The Network of European Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS4EUROPE) has committed to strengthening the role of Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) in line with the Agenda2030 of the United Nations (Arene 2021). Thus, the UASes should continuously develop their RDI processes and practices to ensure that the projects both further sustainable development and practice sustainability The UAS policies or guidelines on RDI, the processes of project portfolio management affect greatly the sustainability handprint of the RDI of an UAS. (Knuuttila et al 2022, 11).
On the level of an individual project, sustainability can be divided into sustainability “by the project” and “of the project” (Huemann & Silvius 2017). Figure 1 demonstrates the relationship of these two as we understand them. Both forms of the project sustainability are affected by financer’s (grant giver’s) and host organisation’s policies and guidelines at the project planning phase, which is an important phase of project work for setting targets and agreeing on practical arrangements of the project.
Sustainability by the project refers to the impacts of the results of the project. They can facilitate ecologically, socially, and economically more sustainable actions in the target organisations or groups of people. Additionally, they can have institutional effect on what kinds of sustainability-related projects are planned and even on grant giver’s policies on financing sustainability-related topics. Sustainability of the project, on the other hand, refers robustly to practices used to minimise ecological footprint and maximise social handprint during the project. Sustainability by the project refers to practices to maximise the total sustainability handprint after the project. In this paper, we focus on sustainability during the project.
The possibilities to implement these are affected by the RDI policies and practices of the UASes and by the grant giver’s policies on substance and guidelines on practices. For example, all Erasmus+ projects should be designed in an eco-friendly manner and should incorporate green practices in all facets. Organisations and participants involved should have an environmental-friendly approach when designing their projects, which will encourage them to discuss and learn about environmental issues, make them think about what can be done at their level and help them come up with alternative greener ways of implementing their activities. (European Commission 2023, 5). Also, an equality plan of the applicant organisations is an obligatory annex of Erasmus+ proposals.
Figure 1 Schematic presentation of the interactions and impacts of projects on sustainability
EduSTA – Academy for Sustainable Future Educators is an Erasmus+ Teacher Academies project aiming at creating open digital badge-driven learning pathways for teachers to verify their sustainability competences and to become teachers who work more effectively for sustainable future. The project consortium consists of teacher education units in five universities in Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Catalonia Spain. (EduSTA 2023).
In EduSTA, developing sustainable project practices is incorporated in the Quality Work package as one of the tasks. This particular task is further divided into three smaller activities: 1) to analyze sustainable collaboration practices in partners and preliminary guidelines for the project; 2) to produce a discussion paper about the observations and lesson learnt; 3) to form revised guidelines for sustainable collaboration in projects. (EduSTA project plan). This paper serves as a discussion paper presenting findings of the questionnaire for the project partners and some suggestions for the project collaboration practices.
Following the Erasmus+ guidelines, some practices to minimize the project’s ecological footprint were already embedded in the EduSTA project proposal. Flight travel is kept to a minimum as the project partners are meeting live only three times during a three-year project. Further, two of the meetings are in cities that can be reasonably reached by train by most of the partners. The Sustainable Collaboration Task also enables to plan alternative travel routes to flying. (EduSTA 2021). Otherwise, collaboration is organised through a shared Teams platform, regular online meetings and webinars. The importance of enhancing social sustainability – i.e. developing safe and sustainable online collaboration environment – was already acknowledged in the project application. (EduSTA 2021.)
Surveying Partners’ Understandings
The partners’ views on sustainable project and collaboration practices were surveyed by a short online questionnaire in the project Teams platform in January 2023. The survey aimed at finding a common understanding of sustainable collaboration practices and what sustainable collaboration practices should be used in this project. The questionnaire was constructed by using the guidelines for sustainable RDI practices published by the Rectors’ Conference of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences (Knuuttila et al. 2022).
The questionnaire consisted of five open questions, which were asked to be filled together with all the project participants of each partner organization:
- How do you understand sustainable collaboration practices?
- How can we promote ecological sustainability in this project through our practices?
- How can we promote equality and transparency in the decision making in this project?
- What challenges and/or obstacles do you see in executing the sustainable collaboration practices in this project?
- What sustainability related practices or guidelines would you recommend from your organization to be adopted in EduSTA?
Four out of five partner universities answered the questionnaire. However, we didn’t collect information on how many team members participated in answering at each partner university.
Two Main Trends – Ecological and Social Sustainability
The answers to the question about the partners’ understanding of sustainable collaboration practices could be divided into two main categories. On the one hand, there were answers focusing on ecological sustainability. On the other hand, some answers focused on socially sustainable communication and practices. The answers also differed on the scale of enhancing sustainability. Answers emphasizing the ecological point of view focused on reducing carbon footprint and impact of the project globally. The social point of view was describing community building inside the project.
The answers to the question on the possibilities to promote ecological sustainability in the project through project practices brought up the themes related to sustainable travelling, minimising paper printouts, education about ecological sustainability, and efficient use of Teams platform to communicate and co-create instead of travelling.
In the answers to the third question about promoting equality and transparency in the project, two main trends could be observed 1) giving an equal possibility to participate in important meetings and voting about important decisions in the project, and 2) enabling and ensuring an open and respectful atmosphere where it is easy to express opinions. Also, different memo-writing, communication, and filing conventions were seen as promoting equality and transparency.
The obstacles and challenges in executing sustainable collaboration practices were mainly about achieving common understanding, getting everyone committed to the project and gaining ownership of the project tasks. Some technical issues and general sense of meaningfulness were also seen as challenges.
Lastly, we asked which sustainability related practices of the partner universities should be adopted in the project. The answers included a variety of different tips from practical everyday actions to the practices of planning the project and activities. Accessibility and use of gender-neutral pronouns in documents were mentioned as a practices to be adopted.
Towards shared understanding and practices
The purpose of the questionnaire was to develop sustainable collaboration practices in international projects. The answers reveal certain tension between ecological and social sustainability of the project. Most suggestions deal with social sustainability and ensuring a good atmosphere. This is logical as the principles of ecological sustainability were already set in the project plan.
We reflected the results against the project plan and an atmosphere review, which was executed as part of the Quality work package. Together, these questionnaires form a good insight guiding further planning and organising interaction in the project consortium.
The biggest decisions on ecological sustainability of an international project are made in the planning phase.
Partly, the answers show that all practices described in the project plan or Data Management Plan (e.g. naming and filing conventions) are not known very well by all the people working on the project. Secondly, there are areas for development, especially with regard to practices related to social sustainability. As travelling and meeting face-to-face have been restricted, it is important to facilitate commitment and belonging by adding elements of informality to online presence. Taking care of good organisation of the “project office” that is the Teams environment of the project e.g., through naming conventions seems equally important.
The issues of travel arrangements to meetings should be discussed during the project as the universities’ travel guidelines still often prioritise air travel because land travel takes more time (e.g., TAMK 2023). However, it is possible to explore new travelling practices in EduSTA as developing sustainable collaboration practices is embedded in the project.
As a result, we created a checklist of suggestions to promote sustainable collaboration:
Transparency, good atmosphere, and community
- Utilize your monthly/weekly informal meetings to discuss concerns and unclear matters to enhance commitment and ownership of the project. Develop them actively as safe spaces to share worries and errors.
- Discuss the ways to improve commitment and team building.
Ease of following the progress of the project
- Reinforce the principles of file naming conventions and agree on conventions of data storage to promote effective use of your digital platforms.
- Write short but informative meeting memos clearly indicating the topic, conclusion and agreed tasks and deadlines.
- Experiment with means of land travel during the project.
Takeaways to Project Planning and Management
Sustainability of projects is a manifold issue. The EduSTA case shows that the biggest decisions on ecological sustainability of an international project are made in the planning phase when deciding about meetings and forms of collaboration. It is critical to plan carefully how digital collaboration is organized to facilitate the feeling of community and easy flow of information, which are important parts of social sustainability of projects. In the project planning phase, it is also possible to include features of sustainable project management in the quality management processes of the project. This way projects can serve the development of more sustainable project practices in UASes. In project management it is important to ascertain that all members of the project team are familiar with the sustainability guidelines of the project. Especially, social sustainability of the project can be facilitated by focusing on community building and well-organised digital collaboration platform.
Arene 2021. UAS4EUROPE verkosto sitoutuu yhdessä YK:n kestävän kehityksen tavoitteisiin. Read on 25.8.2023. https://arene.fi/ajankohtaista/uas4europe-verkosto-sitoutuu-yhdessa-ykn-kestavan-kehityksen-tavoitteisiin/
EduSTA 2021. Academy for Sustainable Future Educators. Project Application for Erasmus+ Teacher Academies. Submitted 7.9.2021. Tampere University of Applied Sciences.
EduSTA 2023. Academy for Sustainable Future Educators (EduSTA). Web page. Read on 25.8.2023. https://projects.tuni.fi/edusta/
European Commission 2023. Erasmus+ Programme Guide. 2023. Version 3. Read on 25.8.2023. https://erasmus-plus.ec.europa.eu/sites/default/files/2023-04/ErasmusplusProgramme-Guide2023-v3_en.pdf
Hueman, M. & Silvius, G. 2017. Projects to create the future: Managing projects meets sustainable development. International Journal of Project Management. 35(6), 1066–1070. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijproman.2017.04.014
Knuuttila K., Parkkonen T., Ylikoski E., Helenius H., Sagne-Ollikainen E., Tyni S. & Matveinen M. 2022. Kestävä ja vastuullinen tutkimus-, kehitys- ja innovaatiotoiminta ammattikorkeakouluissa. Ammattikorkeakoulujen rehtorineuvosto Arene. Humanistinen ammattikorkeakoulu. Julkaisuja. 147. Helsinki. https://www.humak.fi/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/arene-julkaisu-2022.pdf
TAMK 2023. Guideline on travelling by land. 13.6.2023. Digital document in TUNI intranet. Read on 25.8.2023. Limited access.
Dr, Senior Lecturer in the Programme of Professional Teacher Education at the School of Pedagogical Innovations and Culture
Tampere University of Applied Sciences
EduSTA – Sustainable Future Educators
Senior Advisor in the School of Pedagogical Innovations and Culture
Tampere University of Applied Sciences