The engaged university: how Simon Fraser University is disrupting the environment-centered sustainability paradigm

The engaged university: how Simon Fraser University is disrupting the environment-centered sustainability paradigm

One can’t help thinking that the sustainability team at Simon Fraser University (SFU) have some of the best jobs in the world. Most of the world’s young people, at least, are now swinging behind the awareness that we are living during a time of climate crisis and that time is running out to change our behaviour if we are to avoid or mitigate the consequences of biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change. That awareness is not unique to SFU, of course, but few higher education institutions have embraced sustainability principles so intelligently or realistically. The Province of British Columbia is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 2007 levels by 2050 and, in 2011, its capital Vancouver, home to SFU, set the goal of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020. SFU is a partner in these broader goals.

The University itself has adopted sustainability as one of its six core values, which means it is embedded in the fabric of the institution and the day-to-day decisions taken by every department. The University is also in the process of developing a 5-year climate action plan to address the most urgent sustainability issue of our time. SFU recognizes that its institutional responsibility extends beyond its boundaries to include the social, economic and ecological sustainability of its campuses and the communities in which they operate. Therefore, these plans are being developed with the recognition that sustainability work broadly, and climate action specifically, cannot be done without addressing social inequities, racism, reconciliation and partnership with local Indigenous nations.

To implement SFU’s sustainability values, eight very committed professionals are led by Director of Sustainability Candace Le Roy – they provide planning, consultancy, and support services to SFU community members to help them develop, scale, or promote their sustainability work and lead sustainability projects across the university. It’s by no means an act of enacting top-down policies, she hastens to say. “We recently finalised our 20-year Sustainability Vision, which identifies 20 strategic goals following a year-long community engagement progress involving all University stakeholder groups: thousands of people took part from students up to the Board. Everything we do in the Sustainability Office is in collaboration and partnership with the faculty, staff, students, and communities we are embedded in. Sustainability at SFU is a shared responsibility and a joint effort. Our office merely facilitates this joint effort so that it is coordinated, connected, and inclusive.”

Partners in engagement

It’s this level of commitment, she observes, that makes the job so rewarding. Every new student and member of staff receives sustainability education through orientation: “The moment you step on campus as a new community member you get introduced to the concept of sustainability as a core value. We want them to see how each individual can contribute in their area.” However she acknowledges that most people come in with a high level of awareness these days – all the team needs to do is connect this awareness to what SFU is doing, listen to their ideas, and help remove barriers to their contributions in practice. At SFU, students aren’t seen as ‘end-users’ to be trained and delivered, but as partners in learning, discovery and community engagement. The tripartite social, economic and ecological view of sustainability is something that all alumni have an opportunity to take with them into the world beyond. To ensure that the work at SFU is connected with global goals the 20-Year vision and the emerging 5-year plan have been developed in alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Engagement with major British Columbia institutions is key to SFU. For example, the Pacific Water Research Centre (PWRC) recently hosted a seminar on Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy to embrace rainwater as a valuable resource and to conserve 90% of its annual rainfall. The University also aims to support major shifts in behaviour such as its advocacy for a funicular (gondola) to connect its University campus on the top of Burnaby Mountain, providing an alternative to the diesel-fuelled bus service. This project has been finally approved in principle by Burnaby city council, and would speed up travel times and cut emission levels.

Another promising project is the development of the Corix biomass district energy system on the Burnaby Mountain campus which will reduce the campus greenhouse gas emissions by 60%-80%. This — along with the University’s achievement of reducing the carbon footprint of the University’s investment portfolio by 50% below the baseline measurement reported as of 31 March 2016 — demonstrates how the university is committed to working with on and off campus partners to make big shifts in the way they operate as an institution.

A major project underway encourages ‘sustainable spaces’ across the university’s facilities which integrates sustainability principles into the day-to-day actions of staff members. Becoming a Certified Sustainable Office is a great way to encourage staff collaboration on sustainability and to create a more robust, engaged workplace, says Blok. “Certified Sustainable Offices adopt practices that improve their environmental, economic and social performance. They receive a toolkit, support and resources and that encourages others to participate.” This certification program has now been extended into events, vendors, and soon into labs. Large events such as the President’s annual staff appreciation BBQ are certified sustainable events further demonstrating that all levels of the University are contributing to these efforts.

The bottom line, says Manager of Campus Sustainability, Kayla Blok, is that sustainability should be integrated into all projects, research and teaching. It is also central to procurement, with all contracts and purchases over $100,000 required to be considered from a sustainability point of view. “Whenever we go out to tender we have questions and requirements for suppliers, and I support multiple request for proposal (RFP) committees by advising on how that should be done. When we undertake a project, are our staff seeing their work through a sustainability lens? When our students graduate are they leaving with a holistic understanding of sustainability? These are the type of questions we are asking.”

The road to zero waste

It is never going to be possible to recycle 100% of waste, but by adopting ‘circular economy’ practices SFU is heading towards a goal of 10% waste minimization and 90% diversion from landfill. SFU started its zero waste journey in 2012 at a time when it had only a two-stream waste diversion system and most items were being sent to the landfill. Within 18 months, the initiative was diverting more than 70% of SFU’s landfill waste and had introduced circular economy principles to look at purchasing, and require suppliers to work towards recyclable and compostable packaging. Today, across the campus, there are four-stream waste stations allowing for food and compostables, paper and cardboard, recyclables and landfill garbage. It’s not hard to get buy-in these days, with the media full of reminders about things like plastic pollution and extinction rates, but people still need to be helped to understand the circular economy – that is where the Sustainability Office steps in to educate and encourage, affirms Kayla Blok. The team, in conjunction with a large stakeholder group that includes departments across the university,  is currently set to launch an initiative to eliminate single-use plastics and products from all three campuses, making them the first university in Canada to act on this issue.

Research, business expertise, software engineering and the spur of environmental perils have come together in an exciting project that promises to contribute a great deal to achieving zero waste. And each of these facets has come out of SFU. The founders of Intuitive AI Hassan Murad and Vivek Vyas are both alumni of SFU, where they first developed software to tackle the problem of recycling. SFU itself may have made great strides but globally only around 3% of waste is recycled. Even in a four-stream system, waste identification remains a problem – what is recyclable, what is not, where should you put it? They began with a simple vision, to create a zero waste world. This led them to develop an AI platform driven by sensors that empower spaces to be more sustainable.

Murad and Vyas launched Oscar, an AI-powered visual sorting system, with a camera that detects people approaching a bin, automatically identifies each item and tells people where to place it. “This is a true innovation story from SFU,” explains Blok. “They spent a great deal of time formulating this idea at our labs on the Surrey campus. We were able to support this project right from the ideation phase, and the Sustainability Office was there at the initial consultations providing key facts, giving operational and logistical feedback, and providing expertise. The testing phase was carried out on our downtown Vancouver campus and we were successful in providing space for them to test the platform and promote their message.” The Surrey campus now houses the first higher education Oscar waste station in Canada and have been taken up at coffee chains and an airport in Toronto. Intuitive is currently part of the Next AI accelerator in Toronto and the VentureLabs business accelerator at Simon Fraser University.

Oscar is as much about data as it is about making life easier for the consumer of a cup of coffee. The software can identify brands, patterns of consumption by area and demographic information all of value to the airport, shopping mall or university where it is located – garbage in, valuable data out. It’s by leveraging this data that Intuitive AI will monetise its software in the future. “Perhaps the most promising part of the technology is that it provides robust data,” says Kayla Blok. “We look forward to seeing how we can apply this data to influence design, planning, and purchasing decisions, for example. Our hope is that it will help our operational as well as sustainability goals by creating targets to improve waste management at the campus.”

Awareness and perception

Oscar has attracted a lot of media attention thanks to its visibility. “This is a really good example of the kind of thing that happens at SFU due to our culture of, and commitment to, innovation, community engagement, and student empowerment,” says Candace Le Roy. “Our students get to work on projects that they take out into the wider world and the benefit comes back to the institution through new projects and initiatives and the application of technology. In the 16 years I have been at SFU, I have seen the students always at the forefront of major initiatives at SFU and then they carry this leadership to the communities and organizations they serve when they leave.” 

Even with the impetus provided by the rapidly increasing media coverage of the climate crisis, getting sustainability thinking embedded in a large, transient and diverse university population is not a simple feat. It might seem like a no-brainer to ban plastic bottles, but many overseas students come from cultures where bottled water is the only safe water. “We constantly have to customize our communication tactics and infuse them with humanity,” she says. “On the one hand, we have to keep up with innovations in industry, research, politics and international targets and do things like ban single use plastics and dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and on the other hand we also have to bring people along with us on this journey. We need to help people understand how their consumption decisions affect the planet and people, but we can only do this if we make an effort to understand them not has consumers, but as people who have unique backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Sustainability efforts have been rightly criticized for being led primarily by rich white people who come from a particular (mostly Western) perspective. If we are to truly address sustainability issues we need to design solutions from all perspectives and with all people in mind.”

Justifiably proud of the nuanced and holistic way in which the organisation has taken the lead on advancing sustainability best practice, Candace Le Roy, her team, and their colleagues at SFU work tirelessly to gain the support of all stakeholders. “Getting a major initiative off the ground at a university is usually the first and biggest hurdle because we value the engagement of all relevant stakeholders and engagement takes time. But the effort put in is well worth the quality that is the result,” she says. She points to the cross departmental teams that have been formed to work on initiatives like the BC Cool Campus challenge, spearheaded by SFU but spread across British Columbia, to reduce energy consumption by simple actions and the Fair Trade and Changemaker Campus designations SFU has achieved.

In the end, all of this is about changing the way we see the world and our place in it. Virtually every decision we make has an impact on people and the planet, good or bad, she concludes. “At the end of the day it’s not about recycling or using less energy. Sustainability work is about understanding how to make better decisions based on a strong understanding that humans are a part of nature not outside of it. We need to learn from, respect, and apply Indigenous ways of knowing and leave no one behind. This means constantly being aware of the interconnections between ecology, politics, economics, and social inequities. It’s planning to ensure we survive on this planet and our institutions survive in the current political and ecological climate. Addressing sustainability challenges, like the climate crisis, gives universities and colleges a competitive advantage by making us more relevant to our communities and more resilient to internal and external threats.”


Candace Le Roy