Ecoversity – Engagement for Campus Sustainability

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Eco, the blue-tongued lizard mascot of the Ecoversity program, next to the program banner at an outdoor campus event

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Last year, I received an intriguing invitation from The University of Adelaide’s ‘Ecoversity’ Program, an initiative of the University’s Office of Sustainability.

Ecoversity’s mission is ‘to develop a campus culture that values and applies sustainable practices’.

The invitation I received was asking me to be a judge on its panel assessing applicants to the University’s Green Project Fund.

The Green Project Fund is a pool of $100,000 offered annually to foster innovative sustainability programs and projects across various aspects of campus operations. Any student, staff member or operational group (faculty/school/institute) may apply.

The Green Project Fund supports projects that:

  • improve operational environmental performance,
  • contribute to University Sustainability Targets, and,
  • demonstrate the viability of best practices, research and technologies.

Projects can be ‘hardware’ (improvements to capital and infrastructure), ‘software’ (awareness and promotion) and innovations in campus systems and processes. Savings from the projects are reinvested into the fund, creating an ongoing source of support for future green projects on campus.

Now while many campuses have sustainability programs of various levels of sophistication, and the concept of the Green Project Fund itself exists in one form or another in a range of organisations, what made me decide to include it as a case study on Crux is the process the University used to decide how the funding was allocated.

The usual modus operandi of this kind of initiative is to invite submissions that are completed on paper or electronically, decided on by a committee of people in a room, and then announced. It works, and it might even be transparent, but…it’s not very interesting and it squanders a golden opportunity for engagement.

Ecoversity put out an initial call for expressions of interest that were screened (eg. is there someone else already working on this that the applicants should be speaking to?) and that met the evaluation criteria:

  • Feasibility: Is the project likely to succeed? Have contingencies and major obstacles been well accounted for? Does it use funding efficiently and effectively?
  • Environmental Impact: Does the project measurably reduce waste, pollution or other aspects? Does it improve environmental performance or result in positive impacts?
  • Community Impact: Does the project lead to increased understanding, greater engagement, or sustainable behaviour change in the university community?
  • Economic Impact: What are the financial benefits? What is the cost-savings, return on investment, or payback over time?
  • Institutionalisation/Scalability: Can the project become embedded in the University’s routine operation? Does it need only start-up funding to then sustain itself over time? Can it be expanded campus wide, if successful? Will it yield valuable regional, national, or global results?

Here’s what The University did next:

  • they asked applicants (individuals and teams) to ‘pitch’ their idea in person, to present their concept and its benefits at a showcase event
  • they invited people from beyond the University, with sustainability expertise in one or more areas, to provide immediate feedback as members of a panel during the showcase
  • they included the wider University community and gave out ‘voting cards’ to the audience, who could then cast a vote for their favourite idea

Add in some nibbles, drinks and networking time, and all of a sudden you’ve transformed what is usually a very dry process into something dynamic, a story that can be captured and disseminated.

What are the benefits of going to all this effort?

  • the applicants’ proposals can be strengthened in response to feedback from the panel, which may include offers of further contacts and resources; everyone is witness to, and learns from, the feedback given
  • all of the applicants are made aware of other efforts being pursued across the campus, which builds the ‘sustainability circuitry’ of the campus brain – knowing who is doing what helps strengthen everyone’s efforts, and also contributes to realising this as a collaborative effort of many
  • shows the University community that the initiative has interest from beyond the campus, and also feeds the story of the initiative back out into panel members’ workplaces and professional networks

The power lies in broadening the base of involvement and buy-in – now the effort belongs to a bigger group of people than the ‘sustainability tribe’.

Here are just two of the eight projects that were approved for Green Project Fund support in 2012:

Solar Array at Roseworthy 
Student houses and buildings at Roseworthy consume a considerable amount of energy (electricity to power lighting, appliances and to heat water). A tailored system will be developed to supply renewable energy to selected residences.

Hub Central Edible Garden 
The Edible Garden can provide an opportunity for students to grow and eat produce on campus. The garden also offers the opportunity to demonstrate sustainable living practices, the benefits of locally produced food and bush food.

Even if you don’t have much (or any) funding available, you could run this process anyway – just by getting people together, you will convene a group who all bring expertise, ideas and contacts – their assets – to the process.

You might even find you can do some things without funding, by running an ‘offers’ and ‘needs’ market eg. a project needs something built, and the capacity exists to do this at low or no cost in another part of the organisation, through an external connection or through involving your organisational community.

Hub Edible Garden design workshop flyer

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How was your organisation’s last lot of grants approved, or last lot of budgeting decisions made, and how could it be done differently to serve as an engagement tool?

Maybe you’ve already seen similar processes used by The University of Adelaide? But if not, and you’re in a position to influence how a such process can serve an additional purpose as an engagement tool, why not suggest giving these approaches a go?

And if anyone tries to tell you this is just a fuzzy, feel-good activity, you can let them know that it is part of the ethos of participatory budgeting, which is emerging as a means of reinvigorating democratic processes through engaging people, all over the world – including in the Big Apple, the City of New York.

screen shot of Participatory Budgeting New York City - districts, dates, ballots for voting

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