Aalto avp mobile logo

Last weekend, I watched the documentary film David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet narrated by — you guessed it — Sir David Attenborough. It was such a beautiful story, but at the same time so terrible it actually made me cry by showing what’s happening to our planet. According to the film, Earth will be lost by 2100 if we keep doing what we do now. It’s just a lifetime away.

However, the film also suggested solutions for saving the world. First, we need to slow down the growth of the human population. In order to do so, we need to reduce poverty, increase access to healthcare, and enable girls to be able to stay at school. Second, we need to shift all our energy into renewable green energy. It may seem like a giant leap, but it’s all achievable if we work together.

At AVP, I’ve become familiar with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The film got me thinking about how education and sustainability are related, and what we can do to cultivate the culture of sustainability not only within the university context but also in businesses.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries — developed and developing — in a global partnership.

Even in the biggest corporation in the world, decisions are made and affected by individuals.

SDGs recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. Just like in the Attenborough film’s first solution regarding slowing down population growth — one issue is connected to the broader context and things are interconnected.

One thing we need to admit is that the impact of corporations and businesses from developed countries is globally significant on many of the goals. However, even in the biggest corporation in the world, decisions are made by employees, and — usually — based on what the customers want; in other words, decisions are made and affected by individuals. That’s where education comes in. The majority of university graduates will work in big companies or SMEs after their studies. What if students at universities could practice understanding SDGs and then later work on the issues that can directly influence the indicators of those goals?

A group of students working

AVP’s Startup Experience students working on a problem related to SDGs

Of course, some of our first-world problems look meaningless in third-world countries, and I’m not saying that only university graduates are eligible for coming up with meaningful solutions. But we do need to learn about and understand these problems, and SDGs are one concrete tool to help us analyze sustainability-related problems and evaluate their solutions.

“Sustainability problems are not always just issues in developing countries. There are social problems for example in Helsinki, and researching and solving them is more approachable for many students. It’s crucial for students to really understand the problem, and we don’t want to make the students think a wealthy westerner can just solve all the issues in developing countries without even becoming familiar with them,” says AVP’s other co-director, Kalle Airo.

Ilkka Kivimäki on Talouselämä pointed out that social impact, one of the universities’ missions according to The University Act, can be accomplished by commercializing academic outcomes and turning research into business. MIT alone has produced 26 000 companies founded by their alumni, and alumni companies in total generate 2 trillion USD. If the outcomes from universities can directly solve big sustainability issues the world is facing, it can lead us all towards a better future.

It is not responsible teaching if we teach only how to extract profits without taking sustainability into account.

“There is a negative impact on the global scale in creating one more mass-consumption product if that product does not bring any social or economic value and only leads to substantial profit for the business owners. It is not responsible teaching if we teach only how to extract profits without taking sustainability into account. Students are agents of the future, we believe in them and we believe in their potential to make the world a better place,” says Lidia Borisova, Head of Education at AVP.

Now, you might think that ‘yes, but not all education is about business’. And you’d be right, it’s not. But sustainable thinking can also be applied to natural sciences, applied science, and even humanities and social sciences such as visual arts. For example, a professor can choose the topic of a course or research to reduce the global food loss rate per capita, and the research lab or student team can come up with an ingenious innovation to solve the problem. Or an artist can create public awareness through their artwork on more sustainable consumption, and as a result, it will lead to a change in policy. Or maybe a university student, who becomes familiar with SDGs during their studies, later starts working for a maritime company and creates a solution to reducing mortal accidents of whales with sea vessels. The possibilities are limitless.

SDGs are a perfect codification of our directions towards a better future, and they are well aligned with educational outcomes. As a university, it’s our role to learn and educate about them. The goals are big, but SDGs help us break them down into small steps. And sometimes, when there’s a guiding hand around, a small step is all you need to get moving.

Learn more about SDGs and how you can start working with them:

Aalto Ventures Program together with Junction is organizing Solve the SDGs online hackathon between 28th and 30th of May 2021 to bring bright and innovative minds from across the world to tackle problems related to SDGs. Stay tuned for more info soon!

Read more on Aalto University and The SDG Accord: https://www.aalto.fi/en/sustainability/aalto-is-committed-to-un-sustainable-development-goals-sdg