Our institutes of higher learning can produce a green generation

Tech adoption must be complemented by initiatives that incentivize sustainable habits among 40 million students and 1.5 million teachers at our higher education institutions (HEIs).
Tech adoption must be complemented by initiatives that incentivize sustainable habits among 40 million students and 1.5 million teachers at our higher education institutions (HEIs).


India’s higher education sector must step up as a test bed of tech innovation and behavioural change for a sustainable future

The challenge of climate change and an opportunity of technological advancement are important features of India’s growth journey. Using emerging technologies for sustainability is the mantra and our higher education sector can play a key role in achieving this by empowering a ‘green generation’ and catalysing a transformation.

Optimize sustainability through technology: The use of modern technologies could mainstream sustainability on university and college campuses. The idea is not only to facilitate sustainable practices and foster innovation, but also harness the power of data. According to a global survey, 87% of climate leaders regard artificial intelligence (AI) as a useful tool in battling climate change. Through the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, campuses can collect real-time data on energy and water consumption, allowing for inefficiencies to be identified and enabling data-driven decisions. Machine learning (ML) algorithms can analyse this data to optimize system operations, leading to more efficient resource management. They can pinpoint suitable locations for installing electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, optimize bike-sharing routes and enable data-driven green architecture. Certain AI systems integrate weather, climate and operational data to help organizations mitigate climate risks and enhance resilience while meeting sustainability goals. ML-based virtual modelling can facilitate prototyping and testing of localized renewable energy systems. Pairing IoT sensors with big data analytics can optimize energy and water use while tracking emissions across campuses through an interconnected digital mesh. Certain Indian startups have helped clients reduce electricity consumption by 30% using smart energy metering.

Large-scale deployment of such solutions across Indian campuses can drive efficiency gains and reveal scope for improvement. Further, digital twin technology can model entire campuses for sustainability scenario testing. Digital twin efforts are currently laying the groundwork for planning smart cities, power grids and renewable energy projects across India.

Some Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have harnessed their tech infrastructure to establish leads on sustainability. By scaling research-driven solutions across the higher education sector, we can empower students to spearhead these initiatives.

Role of behavioural change: While technology is one part of the solution, behavioural change is the vital other. Tech adoption must be complemented by initiatives that incentivize sustainable habits among 40 million students and 1.5 million teachers at our higher education institutions (HEIs). Gamification techniques and social comparisons could motivate the conservation of electricity, water and paper, as well as increased public transit usage, helping avoid nearly 3 million tonnes of annual emissions. India’s 1,200 universities and 40,000 colleges must prioritize programmes to engage students in green habits. The collective impact of sustainable individual choices could match institutional efforts.

To truly empower behavioural change, HEIs must go beyond one-off initiatives and make sustainability a way of life, as envisioned by Mission LiFE. They must embed sustainability across curricula and campus culture. Courses on environmental science, climate change and sustainability can be integrated in coursework across streams. Green habits can be ingrained through experiential learning via campus gardens, recycling drives and student-led green initiatives.

Colleges and universities can get notable alumni and public figures to act as role models and advocate low-carbon lifestyles. Conferences and competitions can also foster environmental consciousness and spark ideas. Simple nudges like placing recycling bins visibly can cue students towards eco-friendly behaviours. Public commitments through green pledges and social media campaigns can get the youth to align their actions with values. According to a recent study, 77% of Indians said that doing things that benefit the environment makes them feel happy.

Holistic engagement across academic, social and behavioural domains is the key. Platforms that can support collaborations on sustainability are equally important. Ultimately, India’s HEIs must foster green values, attitudes and habits, so that the youth can exercise sustainability leadership well beyond graduation. India’s massive student population can influence their 120-150 million family members to join the green effort.

The future is green: Our higher education sector wields enormous potential to catalyse solutions through youth awareness and empowerment. By integrating emerging tech at institutional levels with green consumption at individual levels, we can equip our youth with the mindset and methods to leapfrog towards a sustainable future.

Thankfully, Indian youth are already increasingly advocating climate change action, with 78% found to feel equipped to tackle climate-related issues, according to a study. This is mirrored in the efforts of young environmentalists and climate champions. They have contributed significantly to climate dialogues, campaigns and community action, often using local languages to boost awareness and stimulate local action.

Sustainable practices in India’s higher education sector are crucial. By 2035, the sector will have 80 million students and 3 million teachers. It must make the most of today’s opportunity to mainstream sustainability, help integrate the economy with concerns of ecology, and motivate other sectors to follow suit. This would help achieve the pro-planet vision outlined by India during its G20 presidency. For this, it is imperative that university administrators, policymakers and industry leaders join forces to harness frontier technologies and empower a green generation. India’s higher education sector can step up as a test bed of tech innovation and sustainability, or risk losing a chance of leadership.

These are the authors’ personal views.

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