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The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Taking up Generation Z’s challenge on our future

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Climate change is here. Young people are pushing for change. So what are we doing about it?

We need to take up the fight for our future. To help create lifelong learning that values dialogue, creativity and empathy as ways to find the solutions to the climate crisis.

If ever there were an intergenerational challenge worth heeding, it must be the one on climate emergency.”

If ever there were an intergenerational challenge worth heeding, it must be the one on climate emergency. Young people are demanding that adults do not merely hear them. They’re calling on us to act. From the impressions we get through our work in 2019, climate emergency is nothing like as much on universities’ strategic agendas as it needs to be: I’ve yet to see a major strategic goal in a UK university that commits to saving our planet.

However, I have been inspired by real shifts that I’ve seen in institutional aspirations recently: moves toward more full-realised missions of social responsibility and transformation. Universities are embracing their potential to change the world through their research, their public engagement and the influence of their students and graduates.

Shining a light: going in the right direction

It would be interesting to know how universities are monitoring individual behaviours around incentivising sustainability, transforming curriculum design, and reducing carbon footprints.”

There is, of course, some impressive pioneering work. Take the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS). It’s the largest team of its kind, and not only leads on estates, procurement and energy use. The team also enables people to engage directly in action on sustainability. A call to action on their website urges students to:

‘Follow us on social media, take our online training, become a Sustainability Champion, find out about funding and volunteering opportunities, make sustainability part of your studies and more!’

Invisible Grail is delighted to be working with the SRS team at the moment on building a strategic narrative.

It’s also encouraging to see two of the UK’s universities (University of Manchester and Kings College London) in the global top 4 in the Times Higher Education’s University Impact Rankings, which measure performance against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I’ve seen a number of university strategies which link clearly to these goals. 4 of our institutions are among the top 13 for climate action.

It would be interesting to know how universities are monitoring individual behaviours around incentivising sustainability, transforming curriculum design, and reducing carbon footprints. These challenge each of us every day. And if we were to imagine the collective impact of changing these for the better, it could be huge.

Dialogue that changes thinking

A recent article in Forbes asks the question ‘how can we create a future that works for all?

Today’s young people will be the last generation with the opportunity to take positive action.”

A big question that requires big answers. Unless we succeed in reducing drastically the impact of our footprint on the world, today’s young people will be the last generation with the opportunity to take positive action. To achieve this, the article suggests, we need more learning experiences that help our students reconnect with purpose, lead dialogue and empathise. Ultimately, creating a new kind of global citizenship.

This vision is the driving force behind the idea of a University for the Planet – a collection of 250 hubs that will ‘help build the global skills to connect with a common future’ through lifelong learning focused on global citizenship.

But this begs a question. Why shouldn’t every institution be a University for the Planet?

Rather than being the specialism of a few, we should seek wider, collective thought that has power to lead to committed transformation. Bringing people together to find a common purpose in our institutions will be the driving force behind creating this sense of global citizenship.

Having the privilege to catalyse these types of conversations is why we do what we do at Invisible Grail. Our own contribution to this vision to create a better way to live in our world may turn out to be at its strongest when we support universities in discovering their purpose, through experiential learning, and through engaged conversations that uncover narratives of change.

That’s why Invisible Grail is keeping its computers powered off on Friday 20 September in a supportive act of non-consumption. We’re joining in spirit and in person local protests on climate change, standing alongside young and old in solidarity against complacency, and standing for positive, meaningful change. There’s so much more to do.

Footnote: we talk the talk, but are we walking the walk?

At Invisible Grail we’re always looking for ways to lessen our impact on the environment. But we’re not perfect – we travel widely which sometimes means taking flights. Over a year ago, we created our Sustainability Guidelines, which sets out our policies to mitigate our environmental impact, including discouraging driving in favour of public transport and experimenting with tools to meet virtually as a team. This year, we’ll be getting our hands dirty as we begin our commitment to planting trees each year in the 2020s to offset our travel; we look forward to sharing the fruits of our labour with you.


Paul Gentle and Louise Clifton

Paul and Louise, Academic Director and Director of Marketing at Invisible Grail respectively, co-authored this blog. Their aspiration is to unlock the potential for creating better, stronger connections for everyone working in higher education, and so encourage positive change in the world.

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