Living Lab Series: Sustainability Across Campus, From Wave Flumes to Waste Fighters

Lisa Heinze takes us on a journey through the University as she explores past projects and future plans for the Sustainability Strategy.

Image by Vital Sinkevich, via Unsplash

Did you know that the University of Sydney has a wind tunnel and wave flume in its Centre for Wind, Waves and Water? Or that students can take units titled “Building a Sustainable World” or “Poverty Alleviation and Profitability”? Or that we have both a community garden and a food co-op right here on campus?

Over the past few months, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know some of the people behind these initiatives as part of the University’s sustainability strategy development project. The Sydney Environment Institute has been supporting the development of the University’s new strategy, and I have the lucky job of connecting with people who are working hard to make a difference through their research, teaching and actions at the University. In particular, the SEI has been responsible for creating an Advisory Group consisting of staff and students from across the University, and overseen the development of over a dozen sub-groups, to help establish a sustainability vision, identify priorities, and determine guiding principles across a range of sustainability issues at the University.

So what exactly does this mean? And what does it look like on a daily basis? I began by poring over faculty websites and staff profiles, seeking sustainability connections through research or teaching, and sending inquisitive, hopeful emails, asking for participation in the project. I’ve had my fair share of coffees, meeting people to find out more about their work and interests, sharing details about how the working groups’ insights will feed into development of the strategy, and connecting people into various groups to focus on categories like Energy & Emissions, Social & Culture, Water, Built Environment, Landscapes & Biodiversity, and more.

I’ve had the distinct feeling I was standing inside the (thankfully idle) engine of an Airbus A380 as I stood inside the awe-inspiring Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel at the Centre for Wind, Waves and Water.

I’ve spoken with students and staff who claim not to have “expertise” but have a deep passion for addressing climate change, animal rights or waste —like undergraduate activist Liv Arkell from the Waste Fighters Society— and want to make a difference on campus (which, as far as I’m concerned, is some of the most important expertise one can have when it comes to enacting change).

I’ve learned about many quiet achievements taking place throughout the University – like the development of specialist units to address inequity in the world, to teach students that creating buildings or businesses doesn’t have to come at the cost of the planet or its inhabitants, but can actually help both.  Not to mention the removal of plastic straws from USU food outlets, and the installation of a reusable mug wall and Farmwall at the Courtyard Café.

At the same time, I’ve worked alongside a dedicated team in the Strategy office who are responsible for pulling all of the ideas, recommendations and aspirations into a coherent strategy (and managing the many rounds of approvals throughout various offices at the University).

The SEI prides itself on interdisciplinary research, and this project is an example of interdisciplinarity in practice. It may not be a typical research project, but it draws on multiple disciplines, and reaches across faculties and the Staff-Student and Academic-Administration divides that can be common at Universities. And it’s a project that gives me hope – it is truly an example of people coming together, dedicating their time and passion for a common cause.

It’s one thing to write about the urgency and complexity of solving the climate crisis, the drought, or human rights injustices, and quite another to sit down with others who may have different agendas or areas of expertise to create a plan of action, to negotiate desired outcomes alongside the hard realities of transitioning an established community like a University. But that’s what is happening right now at the University of Sydney. Students and staff are giving their time and energy, having the hard conversations, interpreting the data, offering insights, and working together to create not just a better university, but a better world.

Our long-term goal is to create a Living Lab on our campuses, where sustainability is embedded in all we do at the University and the campuses support sustainable actions from all its residents. Over the coming months we will be sharing various perspectives on the project, including examples of sustainability initiatives, teaching, and research already taking place here at the University of Sydney. You may be pleasantly surprised to see how much is already taking place.

If you would like to be involved, please get in touch with me at Lisa.Heinze@sydney.edu.au — I’ve tried to find everyone working on sustainability projects, but I know I haven’t found you all! In the meantime, we would love to hear about your sustainability priorities – please take our very succinct (two-minute) survey, and if you are researching or teaching anything related to sustainability, we would love to learn more about it!

Lisa Heinze is the project lead for the Sustainability Strategy. She is a sustainable lifestyle advocate who has just completed her PhD at the University of Sydney on sustainable fashion. She is co-founder of Clean Cut, Australia’s sustainable fashion council, Director of Sustainability for the Manly Food Co-op, and a Fashion Revolution committee member. She published her book, Sustainability with Style, to support newcomers to environmentalism with everyday lifestyle choices. Lisa’s current work considers fashion as a social practice, in particular the entanglements between design, retail, consumption and activism, with an aim to re-think fashion for an environmentally and socially just future.

The Living Lab Series aims to highlight sustainability here at the University of Sydney. From native gardens and recycled asphalt to the new Sustainability Strategy and beyond, this series aims to highlight the range of projects championing sustainability on campus, and to celebrate everyone that has been working behind-the-scenes in this space for years. Each month we will sit down with researchers, teachers, students and campus staff to celebrate these incredible achievements and learn how we can continue to do more.