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Samuel Mann is responsible for the sustainability work at Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand. (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

He gets everyone to promote sustainability

Published Sep 26, 2014

How can I, in my future professional life, promote sustainability? All students at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand are expected to ask themselves this question. The university’s goal is for all who graduate to think and act as “sustainability practitioners”.

Engineer, economist, social worker, hotel manager or nurse: whatever the profession you aim at really makes no difference – if you study at Otago Polytechnic then sustainability is included in the degree programme.

“It isn’t about counting penguins! It’s about asking ourselves what we need to add to our professional viewpoint to make a contribution to sustainable development,” says Samuel Mann, Professor of Data Science at Otago Polytechnic.

Otago Polytechnic is a university with nearly 4,000 students in the Otago region on the South Island. Mann is responsible for the university’s sustainability work and was a driving force behind the efforts that led to a sustainable development focus being incorporated in all degree programmes, some seven years ago now.

According to the course strategy adopted, everyone who gets a degree at Otago Polytechnic must be able to both “think and act as a sustainability practioner”.

Dedication not directives

In connection with a recent conference in Sweden, Mann made a visit to KTH and gave two lectures on the sustainability work at the Polytechnic in New Zealand. This is work based on engagement in the issues and continuous discussions, rather than directives and lists of bullet points.

Mann compares the approach he wishes to encourage with looking at the world through a pair of Google Glass specs provided with a sustainability lens. A lens that helps you see hidden problems and possibilities.

“All through life we avoid visible dangers but we aren’t so good at avoiding the invisible ones,” he says. “Emissions of carbon dioxide from your laptop, for example – if they had the form of a visible carbon cloud we would have fixed it a long time ago.”

Otago Polytechnic offers a broad range of courses and study programmes from engineering science, art and healthcare to agriculture and catering. To introduce the sustainability strategy into all these programmes and courses required persistence and patience as well as a degree of flexibility.

“For instance, we didn’t insist that it should necessarily be called sustainability. The nurses preferred, from the start, to speak of holistic healthcare,” Mann says.

Resistance to new course modules

Regardless of the profession concerned, there was - naturally enough - a resistance to squeezing in more course modules to the degree programmes, he says.

“The educational period, after all, is too short to include everything the students really need to learn. So we’ve worked hard to ensure that the sustainability element should not become an add-on, but a fully integrated part of the courses.”

Samuel Mann lecturing at KTH.

The key has been to involve the students in an ongoing discussion on what it means to be a “sustainable practitioner”.

Which environmental risks are associated with my future field of work? What scope is there for sustainable development? And which knowledge and skills do I need in order to handle the risks and make the most of the opportunities?

“What we do is work with scenarios and interactivity. Sustainable development is based very much on communication.” 

Naive world view

The forestry worker practising sustainability, for example, needs to be able to polish a worn circular saw blade but also to argue for reuse in the presence of managers and working colleagues under time pressure, according to Samuel Mann.

He himself wishes to define sustainability as “ethics, expanded in time and space”.  At the same time, he adds, we must go beyond simplistic arguments about good and evil. “We must learn to live in a complex world with many uncertainty factors and different legitimate interests,” he says.

“We can’t leave our students with the naive world view that sustainable is good and everything else is bad.” For sustainability must be set in its context. “And it isn’t possible to distinguish between ecological, economic and social sustainability. Such a division is pure nonsense.”

Ursula Stigzelius

More about sustainability at sustainablelens.org (podradio)  and computingforsustainability.com (blog).