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Manchester hosts world symposium on Sustainable Universities

As epicentres of innovation, community and influence, universities are responsible not only for educating young minds, but also for being the birth place of many of the ideas that go on to profoundly shape our world. This combination of innovation and influence make universities particularly well suited to be at the forefront of progress within the sustainability sector.

Walter Leal, Professor of Environment and Technology at Manchester Metropolitan University, believes that collaboration and the exchange of ideas, especially between universities, is crucial to addressing issues of sustainable development. “Cooperation, especially international cooperation offers important insights into various ways of achieving sustainability goals,” Leal says.

It is for this reason that the 1st World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities (WSSD-U-2012) was held in tandem in with the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in June of 2012. The event brought together 120 delegates from 26 countries to foster a collaborative dialogue on how to address current problems and issues within the sustainability sector.

“It will be a truly international event, which will showcase the theory and practice of sustainable development at universities.”

The 2nd World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities (WSSD-U-2014) will be held in Manchester in September, 2014. Nearly 200 delegates from 25 different countries are expected to attend. “It will be a truly international event, which will showcase the theory and practice of sustainable development at universities,” said Leal.

Leal serves as a chairperson on the Scientific Committee for the World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities, as well as being the director of the International Climate Change Information Programme (ICCIP), a leading programme on climate change education, information and communication. Leal asserts that there are a number of reasons it is so important for universities to play a central role in the sustainability sector.

One particular reason is the environmental impact of universities as physical entities. “Universities are comparable to major businesses, in that they consume lots of resources such as energy and water, and also contribute to much of CO2 emissions due to their operations,” Leal explains. “It is important that they become sustainable, i..e that their operations become more environmentally friendly, since this is exactly what we teach our students. In other words: we need to practice what we preach!”

“Many of the delegates coming are keen to learn new techniques, get new insights and motivation for the work they do at their universities."

Another reason is the notable gap between research and implementation that has often been an obstacle to progress. “We know for sure that this event will motivate many universities to become more engaged,” said Leal. “Many of the delegates coming are keen to learn new techniques, get new insights and motivation for the work they do at their universities. For this reason alone, WSSD-U-2014 is an important event.”

The international nature of this event will also help to tackle some of the challenges that arise out of the ambiguity surrounding what it means to be “sustainable.”  Though guidelines for sustainable development do exist, the term can mean different things to different people, especially with nations at varying stages in the development process. “The main challenge will not be in respect of content,” says Leal, “but in terms of means of implementation. Even though universities in developed countries are aware of the relevance of and the need for sustainable development, universities in developing countries have more pressing problems and challenges, which makes them put their priorities elsewhere.”  Leal emphasises the importance of raising awareness of the role of sustainability in research and in the curriculum in order to encourage engagement.

The upcoming World Symposium in Manchester will have many delegates from developing countries present. Making a contribution towards addressing this challenge is a key goal.

The Symposium, which will take place over the course of three days, is organised into two main strands. The first strand will be focused on the distribution of information and idea sharing. Universities and organisations will have displays of their projects and engage in a dialogue with participants allowing for the formation of meaningful relationships between attendees while fostering future cooperation.

The second strand will be primarily concerned with putting these ideas into practice. There will be a number of presentations covering everything from curriculum and student engagement to research and outreach accompanied by an expert round table discussion.  At the end of the Symposium, three major books will be produced as part of the event, so a long-term legacy will be available for wider use, for years to come.

With its three universities, Manchester is well placed to take on a prominent role in the international sustainability debate. Through hosting this event and others, Manchester could quickly become a global hub of activity in influencing sustainable development at universities across the world.

Main image from Flickr user Mikey published under a Creative Commons licence.