International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) Conference: Leadership for Sustainable Development

KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm

13 June 2018

Good afternoon,

It’s a real pleasure to be here. My university, Trinity College Dublin, became a member of ISCN in February, and I’m delighted that, for this, my first ISCN conference, we’re in Stockholm. Sweden is a recognised leader in sustainable development and the quality of speakers and level of engagement at this conference is indeed exceptional.

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So: ‘leadership for sustainable development’. This is a broad area because sustainable development is an activity which goes across the entire university.

In Trinity we’ve brought all such initiatives together into a Sustainability Report which covers, for instance, transport, pollination, heating and energy efficiency, waste and water management and research and education programmes. The author of the report is here in the audience, Joe Borza, together with the university’s registrar Professor Paula Murphy. I’m not going to give you a roll-call of all the initiatives in the report, you’ll be glad to know. I don’t think it’s necessary since, in many cases, your universities have in place similar initiatives. This slide summarizes much of the report:

Instead I’d like to focus on two aspects of leadership in Trinity –

  • leadership from the students, and
  • leadership from the University Officers.

But first let me just share with you an image which is a poignant one, but which gets across, I think, the important part that universities play in sustainable development.

This shows Trinity Front Square, the heart of the university.

It’s famous for the beautiful buildings which have been around for centuries and also famous for these wonderful trees – they are Oregon maples and they were planted in the 1840s and are beloved of generations of staff, students and Dubliners.

And now here’s what happened just ten days ago:

The tree was diseased, we knew that and we were monitoring it, but it collapsed very suddenly last Saturday, fortunately at 3 am, so no-one was injured.

This made the front pages of the national papers. The Irish prime minister tweeted: ‘Really sad. Loved that tree’. He spoke not only for Trinity graduates, but for Dubliners. Trinity is in the middle of Dublin city centre. With its sports pitches, its gardens, its honey bee hives, and its very-old trees, our campus is, among other things, an oasis of green in a very built up area. As such it is vital to the city.

We were reminded of this by the reaction of the city to the collapse of the tree. So when we talk about showing ‘leadership on sustainable development’, it’s not just leadership for the higher education sector and in research; at a very simple, visual and vital level, universities have to show leadership for the urban areas in which we’re situated. Dublin city centre without Trinity’s green spaces is unimaginable.

*** Student Leadership ***

Now let me turn to student leadership. Almost more than any other area, Sustainable Development is one where students have shown leadership from the get-go. From the first recycling initiatives 25 years, students have helped set the agenda in Trinity.

Let me give three examples of outstanding student leadership:

  • First, fossil fuel divestment: the campaign to divest the university of all holdings in the fossil fuel industry has been driven by students, who in February 2016 held a Divestment Week on campus. It was particularly impressive for the involvement of staff who showcased their research on energy and climate change. This coordinated campaign where student activism met research expertise resulted in the Investment Committee agreeing to fossil fuel divestment in December 2016, and this has now been completed.

  • Second, we have done a great deal over the past decade or so to encourage student entrepreneurship. Our initiatives have been so successful that for the past three years running, Trinity has emerged as the number 1 university in Europe for educating entrepreneurs, according to private equity and venture capital-focused research firm, PitchBook.


One of our key initiatives has been the student accelerator programme, LaunchBox, which allows students to incubate business ideas from conception through to production.

Since its inception in 2013, LaunchBox has created 50 startups. What is striking about these startups is how many are social enterprises.

For instance, taking just the latest start-ups that recently received funding, one of the ventures ‘Greener Globe ’ produces a LED timed shower-head called "Aquacica" which is designed to save the consumer water and money; another initiative, ‘sea shore veg’, is about harvesting seaweed to make natural products. 

And the most famous of our student start-ups – showcased in Time magazine – is FoodCloud which addresses food waste by hooking up restaurants and retailers with charities in their area. FoodCloud is now used by Tesco’s and other supermarket chains.

If you look at LaunchBox projects over the last five years, it’s clear how engaged students are by the challenge of sustainable development. I find this really inspiring and promising. Because sustainable development is an ethical issue, yes, and teaching ethics and responsibility is a fundamental part of the education we deliver. But tying ethical responsibility to human ingenuity and innovation is the key to finding lasting solutions, and this is what we are seeing with LaunchBox.

  • Another of this year’s LaunchBox start-ups is Fumi which is a practical, sustainable and stylish water bottle. This ties into Trinity Students Union latest drive which is to eliminate single-use plastic on campus with the student organisation TCD Plastic Free . This decision, voted on by the students, made headlines in Ireland earlier this year, and it is busily being put into action.

I’m extremely proud of the leadership our students are showing in sustainable development and that their approach has been so involving of the whole college community.

As university presidents and staff, we want our students to be independent-minded, entrepreneurial, responsible, and adaptive, able to think for themselves and put their initiatives into action. We know that the way the world of work is developing, this is the mindset they will need in order to build successful careers. Encouraging students to take responsibility for sustainable development initiatives not only helps the planet, it helps in the formation of citizens capable of seizing 21st century challenges.

*** Leadership from the University Officers ***

Now let me turn briefly to the leadership University Officers are showing in sustainable development.

Because we have the responsibility of educating future generations of leaders and providing the research which drives change, universities should be constantly innovative about embedding sustainable development into our education and research programmes.

In Trinity, we have done this in myriad ways. Let me focus on our most recent and most exciting and ground-breaking initiative.

Three weeks ago, on 25th May, Trinity formally announced our plan to build a an institute to find balanced solutions for a batter world – the E3 Institute, as we call it.

It was over five years ago, back in the difficult, bleak days of austerity that we first conceived the idea of an institute which would educate engineers, technologists and scientists to address challenges of a livable planet. We wanted:

E3 is being developed in two stages: the E3 Learning Foundry and the E3 Research Institute.

The E3 Learning Foundry will be transformative both in terms of content – with more focus on the challenges of sustaining the earth’s resources – and in terms of methods and teaching techniques.

With E3, students will develop transversal skills through working on multidisciplinary projects in collaborative student-managed learning spaces. Students of engineering, natural sciences and computer science will learn from each other to develop innovative solutions towards, for instance, climate change, renewable energy, personalised data, water, connectivity and sustainable manufacturing.

With E3 we will be harnessing all our knowledge and ambition about sustainable development and working with students to bring about deep change in our whole approach to the planet and its resources.

We are tremendously excited about it, and I’m delighted that E3 was formally announced this year when we became ISCN members. I look forward to filling you in on our progress with E3, and indeed to partnering with ISCN members..

‘University Leadership in sustainable development’ means focusing on practical campus initiatives from honey bee hives to recycling - with no initiative is too small because they all add up.

And it means focusing on a radical remake of our education and research programmes, and we cannot be too ambitious here, because the challenge is huge.

From small to big, from first-year undergraduates to professorial chairs, we are on a ‘common enterprise of discovery’. This has been Trinity’s guiding aim for over four hundred years; it has acquired new resonance in this age of sustainable development.

Thank you.

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