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Embracing development, sustainably

Universities are turning to the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals as a blueprint for achieving a better and more prosperous world.
FEB 24 2021

Embracing development, sustainably

Universities are turning to the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals as a blueprint for achieving a better and more prosperous world.


What if you could make a wish list for a better planet? Maybe you’d include eradicating poverty, stopping climate change in its tracks, ridding the oceans of plastics instead of marine life, and creating social systems where each person has an equally important place at a table everyone has had a hand in setting.

You might make something that looks like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Formulated in 2012 and adopted in 2015 by the United Nations’ member states, these 17 goals –known as SDGs or Global Goals – have been described by the UN as a “blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” They form the core of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, spanning everything from quality education to sustainable cities.

An essential feature of the SDGs is that they are interlinked; no one goal can be accomplished without attention to the others. That demands collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking. In 2017, Peter Thomson, then president of the UN’s General Assembly, implored the world’s universities to make the goals “an integral part of research, teaching and study at your institutions.” Universities have been explicitly called on to engage with the Global Goals because they work closely with the generation who will bear the brunt of the problems and who will play a major part in achieving them.

“The SDG project is an all-of-society challenge,” says Jean Andrey, dean of the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo and chair of the 44-member Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Canada. U of Waterloo is the founding member and host of the network, part of a global initiative to promote the SDGs through education and research. “Universities are so well-positioned to play an important role because of their research strength and because of the way we help to shape future leaders,” says Dr. Andrey.

Anyone who has toted a reusable mug around campus knows that sustainability is not a new concept to Canadian universities; many have offered courses, programs and been engaged in related activities for decades. The Global Goals’ special sauce, however, is a unifying framework, recognizing that actions on seemingly separate issues are in fact interrelated – if you work on poverty and hunger, for instance, you’ll butt into the need for quality education, gender equality and inclusive employment. The goals also spell out clear targets for change and indicators that make it easier to assess progress.

The early steps campuses took 20 and even 30 years ago “were the outward signs of us acknowledging that change was necessary,” says Dr. Andrey. “But, understanding the systems that need to be changed … and understanding how one action or decision affects multiple outcomes, that’s what is happening now,” she says.

It’s not just a case of universities responding to a moral imperative. Those who have been integrating the SDGs into their work say the goals offer an opportunity that benefits universities too, by driving curricular and pedagogical changes that will engage students concerned about making a difference in the world, and providing a ready way for universities to demonstrate their relevance.

“There has been so much that’s happened in our K-12 system around inquiry-based learning and SDG awareness that we have what some in markets internationally are calling ‘Cohort 2030,’” says Elisabeth Rees-Johnstone, executive director of continuing and professional learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She has helped to organize the university’s “17 Tables” events, bringing together faculty to consider the SDGs’ implications for teaching and research. That generation maturing over the next decade is coming to university expecting a similar orientation in their postsecondary learning, she says, and universities need to be prepared to deliver.

For Kwantlen Polytechnic University marketing instructor Andrea Niosi, it was a passion for social justice in education that led her to develop a free, open source Introduction to Consumer Behaviour textbook in collaboration with her students. It examines how marketing can perpetuate harm when not done responsibly. She’s also taken part in a tri-institutional fellowship in collaboration with other professors in art history and mathematics to create “renewable assignments” – work whose value extends beyond fulfilling a course requirement – that explore the social impacts of popular images such as sports mascots. SDGs have been baked into both initiatives.

As a result, students “see a connection between our topic and the bigger picture,” says Ms. Niosi, one of several Kwantlen faculty who are recipients of a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellowship. “They’ve never considered how marketing can be used in a way to advance societal goals and sustainability goals.”

Dalhousie University’s faculty of agriculture in Truro, Nova Scotia, has been so galvanized by the goals that they’ve not only structured their five-year plan around them (a practice increasingly being taken up by other universities as well), they’re using them in student recruitment. Feeding a growing global population, dealing with climate change and access to safe, fresh water – all of which are objectives articulated in the SDGs – are three massive challenges that will lean on agriculture to solve, says David Gray, the faculty’s dean. Telling that story to prospective students puts a cutting-edge face on a sector that is often saddled with a backward, lacklustre image.

“If we want to bring bright, fresh young minds into agriculture – because we’re going to need them – we have to show them the impact that we as a discipline are having now, and that they can have when they actually go out into the world,” says Dr. Gray. As a result, his faculty has made commitments such as increasing its research around clean agricultural technologies, modelling best practices in sustainable management of resources and waste reduction, integrating Indigenous knowledge into the curriculum, as well as partnering with Indigenous and other local communities to enhance food security.

How some universities are working with the SDGs

The Summer School in Social Transformation will steep 50 students chosen from across government, universities, civil society and private enterprise in “systems thinking” as applied to SDG issues at the municipal level. The program will run virtually from July 27 to Aug. 27 by the Montreal-based Interdisciplinary Centre for Research in the Operationalization of Sustainable Development, in partnership with Université Laval, Concordia University, Acadia University, SDSN Canada, Universities Canada, and the Montreal-based Maison de l’innovation sociale. It is hoped that this year’s summer school will serve as a pilot for subsequent years, creating a community of practice for alumni engaged with the SDGs.


St. Mary’s University accounting professor Daphne Rixon has recruited about 30 co-operatives and mutuals – community-focused businesses that are member-owned, such as credit unions and insurance co-ops – for a study to identify how their activities align with the SDGs and to develop a related set of SDG-style metrics, similar to key performance indicators, that are relevant to the cooperatives sector. Dr. Rixon hopes that the organizations can use the metrics to tell their story better and create more community interest in co-ops. The study is funded through a grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.


York University has launched Answering the Call, university-wide challenge to contribute to the SDGs, embedded in its 2020-25 University Academic Plan. The university has run virtual consultations and has invited community members to submit proposals for action.


McGill University is a founding member of the University Global Compact, an international platform for universities to work together on SDG-related projects in partnership with the UN. It is partnering with the Georgia Institute of Technology in the U.S. to develop a set of SDG-related courses and other learning opportunities through a community of practice with other universities.

The SDGs’ profile received a serious boost in 2019 when they were used as the basis for the inaugural Impact Rankings by Times Higher Education (which also publishes the annual Times Higher Education World University Rankings). The Impact Rankings assess universities’ overall performance relative to the SDGs. Canadian universities have done well since the beginning, with three in the top 10 that first year: McMaster University (second), the University of British Columbia (tied for third) and Université de Montréal (seventh). UBC remained in the top 10 in 2020, coming seventh globally and scoring first in two sub-categories: climate action and life below water. The 2021 rankings are to be announced in April.

UBC credits those honours to a lengthy track record on sustainability issues. Like other universities, it has been taking stock of this work and how it aligns with the SDGs, producing a report in late 2020 featuring programs or projects related to each of the 17 goals. The report highlights an SDG-integrated sustainability plan developed by the student-led Alma Mater Society, as well as SDG Week held at the beginning of March 2020 (just before the pandemic) with 10 different events organized by student “sustainability ambassadors.”

Also featured in the report was UBC’s SDG Praxis Institute, a seven-week virtual program for mostly senior undergraduates held last July and August. “What really impressed me was it was held in the summer, it was not for credit, and yet students showed up for every class,” says Tamara Baldwin, director of UBC’s Office of Regional and International Community Engagement, which held the event in co-operation with the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation.

The Praxis program concluded with students assembling briefing papers and pitching senior federal government officials on policy changes that would advance the Global Goals while also benefiting Canada’s pandemic recovery. Some students were so charged-up by the experience that they put their fresh skills to work through student groups such as UBC’s SDG Alliance. It, in turn, ran a virtual roundtable event last fall to gather the UBC community’s ideas for advancing the goals on campus.

The Praxis Institute “was a new way of getting engaged. It’s inspired us to adopt a critical approach,” says graduating international relations student Umut Ersoy, who participated along with third-year geography and political science student Kate Theriault. Both were among 10 co-founders of the SDG Alliance. The two students say Praxis gave them a stronger understanding of how the Global Goals were created and their theoretical underpinnings, and provided them with valuable experience in high-level advocacy.

“We’ve definitely taken [what we learned] into our own writing on the SDGs in the Alliance and in a national collaboration that we’ve been doing,” says Ms. Theriault. Students often have direct experience with problems the goals are there to fix, such as food insecurity, she points out. That means that they can channel advocacy on behalf of common student issues through the SDGs, with the advantage that UBC has committed itself to addressing them.

The UN’s 2030 Agenda is an obvious opportunity for researchers to contribute what they already know, and to develop new research pathways for tools and evidence to guide and assess progress. But it may also bring more attention and traction to research results because of a broad international commitment to the agenda, including from the Canadian government, which has housed responsibility for the Global Goals within its Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) department. Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs) is working with an ESDC grant to promote the SDGs and help universities co-ordinate related activities.

“Like every other nation-state, [Canada is] being held accountable by its peers,” says Corinne Schuster-Wallace, a professor of water-related human health at the University of Saskatchewan. She co-authored a report on behalf of the U of S-led Global Water Futures (GWF) research program in 2019 that used the SDG indicators to conclude that Canada was not a water-secure country. More frequent and devastating floods, droughts and toxic algae blooms were just a few examples cited, along with poor water quality in many of Canada’s waterways, and sub-standard drinking water among First Nations’ communities. That report has led to meetings with federal officials in Ottawa and ongoing discussions between governments and network researchers. GWF focuses on risk management solutions to water threats and operates in partnership with McMaster University, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

The interdisciplinary nature of the SDGs may present a challenge for institutions that have tended towards siloed cultures – and the bigger the university, the more preliminary groundwork may be required. That was the impetus behind U of T’s 17 Tables event, which brought together at least 130 faculty across three campuses from nearly every discipline. Similarly, the University of Manitoba has pulled together a working group of about 15 water-related researchers plus a few students to build more awareness of each other’s work and to allow for more co-ordination and collaboration.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition.
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystem, sustainably manage forest, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

In 2018, U of M was named a United Nations Academic Impact Hub for SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation. The university received the designation based on the volume and breadth of research it has done in the area. This includes Create H2O, a program it hosts to address research and training gaps related to First Nations water safety, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. While the pandemic has slowed things down, the university is looking forward to collaborating more closely with the other 16 UNAI hubs in other parts of the world.

Such collaboration does not always have to mean joint projects, says Roger Petry, a philosophy professor at Luther College at the University of Regina. Together with U of R’s Jocelyn Crivea, he has co-led a cluster of seven universities from around the world since 2018 working on SDG 12 – Responsible/Sustainable Consumption and Production, on behalf of the International Association of Universities. “It’s not necessarily that we do new things together, it’s that we learn from each other,” says Dr. Petry. The cluster, which includes universities from Germany, Kenya, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Peru and Canada, is sharing ideas around university purchasing and procurement.

Dr. Petry has talked about universities as potential sites for the sharing of large equipment with the local community and for manufacturing. One the cluster members, Moi University in Kenya, is already doing that, assembling laptop computers for schoolchildren, thus creating local employment and generating revenue for the university. Dr. Petry compares that kind of collaboration to sharing recipes and adapting them to what’s in your cupboards. “The whole idea of sustainable development is stealing ideas and tinkering with them.”

The SDGs are not without their critics. In early 2020, three UBC professors wrote an open letter to the university’s board of governors cautioning them against the “uncritical adoption” of the framework primarily as a way of earning leadership status. They also expressed their concern that the SDGs don’t preclude alternative perspectives about what constitutes sustainability.

The goals have also been criticized for not going far enough, for reflecting the perspective of the privileged versus the marginalized (including Indigenous peoples), and for potentially putting development before ecology. Moreover, while it might be tempting for some departments to “retrofit” existing programs and curricula to the goals, Ms. Niosi, the Kwantlen marketing instructor, advises that they are best served through a careful ground-up restructuring of curricula that embeds the SDGs’ principles into course content and pedagogy. “That approach to me is the winning approach,” she says.

The push is on. The 2030 Agenda is already six years old and the UN has designated the 2020s as its “Decade of Action.” After an initial few years building its network, SDSN Canada is working on mobilizing its members by identifying and addressing SDG-related research gaps. In May 2020, it hosted Together/Ensemble, a national SDG conference which drew 1,400 virtual attendees from sectors extending beyond universities. Held in partnership with Université Laval and the Waterloo Global Science Initiative, much of the discussion focused on the environmental and social fault lines exposed by the pandemic that the SDGs are trying to address.

U of Waterloo’s Dr. Andrey says her group feels the need to continually raise awareness of the SDGs – they’re still not yet well-known across Canada – but she sees plenty of reasons for hope. Institutions’ sustainability plans are becoming more ambitious, she says, and equity, diversity and inclusion is being increasingly embedded into everything they do.

“What I have seen on campuses, including our own, is that sustainability is now being talked about by the majority, by people in every discipline,” she says. “What the SDG movement is doing is adding global momentum.”

Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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