Researching and promoting sustainable development is important because sustainability is involved in almost all decision-making.
“We may ask what kind of unsustainable decisions we can really afford", says Eveliina Asikainen, senior lecturer in forestry and chair of the sustainable development working group at Tampere University of Applied Sciences.
In Finland, sustainable development is seen e.g. in social stability and small income differentials, which make the country one of the most stable societies in the world.
“If you look at almost any indicator related to water quality, the environment, administration or development, the Nordic countries are always among the top six in the world. That cannot be a coincidence", says UNESCO Chairholder and Docent Tapio Katko from the Construction Management and Economics Unit at Tampere University of Technology (TUT).
However, we heard in the news recently that the Earth Overshoot Day of Finland was already in August this year.
“If we think about the classical division into the economy, society and environment, it often seems that decisions are largely made on the basis of economic aspects while the other facets are ignored. The question is whether it is sensible to always strive for greater economic growth", Katko points out.
The sustainable development network was set up at the Tampere3 higher education institutions in 2016. The purpose of the network is to gather researchers who are interested in multidisciplinary research on sustainable development.
The activities have included meetings on all campuses and finding more colleagues to join the network. Next on the agenda is to plan and execute a joint project.
Eija Vinnari who is professor of public financial management at the Faculty of Management at the University of Tampere (UTA) came up with the idea of establishing the network.
“I realised that people at UTA, TUT and TAMK are conducting research on sustainable development and yet there was no institutional structure for cooperation", Vinnari says.
“One of the main aims of the network is to promote multi- and transdisciplinarity. We should seek to lower disciplinary boundaries but still take into account that each discipline has its own traditions", Katko says.
In the network meetings, transdisciplinarity has caused epiphanies and helped people to see things from different perspectives.
“It is interesting for a person coming from the humanities or social sciences to see how a researcher at TUT, for example, thinks about traffic emissions and how they are modelled. Both are focusing on the same phenomenon but their approaches are different and that broadens the mind", Vinnari says.
Asikainen notes that the activities of all Tampere3 higher education institutions are informed by, for example, the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
“We may think that the new higher education community in Tampere is a wide-ranging community of sustainable development and that aspect could also be highlighted when we market the new university and university of applied sciences to prospective students", Asikainen says.
The University of Tampere is currently offering a study module on sustainable development, which also includes suitable courses from TUT and TAMK. The module is available to all students at the Tampere3 universities.
Vinnari remarks that because sustainable development is included in the strategies of nearly all Finnish higher education institutions, the term is in danger of becoming just another empty word.
“This study module should be marketed to students very clearly and the specific learning outcomes should be highlighted", Vinnari points out.
“If we think globally, I would like to believe, as an optimist, that the increasing information on climate change and the loss of biodiversity will galvanise decision-makers. However, research has shown that people tend to focus on the short term", Vinnari says.
Some positive developments have still occurred. Katko points out how, after World War II, Finland was still a European hinterland if measured by development indicators and how the country has risen since, thanks to hard work, education and improving the status of women and children.
“Water pollution control is one example of positive developments and the control of ozone depletion is another one where steps were taken after the decision-makers confronted the problem. All we need are the right decisions and rules of procedure", Katko says.
The activities of the sustainable development research network are overshadowed by lack of resources. The network would need a coordinator to organise its activities and to ensure continuity.
“In true Tampere3 spirit, I hope that the new university community will allocate resources to such core networks that are clearly common to all. The distance of the Tampere3 campuses far apart from each other makes it even more important to support activities that increase networking and cooperation", Katko says.
“After observing the activities at foreign universities, I think we, too, should define more precisely what the role of sustainable development will be in our new higher education community. We will need funding in order to develop research, teaching and activities on campus", Asikainen adds.
Text: Ida Vahtera
Photograph: Jonne Renvall