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Real-life challenges boost sustainability competence development

Multi-stakeholder co-creation projects offer students, teachers and external client organizations a chance to plan and implement solutions for real-life sustainability challenges. All partners develop their sustainability competencies and learn to assess both business and lifestyle choices.

Published : 08.12.2021

Integrating sustainability competence development into higher education curricula is a hot topic. Engaging learners in real-life sustainability challenges can increase their motivation to pursue sustainability goals for both short and longer term.

Sustainability competencies can be categorized in different ways, and it is recommended to use multiple pedagogical methods to train learners in sustainability.

Sustainability competencies form an integrated whole

There are overlapping and complementary ways to categorize sustainability competencies. One well-known conceptual framework, originally proposed by Wiek et al. (2011) and fine tuned by Brundiers et al. (2021), contains seven interrelated key competencies:

  • systems thinking,
  • values thinking,
  • anticipatory competencies,
  • strategic competencies,
  • implementation competencies and
  • interpersonal competencies along with
  • an intrapersonal mindset, referring to critical self-awareness and reflection.

Lozano et al. (2021) divide sustainability competencies into the following subcategories:

  • critical thinking and analysis,
  • inter-disciplinary work,
  • interpersonal relations and collaboration,
  • communication and use of media,
  • systems thinking,
  • justice, responsibility and ethics,
  • empathy and change of perspective,
  • anticipatory thinking,
  • assessment and evaluation,
  • personal involvement,
  • strategic action and
  • tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

Despite varying labels, the different frameworks share a basic consensus about core competencies. Many also point out that the competencies appear highly integrated and intertwined in the context of real-life sustainability challenges and collaboration projects.

Pedagogical approaches to sustainability education

Lozano et al. (2021) remind us that for sustainability competence development, we should apply combinations of pedagogical methods. As sustainability challenges are wicked to solve, one must be prepared to experiment and accept that there can only be better or worse solutions. In practice, this means that multidisciplinary approaches and alternative views to the same challenge need to be tolerated and negotiated.

Many have found that practice-based methods combining theory, practice, and reflection yield fruitful results when applied to real-life challenges. These may include project and problem-based learning, participatory action research, interdisciplinary team learning and teaching, and community service learning, for example. However, in some contexts and with specific challenges, more traditional methods such as lecturing, case studies, mind and concept maps, and supply chain/life cycle analyses may well be suitable, either alone or in combination with learning by doing, stakeholder dialogue, and self-reflection. (E.g. Lozano et al., 2021, Biedenweg et al. 2013; Remington-Doucette & Musgrove 2015; Sidiropoulos 2018; Trencher et al. 2018.)

Critical problem-solving with a purpose

At Haaga-Helia, marketing and communication students and teachers have for more than a decade been engaged in multi-stakeholder co-creation projects. In these projects students, teachers and external client organizations plan and implement solutions for real-life sustainability marketing challenges. The projects have included sustainability surveys, focus groups and other types of stakeholder interviews, benchmarking, content analyses, nation-wide and regional sustainability campaigns and events, and diverse digital content creation projects for multiple channels.

The main pedagogical aim is to foster learners’ creative readiness to negotiate and argue from different angles, collaboratively innovate solutions, and implement sustainable changes.

Through engaging in real-life challenges, higher education and industry partners develop their sustainability competencies all the way from systems thinking to hands-on implementation and critical reflection. With their knowledge, practice-based experiences, and critical self-awareness learners can assess, reconsider, and seek to impact business and lifestyle choices.

In addition, they accumulate future-oriented know-how with which they can advance their careers, pursue short and long-term sustainability goals, and find purpose and meaning for their studies and professional lives.

The KESTO projects’ network researches and develops ethical sustainability expertise in cooperation with working life partners and university students and teachers.


  • Biedenweg, K., Monroe, M., & Oxarart, A. 2013. The importance of teaching ethics of sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 14(1).
  • Brundiers, K., Barth, M., Cebrián, G., Cohen, M., Diaz L., DoucetteRemington, S., Dripps, W., Habron, G., Harré, N., Jarchow, M., Losch, K., Michel, J., Mochizuki, Y., Rieckmann, M., Parnell, R., Walker, P., & Zint, M. 2021. Key competences in sustainability in higher education – toward an agreed upon reference framework. Sustainability Science, 16, 13–29.
  • Lozano R., Barreiro-Gen M. & Temel M. 2021. Literature Review and Methods. In: Lozano R., Barreiro-Gen M. (eds) Developing Sustainability Competences Through Pedagogical Approaches: Strategies for Sustainability. Springer, Cham.
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  • Trencher, G., Vincent, S., Bahr, K., Kudo S., Markham, K., & Yamanaka; Y. 2018. Evaluating core competencies development in sustainability and environmental master’s programs: An empirical analysis. Journal of Cleaner Production, 181, 829-841.
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