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The International Sustainable Campus Network: Global Knowledge Exchange in Higher Education

Image Credit: Intel

The International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) is a non-profit association of more than 80 colleges and universities from over 30 countries, with a mission of providing a forum for the exchange of information, ideas and best practices for achieving sustainable campus operations and integrating sustainability in research and teaching.

Following ratification of the Paris Agreement and the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last year, René Schwarzenbach, ISCN Board President; and Guido Schmidt-Traub, Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) co-authored a report, Educating for Sustainability. As they say in the foreword: “In our opinion, it is time for the academic community to seriously rethink and redefine its role in society and in sustainable development efforts. The global higher education sector has a tremendous opportunity to lead the world in sustainable development research, promotion of solutions, and support for implementation.”

ISCN asserts that by including sustainable development in the strategic goals for all their activities, universities can create an environment that promotes holistic education of all students: To complement professional and disciplinary education, ISCN members expose students to the practical problems that must be solved to achieve the SDGs, while fostering the acquisition of critical, systems-oriented thinking as well as the ability to communicate with various stakeholders within and outside academia.

Its programs include:

  • The ISCN-GULF (Global University Leaders Forum) Sustainable Campus Charter — Member institutions must sign the charter and commit to set their own, concrete targets against shared Charter principles, and to report transparently on their progress against those targets.
  • Working Groups dedicated to each of the 3 Charter Principles (below), conducting research and facilitating the development of resources to support knowledge exchange. The three Charter Principles are:
    • Principle 1: To demonstrate respect for nature and society, sustainability considerations should be an integral part of planning, construction, renovation, and operation of buildings on campus.
    • Principle 2: To ensure long-term sustainable campus development, campus-wide master planning and target-setting should include environmental and social goals.
    • Principle 3: To align the organization’s core mission with sustainable development, facilities, research, and education should be linked to create a “living laboratory” for sustainability.
    • A fourth working group was established to focus on strengthening a corporate-university dialogue.
  • Conferences and Symposia are held across the globe to address the whole breadth of campus sustainability or focus more closely on particular issues of strategic relevance for campus sustainability.
  • Sustainable Campus Excellence Awards are given out annually to highlight best practices and provide public recognition to campuses excelling in campus sustainability.

ISCN Management

The ISCN is managed by the network’s Secretariat, operated by Sustainserv Inc., and its strategic development is guided by the Board including representatives of the seven schools who host the ISCN. These co-host schools include:

  • École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland
  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich)
  • Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden
  • Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore
  • National University of Singapore (NUS)
  • Technical University of Denmark (DTU)
  • The University of Hong Kong

The ISCN releases an annual ISCN-GULF report at the World Economic Forum that highlights exemplary campus sustainability case studies.

Sustainable Brands recently spoke with the ISCN team about its mission and the role of academia in advancing sustainability worldwide.

SB: Does academia lag behind other sectors as global awareness of sustainability increases?

ISCN: We feel as though academia leads. There are many academic institutions around the world that have been working toward campus sustainability for a long time, and contributing to a body of knowledge to include sustainability strategies, initiatives, and research. Academia is at the nexus of individual and organizational engagement — with student, faculty, staff, and administrators involved with integrating sustainability within curricula, operations, and university planning and culture, essentially using the university as a test bed or “living lab.” The topic is a perpetual: Students’ enthusiasm for sustainability grows just as academia grows sustainability knowledge and campuses commit to sustainable development.

Academia is also unique in its ability to inspire behavior change. Colleges and universities uphold unique, enduring cultures within their campuses that are influential for students, and ultimately sculpt the leaders of tomorrow. Just after students learn and engage with diverse subjects (including sustainability) in colleges and universities, they join the workforce. By engaging with students and involving them in sustainability endeavors, they become versed in sustainability and can apply their knowledge and experience in their work beyond campus borders.

SB: What have been some of the challenges, if any, in scaling your model?

ISCN: We view sustainability in higher education — and scaling our model to campuses across the globe — as an opportunity, more than a challenge. Our network is quite diverse both culturally and geographically, so our members bring a lot to the table as far as campus-level sustainability initiatives and high-level, cross-regional collaborative sustainability endeavors. This spreading and blooming of knowledge grows how we connect and share ideas, as well as the interest our community (the global ISCN network) has for sustainability — while motivating members and non-members alike to keep charging forward with sustainability in impactful ways.

Every university that is part of our network has signed the ISCN-GULF Sustainable Campus Charter, which outlines our expectations on campus sustainability, reporting and a systems approach to goal-setting and planning for sustainability. Our strategic approach as an organization is to leverage our network’s diversity and create a knowledge exchange platform so that we can all learn from each other.

Our network is a powerful collection of the world’s best universities and rooted in personal connection and trust. We [convene] in several ways, via working groups, collaborative reports and our flagship event — our annual conference. Our conferences are the best place for personal connection and learning from each other and many of our early members have come to nearly all conferences and in some ways, serve as mentors for newcomers to the network. We intentionally keep our conferences to 120-150 attendees to maximize networking and relationship-building. Hopefully, as we continue collaborating with and connecting members, we can set a good example for the higher education sector outside of our network.

SB: How are students at participating ISCN schools different from those of a decade ago?

ISCN: Since our founding as the ISCN ten years ago, we've noticed that more students are thinking about sustainability even before they enter college. Over time, this topic has grown in popularity and importance, and in general people are more aware of sustainability issues. The rapid dissemination of knowledge has also spread awareness for environmental challenges and sustainability, so we’re noticing how that effects the sharing of sustainability knowledge amongst members — especially during the ISCN’s annual conferences as we exchange ideas and experiences.

In fact, the Princeton Review’s 2016 College Hopes & Worries Survey Report found that a majority (61 percent) of parent respondents said that having information about colleges' commitment to environmental issues would contribute "strongly," "very much" or "somewhat" to their application/attendance decisions. This shows that students and parents alike are considering colleges’ commitment to environmental issues (from academic offerings to operational practices concerning energy use, recycling, etc), in their decision to apply to or attend a school. We find this to be an example of how sustainability is being thought about by students and their parents even before they enter higher education.

SB: Do you feel we are on track for a sustainable future?

ISCN: No doubt, there is work to be done to help reverse the adverse environmental impacts we’ve already made on our planet. We believe the top universities of the world — many of them members of global networks such as ISCN, SDSN, GULF, or International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) — need to strengthen their efforts to solve the pressing problems of this planet.

We feel as though creating a sustainable future through higher education requires commitment across all levels of the university. The whole university needs to be engaged with sustainability in some form and from there it spreads to students and beyond. We have seen this occur amongst our member institutions, and we’re hopeful this commitment and action will continue to foster a more sustainable future.

SB: How can the global business community – in particular, the Sustainable Brands community – aid ISCN’s mission?

ISCN: Sustainable Brands brings together stakeholders while providing a platform for sustainability across all sectors. The ISCN can look toward the work that Sustainable Brands profiles to better understand how leading sustainability knowledge and skills are integrated into corporate business models — and how this knowledge can be transferred and amplified in the higher education sector.

Information about the upcoming ISCN conference in Vancouver (26-28 June 2017) is available here.


Sheila Shayon, President of Third Eye Media, is a senior media executive with twenty five plus years in television and new media including expertise in programming, production, broadband, start-up models, creative and branding strategies, digital content and social networking. 

[Read more about Sheila Shayon]


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