Four Burning Questions for John Robinson, Associate Provost, Sustainability at UBC

On Jan. 24, John Robinson, Associate Provost, Sustainability at the University of British Columbia will be at McGill to discuss UBC's innovative Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), including the design goals of the CIRS, the research program, its performance and the challenges faced in its creation.
John Robinson is the Associate Provost, Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.
John Robinson is the Associate Provost, Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

John Robinson is the Associate Provost, Sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and is a professor with UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment & Sustainability and Department of Geography.

Robinson is responsible for leading the integration of academic and operational sustainability on UBC’s Vancouver campus. In that capacity, he directs the UBC Sustainability Initiative (USI) and provides leadership for UBC’s academic, research and operational activities and programs in sustainability. He also represents UBC’s sustainability activities to the broader local and international community.

Robinson’s research focuses on the intersection of climate change mitigation, adaptation and sustainability; sustainable buildings and urban design; the use of visualization, modelling, and citizen engagement to explore sustainable futures; creating partnerships for sustainability with the private, public, non-governmental and research sectors; and, generally, the intersection of sustainability, social and technological change, behaviour change, and community engagement processes.

On Jan. 24, at 3 p.m. in Room 151 of the Bronfman Building (1001 Sherbrooke West), join Robinson as he discusses UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) and Next Generation Sustainability at UBC. Admission is free. For more information, go here.

Robinson is the guest of McGill Net Positive, an initiative that looks to fully leverage McGill’s sustainability efforts by creating a “hub” for all of the University’s sustainability activities – research, teaching, and action. The McGill Net Positive project is the first step in a community process to collaboratively imagine and design this hub for sustainability activities at the University. 

What is the role of the Associate Provost for Sustainability at UBC? 

My job is to lead the process by which we are trying to integrate operational and academic sustainability at UBC and to enable a process through which sustainability is very deeply embedded in UBC operations, teaching and research. This means that we work very actively with faculty, staff and students at multiple levels to enable transformative change in the curriculum (developing sustainability pathways to be made available to all students), in all university operations (planning, design, construction and operations of facilities; management of student services; etc.), in developing transdisciplinary research clusters; and in working with partner communities and organizations off-campus to help facilitate a sustainability transition in the larger world. Our job is not to deliver these sustainability courses, programs, services, etc. but to enable faculty, students and staff to do so.

What are you going to talk about in your lecture? 

I have been asked to talk mostly about the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) in my lecture so I will talk about the challenges of creating CIRS; the design and design goals of CIRS (intended to improve both human and environmental wellbeing); CIRS performance; and the CIRS research program.

Universities are typically focused on research, education, and service. Do we really need to add sustainability to our list of things to address? 

It is not about adding sustainability as a topic (most universities across the world are already doing a lot of teaching, research and operational sustainability) but about embedding sustainability deeply into the culture and activities of the university, including both the operational and academic culture and activities. In fact it is the integration of these two that is crucial. Universities have a unique opportunity to act as a societal test-bed for sustainability, turning the campus into a kind of sand-box in which we can design, implement and test sustainable solutions, teach and study those processes, and work with private, public and NGO partners to learn together how to create change in the larger world. Such an agenda helps the university contribute directly to societal problems (something the university sector is under increasing pressure to demonstrate), is extremely popular with students and staff, and offer significant new opportunities for recruitment, fund-raising and partnerships.

What can McGill learn from UBC’s experience developing the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainabilty (CIRS)?

As I will discuss at some length in my talk, we learned some painful lessons in developing CIRS, at both the planning, design, construction and commissioning stage, and now in operational performance. In general we have found that the real barriers to sustainability are not technical or economic but institutional, having to do with the institutional rules (job descriptions, performance evaluation criteria, training and expertise, codes of practice, regulatory requirements, technical guidelines, etc.) that govern what people do in their jobs. My guess is that that finding, and some of the specific lessons we have learned, may be applicable in the McGill context.