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Today sustainability watchdog organisations rank UK universities against each other for being more or less sustainable than others. But sustainability is not a ‘competitive’, ‘zero-sum game’; it is about collaboration. There are real opportunities in rethinking strategies for sustainability, but it requires a creative response and leadership to realise the potential. How do we support this as designers? 


But before we explore how we as designers can enable inter-university collaboration for sustainability, we must establish where Ravensbourne University London stands in terms of sustainability and what are the challenges and opportunities it faces within its own walls.

In search for this answer, we took on a research mission. We asked the students to tell us what sustainability means to them. According to the results of the Listening Campaign, Ravensbourne students think of sustainability in terms of the three Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle. They believe that being sustainable means being ‘not impactful’ and ‘environmentally friendly’. They care very much about sustainability as all respondents provided us with a thought-out answer; and think of sustainability in terms of being ‘less bad’. Only one respondent mentioned that sustainability means ‘progress’.

Green and Purple Abstract

A classic community organising
tool - interview method, which allows you to learn about the concerns a social group is having about any issue that is the
subject of inquiry.

Course leaders and academics are left to their own devices in terms of what they are doing. Some people are choosing to engage with it [sustainability] and some not.

Course leader

Being Creative

It is clear from interviews with staff that  they think of university's sustainability in two ways: managing the building in a sustainable way and deliver courses that have a sustainability component.

Our research revealed that  Ravensbourne needed to enable collaboration within its own walls first. A catalysts of collaboration and change within the university turned out to be the university's Environmental and Sustainability Working Group, which had the potential but needed a little more support to serve this purpose.

If we extended the teaching day

and reduce our amount
of teaching hours, we could definitely reduce our
carbon footprint a lot.

Timetabling officer

And whilst Colin had started
this sustainability board, it didn't feel like it had the weight that it needed behind it.

Ravensbourne senior management


insights from students, teachers, and staff

insight #1

There is insufficient horizontal & vertical communication
at Ravensbourne

Ravensbourne staff do not factor in
the People and Planet University League (ranking) in their work

insight #4

(All) sustainability efforts at Ravensbourne are self-driven

and disconnected

insight #3

insight #5

Ravensbourne academics

and management prevent

sustainable behaviours

Environmental and Sustainability Working Group is powerless and poorly promoted

insight #6

insight #7

Outsourcing services at Ravensbourne
prevents the university from implementing sustainable behaviours

insight #7

insight #7

insight #7

Other universities can apply the same approach to identify their in-house strengths or weaknesses. 

One way to do that is by organising co-creation workshops where students, staff, management representatives, vendors, etc.  come together to generate ideas for a sustainable future of the university they are part of.

A successful platform for collaboration could be designed around the existing Environmental and Sustainability Working Group. It has some of the elements needed for a platform to work: an understanding of sustainability, campaigners that are willing to actively engage in sustainability initiatives at Ravensbourne and outside; it has some weight and a variety of expertise because its members are coming from different departments within the university, which can tackle another concern that we learnt about from our research – the disjointed character of existing sustainability initiatives. 

[…] a key aspect of platform design thinking: identifying existing incentives and motivation and design the platform along these lines.


Designing futures requires an approach rooted in imagination and a safe place where workshop participants can ‘ forget how things are now, and wonder about how things could be’ , in other words – to speculate. This is why we chose to design a workshop based on speculative design methodology.

 The participants would be given by us a story about Ravensbourne to complete. The story has a clear beginning but no middle and no end and would be set in the present time but narrated sometime in the future as a lived past.

The job of the participants is to imagine the end of the story based on their vision and goals for Ravensbourne, and to design the middle of the story that will answer the question of how those goals were achieved.

In the year 2020, Ravensbourne was a design and media specialised university that knew the importance of sustainability but found it difficult to implement it in all the aspects of its functioning - from management facilities and course contents. Some Ravensbourne programme directors ran courses with sustainability in mind, others did not (challenge 1), some unsustainable behaviours such as plastic cutlery were eliminated, but other unsustainable behaviours persisted (challenge 2). In the grand scheme of things, Ravensbourne was far from achieving a good level of sustainability across all of its operations.

Middle - to be designed by workshop participants

End - to be designed by

workshop participants

The proposed workshop model is designed to make the workshop participants react directly to the research findings and insights. Our re-interpretation of the brief allowed us to shift the focus from inter-university collaboration to in-house collaboration, which allowed us to understand Ravensbourne better. While the reinterpretation of the brief proved to be enriching is so many ways, it also took something away from the project. For a project that was meant to answer the question of how universities can collaborate for sustainability, we still do not have an answer. However, the proposed workshop is good start that will allow other universities to assess their own strategy for collaboration and sustainability.

This research project was realised as part of the Masters of Design at Ravensbourne University London in February - April 2020 by Masters of Design students. All rights are reserved. Please reference the project accordingly,  if you wish to share it or use it in your own research. 


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