Universities as living labs

The contribution of higher education institutions to the ‘Keep 1.5 Alive’ agenda goes much further than research, essential though it is. Universities are also, in and of themselves, businesses under pressure to decarbonise. They can be ‘living labs’ – testing grounds for innovation, and proximate sites for research to take flight. They are also educational institutions that help to nurture a new generation of climate-conscious citizens and bring a breadth of perspective and expertise to a challenge that crosses cultural, economic and political boundaries. 

The University of Birmingham has set a target to be net zero for scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2035. Reaching that goal, says Trevor Payne, Director of Estates, requires major investments and innovations that force the university to leverage the expertise of its academics, and to embody the very urgency that researchers are pushing for in wider society. “As well as the academic conversation about climate change, there is a practical and operational reality: we have to decarbonise our estate,” says Payne.  

The estate is working directly with academic and technical teams in areas like thermal insulation and heating, energy storage, power network infrastructure, and solar technology. It is also teaming up with outside partners. The Smart Campus Plan, delivered in partnership with Siemens, will upgrade the first 25 buildings on campus – (to be followed by a further 60 buildings in 2023) to improve energy efficiency, reduce CO2 emissions and enhance the working environment, by deploying technologies to collectively deliver an initial  5% reduction in carbon emissions, equivalent to approximately 2,856 tCO2 per year. The project itself is providing a research site for ten PhD students and pilot projects in the Dubai campus will produce results and outcomes that can be implemented back in Birmingham.  The work also provides an opportunity to embed the smart campus within a broader urban observatory funded by the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities.  

Urban Observatories, such as Birmingham Urban Observatory led by Lee Chapman Professor of Climate Resilience, capture the complex interrelations and interactions of real systems with the environment, people and society for topics such as, air quality, decarbonisation of transport and flows of energy.  

Training a new generation 

Education systems are starting to introduce climate change as a subject and discipline in its own right. Higher education is a critical learning stage for producing graduates with the cross-disciplinary skills and capabilities to grapple with the climate crisis. 

Birmingham is taking a major step in the 2022/2023 academic year by launching a new cross-disciplinary undergraduate program, the BSc/MSci in Global Environmental Change and Sustainability. The program will teach students to engage with the latest research and translate it into policy and action. 

The BSc/MSci spans modules ranging from philosophy, biosciences, engineering, and environmental sciences to history. Unusually, the course will draw students from a range of backgrounds, based on passion, rather than academic experience. “Whether students come from social sciences, arts, biology or geography, we want a cohort that is mixed. We want those different perspectives,” says Dr Julia Myatt, Associate Professor in the School of Biosciences and Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and part of the new program development team. 

The University is ideally placed to build such a program, with its interdisciplinary expertise, both in research and in education (through its Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences program), and the strength of its collaborations across departments, as well as its industrial links. Dr Myatt adds: “We are bringing in external stakeholders, from companies, big or small, to give real-life experience to students. What challenges are they facing, and how can we address these? We’re also looking at the sustainability transition of the University estate itself, as a challenge for students to learn from.” 

The programme builds on Birmingham’s research excellence, such as giving students access to lab space and research groups. But the material is also student-led, driven by what students want to do. “It is not just focusing on the problems and understanding the issues; it’s about solutions,” says Dr Myatt. 

To underscore how climate change is not an isolated subject but a holistic perspective that touches all disciplines, Birmingham has also become the first Higher Education establishment to introduce climate change into its BSc Accountancy and Finance degree course. This coincides with regulatory tightening that requires companies and organisations to develop new accounting methodologies to quantify climate risk and impact. 

The University is also weaving the Sustainable Development Goals into its entire teaching and learning portfolio. Professor Laura Green, Pro Vice Chancellor and Head of the College of Life and Environmental Science and University Executive Board Lead for Sustainability, says: “Our aim is to ensure all our students and staff understand the critical issues around social and environmental sustainability and to teach discipline-specific knowledge of sustainability using the SDGs in all academic programmes. Whether students are studying nursing or theology, we want them to understand as they go into the workplace what sustainability will mean for them as professionals — or have the tools to find out. That’s critically important.” 

Birmingham is taking the lead in putting carbon literacy on the agenda – with the first accountancy programme in the world to introduce carbon accounting through all modules. 

Birmingham is also rightfully under pressure from many students whose futures are at risk without fast and effective action on climate change. “Many students are highly knowledgeable about climate change and want to know they are coming to a sustainable university,” says Professor Green. “Birmingham has enormous expertise in sustainability, our goal is to ensure our students know what the University is doing across the five colleges and our estate and to co-create the future with them.”  Professor Green also reflected that the University’s engagement with the wider city is strong, evidenced through strong collaboration with Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Combined Authority, Tyseley Energy Park, and the private sector. 

Toolkits for business.  The private sector is often hectored for failing to move fast enough — but shifting to net zero is neither easy to initiate, nor without challenges once in motion. The Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business is a strategic initiative led by Birmingham Business School in partnership with, and funded by, Lloyds. It is helping support the business community to make better decisions about sustainability. A flagship book, Urgent Business, codified key findings from the Centre’s research, including identifying five common myths preventing businesses from making meaningful change.

  1. outmoded focus on profit
  2. tendency to focus on specific interventions without considering backfire effects
  3. over-reliance on ‘ethical consumers’ as drivers of change, rather than using design thinking to encourage better choices
  4. disconnect between the climate change agenda of corporate leaders, versus the real decisions made by management, middle management and staff
  5. lack of visibility 

Imagining a better future 

The arts and humanities may seem less prominent in climate change research and policy, but that is part of the problem in terms of how the crisis is framed and responded to. Poetry, literature and visual arts all exert a hold on the imagination and influence the formation of values and priorities. They can broaden thinking and build empathy. 

Professor John Holmes,Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture in the Department of English Literature, believes the humanities, and cultural institutions, can help shift public attitudes and bring greater attention to the sustainability crisis. He co-ordinates Symbiosis, an interdisciplinary network of universities and museums promoting the use of arts in natural history collections, as a means to engage a wider, more diverse audience on issues around climate change and environment. “Museums have a position of respect with the public so they are a good mechanism to engage a broader audience,” says Professor Holmes. 

He also believes that while the sciences are critical to climate change research, we need active involvement from the humanities and the arts to win over people’s hearts as well as minds to reach the momentum needed to change public opinion. Professor Holmes alludes to a ‘cognitive gap’ currently, with the status quo, where the scientific information fed to the public and policymakers is failing to generate enough impact. “To get to a sustainable future,” says Professor Holmes, “we need to imagine ourselves into that future. Literature and the humanities can play a role in helping people realise that active imagination”.  

Policy takeaways 

  • Policymakers should recognise the vital role that the arts and humanities can play alongside the sciences in helping to address climate change, by shifting the focus from costs to values; by listening to and amplifying voices from other times and places with direct experience of environmental change; by enabling people to imagine alternative and better ways of living; and by offering reassurance, consolation and inspiration as we transition to a new future.

Bridging research and policy 

Academic researchers and policymakers share the same goal of tackling climate change, but they have too often existed in separate worlds. Although many researchers are aware of the policy implications of their work, this is not incentivised in the conventional career progression metrics, which have traditionally prioritised publications and citations. Policymakers, for their part, may not utilise academic research for fear of ‘paralysis by analysis’ - a sense that the nuance and complexities of climate change and the unpredictable unfolding of policy interventions, make it hard to take firm and definitive steps.  There are also practical constraints facing governments that could limit the traction of evidence-based research, whether it be political forces or the urgency of daily crises versus long-term decisions and strategies. 

But both communities need to work together effectively and the development of relationships, shared projects and co-developed initiatives and policies can help researchers and policymakers enrich and support each other. Birmingham is working to develop a common language and a shared framework to ensure research is a bridge for policymakers, and that relationships with governments at different levels are utilised to support the practice of research and ensure that it has impact. 

Academics can help policymakers to think holistically, and to identify co-benefits of net zero interventions, such as the overlap between poor air quality and socioeconomic deprivation, which makes air quality improvements part of the wider policy narrative of ‘levelling up’. “From a political perspective, for clean air there is a regional narrative that ‘local changes can benefit local health, irrespective of what happens elsewhere’ which is different from the need for concerted international action around carbon,” says Professor Bloss. “We’re quantifying the regional and local benefits from combined air quality and climate action and introducing those insights into the conversation.” Members of Professor Bloss’s team have also been seconded to the West Midlands Combined Authority to bring the latest science into policy.  Similarly, the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) commissioned Professor Francis Pope to write a departmental report for COP-26 on the intersections between air pollution and climate change - and the benefits of addressing them together. 

“Academics have longer timeframes than governments. A local authority has budgetary and political cycles that they need to be responsive to,” says Dr Joanne Leach, Research Fellow in the Department of Civil Engineering and Executive Manager of the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC). “There's always an amount of uncertainty around whether a change in political leadership will result in lots of hard work getting thrown out. One way this plays out is in terms of the amount of time and energy that it is possible to invest because governments have to deliver and show a positive impact on a much shorter timescale.” 

Academic institutions can be the change agent to help projects take flight. “At the local end there's not a lot of capacity [in low carbon transition],” says Professor Freer.  “Most of the thinking is about making sure services which are in place get delivered. They have a good understanding of the planning process, but they don't have the capacity to think about what's coming next.” 

Professor Freer sees the role of the University as “helping organisations think through what the opportunities might be, and where they resonate with the ambitions of the City Council or the Combined Authority, then we can help with the next stage, which is the physical development”. 

Professor Freer describes the University as “not just bringing the thinking but also finance, business and industry around ideas and projects, and helping co-create solutions with the Combined Authority and City Council. It’s building that shared vision and journey which then provides confidence for those industry partners to invest. It’s about trying to stimulate thinking and hold the ring for others to come in and deliver solutions”. 

Naturally Birmingham: A holistic strategy for a green, just and sustainable city.

The 2016-17 Parliamentary Inquiry ‘The Future of Public Parks’ found that the value of parks and green spaces was well documented but not well understood and therefore not fully protected in policy and vulnerable to funding cuts.  The Future Parks Accelerator (“FPA”) programme, a collaboration between the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Trust and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was designed to help Councils find sustainable ways to manage and fund parks and open spaces across entire towns and cities. The University of Birmingham joined in December 2019, seeking to test proposals that could help the city better realise the value of nature and open green spaces.  As part of the learnings of this process, once funding concluded, a new governance plan for the city, the City of Nature Plan, has been recently developed, informed partly by the Liveable Cities initiative, to build on the aspiration to provide a basis for ensuring all of Birmingham’s citizens get the opportunity to experience and benefit from nearby nature. The plan outlines five themes for embedding the value of green spaces across our Council and communities. 

  • A Green City – Ensuring green and blue infrastructure is safe, clean, and sustainably managed.
  • A Healthy City – Making sure every citizen can access green spaces to improve their health and wellbeing as part of the foundations of a Good Life.
  • A Fair City – Ensure fair access to green jobs and that our workforce reflects our diverse communities; ensuring every citizen has access to good quality green space wherever they live, fast tracking those in greatest need first.
  • An Involved City – Citizens will know, love, and protect green spaces and nature.
  • A Valued City – Ensuring that the city better understands and captures the value of nature and green spaces, maximising their commercial and sponsorship potential and establishes new innovative funding avenues. 

Nick Grayson, climate change and sustainability manager of Birmingham City Council, speaks of the benefits that a part-time secondment to the University had on his thinking around the city’s urban challenges. Grayson was a participant in the Liveable Cities project, a five-year (2012-2017) initiative to explore how cities could become healthier, fairer and greener. Those experiences helped inform the design of Birmingham’s current City of Nature plan, a 25-year framework to become a ‘biophilic’ city. “Nick has taken the experience of working with us on Liveable Cities and translated that way of approaching sustainability and climate change into the local authority context, and it is coming to fruition in the City of Nature plan,” says Dr Leach. 

Mr Grayson says the secondment gave him exposure to “multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, which was very influential on my mindset and my understanding of the city’s challenges”. The tendency of city authorities to look at climate issues at a departmental level — such as putting air quality into the domain of the transport and highways division — is flawed.  “If we approach this in silos, all we do is accelerate bad decisions. Climate change is a classic example, in that everyone is signing up to tackle it without a clue how to deliver change, because we wouldn’t be in the position, we’re in if our systems weren’t aligned in the way that they are,” Grayson argues.  

“If we’re going to do something with connectivity and transport, for example, we can’t do it in isolation because it is linked with other problems,” says Dr Leach. “We divide problems up sectorally because that’s the way we’ve done it for a long time now, but we should be looking at them collectively. Our solutions and interventions should not be delivered through one lens.” 

Mr Grayson’s participation in Liveable Cities was not just useful for guiding the city — it also helped academics to understand the real- world contexts in which their ideas would have to play out. He says: “It was useful wearing the ‘city hat’ in discussions so we could keep ideas in the realm of reality and practically-oriented, always coming back to the final challenge: how do we make change happen?” He believes that, where possible, city councils should participate in university research initiatives, and academic leaders should join the corporate leadership teams of cities, such as through exchanges or away days, to increase the flow of ideas, perspectives and experiences in both directions.  

Research relevance, and building relationships 

Along with factoring in the realities of political decision-making, academics need to go further in making their research accessible and relevant. John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography, experienced first-hand the limitations of research during his 12 years chairing the Climate Change and Sustainability Committee for Worcestershire County Council.“We consumed and digested very little academic research during this period, because of the complexities of aligning research with the specifics of the challenges we faced,” he says. “Policymakers have a precise need which is often not aligned with the ways academic research is framed because that research is far too focused.” Professor Bryson adds that universities need to be open to the idea that they need different skills and people in order to smooth the flow of research into policy. “Universities need cutting-edge academics, but they might not always be the person you want to put in front of the local councillor,” he argues. 

“We have to be aware that we are speaking to people who are busy, and that do not have the background we have,” says Professor Aleksandra Čavoški, of the Birmingham Law School. “The question is how do you use language to translate your findings into law and policy?” Not all academics want to get engaged in policy making or when they engage, as pointed out by the policymakers in the European Commission[1], they “need to use much simpler language to communicate as academic language is difficult to use for policy purposes”. Dr Prestwood also emphasises the importance of working effectively with government, presenting evidence in a way that is accessible and meaningful, especially when working with under-resourced organisations such as Birmingham City Council. 

The extended time horizons of academic work can also be useful to industry says Professor Kendrick. “Academics can support industrial development through scientific insight into the processes, to understand the science and engineering behind them. As somebody that's come out of industry, I know that you just don't have the time to put into the analysis needed to understand the physics or chemistry behind manufacturing processes. That's where universities come in; they perform the underpinning science behind these industrial processes”. 

William Bloss, drawing from his experience working with the West Midlands Combined Authority, argues that academics need to tailor their communications while retaining appropriate rigour, and this might require them to “step outside your academic research comfort zone to put the science forward in way that is accurate and fair, but also effective and impactful in policy contexts around contentious issues”. He adds that academic-policy engagement benefits substantially from the trust and mutual understanding that flow from prior collaboration. “The understanding and respect mean there is trust on both sides and you can have free and easy scoping conversation and get to a formal plan — there is something about the duration of interaction that enables substantive engagement”. Professor Hannah makes a similar observation. “The Marine Scotland Science work was only possible because we co-created it with the government and local stakeholders (river and fisheries trusts) from the beginning,” he says.  


[1] https://research.birmingham.ac.uk/en/publications/science-and-law-in-environmental-law-and-policy-the-case-of-the-e