particularly by members of the IAUP – that universities as knowledge organisations were among the most important players in realising the goals.

However, he stressed the importance of synergy between SDGs and national development strategies – as was the case in South Africa where science and technology education and training had been identified as central to national development objectives of poverty and inequality reduction.

Emphasising the need to invest in people, Qhobela said: “No member state will achieve these ideals unless it invests in people... Africa is blessed with a youthful population – I believe it’s one of our biggest assets – and our responsibility is to invest in the next generation.”

Qhobela said the South African higher education system should focus not just on the production of technical expertise, but on those who will generate new knowledge.

A critical ingredient in meeting the sustainable development challenges was infrastructure. “We must invest in infrastructure, not just research infrastructure, but social and economic infrastructure. Energy is needed, roads, schools that are strong and vibrant, and universities. These are the foundations that are necessary for any member state to be able to respond to the challenges,” he said.

Despite the pressing practical challenges, Africans should not shy away from investing in “inspirational projects that capture the imagination of our society”.

Leverage the power of partnerships

To achieve the SDGs would require countries and institutions to leverage the power of partnerships that were strategic but of mutual benefit. “Not all partnerships should be between the North and South; one of our challenges is to forge partnerships among the global South, and harness the good work being done in this space,” Qhobela said.

Outlining some of the national initiatives underway to harness science and technology in the service of sustainable development, Director General of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology Dr Phil Mjwara said the country’s statistician-general was part of a project aimed at integrating national scientific data as part of the bid to meet SDG indicators.

“We will be looking to universities, the National Research Foundation and other parties to discover what they are doing within the science system to contribute to SDGs and how to collect scientific data,” he said.

On the complexity and inter-connectedness of the current development challenges, Mjwara said: “While we are interested in what happens within the water sector, we also need to know what happens when water, energy and food security interact… These issues are at the heart of SDGs because people’s livelihoods depend on these systems and we need to do research on the interface between them.”

Making a contribution from industry, Dr David Phaho, head of capacity development and business enablement at integrated energy and chemical company Sasol, said there was widespread acknowledgement that the benefits of science and technology and innovation went beyond economic growth towards providing solutions to the challenges of poverty, lack of shelter and gender equality which the SDGs sought to address.

Entrepreneurial culture

He said a vibrant entrepreneurial culture – resulting in the growth in particular of small and medium enterprises – may provide a means to bridge the income divide.

Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, Romo told University World News that while there may not be a common global understanding of “sustainability”, higher education associations such as the IAUP could play a role in helping to carve out a definition of the concept which could use the SDGs as its starting point.

“If universities are serious about sustainability, it should reflect in our activities. While some institutions have developed centres specifically focused on sustainable development, this level of activity is not reflected consistently across the board.”

Romo said he believed that if universities produced sufficient numbers of students who demonstrated “global competence” – a broad understanding of international issues and an appreciation for diversity – such values would have an impact on and between societies.

“I also believe in the idea of public diplomacy; people in dialogue sharing the same values can negotiate conflict much more easily,” he said.

The power of values in education was expressed earlier in the week when Neal King, IAUP president emeritus, addressed delegates to the South African Technology Network’s 9th annual conference which was timed to overlap with the start of the IAUP meeting and was hosted by the same institutions.

“Visionary leaders throughout time have recognised the role of education in informing and reforming societies… Our sector has a role to play in helping the world to navigate difficult times and come out richer, better, more fully understanding one another and assisting those less fortunate,” he said.