Tag Archives: #SDGs

Acting Collectively and Bottom-up for Sustainability: Does it work? How do we know? Why does it matter?

by Maria Josefina Figueroa.

Collective bottom-up actions for sustainability are on the rise in many corners of the global community. Actions are inspired by a realization that local solutions present opportunities to also pursue and reach global commitments, especially those agreed by all nations with the Paris climate agreement and the Agenda 2030, and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (short SDGs).

What counts as collective bottom-up action?

A wide array of actions and forms of engagement by civil society, public and private actors can be counted as forms of collective bottom-up action. Examples range from actions of green activist and volunteers in organized community-led activities, over private entrepreneurs in small and medium enterprises and local businesses, to local authorities seeking to engage citizen participation in the implementation of sustainability solutions. With the sense of urgency attributed to both achieving climate goals and the SDGs, a logical expectation can be that increasing bottom-up engagement and action will easily translate into contributions for sustainability. Moving away from a mere presumption to gaining knowledge in support of this case requires posing questions such as these: “Does bottom-up collective acting work for sustainability?”, “How can we know?”, and “Why does it matter that we know?”

Does it work?

From a systems perspective, a simplified affirmative answer can be offered: bottom-up collective actions can play a big or small part toward systemic change. They can do this by setting in motion key system levers or eventually by helping catalyse a movement that can potentially contribute toward systemic change. However, even if this is the case, how can we know that the change set in motion will be advancing important sustainability goals?

How do we know?

The answer can be approached within a variety of disciplinary fields. These include (but are not limited to) social science, engineering, psychology, economics, political science, technological innovation studies and economy-energy studies. Some approaches target consumption and production, behaviour, lifestyles, and service provision; others target systemic infrastructure impacts and technology choices. Each approach favours a partial disciplinary assessment. Each field converges towards certain expert knowledge which tends to make its use difficult in an open public conversation or public deliberation. Gaining full understanding of the way collective bottom-up actions can work for sustainability requires further efforts to synthesize partial field approaches and for learning in action.

Recent efforts by the international research community are helping advance multidisciplinary frameworks for assessment and systemic thinking in approaching complex sustainability challenges and solutions. Evolving research efforts in multi-disciplinary teams are helping find ways of bridging evidence from natural and social systems with political and ethical considerations. The results offer a more complete evaluation of bottom-up actions’ impacts, synergies and potential conflicts. Similarly, they offer a scope for creative thinking and innovation enlarging the sustainable solutions space.

Experimentation, assessment, learning and knowledge creation approaches are a necessary component of the transition

Why does it matter to know if bottom-up actions work for sustainability?

Here are three reasons why it matters. First, because gaining knowledge of what constitutes effective collective action is essential for informed decision-making at all levels. There is a short time span for countries to deliver on their commitments to limit global warming below dangerous levels and to achieve SDGs as an integrated vision. More knowledge can make clear the opportunities for innovation and help to understand where trade-offs may be unavoidable.

Second, because sustainability gains may be easier to obtain and assess locally but it is also important to learn how they can be scaled up and offer improvements toward global goals.

Finally, because experimentation, assessment, learning and knowledge creation approaches are a necessary component of this transition, in this process universities have a very important role to play.

The task of universities is to form well-equipped sustainability professionals with strong capabilities to work in multi-disciplinary teams. General eagerness to understand the systemic interconnections between sustainability and climate challenges and solutions is just as important.

So far, this task has been addressed in Denmark by the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), the Danish Technical University (DTU) and Copenhagen Business School (CBS) joint developing electives (e.g. this and this) that can be chosen by students from any discipline and from any of the three universities – provided their study board will accept the course for credit.

Universities have unique resources and facilities to contribute in strengthening the knowledge creation, self-awareness, complex system thinking and multidisciplinary learning process. They can help enrich and transform the scope of bottom-up collective action into plausible solutions that pave a sustainability-transition path.


Maria Josefina Figueroa is assistant professor and academic coordinator of the Copenhagen Sustainability Initiative COSI at Copenhagen Business School. She is also lead author of the IPCC Fifth and coming Sixth Assessment Report.

Pic by Sharon Mollerus, Flickr

Bottom-up Sustainability: Let’s make CBS the First Business School with a Green Community Currency!

by Stine Eiersholt & Lena Tünkers.

In an earlier BOS article, Louise Thomsen from CBS PRME asked the question whether universities are falling behind on the green transition. We, as students, might not feel resourceful enough to bring up the debate about sustainable development and large-scale transitions. But in fact, we have tremendous possibilities to help our own institutions walk the walk towards reaching a more sustainable environment, for example with a campus currency.

One foot first and then another

We are students. We don’t have to wait for people in a boardroom to decide whether or not to add sustainability to the agenda. We can start taking the first steps now. Today. You can actively engage with socially responsible or green student organizations, participate in events concerning everything from circular economy to the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and you can try and influence such things as how the canteen handles food waste. Why not just take an extra step and start transforming the campus ourselves? That is what the SuPo community currency project is all about: Creating bottom-up sustainability at CBS campus. Since the beginning of the project, we have already taken many steps, some of which took us down the busy streets of Manhattan towards the office of the UN Global Compact.

1 Hackathon, 4 SDGs and 3 strangers

Let’s rewind for a second to explain how we ended up in the Big Apple on a chilly day in March. This recap is for those of you, who have been so focused on this semester’s curriculum that words such as SuPo, Sustainable Campus Hackathon and PRME have escaped your vocabulary.

The number 3 has always been magical. We were three girls, from three different countries and three different universities who met for the first time during the Sustainable Campus Hackathon in November 2017 at the Student & Innovation House. The hackathon involved four SDGs and the aim was to encourage sustainability-driven changes of the CBS campus. Coincidentally, we decided to team up to develop an idea related to green infrastructure during the day-and-a-half long case competition. After walking around in circles for 6 hours trying to come up with the right idea, we somehow had a ‘light bulb moment’ after some much-needed pizza: the idea of SuPo was born.

SuPo; a CBS community currency to promote sustainable behaviour where virtual points can be earned and spent around the campus. Suddenly we were rushing through a 4-minute pitch, first at a preliminary heat, then the finale. It felt unbelievable, but we won. Now to the exciting stuff: Besides implementing SuPo at CBS, the prize included flying to New York City to present our idea to the joint UN Global Compact and PRME office!

The project takes off

Thanks to our jetlag, there was no need to set an alarm as we were wide awake by 3 am anyway. Over the last few weeks we have been excitedly talking about this day so many times, each day with increasing anticipation. Today was finally the day: The bags were packed, the presentation was tuned, the shirt ironed. We were ready to present at the UN Global Compact office and share with them how we thought this project could transform our campus for the better. It felt like a massive step. And it was still just 5 am.

SuPo took a bite of the Big Apple

To start off on the right leg that morning, we had a good old American bagel with coffee before rushing through the busy underground metro network to the first meeting of the day. After an introduction by the UN Global Compact and PRME, we took the floor and presented the Sustainable Campus Hackathon as well as the ideas, collaborations and visions behind the SuPo project. The 2-hour long meeting was an incredible experience for us and everyone present participated in the discussion after the presentation. The idea about a community currency based on sustainable behaviour definitely gained support, as one of the UN interns was asked to research the possibilities of inferring a similar system within the UN office. Mission accomplished!

Our next stop was the Social Innovation Lab of Fordham University which is located right at South Central Park. Our morning bagels were long gone by now, so our empty stomachs were rumbling when a range of American pizzas were brought in. You know, the thick, cheesy, mainly meat style pizzas you see Joey eat in Friends. We started the meeting by giving a less detailed presentation of SuPo. Afterwards, the Social Innovation Lab students shared their own projects and interests which ranged from projects on self-sufficient housing to project collaborations with large environmental-advocacy networks. Impressive. Later that day, we received emails from the professors present at the university meeting highlighting their interest in testing SuPo at Fordham as soon as a pilot project has been developed at CBS. They were also eager to organize their own Sustainable Campus Hackathon with help from the organizers in Copenhagen. What a day!

Get involved and create change

It took one hackathon and one good idea before we sat at the long meeting room table in the UN Global Compact office. It took a few more meetings at home before we were able to sit around that table and talk about collaborations on sustainability across the Atlantic. If we can do that in the space of four months, so can you. Get involved around campus, make up your own projects or join the SuPo community. We would love to get involved and take our next steps with you.

Since the hackathon, SuPo has grown to become a CBS-owned project with funding and staff support. The short-term aim of the project is to develop a simulation of the community currency and a pilot project at CBS. Never before has a community currency been introduced to a Business School – SuPo could be the first one. So rather than closing the SuPo chapter after NYC, we embrace the positive response we got on our trip and will use it to push harder for the development of SuPo. The difficult but exciting journey of creating a reward system for sustainable behaviour on CBS campus is just taking off.

If you want to be part of the future SuPo story and join a thrilling sustainable movement to make an impact, get in contact or like & follow us on Facebook and Instagram.


Stine Eiersholt is a MSc in Climate Change student at the University of Copenhagen and works as a student assistant at Climate-KIC – a European climate innovation initiative. In her free time, she hosts a podcast called Influenced by Nature with the aim to highlight people and projects striving to solve climate change, environmental and sustainability related issues.  Follow her on Twitter: @inflbynature

Lena Tünkers is a master student at CBS studying Organizational Innovation and Entrepreneurship with a strong interest in innovative business models that lead to more sustainable behavior.

Who is Responsible for Educating Students in the World’s Agenda on Sustainable Development, if not Universities?

By Louise Kofod Thomsen.

In September 2017, the CBS PRME office hosted a small SDG awareness event at Solbjerg Plads. At the event, the students were asked to answer a brief survey in order to assess their awareness of the SDGs. Out of the 108 students, 67,6 percent indicated that they did not know about the sustainable development goals. From the students who indicated that they knew about the goals, 82,9 % answered that they learned about them outside of CBS.

But let’s zoom out from CBS for a moment and look at some examples from Danish business society. The Danish Global Compact Network was launched on 24 October 2017. This marked an increased focus on the private sector’s crucial role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in Denmark. Another recent event was the launch of the SDG Accelerator, a DKK 3 billion initiative by the UNDP (UN Development Programme) in collaboration with Industriens Fond with the aim to empower 20 SMEs with competencies to work strategically with the SDGs.

Funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, UNLEASH was held for the first time in Aarhus in August 2017, and gathered 1000 talents (students and alumni) from around the world to spend 5 days developing concrete solutions to the SDGs. The list of SDG initiatives in corporate sector could go on, but this is just to state that the corporate sector is mobilizing, we are seeing more investments focusing on SDG activities and even the Danish Parliament now has a Cross-Political Network on the Global Goals.

There is no doubt that the SDGs will be a strong influencer on the strategies and activities of the above-mentioned stakeholders until 2030. In the light of these developments, can universities afford not to take action?

Students do not learn about the SDGs from CBS
It has been two years since the SDGs were launched, but when CBS PRME hosted the SDG awareness event in September 2017, that was the first time the SDGs were present at a public event at CBS. This is while the DANIDA (The Danish International Development Agency), in collaboration with the UNDP, has developed teaching material and platforms for Danish highschool students and teachers. Highschools now host theme weeks on the SDGs providing the students with knowledge, opinions and competencies related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

At university level, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation (KADK) is now requiring all graduates to incorporate the SDGs into their final projects and DTU has established a team of 3 working closely with DTU top management on implementing the SDGs at the university.

While we should acknowledge the CBS courses including SDGs into curriculum and teaching, CBS needs to take a much stronger stand and acknowledge the SDGs as a crucial part of all business education. It is time we break down the belief that the SDGs are not part of e.g. finance and accounting and acknowledge that sustainable development are relevant for all discplines and practises if you want a sound and longlasting business.

Universities can benefit greatly from engaging in the SDGs
A report developed by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network in collaboration with Monash University, University of Wellington and Macquarie University argues that universities not only have a critical role to play in achieving the SDGs, but will also benefit greatly from doing so. Among the benefits, the report mentions an increased demand for SDG related education, a framework for demonstrating impact, accessing of new funding streams and collaboration with new external and internal partners. Evident of this is PRMEs upcoming SDG Day 11 April with 13 student organizations coordinating a full day of SDG activities and events all funded by Chr. Hansen, VELUX and Ørsted who got engaged when they heard “SDGs in a business context”.

Education is at the core of achieving the SDGs, and universities are with their teaching and research activities of fundamental importance to the implementation of the goals. The SDGs are a global framework and shared language and understanding of the world’s development with strong buy-ins from governments, business, civil society, foundations and other universities. CBS can benefit greatly from this support and use the SDG platform to position itself as a meaningful contributor in the areas of research and education.

Next step –  reach, engage  and educate the 67 percent of CBS students, who have never heard of the SDGs.


Louise Thomsen is Project Manager for CBS PRME and the VELUX Chair in Corporate Sustainability at the Department of Management, Society and Communication, CBS. Her areas of interest are sustainable consumption, innovation, student engagement, education and partnerships for sustainable development. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter

Pic by CBS PRME.

Need an SDG Solution? Hack it.

By Lara Anne Hale.

November 16 – 18, 2017 marked the beginning of a student-driven innovation era at Copenhagen Business School. The Student Innovation House – in collaboration with Oikos and PRME – hosted their first major event, the Sustainable Campus Hackathon 2017.

A Hackathon for more campus sustainability
Having received an impressive 120 applications to participate in the event, 66 students from universities across Denmark were invited to join an intensive 2.5-day spree of hacking sustainability ideas in four UN Sustainable Development Goal areas: Green Infrastructure, Healthy and Sustainable Food, Diversity and Inclusion, and Human Well Being and Mental Health. The goal? To come up with an idea that is feasible, implementable, scalable, and imparting a big impact; and the winning proposal will be further developed and implemented on the CBS campus next year.

Not all SDGs are created equally
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the first challenges was that not all SDGs are created equally, at least not in terms of student interest. Fully half of the students formed groups competing in the Healthy and Sustainable Food area, leaving Human Well Being and Green Infrastructure perfectly fitted with teams, but Diversity and Inclusion completely empty. I can’t help but wonder what this says about what is being integrated into students’ curriculum, especially in regards to sustainable development. Many students, during our “speed dating” for forming teams, remarked to me that they had recently had some courses relating to food systems and circular economy, and that this inspired them to innovate in this arena. Are we not giving gender equality the sustainability context – or even the examples of success and impact – that attract students to think critically and generate solutions for the future? Perhaps this in part is a reflection of Denmark’s rapid slide down the rankings.

Hacking the SDGs – with dedication, creativity & open minds
But by and by, teams drew from a hat, and we were sorted out. The next 36 hours involved input from experts, brainstorming, drafting, brainstorming again, and ultimately “hacking” the SDGs. My group’s subject area was Human Well Being and Mental Health, and my teammates hailed from Danish Technical University and Roskilde University. Their approach to the task was impressive: on the one hand they were hard-working and dedicated; and on the other hand they were playful with ideas and throwing around true creativity. It didn’t seem to bother them that the winning proposal would not directly, or at least immediately affect their universities. Rather, they were there to work on inspiration, on their own knowledge, and on collaboration. Beyond opening minds within teams, individuals across teams chatted over breaks, and mentors circled around, getting to know the breadth of people and ideas represented.

A playful approach to raise awareness around gender (in)equality
The hackathon was set up so that teams first presented for four minutes in a “heat”, and then were judged if they would be one of four teams proceeding to the finals. Notably, one of my favourite presentations was within the Diversity and Inclusion category. The team proposed circulating a quiz concerning “How much will you earn after your degree?” Respondents would enter their degree programs, age, experience, and so forth, and then be presented with their expected monthly wages. But then a pop-up would ask the user’s gender. If the response was male, the quiz would say “Sorry! We were mistaken. You will actually earn more than those who are not male!” and if the response was female, “Sorry! You will actually earn less than that, and less than your male counterparts.” This quiz idea is indeed a clever way to promote critical awareness, and hopefully more discussions concerning gender equality on campus (especially at CBS, where more than 80% of full professors are male).

And the winner is… Everyone!
Ultimately, the winners of the hackathon were Team Supo, who propose a student card-linked electronic point system for registering and incentivising sustainability actions, such as choosing to cycle to campus. Team Supo will be sent on a trip to New York, where they will expand upon their idea to the head office of PRME. Indeed I look forward to the implementation of their idea, but truth be told, the brilliance of a hackathon is the way it cracks open so many ideas, and brings together so many people. Supo will not be the only reason I’ll be back at Student Innovation House, as there are many more hacks – formal or informal – yet to come.


Lara Anne Hale is a former PhD student at Copenhagen Business School’s Governing Responsible Business World Class Research Environment. Her PhD focused on Experimental Standards in Sustainable Building as part of the EU Innovation for Sustainability project with VELUX. Follow her on Twitter.

Pic by Aafke Diepeveen, edited by BOS.

The Sustainable Development Goals: Elite Pluralism, not Democratic Governance

By Daniel Esser.

  • Was the process leading up to the SDGs really an exercise in global democratic policy making?
  • Although broad consultation efforts shaped the process, these alone were not able to alter the power structures undergirding the political economy of aid.
  • In the end, UN members states finalized the agenda behind closed doors and civil society organisations were once again relegated to serving as commentators and claqueurs.

Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.

The MDGs: An exercise in top-down development planning
Almost twenty years ago, a small group of white men sat together and dreamed up the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Soon after, the United Nations (UN) deployed them as carrot and stick to halve extreme poverty and hunger, reduce infant mortality, and put all girls and boys into primary education, all by 2015. There was real confidence that the MDGs’ top-down programming would eventually reach the farthest and most destitute corners of the globe, and that national as well as global resources would finally be spent on well-coordinated and effective projects. Listening to UN technocrats pontificate about the MDGs’ indispensability, one could have almost believed that old-fashioned development planning had finally been put on the right tracks. By the end of the exercise, thousands of new jobs in the international development industry had been created, yet most of the goals had been missed. The MDGs had begotten a hyperactive global network of goodwill ambassadors, faithful implementers and intrepid evaluators staff while billions in the global South continued to suffer.

The SDGs: Consultations as the end of procedural elitism?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were supposed to end the MDGs’ dual legacy of procedural elitism and edentulism. Framed by the UN as the world’s foremost post-2015 development agenda, the new goals were designed to be more comprehensive in both scope and impact. Crucially, the UN also launched considerable efforts to incorporate voices from outside of the UN system. Thematic consultations took place around eleven areas selected by the UN Development Group (UNDG). They were complemented by web consultations, national consultations in 88 countries, and global high-level meetings. In addition, the UN created two websites to allow for direct consultation by inviting users to submit proposals and vote for challenges they considered most pressing. Moreover, a UN-sponsored civil society organization (CSO), ‘Beyond 2015’, brought together another 1,000 CSOs participating in national consultations.

Global democratic policy making – high aspirations, sobering facts
Undeniably, these efforts marked a clear departure from the MDGs’ backroom fecundation. But have they been sufficient to justify senior UN staffers’ praise of the SDGs as an exercise in global democratic policy making? Broad consultation alone does not alter the power structures undergirding the political economy of aid. Instead, it creates a thin layer of legitimacy that fades away as soon as accountability in invoked. The process leading up to the SDGs was rooted in an assumption that a goal-based framework was the only viable option; alternatives to such goals were never considered publicly. Countries were selected by UNDG and UN Resident Coordinators, and the breadth and depth of national consultations varied starkly. And although UNDG’s final report listed crowd-sourced issue rankings, it did not provide any rationale for excluding issues from subsequent high-level negotiations.

Closed doors, revisited
In the end, UN members states finalized the agenda behind closed doors. CSOs were once again relegated to serving as commentators and claqueurs. When push came to shove, the UN leadership thus followed its half-century-old practice of elitist international governance. Even though the UN leadership has been relentless in praising the virtues of accountability for post-2015 development cooperation, it has so far shied away from institutionalizing accountability in a way that would really make a difference: between the UN system and its powerful national agenda setters on one side, and CSOs, taxpayers, and intended beneficiaries on the other. If the SDGs demonstrate anything, it is that the UN remain unlikely to usher genuine global democratic governance into being.


Daniel E. Esser is Associate Professor of International Development at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. His research on local governance amid violence, organizational management, and global health politics is widely cited. A former staff member of the United Nations in New York and Bangkok, he follows the organization’s continuous struggle to make a difference in the world from a safe academic distance. He can be reached at esser@american.edu.

Pic by UN Ukraine, edited by BOS.