International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) (7th : 2015)

Sustainability science in practice : discourse and action in a university-wide transition initiative Hugé, Jean; Waas, Tom; Block, Thomas; Koedam, Nico; Dahdouh-Guebas, Farid


‘Sustainability science’ (Kemp & Martens, 2007; Hugé, 2012) is an increasingly popular concept, drawing scholars and students towards inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches that are commonly believed to embody the best solutions to solve the challenges of rapidly a changing world. While the enthusiasm generated by the concept is to be welcomed, its implementation and operationalization are challenging. If it fails to deliver, it risks to trigger disillusion and discouragement and it may come to embody nothing more than semantics and ‘loose words’. Engineers are –at least perceived as- the quintessential problem solvers in academia, but global change as well as the realization that any scientific endeavour cannot be performed in a societal vacuum forces engineers to reconceptualize their role in society as well as their research philosophy. Tangible processes are needed to turn this analysis of the current situation into actions for a more sustainable future. Sustainability assessment (SA) is such a process that may turn the initial enthusiasm for the broad concept of sustainability science into actions that lead to more sustainable engineering research & teaching. The objective of this paper is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of SA in a university-wide transition exercise, focusing on the views of the academic community in engineering faculties at the University of Ghent, Belgium. Drawing on the application of sustainability assessment processes on various systems (energy systems, development cooperation projects), and on the real-life experience of the bottom-up ‘Transition at the University of Ghent, Belgium’-initiative (, we use a discourse-analytical approach to sustainability assessment (Hugé et al., 2013). Acknowledging the variety of discourses, frames and worldviews embodied in sustainability science is a key step in creating actor coalitions that may trigger positive change in academic institutions. We will propose a qualitative evaluation of existing and planned concrete transition activities, building on recent insights in the field of ‘sustainable higher education’ (Beynaghi et al., 2014) in order to provide recommendations on how to implement sustainability science in engineering faculties.

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