A blog post by Bradley Sarandi for SD 401: Sustainable Development Goals Studio at SFU, taught by Dr. Cherie Enns.

The role of universities in implementing SDGs

Being a student, we often feel that we are not yet equipped with the skills or knowledge to take action on issues such as climate change, poverty, and social justice. As the world reckons with an imminent climate crisis and compounding wicked problems, it is easy to turn to cynicism and feeling hopeless. But I want you to think bigger and imagine the larger possibilities that can arise from small interventions, as I have seen through my own lived experience at SFU. As the international trend of responding to the call towards sustainability becomes more prevalent in universities, learning about different approaches to sustainability can build better solutions for the future. Through first-hand work with several SFU initiatives targeted towards various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I have managed to find hope in the darkness and directly observe how universities can play a major role in facilitating action towards SDGs.

SFU SDG Initiatives

In 2021, SFU ranked 46th overall for their various contributions towards SDG initiatives in a university impact ranking (Mcmillan, 2021). A major highlight previously was in 2020 when SFU ranked #1 in SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. The latter honour was awarded upon merits of environmental sustainability within physical structures and cultural preservation efforts on SFU’s various campuses (Mcmillan, 2020). SFU has also worked to build a comprehensive 2025 sustainability plan which outlines future commitments to furthering initiatives encompassing SDGs campus-wide and in the community (SFU, n.d.).

Being recognized for efforts in facilitating SDGs on an international stage is an incredible accomplishment for the institution but what might be some of the ways that SDGs are being implemented and not being recognized? Through shedding light on my own experiences at SFU, I aim to inspire others on how small initiatives facilitated by universities can guide others towards best practices which move the visions from SDGs forward

Dialogue: Building Resilience Through Shared Understanding

Effective communication is necessary to build shared values to further SDG usage and environmental literacy among other issues (Moscrop, 2019). Climate change and sustainability are complex issues which can leave many individuals feeling left behind in the movement. Keeping the barriers to engaging with complex issues in mind, creative methods of engaging with the community are necessary to build connection and spark action. Dialogue is a powerful approach which focuses on building shared understanding through facilitation with all involved. SFU has recognized the importance and power of dialogue in building strong civic engagement, promoting innovative values, and spreading best practices by building organizational structures which solely focus on the practice of dialogue. SFU’s centre for dialogue is a testament to this commitment which regularly holds community events and public dialogues with the aim of building shared understanding (SFU Centre for Dialogue, n.d.).

Another key initiative is the Semester in Dialogue program which brings together a multi-disciplinary cohort of students to engage on a changing topic. I participated in Summer 2019’s program in Housing Futures which introduced me to the power of dialogue in addressing complex issues in an accessible way. Scholars critique the ways that environmental communication can lack meaning without story and connection to the issue (Marshall, 2014), dialogue bridges that gap by finding a centre and utilizing shared values between those participating to find the answer within themselves. The usage of dialogue challenges traditional education by tackling SDGs such as #4 (good education) and #16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), all intersecting to facilitate pivotal SDGs such as sustainable cities and communities.

Farm to Campus – A multi-SDG initiative

Access to basic needs such as food are necessary to uphold other SDGs. This represents the importance of intersectional approaches to SDG implementation. SFU’s Farm to Campus initiative partners with organizations on campus and local farm producers in the community to address the issue of food waste, while also providing access to marginalized individuals (Ketter, 2020). Volunteering with this initiative, I was able to learn first-hand about the issues within food systems causing food waste but also learn about ways that universities can intervene and find solutions. Initiatives like Farm to Campus can tackle several SDGs such as #2 (zero hunger), #3 (good health and wellbeing), and #12 (responsible consumption and production) which are necessary for the larger goal of sustainable communities.

Radius: Social Innovation for Creative Solutions

SFU is also involved in programming supporting economic innovation to create and support solutions that are inclusive, sustainable, and equitable. Radius is SFU’s social innovation hub which focuses on programs to support, test, and initiate solutions to social issues (SFU Radius, n.d.). This is accomplished through innovation labs, venture support, and student programming to guide and empower future social entrepreneurs and changemakers. While in Change Lab, an experiential learning program offered through Radius, I was able to learn how I can make direct impact as a student through social innovation. Radius also provides early-venture support such as funding through their social innovation seed fund which provides students with financial support to continue their endeavours. One of my projects, Cultivate Inclusivity was able to further our community work through support offered from Radius. SFU’s programming at Radius supports how economic-centered SDGs like #8 (decent work and economic growth) and #9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) can contribute to furthering sustainable communities.

Comparative Approaches: University of Helsinki

Through looking at SFU’s various initiatives towards SDG implementation, comparing to other university initiatives can provide cross-learning. Finland is often ranked at or among the top countries in sustainability implementation. University of Helsinki heavily focuses on implementation of SDGs within their degree programming (Korhonen-Kurki et al, 2019) by integrating environmental and climate literacy into the curriculum of their various offerings. When analyzing their sustainability plans, their approaches to sustainability are through on-campus measurable sustainability initiatives such as reduction of energy consumption and focusing on building facilities that rely on green energy and infrastructure (University of Helsinki, 2021). There is an immediate difference to approaching sustainability from both institutions, in Helsinki there is a focus on measurable indicators and for SFU, there is widespread implementation of sustainability in areas that facilitate SDGs. Both institutions serve distinct approaches that could aid in furthering SDG progress for each other. SFU could take note of how measurable indicators can further its impact on SDG policies/initiatives. In comparison, University of Helsinki could also learn from SFU in the ways that multi-SDG approaches have been implemented and utilized to address local issues such as food insecurity and cater to their own issues in Helsinki

Looking forward – Lessons from SFU to the World

In my first year of studies, I felt lost at SFU. Learning about imminent and wicked problems while feeling powerless but I have learned that it does not need to be that way. Through engaging directly with numerous small interventions facilitated by SFU, I learned that the numerous “small” initiatives amounted to strong engagement and movement towards furthering SDGs. Every action is a step in building awareness and spreading knowledge. A bold step forward towards SDG action does not need to be revolutionary or large in scale to have an impact. Learning from SFU initiatives and comparing other approaches to SDG implementation has shown me that the first step is leading the change and growing along the way.
Lesson to other universities: Be bold and don’t be afraid to start small! Every action counts!

Appendix A

InstitutionInitiative/ProjectActivitiesSDGs Covered
SFURadiusEducation, economic growth, equity, inclusive-opportunities, social innovation3, 8, 9, 11
SFUFarm to CampusFood security, poverty reduction, food rescue, waste reduction1,2,10,11,13
SFUCentre for DialogueEducation, civic engagement, communication.4,5,10,11,13,16,17
SFU2025 Sustainability Plan3 Plan Goals: University services innovation, University as a living lab, Climate action leadership4,7,9,11,13,16
University of HelsinkiEnvironment-integrated curriculumEducation/environmental literacy, intersectional environmentalism, community shared knowledge.4,10,11,12,13,17
University of HelsinkiOn-campus sustainability initiativesEnergy-consumption, self-sufficient infrastructure, green building, responsible usage.7,9,11,12,13
Dalhousie UniversityClimate Change Plan (2019)Specific indicators and action items for reduction. Energy-use reduction, changes to transportation, green building strategy7,9,11,12,13
University of British ColumbiaCommunity Roundtables: Collaboration on Complex IssuesBrings leaders together for conversations with UBC leadership about the Vancouver region’s most complex issues11,13,16
University of British ColumbiaAdopting University Climate Change CoalitionResearch universities committed to mobilizing their resources and expertise to accelerate local and regional climate action11,13,17


2025 Sustainability Plan – Sustainability – Simon Fraser University. (n.d.). SFU. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from https://www.sfu.ca/sustainability/sfu2025.html#about

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Ketter, K. (2020, October 6). SFU offers sustainability program to bring fresh produce to students. The Peak. https://the-peak.ca/2020/09/sfu-offers-sustainability-program-to-bring-fresh-produce-to-students/

Korhonen-Kurki, K., Koivuranta, R., Kuitto, V., Pietikäinen, J., Schönach, P., & Soini, K. (2019). Towards Realising SDGs in the University of Helsinki. Sustainable Development Goals and Institutions of Higher Education, 15–29. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-26157-3_2

Marshall, G. (2014). Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury USA.

McMillan, B. (2020). SFU named #1 in global university ranking for impact on sustainable cities and communities. SFU News – Simon Fraser University. https://www.sfu.ca/sfunews/stories/2020/04/sfu-named–1-in-global-university-ranking-for-impact-on-sustaina.html

McMillan, B. (2021). SFU ranks among world’s top 50 universities in Times Higher Education Impact Rankings – SFU News – Simon Fraser University. SFU. https://www.sfu.ca/sfunews/stories/2021/04/sfu-ranks-among-top-50-universities-globally-in-times-higher-edu.html

Moscrop, D. (2019). Too Dumb for Democracy?: Why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones. Goose Lane Editions.

Our Founding and History – Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue – Simon Fraser University. (n.d.). SFU. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from https://www.sfu.ca/dialogue/about/our-founding-and-history.html

RADIUS SFU. (2021, February 26). Programs. https://radiussfu.com/programs/

Sustainability in campus operations. (2021). University of Helsinki. https://www.helsinki.fi/en/about-us/responsibility-and-sustainability/sustainability/sustainability-campus-operations#sustainable-think-corner

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