The Sustainability Institute: An Imaginary in Practice

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This post was written for the UNESCO conference on higher education taking place during May 2022.

As life evolves, we find ourselves on a particularly interesting trajectory. An ecology of ideas flood the educational space. Pedagogically, some reach to technology as the answer while others emphasize the importance of physical place. Some ponder ideas around mindfulness and self-actualization where others seek positivism and order.

What we do collectively feel, however, is the pending currents of a poly-crisis shaking dormant institutional narratives. An intuitive knowing that Higher Education (HED) as the potential to foster environments that can propel transformative learning for sustainability. It is not to say that true learning can only be nurtured in these higher educational spaces but rather, to ask those that navigate them, how we can intentionally curate a community of learning in practice? And what may that look like for our planet?

In the still farmlands of Lynedoch, Stellenbosch, South Africa, you will find an institutional living and learning centre full of every kind of life. The Sustainability Institute acts as what Margaret Wheatley might call “an island of sanity” amidst the trauma of a country plagued by racial heritage, economic upheaval, political injustice and social disparity. The institute is an African practice leader that works to apply and explore learning and practice for social justice and change. Through several learning programmes that start from early childhood development right through to Masters level, students are offered a space that embodies its teachings in practice. No student is removed from the contextual relevance of the topics explored. When we learn about food insecurity and agriculture, we are encouraged to work the rich soil that surrounds the outdoor classroom and as a learning community, we share the freshly harvested vegetables cultivated on the campus. When we confront topics around economic inequality, we are encouraged to immerse ourselves within the Ecovillage next door, home to families and individuals with varied economic and social circumstances.

When we speak about higher education’s place in the world, our imaginations are often limited to the confines of a lecture hall with an overdependence on market-driven practices suited to produce accreditations that are supposedly instrumental for human development. We think of order and a lecturer to student transaction. I would like us to imagine, for a moment, a contextual learning habitat that embodies that which it teaches. In sustainability, these conversations are often situated around connection, reflection, embodiment and self. Things one cannot gain from a textbook.

In my own search to redefine higher education and place, I was invited to reimagine my own sense of place in the world. I began pondering this idea of sustainable development within higher education. I began to question the outcome-orientated approach so embedded within traditional curriculum. Whilst completing my Post Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Development, I was exposed to a number of theories, models and practices that helped me build a solid knowledge hierarchy for what the sustainability narrative proposed. With that knowing, however, I was also encouraged to activate another space within myself— the heart space, one that looked inward, sought connection, empathy, kindness and reflection. In higher education, we can be fooled by a false sense of understanding as we get stuck in literature reviews and as we write up our grand thesis. Often, we have been taught to only stimulate our head in these places and ignore our heart. We forget about the emotional journey of learning, about invoking curiosity and joy as we traverse difficult academic terrain. We forget to play and create and connect with the wonders of a learning culture.

As we delve into topics around sustainability or the more technical framing – sustainable development, I encourage us to remember the core component of this concept. The innately beautiful learning journey of community, kindness and embodying that which we so desperately attempt to analyse. We need to question our own knowledge hierarchies and the narratives that we subscribe to in how we practice the art of learning every single day. We need to question what it means to be educated and what it means to be human and in turn, marry the divine synergy of both to cultivate empathetic, connected, kind, value-driven leaders needed to embody the right practices for change.