Why it’s taking us so long to make EUR more sustainable – and how we can speed things up

Adaptation of the speech by Jilde Garst at Erasmus Sustainability Days 2023

"...Today, I want to provide three reasons why the transformation to a sustainable university is not going at the speed that we might like to see. How should our research and education transform? Why are these transformations difficult? And what should we do to speed them up? The three reasons are related to three characteristics of (grand) sustainability challenges..." - Jilde Garst, PhD 

Thank you, Luciano and the team of the Erasmus Sustainability Days, for inviting me to speak today. We just heard from our Rector Magnificus and the Erasmus Sustainability Officer about the plans to make Erasmus University the most sustainable university in the Netherlands and possibly Europe. They have highlighted several of the many initiatives and activities to reach this goal. However, with the OccupyEUR protest of yesterday still fresh in our minds, one question keeps on coming up: why is Erasmus University not going faster? Why does change seem to go so slowly?

Today, I want to provide three reasons why the transformation to a sustainable university is not going at the speed that we might like to see. How should our research and education transform? Why are these transformations difficult? And what should we do to speed them up? The three reasons are related to three characteristics of (grand) sustainability challenges. 

We must collaborate across disciplines to tackle complex sustainability challenges 

First, sustainability challenges are complex. They are global issues with local impacts, crossing all borders. In research and education, we always look for ways to simplify this complexity to understand reality and explain it to others. However, the complexity of sustainability challenges is not easy (or maybe impossible) to simplify, and you risk creating solutions that work in theory but not in complex reality. Furthermore, sustainability challenges are interconnected: you can’t look at them in isolation. For example, when want to tackle climate change, we can’t ignore the inequalities ingrained in our system. We also need to act on climate justice.  

Tackling sustainability challenges, thus, requires expertise from all scientific disciplines. But that’s not how our university is structured. While our university has excellence in multiple disciplines, they all live in their own schools, their own silos. The borders between these silos need to be broken or at least, become permeable if we want to act upon sustainability challenges. As researchers, we need to find ways to bridge the disciplinary differences in our language and our views of the world.  

For education, the same things hold true. While disciplinary programs are still necessary to train specialists – such as our own Master’s Economics of Sustainability – we also need people who can bridge the gap between disciplines. These generalists have a more holistic view of sustainability challenges and are trained in connecting multiple experts.  

I, myself, am a generalist. I started my education in public health and nutrition, did a master's in innovation management, joined a public health NGO running education programs, did a PhD in business management, and currently I’m working at the Erasmus School of Economics (ESE). And I can tell you, when I joined ESE, it felt like I had to learn a whole new language to communicate with my colleagues. But I did end up developing and coordinating the master Economics of Sustainability with a team of economists. As a generalist, you learn to quickly adapt to new environments and can end up leading a team of specialists.

We need to learn how to deal with uncertainty 

The second characteristic of sustainability challenges is uncertainty. This uncertainty comes not only from the complexity of our societal systems – there are too many cogs in the machine to understand its design – but also from the dynamic nature of these systems. The design of the machine constantly changes. For sustainability challenges, the level of uncertainty is so high that it becomes impossible to predict the future. You have probably seen the IPCC reports with their many scenarios of how climate change can progress. And as we speak, these scenarios are already outdated, and new scenarios can be added.  

We need to deal with this uncertainty. For research, this means coming to terms with the fact that our models will never be complete and that our results will have limited predictive value. Every research project will provide a piece of the puzzle, but the puzzle might already have changed once the pieces become clear. Therefore, it is important that as researchers, we learn to anticipate the unpredicted consequences of our work. People and the natural environment are influenced by our work and we need to stay in dialogue with these people and be wary of changes in our natural environment to catch any signs of negative impact and respond by adjusting or even stopping our activities. In our communication, we need to stay humble about what we know, but, in particular, of what we don’t know.  

And we should teach these skills and attitudes to our students. Students need to learn that there is not one perfect solution to sustainability challenges. There is not one perfect business model, not one perfect policy, not one perfect treatment plan, and not one perfect technology that will solve it all. The best solution is an adaptive solution. Their studies need to train students in keeping eyes and ears open for new insights, evaluating these insights, and adjusting solution approaches accordingly. Don’t be afraid to be proven wrong, but instead learn to constantly adjust and improve your ideas. 

We need to navigate the tensions and emotions around sustainability 

The third and final characteristic of sustainability challenges is their evaluative nature. These global challenges impact not only every person on earth but also affect each of our lives differently. This results in every person having a different experience and thus their view on the problem and its solutions. This multitude of views can lead to conflict if the experiences of some persons are not taken seriously, are being marginalized, or are excluded from the conversation. Such situations evoke anger, pain, and hopelessness. Furthermore, we as human beings do not like complexity, and we definitely do not like uncertainty. The complexity and uncertainty of sustainability challenges evoke discomfort, anxiety, and frustration. 

In our university, we need to navigate these tensions and emotions. As researchers, we need to learn how to communicate our knowledge while staying open for divergent views. And we need to build our knowledge in a way that includes this multitude of views. This openness and this inclusiveness start by reflecting on our own position. While we love to claim objectivity, we should acknowledge that the lens we use in our research is colored by our own experiences and emotions. We have blind spots due to our own biases. Without reflecting on our values, norms, and emotions, we risk excluding individuals and whole communities and becoming stuck in our own ways.  

This reflective journey can be travelled together with our students. Students need guidance in how to form views in this whirlwind of opinions. How to remain open to other views and have a respectful dialogue. How to accept the expression of emotions, both of oneself and others. Only then can teachers and students together create a safe space for learning in their classrooms.  

We need to start celebrating interdisciplinary excellence, fight the fear of change and reflect on our biases and blindspots 

So how is Erasmus University doing on these points? Together with my colleagues at the Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform, I recently wrote a report on how the university is navigating the complexity, uncertainty, and evaluative nature of sustainability challenges. As mentioned in the other speeches, there are several examples of progress. 

For example: In stimulating interdisciplinarity, the Convergence programs ask researchers across schools to collaborate on tackling societal issues. The new Master’s in Societal Transitions is the first interdisciplinary master’s program created through the collaboration of multiple schools at our university. In our Sustainability in Education Showcase – taking place directly after this event – more examples will be shared by teachers and students.  

But for these programs to flourish and inspire further transformation in our university, several barriers need to be broken down. Structures and procedures need to be put in place to not just enable but also stimulate interdisciplinarity. This means that besides celebrating disciplinary excellence, we need to start celebrating interdisciplinary excellence. To become more adaptive as an institute, we need to fight the fear of change. While the risk of damaging our reputation is hampering our willingness to embrace change, it is actually the lack of innovation and not responding to societal changes that will hurt our legitimacy. Allowing for flexibility of rules and procedures and experimenting with new policies and programs is the only way to honor our legacy as a pioneering academic institute. Finally, this road towards transformation can only be walked if we are honest about our biases and blind spots, acknowledge but challenge our path dependencies, and embrace divergent views as learning opportunities.  

At the DIT team, we are very aware of how difficult these transformations will be and are willing to help anyone who struggles to navigate them. Our door is always open, both for our university’s leadership and staff as well as for its students.  


About Jilde Garst 

Dr Jilde Garst is a researcher at the Erasmus School of Economics. Her research focuses on how values, formal, and informal rules influence the corporate responses to sustainability transitions. She is coordinator of the Economics of Sustainability Master’s programme. At the DIT platform, Dr Garst investigates the values and norms underlying ‘academic excellence’ and how transformations in the academic landscape challenge this value system, which led to this policy report on the struggles of Erasmus University Rotterdam to respond to societal transitions and suggestions for a way forward.  

More information

About the Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform 

The Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform is a strategic initiative that creates infrastructures for transformative academic work at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). 

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