Introducing Robert Summers and the Sustainability Council

Upcycling, free fair-trade coffee in Quad, discussions of indoor agriculture, and more can all mean one thing: Sustainability Awareness…

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Upcycling, free fair-trade coffee in Quad, discussions of indoor agriculture, and more can all mean one thing: Sustainability Awareness Week has arrived for 2018! Although this annual week long event is a staple across the U of A’s campuses, this year does mark a change; 2018 is the first time that the U of A’s new Sustainability Council has taken the reigns.

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As the Academic Director of the new council, Robert Summers has spent the last few months readying for this week — and for the new possibilities that lay before the council. Chatting with him, it’s clear to see that he’s ready to share his passion for sustainability with the whole U of A community.

What led you into this role?

A few years ago, I had the great opportunity to take the lead on one of our key academic sustainability initiatives, Sustainability Scholars. After the decision was made to split the focus of the former Office of Sustainability, I became increasingly involved in helping to set that up. When the opportunity arose to become the Academic Director, it was a natural fit for me. I had previously led the establishment of the university’s planning program and I very much enjoy building things and helping programs to develop on campus.

Why are you excited to direct this new office?

As I see it, the issue of sustainability is an inherently interdisciplinary one — but our academic institutions are often structured around disciplines, and it can lead to silos. This affects the availability of academic programs for students, and it affects the kinds of research collaborations that can take place.

So, I’m excited because I believe that the council can help build bridges between disciplines, and develop new pathways for learning that will really enhance the university community’s impact in the societal transition to sustainability.

How does your own teaching connect to sustainability?

When I started here, I was given an environmental sustainability course to teach. The class consisted of students in the natural sciences, engineering, education, and all over campus. At this time, there was a lot of skepticism among some groups regarding environmental issues. So going into the course, the chair had told me that this was a problematic course — the students often resisted the environmental messages that instructors had brought into the class.

So how did I handle it? I emphasized a “systems approach” to understanding issues of growth, production and consumption. I did this first, and then integrated environmental concerns later. By first engaging students with the overall functioning of social, economic, and cultural systems, I was able to get them interested right off the start. I then pushed them to self-integrate issues of environmental sustainability. This experience really helped me to understand what it takes to effectively communicate issues of sustainability to a diverse audience. I continue to teach that course and it is very well received.

How about your research?

My research focuses on issues of the transition to sustainability. I look at how path dependencies create challenges in effecting change. I’ve done this in different contexts: studying water supplies in rural Malawian villages, and looking at efforts to revitalize neighbourhoods and commercial streets in a city like Edmonton.

My other major contribution has been leading the effort to establish an urban planning program at the U of A — what is now the School of Urban and Regional Planning. This program launched as an undergrad program in 2012 and we now have a Masters and PhD program. It’s incredible to see our early graduates now out in the workforce, already having an impact on the future of our cities.

What new capabilities will the Sustainability Council bring to campus?

Building on the Academic Sustainability Plan from 2016, one of our core priorities is ensuring that all students can learn about sustainability during their time here. This means helping students find all of the great courses available to them and also further developing and improving our Certificate in Sustainability. We’re also looking at developing some core courses that emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability.

Related to this, we are expanding opportunities for experiential learning in sustainability. We have our Campus as a Living Lab program, and Sustainability Scholars, which are both ways to get students doing applied research outside of the classroom.

We also want to be sure we’re serving our researchers across all of the faculties. With Sheena Wilson, who does similar work with Just Powers, we are going help highlight the stories of sustainability researchers. We’ll use video as a way to reach a broader audience, and find other ways to help researchers — who can work on very narrow topics — to communicate their sustainability messages to a general audience beyond the university.

What can campus expect to see from the Sustainability Council over its first year?

I’ll start by saying that I expect our first year to be a relatively quiet time, when we’re working to expand the impact of existing initiatives, namely the Certificate in Sustainability and Sustainability Scholars. We will also be continuing the Office of Sustainability’s biggest public education events, Sustainability Awareness Week and the Student Sustainability Summit.

With that said, we are laying a lot of the groundwork for future initiatives, including a redeveloped certificate and specific courses in sustainability. We are in the early stages of developing a speaking series that would inject University of Alberta expertise into the public conversation on sustainability. And I am spending a lot of my time simply connecting with people and other initiatives on campus so that we can ensure that we are being strategic in our growth.

What will success look like for you?

This may sound dramatic, but I don’t think we can declare success until we see a world where we overcome issues of poverty, dramatic inequality of opportunity, environmental degradation, and many related concerns… and that we do so in a way that is sustainable in the long term. For me, every action that the Sustainability Council takes that moves us towards that is key.

In that sense, the Sustainability Council’s success will largely be seen in the success of our students and our faculty. What we can contribute is our ability to leverage the institution to magnify and focus the knowledge and institutional power that we have here on issues of sustainability. If we are doing that, the impact will be significant.

The Sustainability CouncilThe Sustainability Council is an inter-faculty initiative aiming to tap the university’s deep pool of academic interest and expertise in sustainability, bringing researchers into a central conversation. The council will create new avenues for sustainability research, and open up learning possibilities to every student in the university.