“We can influence”: interview with Prof. Carole Parkes on the launch of the SDSN UK
A t the end of January 2022, IIPP launched the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s UK (SDSN UK), a network comprised of research-intensive Higher Education Institutions mobilised around practical solutions to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
We have had the pleasure to interview Prof. Carole Parkes, Emerita Professor at Winchester University, one of the SDSN UK member institutions. Prof. Parkes has both a business and an academic background with vast experience in management, inequality and poverty, and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She believes that the time to act is now, and we must collaborate within universities and beyond.
Marina Leite Brandão (MLB): Thank you very much, Prof. Parkes, for talking to us today. We understand that global networks facilitated the negotiation and creation of the SDGs, and the global community is now working on achieving these goals. In this context, how can the SDSN UK catalyse this process? And what can the SDSN UK learn from other Networks?
Prof. Dr. Carole Parkes: I think there has been a growing number of networks and organisations in this space working with universities and business schools, which is where I’m based. I was one of the instigators of the Principles for Responsible Management Education in the UK (PRME UK) and the chair of the UK & Ireland Chapter for four years. One of the things that we learned early on is that there is no point in competing; we are competing for the world, not in the world. So, we have to make sure that what we do counterbalances and that we are carrying the same messages, maybe from a different perspective, but the same messages. I think collaborating, not just within universities and those networks but beyond, is crucial.
One of the statements I remember quite profoundly from the time when the SDGs were being agreed upon is what Ban Ki-Moon, the UN general secretary at the time, said: solutions to the SDGs will involve everything from regulation to disruptive innovation, and everybody in this space, from chief executives to educators, activists, and citizens. I think it’s this call to being plural, inclusive, and having different agents in society playing their roles where SDSN UK can contribute and make a difference.
MLB: Thinking about the mission-oriented approach and reflecting on the UK context, how can this framework contribute to designing public actions that aim to tackle the SDGs? And what would the role of SDSN UK in proposing these potential public interventions be?
Prof. Parkes: It is also absolutely critical to be activists in this space; we are not passive observers of what is happening. We are not passive vessels to pass on to our students what we think or feel or learn. We are there to change things and as change agents. As a collective, I think universities and SDSN UK can promote activism as one of their missions. We have to be honest; the UK Government has been poor at engaging with the SDGs; there has been one formal report (Voluntary National Review) so far, and, in many ways, it has not been an area of focus. In terms of public interventions, it doesn’t mean that we take their role. Still, we need to be interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary. SDSN has a good record of contributing to many different agendas. Therefore, universities should be more vocal about many key areas in the public arena, not just in writing journal articles that other academics will read, but in the public space, blogs, and social media.
I’ve been involved in events at the House of Commons a few times. I specifically remember one led by what was then the National Union of Students, and we had a reception for their green awards. But they held it in a place where other people had powerful voices, who could hear and listen. It’s about using opportunities that we have to bring in those players and those vocal individuals because we are beyond the point of ‘let’s just talk about this’. It is what we do now, today, as individuals, collectives, universities, and students that matters.
Let’s go beyond talking amongst ourselves in universities, let’s be provocative, and let’s be challenging to the people who can make decisions, which we don’t necessarily have a part in, but that we can influence.
MLB: Talking about education, the SDSN UK gives special attention to leading educational change. We experienced different forms of digital education during the pandemic, which now represent a trend and a challenge. To what extent can the SDSN UK members benefit from and contribute to this context?
Prof. Parkes: For many academics and universities, switching to online learning happened quickly. But the challenge is always, how do you ensure that you get the same level of engagement. And it’s very challenging if you don’t have all the social clues you would typically have when teaching in person.
Interdisciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity in the educational approach are essential; you cannot teach or learn about these topics without knowing many different areas. Because the problems themselves are complex, they require systems thinking. If you are teaching something about climate, you know the impacts on inequality and poverty, for example. This requires many different sources of knowledge, and it can only be achieved through team teaching rather than a siloed approach.
MLB: The SDGs are extensive and cover many sectors of our society. When thinking about reducing inequality, ableism and the lack of accessibility are key challenges. Therefore, how have the members of the SDSN UK addressed this issue so far? And how can this network contribute to bringing diversity to the table?
Prof. Parkes: I think this is very important because, with ableism, there is sometimes a focus on visible disabilities instead of invisible disabilities. Another key thing is having a real integration instead of tokenistic actions (including someone in a wheelchair on a panel, for example), which are often symbolic and don’t represent meaningful change. If we’re talking about how we represent this, we should look at articles written in a personal reflective manner by people affected by these issues. What are the issues that they would want to have on the agenda?
You focused on disability as a matter of inclusion, but in universities, there is a focus on elitism, which I find really challenging. Sometimes, the best examples and advocates for the SDGs don’t come from privileged positions, elite universities, or elite situations. So, we ignore many different things when we’re talking about inclusion. And I think ableism is one of those issues that gets hidden because we may have requirements to make sure we have a diverse panel, for example, but we tend not to go beyond that, and that is where the best ideas and the best experience can come from.
MLB: Would you like to share your final thoughts at the end of this interview?
Prof. Parkes: There is a fantastic quote from David Orr, who is one of my all-time favourite writers about sustainable development, and he says: “without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth. If one listens carefully, it may even be possible to hear the Creation groan every year in late May when another batch of smart, degree-holding, but ecologically illiterate, Homo sapiens who are eager to succeed are launched into the biosphere.” (David Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, 1994, p. 5).
Education can be a powerful tool, but it can also be destructive. I think that is something we need to remember.
See the full interview here.