There are few facts more arresting to me than those relating to our environment. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of ocean. A third of the earth’s soil is moderately to highly degraded. There’s positive news too, however: one report this year states that China has reached peak coal consumption.
And there are few images more captivating than those caused by the earth’s climate, whether it’s extreme weather conditions such as tsunamis, rising sea levels, howling hurricanes, raging floods, retreating ice sheets, heat waves or encroaching deserts. The photographs of polar bears standing forlornly on decreasing ice floes have become the iconic symbol of a melting Arctic. Equally, the terrible effects of prolonged drought are brought home to us by the media when they show skeletal human beings desperate for food in lands ravaged by famine.
Universities are key to achieving this goal because they do not just disseminate knowledge, but they also teach students to think independently and create new knowledge
These images jolt us into realising the need to care for the planet – that we cannot take its life-giving benefits for granted. They make us fear the short-and-long-term effects of changes in the ecosystem on both humans and animals. They remind us how interconnected we all are and why the challenges posed by environmental change have to be addressed urgently.
But these and other images also fire the imagination of people who want to find out why things happen, how problems arise and how can they be resolved. Young people entering careers in engineering or science want to make discoveries and continue to develop new and exciting technologies, but they also want to do so in a way that improves quality of life for all.
Universities are key to achieving this goal because they do not just disseminate knowledge, but they also teach students to think independently and create new knowledge. Only through education and research can we take on some of the great challenges facing the world today – the environmental ones I’ve alluded to, but also the related political, demographic, economic, health and social challenges that seem to overwhelm us all at times.
Universities everywhere are at a crossroads in how they address global challenges. They are trying to balance various demands and pressures, often with decreasing resources and rising student numbers. They are tasked with meeting the skills needs of their country’s economy while trying also to address the challenges of a liveable planet. They want to give their students a holistic education, educating not just for the immediate job market but also for an awareness of their place in the wider world. Universities are responding in different ways, through redesigning programmes, through innovation and through research.
Only through education and research can we take on some of the great challenges facing the world today
In Trinity, a Green Committee has been working for many years, engaging students and staff together in the pursuit of a sustainable campus. We have increased the percentage of our energy mix that comes from renewables and decreased both our water use and our carbon footprint per member of the college community. Trinity has been awarded the Green Flag by An Taisce for these successes. But we must continue to monitor energy, water, waste and a host of other variables that promote low carbon living on the campus. We should also promote increased awareness of sustainability in our education, research and entrepreneurship activities.
One of the main paradoxes in academia today is that societal challenges are increasingly straddling various disciplines, but academics often become successful by working in relatively narrow fields and single disciplines. Universities have to break out of traditional disciplines and supplement them with new multidisciplinary activities if they are to lead in solving global challenges. They must blur the lines between disciplines and between the physical, digital and biological spheres. This will create breakthroughs, scientific and cultural, that will allow human beings to create technologies that improve quality of life as well as being sustainable.
In Trinity, we are developing a radical plan for a new engineering, energy and environmental institute that will co-locate computer sciences, the natural sciences and engineering. We aim to prepare graduates in IT, engineering and natural sciences with skills for new economies, such as carbon accounting, grey-green infrastructure, environmental design and the creative use of natural capital to inspire and add value to engineered solutions. We also aim to prepare graduates with a combination of skills in design, technology and ecology, as well as the skills to create technologies to sustain or replenish natural capital.
Trinity’s ambition is to create a new campus for students, staff, startups and industry partners at Grand Canal Dock, which will incorporate this new technological hub, dubbed E3. E3 will be unlike anything seen to date on the academic landscape and will put Ireland at the forefront of research and education that will forge the solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Collaboration in teaching and research with industry is central to the success of the project, but the campus will also provide facilities for spin-out companies and industry-academic collaboration
The high-tech campus will offer students a unique opportunity to work with and learn from the best academics and practitioners. They will be equipped for a world driven by constant technological change.
Collaboration in teaching and research with industry is central to the success of the project, but the campus will also provide facilities for spin-out companies and industry-academic collaboration.
E3 is but one of the ways Trinity is meeting the demands of the economy and of our natural environment. Its students will get a broad educational experience combined with depth in their discipline, what we call a T-shaped education. They will become experts in their field but multi-disciplinary in outlook. They will be the designers as well as the engineers, scientists and IT experts of the future. They will be working in, and creating, environmentally friendly jobs that will also help sustain our planet. They may never get to see the Arctic ice-caps, but, in their own way, they will be taking climate action that will help all of us, including the polar bears, to flourish.
Patrick Prendergast is the Provost of Trinity College Dublin