Universities Co-creating Urban Sustainability


  • 2012•06•07

    Masaru Yarime and Gregory Trencher

    Universities co-creating urban sustainability

    Erlenmatt Basel, bird´s eye view – visualization of the cubic capacity. Rendering: CA Immo

    The sustainability crisis has provoked an unexpected and dramatic response from academia. Until now, higher education institutions have tended to focus on sustainability within their own borders. This has predominantly been via sustainability education, research and designing green or carbon neutral campuses.

    Yet borders between society and academia are dissolving. Many high-profile universities across the world are reaching out past campus boundaries to form ambitious partnerships with industry, government and civil society organizations. In this role of “co-creation”, a university attempts to materialize sustainable development by working with society, to create society. That is, it collaborates with diverse social actors to trigger and then drive the sustainable transformation of a specific region, city or community.

    To cite but a few examples, the University of Strathclyde is partnering with Glasgow City to make the region “one of Europe’s most sustainable cities within 10 years”. Another is how Novatlantis — the sustainability initiative of the Swiss federal institutes of technology and research — is teaming up with public and private partners to utilize the cities of Basel, Zurich and Geneva as test beds for innovative sustainability experiments.

    Across the Atlantic, Cornell University and Oberlin College are engaged in separate but ambitious alliances to revive and transform the stagnating economies of two former industrial boom towns into exportable models of green, post-fossil fuel prosperity.

    A rocky history

    The university, as an institution, should know a thing or two about sustainability. After all, it boasts more than 1,000 years of history, having endured wars, revolutions and dramatic transitions at the core of Western society. Today it stands at the pinnacle of its evolution as a highly complex, dynamic institution at the heart of the knowledge economy. The cutting-edge knowledge originating from this institution — now operating across national borders and linking vast areas of science, industry, government and civil society — is responsible for everything from Gatorade to Google, and from superconductors to stem cell research.

    Despite this, the university has not often sought to spur great social transformations. Instead, it typically has been a conservative, monastery-like institution, aloof to the problems of the world and committed to maintaining ideals of the past. As argued by Mark Taylor of Columbia University, the university of today still stubbornly clings to an out-dated ‘separation of labour’ model in which incompatible, separate academic disciplines inhibit a holistic response to the problems of the world. Competition between departments reigns at the price of cooperation and cross-disciplinary research.

    Further, as an institution striving for universal truth, irrespective of time and place, the university has harboured a nonchalance towards place-based problem solving and research attempting to provide concrete solutions to local community issues.

    Co-creation: a new trend in academia?

    To label the academic function of co-creation as completely new is not entirely accurate. After all, historical examples of universities collaborating with external partners to tackle real-world problems and utilize the local environs as a “living laboratory” can be traced back to the land-grant institutions established since 1862 in the United States. More recently, a role similar to co-creation may be observed in university–city efforts, such as those by the University of Pennsylvania, to address neighbourhood deterioration and economic decay.

    Yet none of these prior functions seems to capture the ambition, scale and objectives of the cross-sector partnerships for advancing urban sustainability, collated into the table below.

    Project Name

    Academic Institution(s)

    Target Area



    Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

    Lake Tana, Buranest, Ethiopia


    Urban Reformation Program for Realization of Bright Low Carbon Society

    University of Tokyo

    Kashiwa City, Japan

    North America

    East Bay Green Corridor

    University of California, Berkeley and partners

    East Bay area, San Francisco (California), USA

    Grand Rapids Community Sustainability Partnership

    Grand Valley State University, Aquinas College, Grand Rapids Community College

    Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

    Oberlin Poject

    Oberlin College

    Oberlin, Ohio, USA

    Rust to Green

    Cornell University and partners

    New York State, USA

    Smart City San Diego

    University of California, San Diego

    San Diego, California, USA

    Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative

    Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College

    Tompkins Country, New York, USA


    Simon Fraser University

    Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada


    City Lab Coventry

    Coventry University

    Coventry City, England, UK

    2000 Watt Society Pilot Regions

    Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

    Basel, Geneva & Zurich, Switzerland

    Sustainable Glasgow

    University of Strathclyde

    Glasgow, Scotland, UK

    Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods

    University of Liege and partners

    Meuse-Rhine Euregion, EU

    In assuming this unprecedented role of sustainability fomenter, the university is deviating from the dominant model of an “entrepreneurial university” where the notion of contributing to society has become synonymous with contributing to the economy via technology transfer and commercialization of research results. Instead, it is adopting a grander and far more concrete function: that of responding to the sustainability crisis and driving the transition to more resilient and environmentally sustainable towns and cities.

    The 2000 Watt Society

    Novatlantis and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) are the veterans of co-creation for fostering sustainable urban transformation. Guided by the vision of a 2000 Watt Society, a blue-print for a low-carbon Switzerland conceived by ETH in 1998, numerous public–private alliances have been formed in the fields of mobility, construction and urban planning.

    After an initial focus on the Basel-Stadt region, the Novatlantis-triggered race to de-carbonization has spread to Geneva and Zurich. These three cities are now all competing to showcase and diffuse the various elements required to accelerate the sustainable transformation of urban Switzerland.

    Ten years of co-creation is at last bearing fruit. Basel has established itself as a centre of innovation in the field of individual, sustainable mobility. Since 2002, the Experience Space Mobility project has engaged automobile manufacturers, transport operators and key stakeholders to develop and demonstrate solutions for the short term (natural gas), mid-term (biogas) and long term (hydrogen fuel cells). A recent outcome here are trials of hydrogen powered municipal street sweepers.

    The “hy.muve” (“hydrogen-driven municipal vehicle”) in Basel. Photo © Empa – Materials and Science Technology.

    To promote sustainable construction, Novatlantis organizes and supervises large-scale urban development projects that are required to integrate MINERGIE energy performance standards and adhere to principles outlined for the 2000 Watt Society. Projects of interest in Basel include the recently completed Gundeldinger Feld, where a former industrial site was converted into a fashionable commercial and cultural district, and the ongoing re-development of Erlenmatt, a former railway freight yard, into a mixed-use district containing commercial and residential buildings, shopping facilities, restaurants, schools and parklands.

    Rust to sustainability: The Oberlin Project

    Another collaboration worth watching is the Oberlin Project, unfolding in the tiny “rust town” of Oberlin, Ohio. Scattered across the northwestern states of the US, many towns such as Oberlin have lost their former economic glory and are struggling for survival with the decline of localized, heavy industries.

    Against this backdrop, Oberlin College and David Orr (one of the forefathers of the academic sustainability movement) are leading an ambitious partnership with the municipality, private enterprises, investors and local citizens to leap from “rust” and despair to a model of post-fossil fuel prosperity, resiliency and sustainability.

    The project aims to make the city of Oberlin and its college carbon positive (i.e., not only carbon neutral, but actually absorb more carbon than it emits) and a self-generator of resources by 2050. Conceived as a “full-spectrum sustainability” response to the looming dual crises of climate change and peak oil, the project is cutting emissions through radical improvements in energy efficiency, converting the city’s entire energy supply to renewables (bio-gas and solar), transforming run-down city blocks to green building zones for the arts and sustainable business, and creating a 20,000-acre forestry and agriculture belt for food, timber and carbon-sequestration.

    Resiliency will be boosted by kick-starting local consumption and a green economy, and directing sustainable farm produce to local restaurants and hotels in the city. Residents and students will be engaged in this real-world sustainability experiment via educational alliances between the local schools and colleges, and lastly, a national network will be set up to export this transformational model to other regions. To achieve this, initial design and construction estimates have been put at US$140 million, with US$55 million just for the first phase — colossal figures for lean times in a small rust town.

    Yet things are moving fast. The project has been nominated as one of 16 cities for the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Positive Development Program, and is attracting the interest of various military and national security experts, and think tanks such as the New America Foundation.

    Oberlin College’s focus for 2012 is on the construction of a 13-acre “Green Arts Block” featuring platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings such an auditorium, theatre, student housing, hotel, restaurants and a business district. As for other project areas and the ultimate objective of becoming a prosperous, self-sufficient and carbon-positive town, this will occur in a decentralized fashion over many years, and possibly even decades.

    The power of partnerships

    The chronic ailments of modernity are “wicked”, or “messy”, to borrow sustainability jargon. The unsustainability of our energy, transport, agricultural and economic systems all have their roots in multiple areas of the complex social, economic, technological, political and cultural fabric surrounding us. In forming partnerships such as those above, universities are now recognizing that the only viable pathway to sustainability is one that simultaneously addresses all these causes and mobilizes all the required institutions, knowledge and resources into one comprehensive framework. That is where the true significance of co-creation for sustainability lies.

    This is precisely why innovation-driven, cross-sector partnerships for sustainability transitions are also a topic of high relevance to the related cross-cutting work at the United Nations University, such as the Sustainable Urban Futures initiative of the UNU Institute for Advanced Studies. With an interactive network of academic institutions, local and national government partners and international organizations, UNU aims to serve as a platform for global and local dialogue and creative new sustainability ideas, while also contributing to capacity development efforts, particularly in developing countries.

    However, if more universities and faculty are to be encouraged to engage in alliances for urban sustainability transitions, several barriers need to be overcome. These include difficulties accessing funding, faculty time restraints, internal communication challenges amongst vast networks of partners and stakeholders, as well as institutional resistance from within academia. The reality is that most universities are yet to provide genuine incentives for the promotion of inter- and multi-disciplinary collaboration and place-based action research for advancing urban sustainability.

    Yet the alliances formed by the Novatlantis 2000 Watt Society and Oberlin Project are demonstrating that these barriers are not insurmountable. With scores of other university-driven collaborations for sustainable urban transformations simultaneously unfolding across the globe, and many long years required for their completion, it appears that the emergence of the academic function of co-creation for sustainability has only just begun.

    Being a new development also means that there are very few, if any, successfully completed past examples from which to learn. Although it will be exciting to keep an eye on the progress made by the ambitious collaborations presented in this article, it remains to be seen whether they can actually realize their ultimate objectives.

    Nevertheless, our prediction is a hopeful one: that the university’s role of co-creation will continue to evolve and eventually become a key component of the urban shift to sustainability across the globe.