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CIFAL workshops take UVic’s SDGs expertise on the road

Professor Heather Ranson teaching students in Thailand about SDGs. She is standing on stage with the students as they present their ideas and discuss SDGs.

I’ve never thought of myself as an influencer. A change agent perhaps, but not an influencer in the modern Insta-TikTok sense. However, since my colleague Crystal Tremblay and I returned from teaching about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to students and university executives at Mahidol University in Thailand recently, I feel like an influencer.

Influencers have or know about something that other people want to have or know about. Thanks to twelve years of work on the SDGs in Gustavson School of Business classrooms and across UVic, including advancing  teaching, research related to the SDGs and greening our operations, I have developed a goal-setting method to help individuals and groups make advancements on the SDGs.

SDGs and CIFAL at UVic

Over the years, Gustavson has worked to bring SDGs into our teaching, research and operations. Our Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation (CSSI) started tracking the school’s carbon emissions through Scope 3 in 2015, and we started offsetting whatever emissions we couldn’t eliminate starting in 2016. The next year, we integrated this carbon offsetting effort further by asking students to pitch their ideas for balanced carbon offset portfolios for Gustavson to invest in. It’s just one example of the SDG-aligned work we strive to do, and continually improve on, every day.

At the broader UVic level, the university places highly on the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, based on the SDGs, including holding the #1 ranking in Canada for climate action since 2022. This SDG leadership was underscored in 2023, when the UN Institute of Training and Research and UVic partnered to create CIFAL Victoria, the first accredited Training Centre for Authorities and Leaders (CIFAL) on North America’s west coast.

Which leads us back to how Crystal Tremblay and I found ourselves in a classroom in Thailand this January, talking with Mahidol University about operationalizing the SDGs.

Crystal is director of CIFAL Victoria and assistant professor of geography at UVic. When Mahidol University connected with CIFAL Victoria about SDG learning opportunities for their school, we created a hands-on 1.5-day workshop for students and a 2.5-day workshop for university executives. The workshop format demanded that participants engage deeply with the SDGs and reflect on their own lives and work units to determine how to make advancements on the goals from a local perspective.

New learnings in Thailand

It was a wonderful experience with new learnings for Crystal and I, as well as the students. The outcome of the student workshop was a group-designed poster with a recommendation to Mahidol, related to one or more of the SDGs. Students had many actionable ideas. One group wanted to create spaces for LGBTQ+ students to meet so as to support each other, and another group wanted the electric scooter program offered at one Mahidol campus to be expanded to all campuses. The students were very passionate and I was excited listening to their ideas. It was also rewarding to know that Mahidol administrators appreciated the recommendations and had an ecosystem to support students in achieving the recommendations.

Mahidol executives had great ideas as well. From further promotion of a low-sodium diet program to building a consistent system to sort waste across all campuses, to adding sustainability topics to courses, they set goals for their units and for themselves personally.

Helping other universities move forward

In our role as influencers, Crystal and I told stories about the journey UVic and the Gustavson School of Business in counting and reducing carbon emissions, about our work across disciplines to offer sustainability courses and programs, and our experience in the classroom and in the community, engaging with students, university employees and the public. We shared stories of our successes and our failures, and the deans gave good feedback about being able to learn from our mistakes. They had lots of questions about how to reduce bumps in the sustainability journey. These examples fuelled ideas for Mahidol students and executives, as they collaborated across programs to set goals for their school.

It's gratifying to share our knowledge about the SDGs and how to help universities achieve the targets associated with each goal. Sharing what we know allows other schools to use our best practices, and perhaps to avoid some of the pitfalls we experienced on our sustainability journey. We are grateful for the ideas we gained from Mahidol, as well. Their solar panels are reducing their dependence on fossil fuels, and we could benefit from solar at UVic as well. Picture our car-charging stations powered by solar panels!  We also really liked their bike library, where you can use your student card to check out a bike for a day to get across campus when time is tight. Mahidol is an influencer as well.

We are living in a climate emergency; we all need to be influencers of the SDGs in order to keep our planet liveable into the future.

Heather Ranson, Associate Teaching Professor & Associate Director, Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation, UVic Gustavson School of Business. Photo credit: Mahidol University