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Sustainability now! The exclamation mark highlights the urgency of the call – a call to action. Theoretical debates on their own cannot solve the numerous global challenges relating to climate change, human rights or social inequality; for sustainable transformation, we need to turn words into deeds. The question is how? How can we turn an idea into action and contribute to sustainable development?
The interdisciplinary lecture series “Sustainability Now!” attempts to find answers to this question by inviting Right Livelihood laureates to talk about their commitment to sustainable development. The award, sometimes dubbed the alternative Nobel Prize, honors individuals or organizations that have found visionary and exemplary solutions for global problems and also implemented them effectively. Laureates include Indian activist Ruth Manorama, who campaigns for the rights of women in India’s caste system, US citizen Paul Walker, who fights for a world without chemical weapons, and Australian agronomist Tony Rinaudo, who has initiated large-scale reforestation projects with smallholder farmers in the Sahel region. Over the past two years, all three have spoken at UZH about the challenges of their work as part of the “Sustainability Now!” Ringvorlesung.
Now the lecture series, conceived and organized by the UZH Sustainability Team and the university’s Right Livelihood Centre and facilitated by the School for Transdisciplinary Studies, is entering its third year, with appearances by current laureates such as Somali human rights activist Ilwad Elman. Students will continue to lead the panel discussions with representatives from research, politics and civil society who will reflect on the award-winners’ lectures (some of which are pre-recorded).
Having students chair the panel discussions is not simply a nice detail; rather, it is an integral part of an innovative teaching and learning format. In addition to the public lecture series, the format includes groups in which students discuss the topic of sustainable action on a meta-level and identify success factors for sustainable transformation based on the experiences of the award-winners. They also receive training in preparation for their unusual assignment of moderating a public panel discussion.
“When designing the teaching project, we asked ourselves what kind of educational formats could generate sustainable developments,” says Aline Steinbrecher, general manager of the Right Livelihood Centre of the University of Zurich, who developed the innovative teaching project together with UZH sustainability delegate Lorenz Hilty. Since the 2022 Spring Semester, Jeannette Behringer, who is responsible for sustainability in research and teaching at UZH, has also been part of the project team.
The interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration that crosses subject boundaries and transcends university structures, as well as a teaching setting that encourages active learning above passive acquisition of knowledge, are key drivers in the transformation of academic knowledge into sustainable everyday action. “In the Ringvorlesung, students learn from those working on the ground about how individuals can initiate change processes. In addition, by chairing the discussion they gain new skills which they can use to shape such processes themselves,” says Steinbrecher.
This ability to work collaboratively with various societal stakeholders is in great demand in today’s job market, and Behringer believes teaching at UZH should therefore put more emphasis on this aspect. “Sustainable development requires transformation processes; this has given rise to the concept of transformative teaching, in which students are prepared to a greater extent than before to shape change processes in politics, business, academia and civil society,” she explains.
Behringer refers to the words of award-winner Tony Rinaudo, who manages large-scale reforestation projects, describing clearly what it takes to initiate change processes: “The most important ingredient is meeting people on an equal footing: you have to be prepared to speak the language of those affected and engage with their perspectives,” she summarizes. When they chair discussions, this is exactly what students learn to do: to put themselves in the shoes of the people involved, and to simplify complex information and contexts. “Moderating is one of the key skills needed for transdisciplinary collaboration, but it is often underestimated,” says Behringer.
Leonie Laux, a student of Earth system sciences at UZH, moderated one of the panel discussions with fellow students as part of the 2022 Spring Semester series. She recalls a rather stressful but ultimately positive experience: “Unlike in an exam, you don’t really know what to expect from a panel discussion. Of course you can have some questions in mind, but during the discussion you need to be able to react flexibly and unobtrusively steer the discussion in a relevant direction.” She appreciated the chance to learn from the discussions in general, and believes she will be able to use her moderation skills later in her professional life. Despite the fact that the speakers were well-known personalities and there was a public audience, Laux remembers feeling at ease during her first experience of chairing. “The instructors had emphasized that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if something went wrong,” says Laux.
The interdisciplinary lectures also made it clear to Laux that the ecological perspective around which her Bachelor’s degree is centered will not on its own be enough to bring about sustainable transformation: “The experiences of the award winners have made it clearer than ever to me that ecological sustainability always requires social and economic sustainability as well.” One example she cites is banning residential dwellings in protected areas, which in reality is neither practical nor useful because indigenous peoples living in such areas are often preservers of biodiversity. A transdisciplinary approach is vital to develop holistic and sustainable solutions. For Laux, an added plus of the innovative teaching format was not having to work primarily with theories and concepts as she usually does in her studies. She says: “Ideas and concepts often seem good in theory. But the Ringvorlesung showed me that reality is much more complex.”