Secondary schools, in sharp contrast, are quite regimented organizations. There is often a specific curriculum that all must follow and a relatively tight command structure that flows from rectors to teachers, administrators and operational staff. It is quite possible for schools to adopt our “Sustainability Compass” as a framework at the management level, use our “Sustainability Pyramid” workshop to plan action at the operational level, then mirror that process all the way out into the classroom and even into the early grade-levels, supported by “Amoeba”-trained change agents.
We know that it’s possible, because it has already happened.
But that scenario is decidedly not a description of how a university works. In the academic culture, models are meant to be questioned. Pre-packaged tools and methods are met with skeptical criticism. The idea that a university president or chancellor simply could instruct professors, administrators and operational staff to use a common sustainability framework is unlikely in the extreme.
The deeply democratic and inherently critical nature of university culture creates special challenges for sustainability change agents. They cannot rely on a chain of command. They must convene, convince, facilitate, instruct and lead people in highly participatory and inclusive ways. Our Accelerator tools are designed to support such inter-disciplinary, participatory processes. But were they helping university change agents achieve their goals? Additionally, was Accelerator being used in the integrated fashion we intended, across multiple parts of the institution?
The answer to both questions was a resounding “sometimes” — and certainly not as often as we would like. We were gratified to receive a lot of positive feedback on the effectiveness of the tools. In the situations where Accelerator tools were being used, they clearly worked. But we were surprised to learn that classroom teaching was the most common setting for the use of our tools (we had expected to see planning and operations dominate). At the same time, in those institutions where tools such as the Sustainability Compass or Pyramid Workshop were being effectively used in management, they had not spread much into teaching.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, they had not spread very quickly from one type of use to another. There were exceptions to the rule, and the cut-off for our data gathering was 2014 (that’s an indicator of how slow the process of getting academic papers published can be). We know anecdotally that in several institutions, use of these tools has continued to spread into other dimensions of those universities — out of the office for sustainability setting, for example, and into student engagement programs or graduate research applications.
What’s next? First, given the importance of universities, our paper concluded that — brace yourself — more research is needed in this area. We think there is a general need for better knowledge about change processes within institutions of higher education, and about how their integration of sustainability can be accelerated — with a special focus on the challenging role of change agents and on their ability to master key skillsets. We are not likely to be the ones who take up that research challenge, but we have done the first survey and introduced some useful analysis concepts (TMFAs and SCATs). We hope others will be willing to carry the ball forward.
Second, in our study, we barely touched on the role of students in this process — and as everyone who works in universities knows, students are very often the most effective drivers of change in those environments. Numerous Ph.D dissertations and masters theses could be written around this question.
And finally, we concluded that our own tools need some updating and improvement, if they are to meet the needs of the rapidly changing sustainability movement. Accelerator is still one of the few options available for integrated and inter-disciplinary orienting, engaging, mobilizing, training and planning work around sustainable development. But if the aim of these tools is to accelerate transformational change in complex environments, we will need to “accelerate the Accelerator.”
We look forward to seeing what others do, to carry on this research. Understanding how people can change universities, so that universities can help change societies, might turn out to be one of the most powerful leverage points we have for advancing sustainable development.