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31 Jan 2023

Speaker Spotlight: Dr Sally Uren OBE on transforming carbon neutral education for a just and regenerative future

Speaker Spotlight: Dr Sally Uren OBE on transforming carbon neutral education for a just and regenerative future

Forum for the Future's CEO, Dr Sally Uren is passionate about driving deep transformation in global systems and has spent more than 25 years working in partnership with business, governments, and civil society to accelerate the shift toward what she describes as ‘a just and regenerative future.’ In 2017, Sally was awarded an OBE for services to sustainability at the Queens New Year Honours. Sally joins us in the Arena to explore the massive transformation that education institutions need in order to hit the Department for Education goal of all schools, colleges and universities being carbon neutral by 2030.

We sat down with Sally to hear more about her work in sustainability and explore her session themes for Bett 2023.

In your session at Bett 2023, you’ve mentioned ‘a just and regenerative future’. Could you explain what this means, and what role the education community plays in getting there?

At Forum for the Future, we used to talk about the idea of a ‘sustainable future’ – in other words, a future where we’ve created the conditions in which people and planet can thrive into the long term. However, we didn't say enough about what needs to happen to deliver that future, and we're also mindful that ‘sustainability’ can mean all sorts of different things to different people.

So over the last couple of years we've pushed our ambition further, setting our sights beyond a sustainable future to a ‘just and regenerative’ one.

In a just and regenerative future, we recognise that humans are part of, not separate from, nature – rapidly stabilising our negative impacts on the planet so that we operate within planetary boundaries. In this future we have reconfigured the key systems we rely on – food, education, energy and more – (which right now are at breaking point) to create new ways of living and working that support everyone’s universal rights and potential to thrive.

It’s also a future in which we’ve redefined our economy. It’s important  to think about how we create and distribute economic value – at the moment, economic value is created in such a way that the benefits sit with a very, very small percentage of the population. ‘Just and regenerative’ is about thinking of new and different ways of creating and sharing value fairly; it’s a future in which economic models prioritise human well-being and ecosystem health.

So, we’ve updated the social dimension of sustainability, and ‘just and regenerative’ is a way of bringing environmental and social together. It speaks to a desire to really deliver systems change at all levels and create the conditions in which systems can allow us to thrive long term.

You’ve spent 25 years working with business, governments and civil society. Can you tell us about a key highlight from your career, and how it changed the way you think about sustainability?

It’s hard to pick only one! I really enjoy working with new, influential leaders in organisations, whether they’re board level members in the private sector or senior public servants or heads of non-profit organisations. The highlight is when they suddenly understand that they need to do something differently. This understanding, comes from two things:  getting much more familiar with the issues, both environmental and social, and shifting your mindset. Donella Meadows was one of the early practitioners in systems change, and she wrote that the deepest lever for change is our mindset. It's the stories we tell ourselves. It's our personal beliefs, our values. Education is key to shaping that.

So, for me, the highlights are where people with power and influence are prepared to do things differently, often do things no one’s done before. When individuals really shift their mindset, build their awareness, and are willing to do try other ways, model and approaches,  that is a signal that perhaps we can create a different kind of future.

You are directly concerned with the massive transformation that education institutions need to make in order to hit the DfE goal of all schools, colleges and universities being carbon neutral by 2030. What are the 3 biggest challenges education institutions are facing in this area?

This is quite a significant goal. I think that, when it comes to climate, education institutions actually have two sets of challenges. They've got that first challenge of getting to carbon neutral in regard to scopes one, two and three and doing all that by 2030 is pretty ambitious. The standard challenges you face can be incredibly far-reaching, for example, accessing capital to invest in renewable energy through to shifting behaviours, such as getting people to turn off the lights. These are challenges which are common to any organisation wanting to decarbonise – however, the trick is working across the sector, and considering indirect emissions from suppliers. So there's a kind of standard set of challenges there which are getting quite well documented in the work that everyone's doing towards net zero.

But I think the second challenge is probably harder, which is, how do you equip students with the skills they need to face the intensifying social, environmental and economic issues we all face? Students are leaving education without any certainty on how to tackle the climate emergency. They're not sure how to address the root causes of social inequality. I think our education system should be equipping young people with the capability, the skills, to really engage seriously and transform how the world works. At the moment, that’s a really difficult task because there’s so little education around how to change long-established, but now no longer fit-for-purpose systems. In the current education system, you come out at MBA level and you can understand how to keep the current economy working. But what we actually need to do is reimagine our economy, and create a new education system that is built for a different set of skills and designed around this notion of just and regenerative, making the economy work for the environment and for society.

So, the first set of challenges requires cost, time, energy and behaviour change. The second requires a completely new way of thinking and working.

What can our audience expect from your session at the show and what are you most excited about seeing at Bett 2023?

I'm excited to see the degree to which education sees its role in building a just and regenerative future. I think it comes back to your overarching theme – Reconnect, Reimagine, Renew. And in terms of what people can expect from my session, it’s all about why we need to do things differently. Essentially, I’m making a call for integrating systems change into education, because it's missing right now. If we could equip young people with the skills to understand the world as a set of interconnected systems, to understand how to reconfigure those systems in a way that isn't overwhelming, and to help them see themselves as part of a bigger solution.

That’s what makes the overarching theme really relevant because we're at a crossroads where we could carry on doing what we have been doing, which won't get us anywhere close to a just and regenerative future. Or we can reimagine the way the world works, reconnect our systems in different ways, and renew to create a path of deep transformation. At Forum for the Future, we’ve done a lot of work on mindsets, and we've talked about everything from risk mitigation through to regenerative thinking. What happens if you embrace a just artisanship mindset in education? You'll start to do things really, really differently.

Lots of educators are dealing with burnout right now. Do you think it’s fair to ask teachers to think about such big topics when they’re already overstretched?

Yes, there’s a whole wave of eco-anxiety, particularly for young people who are already facing multiple challenges to their mental health, and it affects educators as well. Part of the reason why teachers – and many others – are feeling overloaded is that we're asking professions to optimise a system that isn't working. In the education sector there's this constant pressure on exams and testing, as if we're trying to change the existing system by making it work harder. And it was Einstein that said, and I love this quote, that tackling the same problem with the same approach and expecting a different result is insanity. So, essentially we’re trying to optimise a suboptimal system and in doing so, overloading everybody.

At the end of the day, the context is that the world is in a really difficult place. We are about to face a serious climate emergency; structural inequality is intensifying; we're in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of natural species It's undoubtedly grim, and yet we're still putting all this pressure on teachers, on professors, on students.

So why don't we just take a step back and say, right, so what is this context within which we find ourselves in 2023? It's not the same context in which formal education was conceptualised over 50 years ago. If we think about what we really need students to know at this moment in time, it’s all about innovating technology, understanding AI algorithms and driving systemic change. So the question isn’t around how teachers can cope in a system that fundamentally isn’t fit for purpose, but how we can create a new educational system that works for the world we’re actually living in.

Join Dr Sally Uren in the Arena at Bett 2023 on 29th March as she draws on 25 years of working in partnership with business, governments, and civil society to accelerate the shift toward a just and regenerative future. Bett 2023 takes place from 29-31 March at the ExCeL London. Get your ticket here!

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