Student Culture for Sustainability
Helping international exchange students in Uppsala, Sweden redefine sustainability.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Uppsala, Sweden. During this time, I took a course offered by CEMUS titled 'Sustainable Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human-Built Worlds.' The brief for our capstone project for these five months was simply: 'Solve a problem with a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) as inspiration.'
Like the final product, our teams were also formed through an iterative process. We began by individually creating mind maps, unpacking the SDG that sparked our interest the most. I created a mind map of SDG #3: Quality Education. Through a series of diverging, converging, and sense-making activities with everyone's mind maps, we eventually found our teams.
After conducting some research and analyzing our findings, we defined our problem statement as: How might we show Uppsala exchange students the ways in which they already participate in sustainability, so that they feel part of the movement and continue to participate?
With the most previous experience in design on my team, I led many of the research and design processes that we used throughout our process. Additionally, my knowledge of identity development processes allowed the team to hone in on specific moments of opportunity for intervention. I conducted 3 out of the 10 interviews, affinity diagrammed our research findings, and designed our final presentation poster.
What I gained:
Working on a vastly diverse team with others from varied academic and cultural backgrounds, I experienced the value of getting to know my teammates outside of a work setting. This allowed us to better play to our strengths and develop a workflow that best suited our personalities.
January 2017 - June 2017
Begoña, from Basque Country, with a background in anthropology
Me, from USA, with a background in human development & family sciences
Pascalina, from Belgium, with a background in neuroscience
Hyejin, from South Korea, with a background in dentistry
The key topics that brought the team together were:
Who decides what is sustainable for who?
How can we make sustainability more inclusive?
How can we bridge culture and sustainability?
Defining the Problem
The broad problem statement that we started with was:
"How can we bridge culture and sustainability?"
Based on our own experiences, as well as many peers in our course who were highly involved in sustainability efforts, we identified that the idea of 'sustainability' is often monolithic in culture; the ideal, 'sustainable' individual that we often imagine is the one who composts, eats locally sourced foods, has solar panels on their home, and uses zero-emissions modes of transportation. Moreover, this 'sustainability culture' is often determined by the educated, upper-class, even though communities who may be considered 'underdeveloped' or 'impoverished' often have their own sustainable practices, rooted in cultural practices. These 'sustainability cultures' however, are often overshadowed by the sustainability 'culture' of the educated, upper class.
To identify our problem, we decided to narrow our user group to those who were most accessible to us: other fellow exchange students in Uppsala. We then decided that the best way to define the problem was to understand what people currently thought of sustainability.
We conducted 10 in-person interviews with exchange students at Uppsala Universitetet asking them how 'sustainability' is translated in their home language, their associations with the word, and whether they felt like they are sustainable. Here are some of their responses:
"Nach means 'after.' and haltigkeit means 'stay'. So the word feels very... forward-facing."
“You really have to care. I do care, but I don’t think I know as much as I could know or should know... “
—Leni, from Colonge
"I think it would directly translate as the development of stuff that is long-lasting."
“Yeah I feel like I can participate in it, but I always feel like I’m not doing enough. My family composts at home, and we have a water recycling system, but there’s always something more I could be doing.
—Nadine, from Montréal
"It roughly translates as development that is meant to continue things."
“I don’t think I’m that involved in sustainability. I know about the topics, but I don’t think I know as much as other people and I don’t do enough about it.”
—Haruka, from Tokyo
After interviewing individuals from 8 different countries and doing some affinity mapping with our findings, we found 2 underlying themes:
1) Guilt for not doing or knowing "more" in regards to sustainability.
2) An in-group/out-group dynamic of those who are sustainable, and those who are not.
Based on our research and these insights, we realized that the problem we were trying to solve was self-perpetuating: individuals didn't feel like they could be sustainable because they weren't part of the 'sustainable crowd.' And they weren't part of the crowd because they didn't feel like they were sustainable.
The problem boiled down to an issue of identity.
Our redefined problem statement:
How might we show Uppsala exchange students the ways in which they already participate in sustainability, so that they feel part of the movement and continue to participate?
In thinking about identity development and growth, we realized that one opportunity for identity development is during the Welcome Week, organized by the student nations.
During this time, students have just arrived in Sweden and are expected to join a student nation (a bit like in Harry Potter). In addition, students are also expecting a study abroad experience that will redefine them, and according to academically, peer-reviewed research* are primed for identity development and redefinition. We identified this as the ideal moment of intervention.
After using some ideation techniques such as (insert link here) and (insert link here), we created a concept that addressed our problem statement:
Have student nations define their own sustainable identity, based on their existing identity (e.g., the nation that hosts the flea market; the nation with the best vegan options).
Present these identities to new exchange students through Welcome Week through the events.
Allow individuals to match themselves with the 'sustainable identity' that best suits them.