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A systemic approach to incorporate sustainability into university courses and curricula

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Lidgren, A., Rodhe, H., Huisingh, D., 2006. A systemic approach to incorporate sustainability into university courses and curricula. Journal of Cleaner Production, Sustainability In Higher Education: What is Happening? 14, 797–809.
Thematic Area
Environmental studies
This article is based on an analysis of Lund University that took place during the summer and autumn of 2004 (available for download at, click library and publications). The university had experienced a loss of momentum in their progress regarding environmental issues. The purpose of the study was to identify barriers to including sustainability-related content throughout Lund University curricula, and eventually to develop solutions to eliminate/overcome these barriers. The article describes how Meadows' “Places to intervene in a system” [Meadows D. Leverage points: places to intervene in a system. Hartland, VT, USA: Sustainability Institute; 1999] was used as a tool to systematically discover these barriers. The same intervention places are used as a basis for deriving solutions to eliminate/overcome the barriers. The main conclusions of this article are that Meadows list can be a useful tool toa.systematically identify and characterise the barriers towards achieving the organisational objective of incorporating SD into courses and curricula;b.identify ways to overcome these barriers;c.increase chances that these barriers are addressed with sufficient leverage.The authors also experienced that the work method described here provides excellent fuel for creativity.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This article look at universities as a complex system and the opportunities to change its curricula to include sustainability. It uses Meadows' leverage points as a tool for analysis of barriers to success and opportunities for change.

At work is a system of subsystems, the faculty, the administration and students all working on different timescales and with different expectations. The empirical study cover interviews with faculty and students to assess barriers and get ideas on how to measure success.

A selection of possible leverage points are selected. First the article analysis the current paradigm of the university (leverage point 2) and finds that it contains several barriers to sustainability teaching:

Disciplinary deep specialization counter the holistic view needed for sustainability
Knowledge should be delivered by experts, creating a barrier for teachers to take on teaching outside their own field
Knowledge evolves through critiscism, makes teachers afraid of introducing sustainability and face critique
Universities are institutions of rationality, and introducing sustainability may risk the label of rationality

Second, the analysis continues with the current goal (leverage point 3) to find that 3 of four possible goals are in place, but not necessarily being conducive to sustainability -  socialization of students (into knowledge paradigms), vocational goal (knowledge and skills for the labour market), liberalisation (to grow as humans). The fourth goal, to find a place in the planetary whole, is rarely a part of the university goals.

Third, the study looks into the opportunities to change  rules and tructures (leverage point 4) in this case related to how curricula change. The main finding was that there was no measures, merits or sanctions related to successfull inclusion of sustainability in the curricula.

Fourth, there were no clear information flows, neither on how sustainability was included o information available to teachers on how to include..
Point of Strength
The article examplifies how Meadows' leverage points can be used for a specific purpose, both as regards learning about barriers and learning about opportunities for change. It has value as it shows how current paradigms at universities may impede them from taking on the role as sustainability agents. On conclusion is particularly valid in the context of sustainability change- university teachers must also be allowed to be learners ans sustainability issues are new to many. The study approach could be replicated at their universities, and could be further developed to engage teachers and students in a joint learning process.