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Building better cities: WUR students contribute to UN forum on SDGs

Published on
May 4, 2022

WUR students from the IEPC course make a real-life impact by producing UN policy reports on green, sustainable, and resilient cities. The students’ work will be included in upcoming UN conferences and publications, and help advise decision-makers on how to adopt sustainable innovations in cities.

Written by: Gijs Romijn

Facing complex challenges

How do we build cities where we can live healthy, safe, and fulfilling lives in a world threatened by ongoing and new challenges such as natural disasters and pandemics? During the Covid-19 pandemic, our priorities as humans were forced to shift and many signs of positive change had to take a step back: the use of single-use plastics and individual cars increased as people chose safety over sustainability. At the same time, crops rotted on the fields while store shelves were empty because products could not get to their destinations in time. The UN bodies of Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) turned to WUR, SUNY-ESF (USA), and Van Lang (Vietnam) students through the IEPC course for help investigating these complex challenges.

As part of the IEPC course, a group of 17 students from the Sustainable Development Diplomacy Honours track were asked to research and provide policy recommendations that could help cities adapt and build back green, sustainable, and resilient cities after the pandemic. With guidance from the instructors Dr. Jillian Student and Violet Ross, the students went on an intense 8-week academic journey to write a collection of policy briefs from scratch.

This course gives students a unique opportunity to experience the realities and challenges of working with an international cohort on a client- focused project. At the same time, they provide the UN fresh eyes to look at means of reaching the SDGs.
Jillian Student (IEPC instructor)

Studying for societal impact

Protecting the natural environment and climate of our planet requires more than simply producing cleaner energy: a thorough transformation of our political structures and consumption patterns is needed. However, certain basic needs such as food, energy, shelter, mobility, and waste treatment will always need to be met for us to live healthy and comfortable lives in cities. Innovative technologies can reduce the environmental and social damage associated with the production of these basic human necessities. WUR students studied a range of innovations that could help cities face these challenges.

During the project, WUR students collaborated with students from the State University of New York and the Vietnamese Van Lang University. Students also interviewed many experts in a variety of fields and had meetings with representatives from the UN to make sure the report would contain information that was valuable to the client. While many participating students expressed skepticism towards using technological solutions to remedy environmental issues, this project challenged them to translate their critical view into useful policy recommendations. Ultimately, the project left our students with strong feelings of pride, personal growth, and accomplishment.

Academically, and sometimes emotionally, the IEPC pushed me to my limits and beyond. I definitely feel that I've come out of it a stronger researcher, and I look back on the course and my colleagues from Europe, the US and Vietnam with a lot of gratitude and respect.
Anetta Oksiutycz-Munyawiri (MSc student International Development)

What’s in the report

In the report, nine innovations that could help remediate different pressing social and environmental issues are presented. One group explored the potential for growing food inside cities within the EU with aquaponics systems, while other students looked into wastewater sanitation systems for improving water safety in developing countries. Another group studied the effects of the transition to e-mobility on indigenous communities and greenhouse emissions and outlined future developments in the field of electric vehicle batteries.

An initial brainstorm session from the IPEC course.

On the 5th and 6th of May, UN DESA hosts the 7th annual Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). During this conference, parties from all over the globe will discuss how emerging innovations can help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As the UN client was impressed with the quality of the entire international cohort’s work, all of the students’ research policy briefs will be used as background information for the discussions during the conference. After the event, a report will be published to summarize the most relevant advances in science and innovation, in which the student’s work will be included.

Find out more about the event and see where the report will be published