Responding to the UN Sustainability Development Goals in Collaboration

Members of the Dwr Uisce Research Team

Since my involvement with the European Dŵr Uisce research project I don’t think I have enjoyed a task more than coordinating the paper and presentation for the EURAM  2020 Conference, which will take place in the Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin from the 4th to 6th December 2020.

The overall conference theme is “The Business of Now: the future starts here”.

Our paper deals with this theme as it addresses some of the biggest problems of “Now” and what businesses can do to address these problems for the future.

The paper is called “Responding to the UN Sustainability Goals through network action learning” – It explores how we – a cross-border, multidisciplinary team contribute to novel technology platforms, policy support and guidance and knowledge dissemination in collaboration with practitioners, government and community representatives.

Sustainability Development as a Wicked Problem

The UN Sustainability Goals challenge society to consider how it is behaving and to respond with new partnerships to sustain our communities, resources and planet. The scale and scope of this challenge is enormous and not amenable to single discipline actions, nor to actions which do not integrate research and practice. A challenge like this can be described as a “wicked problem”.

A wicked problem has countless causes, is hard to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer, climate change, war and poverty are classic examples of wicked problems. They are the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.

Wicked problems are amenable to action learning, where different people can advocate alternative courses of action in accordance with their own value systems, past experience and intended outcomes.

In our EURAM conference paper we present a particular response to the UN Sustainability Goals undertaken through network action learning. The problem setting is that of the creative application of novel technology with the potential to reduce the carbon footprint associated with water distribution and use. Increasingly, water, where available, is not in the right place at the right time. That is a well-recognised problem with implications for food production and human habitation. However, a less well recognised related problem is that the energy burden associated with water production and distribution is substantial. Treating raw water and wastewater to acceptable standards for consumption and disposal is energy intensive. Such activity accounts for 2–3% of the global energy use. Therefore, initiatives to reduce that energy burden have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint and sustain water as a resource.

We explore how network action learning impacts the application of novel technology to reduce the energy burden associated with water production and distribution and how, through learning in action, innovation capabilities are developed.  We combine research and project practices, to enable the timely production of valid, actionable knowledge and innovative solutions.

By doing so, we address the following UN sustainability goals:

Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation

Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy

Goal 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure

Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities

Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production

Goal 13: Climate action

Goal 17: Partnerships for the goals

Humanity is facing enormous challenges through climate change and water shortage.  These related problems cannot be solved in isolation. As shown in our research, a holistic approach can respond these problems and the associated UN Sustainability Goals. This study illustrates how a cross-border, multidisciplinary team of researchers working with practitioners from industry and governments addressed these challenges. The project continues for a further two years during which our further research will enquire into the diffusion of the innovations resulting from this study.


Dreyer-Gibney, K., Coughlan, P., Coghlan, D., Wu, S.-H., Bello-Dambatta, A., Dallison, R., McNabola, A., Novara, D., Rafique, A., Schestak, I., Spriet, J., Walker, N., & Williams, P. 2020. Responding to the UN Sustainability Goals through network action learning. Paper to be presented at the EURAM 2020, Dublin.

Micro-hydropower Energy Recovery System at Blackstairs Group Water Scheme

The micro-hydropower energy recovery system at Blackstairs Group Water Scheme in Ireland is a good example for innovation realised by collaborating with many different groups,  site managers, government agencies, suppliers and researchers from many countries. This video summarizes the project and includes interviews from some of the stakeholders.

Universities in a Post-Corona World: The Triple Role of Sustainability Leadership

Universities moved their lectures and exams online and asked their staff to work from home. They closed student accommodation, catering outlets and library shops. Universities have the reputation for being slow to change directions like oil tankers but dealing with the effects of Corona has shown that universities can turn as quickly as speedboats.

While dealing with Corona, climate change and the sustainability agenda have not gone away.

Universities are called to play a fundamental role in the global effort to achieve the SDGs, the UN sustainability development goals. This call includes not only education, but also working in partnership with many, to design and deploy innovative sustainability solutions.

Learning from the changes demanded by the Corona crisis, universities now have an opportunity to use the momentum and sense of urgency and apply them to advance global sustainability.

The Triple Role of Universities in Sustainability Leadership

Universities are called to play a fundamental role in the global effort to achieve the UN sustainable development goals. This call encompasses not only the provision of education, but also working in multi-sector partnership to design and deploy innovative sustainability solutions.

Leadership in Teaching Sustainability

Firstly, universities are regarded as playing an increasingly important role in helping students become responsible and active citizens, with a clear vision of the importance and future challenges of sustainability. A Master in Operations and Supply Chain management programme may include teaching and project work of how to tackle issues such as sustainable operations strategy and sustainable operations performance. Business schools may teach how to measure performance for quality, speed, dependability and if sustainability goals are being met.

Leadership in Researching Sustainability

Secondly, there is the research agenda. Many faculties and schools pursue sustainability research programmes. Several funding opportunities are aimed at researching sustainability enhancing technology and processes. An example is a European funded cross-border and interdisciplinary project called Dwr Uisce. It is a collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and Bangor University, aimed at water sustainability and energy consumption reduction. In this project engineering, environmental, geography and management researchers from many countries work together with a network of industry and water authorities.

Leadership in “Living” Sustainability – Integrating Sustainability in University Activities

The third and possibly not so well recognised leadership role is that of being an example for translating sustainability goals into action.
Many universities have put in place sustainability officers, committees, and focus groups that promote and coordinate sustainability initiatives, which are usually focused on environmental sustainability. Let’s not forget that for achieving environmental sustainability its drivers must be in place: the social and economic sustainability perspective or in short, the triple bottom line: People, Profit, Planet. A university is recognised as socially sustainable when its community is healthy, engaged and has fair and equitable practices. Given these preconditions, a highly engaged university community is in the position to explore and implement economic sustainability for present and future generations. The two sustainability perspectives are necessary to achieve the efficient use of materials and resources, reduce the carbon footprint and enhance environmental sustainability.

The structural components of sustainability officers and committees can be augmented by integrating sustainability processes into the day-to-day university operations, so that sustainability accountability is not resting on the shoulders of a few but becomes everybody’s responsibility. One way is the integration of sustainability goals into a university wide performance management system.

Here is an example: Irish public sector institutions, including publicly funded universities, are required to have a performance management system in place. Performance Management is about creating a culture that encourages the continuous improvement of business processes and of individuals’ skills, behaviour and contributions.

Applying the government mandated performance system and including elements aimed at improving social, economic and environmental sustainability is a way to integrate sustainability into all university operational, support and administrative processes, in addition to teaching and research.

For example, a performance goal for social sustainability performance could be improving staff wellbeing. Indicators such as absenteeism rate, wellbeing and engagement survey results could monitor performance and progress.

The economic sustainability perspective is possibly the most advanced in terms of measuring performance. Universities have financial accounting systems in place that also assess energy and water costs.

The environmental performance and accountability can include indicators such as paper use, photo copying and printing costs, waste removal costs, indicators also strongly linked to economic performance.

All three performance targets for people, profit and planet can be applied to every school, department, so they become part of the everyday business that gets monitored and reported upon.

The targets can be part of every individual’s performance agenda. University leaders with staff responsibility can focus on absenteeism rates and have regular check-ins with their staff to support their social, physical and mental health. Employee’s without staff responsibility, (e.g. front-line staff, analysts) can focus on current sustainability issues by partaking in sustainability training and development events, like GDPR updates, health and safety training and fire drills.
In addition, reporting on sustainability progress can be a standing agenda item of all staff and management meetings. As the adage says: “What gets measured, gets done”.

The Way Forward

Universities have demonstrated enormous agility responding to the Corona crises. Many universities have a sustainability teaching and research agenda. Operations management courses teach students about developing and implementing sustainable operations strategies product and service performance. Engineering, Biology and Zoology departments and institutes research and develop new sustainable technologies and processes.
Universities have an opportunity now, use the “Corona – Momentum” and live what they teach and research on their campuses, by integrating sustainability goals into everybody’s day-to day actions.
As Albert Einstein says: “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means”.


Coughlan, P., & Coghlan, D. (2011). Collaborative Strategic Improvement Through Network Action Learning: The Path to Sustainability. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Dwr-Uisce. (2020). Energy Recovery in Water Services.
Government of Ireland. (2017). Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020.
Slack, N., Brandon-Jones, A., & Johnston, R.. (2016). Operations Management, 8th Edition. London: Pearson.
United Nations. (2020). UN Sustainability Development Goals.
World Health Organisation. (2010). WHO Healthy Workplace Framework and Model. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organisation.

Fighting the effects of Climate Change…

Dwr Uisce Group pic 21Nov2019contributing to a save-water charity, and protecting the first Welsh Bible… all at the same time.

Since February 2019 I am a Research Fellow in a European funded research initiative.   As a research team, we aim at building innovation competencies in the water-energy sector and reduce climate change impacts. The programme is a collaboration between Trinity College (Engineering and the Business School), and Bangor University in Wales. The researchers come from all over the World and include geologists, engineers, climatologists, environmentalists and management scientists. My role as a management researcher is to combine theory and practice – to help to develop innovation competencies within the water- energy network Read more