Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Transferring Knowledge for Sustainable Development

  • André José de ToledoEmail author
  • Estevão Brasil Ruas Vernalha
  • Micheli Kowalczuk Machado
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_34-1


Transfer of knowledge to sustainable development involves a complex, critical, and reflexive approach to environmental issues, collaborating so that individuals can really understand the interaction of social, economic, and environmental aspects inherent to a more sustainable society conception. This process must occur in the most diverse learning spaces, such as higher education institutions, which are essential, among other factors, for research development, knowledge dissemination, and professionals and citizens’ training committed to social change toward sustainability.


According to Duvoisin (2002), as humans ceased to worry about nature as their place of residence and came to see it as a profitable resource supplier, they began the socio-environmental problems and the destruction of the planet. For Motta et al. (2011), increase in the consumption of planet’s natural resources presents, as a consequence, degradation and environmental pollution. According to UNESCO (2015), unsustainable development processes put pressure on natural resources, while unsustainable patterns of production and consumption – especially in developed countries – threaten the fragility of natural environment, intensifying poverty in other localities.

Aiming to find solutions to minimize the various socio-environmental problems, ensuring that the present and future needs of humanity are met – through rational use of natural resources – the concept of sustainable development brings a perspective of change to the way humans have interacted with environment in which they live (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987).

According to Labanauskis (2017), the concept of sustainable development evolves, and, during Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro – 1992 – this concept was established as a key ideology of long-term social development. This statement was adopted, establishing the basic principles of sustainable development.

Also in 1992, Agenda 21 – which is composed of 40 chapters – provided a fundamental perspective for sustainable development promotion: education. Chapter “Wellbeing and Sustainability” specifically addresses issues regarding promoting education, public awareness, and training and identifies three program areas for learning, in addition to the prerequisite necessity to achieve universal participation in education (education for all). The three areas are reorienting education to sustainable development, increasing public awareness, and promoting training (Gough and Scott 2007).

The United Nations General Assembly, in December 2002, adopted Resolution 57/254, in which it proclaimed the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, from 2005 to 2014. The resolution was adopted because United Nations have seen education as the key – sine qua non condition – for sustainable development. UNESCO was chosen to lead the Decade and to draw up an international implementation plan. This document was the result of extensive consultations with United Nations agencies, national governments, civil society organizations, NGOs, and specialists. According to the international education plan for sustainable development, it is a vital and constant effort that challenges individuals, institutions, and societies to look toward a sustainable future (UNESCO 2015).

In 2015, Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development was elaborated. It is a document signed by world leaders with a 15-year plan of action to protect the planet, based on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The agenda seeks to create means for growth, inclusion, and sustainable economy, creating decent work for all, according to the development and capability levels of each nation. It is worth mentioning that Agenda 2030 goals include ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education (United Nations 2015).

In this sense, higher education institutions (HEIs) play a fundamental role regarding the development of knowledge related to sustainable development, as well as the education and transfer of this knowledge to the various social actors directly and indirectly involved with these institution activities.

Sustainability challenges that human society is facing are increasingly urgent. Thus, given this urgency, of tackling sustainability challenges in diverse and diffused ways, there are opportunities for different stakeholders and institutions of society to engage in new ways. Higher education institutions have a particularly interesting potential to facilitate society’s responses to the multiplicity of sustainability challenges faced by communities around the world (Stephens et al. 2008).

For Menezes and Minillo (2016), university can play a significant role and present itself as a relevant actor in the promotion of sustainable development, as well as contribute to the implementation of SDGs. Actions and activities developed within university environment, involving teaching, research, and extension, carry great transformative potential.

It is also worth mentioning that higher education is one of the sectors in which the concept of sustainable development is more widely analyzed and implemented (Amaral et al. 2015; Lukman and Glavic 2007; Holm and Martinsen 2015). According to Tauchen and Brandli (2006), HEIs are seen as specially equipped agents to lead the way in pursuit of sustainable development. Within this perspective, Sorrentino and Nascimento (2010) also emphasize that higher education institutions should collaborate in the search for solutions and the definition of responsibilities for development of critical thinking that makes it possible to face causes of environmental degradation.

In view of the above, the present work brings, first, a reflection about environmental education, knowledge for sustainable development, and the importance of higher education institutions in this context. Following this, a case study developed in the field of higher education is presented, which can contribute to understanding these institution’s role regarding knowledge transfer aiming at sustainable development.

Environmental Education and Knowledge for Sustainable Development

According to Cascino (2005), nowadays, environmental issues already reach communities with moderate strength. The fragility of man’s nature and survival need is becoming more and more evident, and this awareness over decades has given rise to the environmental movement. Addressing themes like generation’s future and sustainable use of natural resources, environmental education is gaining more and more importance in environmental issues, giving an image to the problems faced and being assisted by governmental institutions, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, and other groups.

Despite having a dispersed beginning in educational institutions, environmental education has gained strength and solidly structured in schools. Environmental education privileges the understanding of environments and respects the individual and the group, in order to make man take possession of nature again – but in a proper way, with new acquired values, bringing harmony to the parties.

As Saito (2002) reports, from the 1970s, the debate on global environmental problem is related to the social and economic development of nations and how behavior could be changed through environmental education intensification. In this context, the first focus of environmental education was the concern with nature, inserting some environmental topics in science teaching and, sometimes, connecting it to the teaching of geography and art education.

In addition to this vision, it is necessary to take into account the various faces of socio-environmental reality when presenting proposals for the concept understanding and environment protection. In this way, environmental education is essential for fundamental education and concerns a sphere of interactions that is at the basis of personal and social development in relation to the environment in which human being lives. It induces social dynamics, promoting the collaborative and critical approach to socio-environmental realities and a unique understanding of the problems that raise their possible solutions (Sauvé 2005).

The author mentions that environment is the environment of everyday life, at school, at home, and at work. The first step of environmental education happens in this reality, with a renewed, appreciative, and critical view of the place where one lives, favoring social interaction, comfort, safety, and health. To educate one must learn to discuss, to listen, to argue, to convince, and to communicate effectively through the knowledge of various scientific types. Environmental education happens through reflection and action in a constant cycle of learning that will lead to different attitudes.

In this sense, according to Jacobi (2003), reflecting on environmental complexity leads to an opportunity to understand the attitude of new social actors who are mobilized to take care of nature, involving an educational process articulated and committed to sustainability and participation. The concern for sustainable development represents the possibility of ensuring sociopolitical changes that do not compromise the ecological and social systems that sustain communities.

According to Pelicioni and Philippi Jr (2005), environmental education allows the exercise of citizenship through active individual and collective participation, including the socioeconomic, political, and cultural factors that influence it. Through action-reflection-action processes, environmental education prepares people to demand their rights and fulfill their duties in social participation and representation, influencing public policies and contributing to a democratic culture. In this process, human being is an agent and object of history and has the power to transform it, while is influenced by sociopolitical, economic, and cultural factors.

Environmental education increasingly assumes a transforming function, in which individuals are co-responsible in the promotion of sustainable development. Environmental education focus is centered on awareness, behavior change, skills development, evaluation capacity, and stakeholder participation, which will lead to a change of values. The challenge is to formulate an environmental education that is critical and innovative, formal and informal, and, above all, a political act for social transformation. Its action must seek solidarity, equality, and respect for difference through democratic forms of action (Jacobi 2003).

Ruscheinsky (2004) mentions that educational pedagogy should use the main conflicts expressed through the discourse on political action in order to disseminate critical environmental education. In order to do so, it has to participate in significant events through public visibility, through which it influences a network of organizations articulated by a large range of social actors.

Loureiro (2004) complements this view by addressing transformative environmental education as a constant and collective process through which human being acts and reflects, transforming life reality. It is focused on the problems experienced, the needs, the interests, and the relations of nature and society, as means to seek new syntheses that indicate democratic, sustainable, and fair paths for all.

Jacobi (2005) reports that in some cases there is still resistance from the population of the areas most affected by the constant and increasing environmental damages with respect to this learning. It also represents the possibility of opening stimulating spaces to implement diversified alternative for social participation, as a guarantee of access to information and the consolidation of open channels.

The position of dependence and non-responsibility of some people is often due to lack of information, lack of environmental awareness, and lack of community practices based on citizen participation. Educational actions should aim at changing habits, attitudes, and social practices. It reinforces education oriented to reflect environmental education in face of environmental crisis, insecurity, and uncertainty of current society (Jacobi 2005).

In this sense, it is important to highlight the role of higher education institutions regarding environmental education promotion and, consequently, transfer of knowledge involving sustainable development. “Nowadays, the principles of sustainable development are becoming increasingly important and universities are acting as agents in promoting these principles within society” (Lukman and Glavic 2007, p. 103).

According to Holm and Martinsen (2015), there is a strong and growing global consensus among all countries that environmental issues need to be addressed in their policies. Environmental degradation is still accelerating in many parts of the world, involving different environmental dimensions, resulting in uncertain (often) but potentially very serious implications. From the perspective of education in general, this means that it is necessary to educate people so that they have a sustainable mentality. In relation to higher education, it means developing the necessary knowledge approach so that the implementation of this education is possible, thus promoting sustainable development and specific valorization of this type of knowledge.

Universities value knowledge and for that reason they demand clarity about what is known and how. Universities also value the pursuit of knowledge and must, therefore, insist on its present and on-going incompleteness – in face of those who, for whatever reason, wish to extrapolate to final, general truths. Sustainable development touches on all aspects of our intellectual lives and will require us to husband what we know, eschew glib certainties and confront the future with an open, learning orientation. To this extent there is an identity of interest between higher education and sustainable development. (Gough and Scott 2007, p. 173)

Universities have their own environments and are part of a wider environment in which they are inserted. The way they approach and manage environmental issues is conditioned by a number of external factors. This way of conduct also influences areas beyond the academic context. In this sense, it is worth to highlight the reflection proposed by Gough and Scott (2007), in which authors mention that if higher education institutions, for example, place emphasis on reducing energy and water consumption, minimizing their waste and carbon footprints and encouraging recycling, motivated by financial incentives, they can have a very positive return. Besides the financial issue, through these actions, they can also foster opportunities for research and teaching.

In the context of teaching and research on environment, the authors present general points that need to be observed in higher education (Table 1).
Table 1

General points for research and teaching in higher education institutions

Universities are concerned with the entire range of possible understandings regarding what “environment” essentially is.

Cross-disciplinary working may be indicated by environmental issues, but just saying that such working is necessary helps very little to make it more likely.

Environmental knowledge that seems true, useful, and generalizable to rich-country academics may be much more questionable in the developing world.

Institutional context in which universities operate is important in determining their attitudes to environmental knowledge, both for teaching and research.

Policy-makers often have an unrealistic and naive view of the relationship linking policy decision-making to research, teaching, learning, and environmental change. So too (sometimes at least) do academics.

Research can be as readily characterized by the assumptions that it makes about the environment as by the discoveries that it makes.

Source: The authors based on Gough and Scott (2007, p. 94)

In addition to these points, it is important to consider that sustainable development approach in higher education should not be restricted to a particular curriculum, “within departments of economics, or environmental science, or sociology, or politics, but as a fresh and necessary challenge to the way that ideas are classified into economics, environmental science, sociology, politics and so on” (Gough and Scott 2007, p. 167). Graduates of higher education institutions play important roles in society as citizens. University research has impacts on the wider context of social, economic, technological, environmental, and so on policy within which citizenship is practiced and learning process becomes continuous (Gough and Scott 2007).

Cortese (2003) reinforces this issue by mentioning that higher education institutions have a deep moral responsibility to raise awareness, knowledge, skills, and values needed to create a just and sustainable future. The author emphasizes that higher education plays a critical role in making this vision real, but often this role is neglected. The majority of professionals who develop, lead, administer, teach, work, and influence institutions of society are prepared by higher education.

In this context, Stephens et al. (2008) mention that higher education institutions have a unique position in society, since they are extremely important sites for knowledge production, perpetuation, and dissemination. According to the authors, in addition to these conventional associations of universities and knowledge, higher education institutions have the unique potential to stimulate the synthesis and integration of different knowledge types and to improve knowledge application, making possible social change in order to pursuit sustainability.

In a perspective where higher education assumes a leading role in preparing students and providing information and knowledge to achieve a just and sustainable society, education of all professionals would reflect on a new approach to learning and practice. In this context, “a college or university would operate as a fully integrated community that models social and biological sustainability itself and in its interdependence with local, regional and global communities” (Cortese 2003, p. 17). As students learn from everything around them, activities developed in higher education form a complex network of experience and learning. Thus, all parts of university system are fundamental to achieve transformative change (Cortese 2003).

Given this perspective, there is a clear need for universities to assume leadership positions, demonstrating practices that promote sustainability, instead of degrading environment, thus encouraging an educational process that stimulates a sustainable society (Lukman and Glavic 2007).

For Stephens et al. (2008), regarding sustainability, one of the main higher education institutions’ roles is their potential as agents for society change. According to the authors, there are many different perspectives, perceptions, and expectations about the role, value, and potential of universities in society. However, considering that these perceptions may vary between different cultures and contexts, Stephens et al. (2008) present four general categories of perceptions about how higher education institutions can contribute to social transition toward sustainability.

First, higher education can model sustainable practices for society. Sustainable behavior must be present in campus itself, promoting sustainable practices and learning how it is possible to maximize sustainable behavior in society. Second, it teaches students how to deal with complex problems that are necessary to face challenges of sustainability and integration skills, synthesis, and systemic thinking about this theme. “Third, higher education can conduct use-inspired, real-world problem-based research that is targeted to address urgent sustainability challenges faced by society” (Stephens et al. 2008, p. 321). Finally, higher education can promote and increase involvement among individuals and institutions, both on and off campus, relocating universities as highly integrated agents and interconnected with other institutions of society and, therefore, as transdisciplinary institutions.

Contributing to this analysis, according to Amaral et al. (2015), in general terms, a sustainable university should teach the concept and philosophy of sustainable development to its students, but it is also fundamental to be able to conceive the concept within day to day of organizational management.

HEIs play a fundamental role in enhancing the creation and diffusion of sustainable thinking by being thought and opinion trainers. In order for this process to be possible, it is necessary for people involved in university activity development to serve as basis for knowledge dissemination and sustainable practice strengthening. It should be noted that there are still many challenges that need to be overcome in higher education, in terms of sustainable development, even considering advances already made (Leal Filho et al. 2015).

Considering sustainability challenges heterogeneity, as well as societal expectations, values, and cultures that impact higher education in different communities and regions around the world, Stephens et al. (2008) describe five specific issues. These are issues that include factors internal and external to the higher education system and provide a systematic approach to review challenges and opportunities regarding sustainability. The five questions relate to (1) the dominant sustainability challenges of the region, (2) the financing structure and independence, (3) the institutional organization, (4) the extent of democratic processes, and (5) the communication and interaction with society (Stephens et al. 2008, p. 323).

According to the authors, these five critical questions can help assess the potential and limitations of higher education as a change agent for sustainability and can be explored in the context of any higher education institution or system around the world. In this context, identifying specific characteristics of HEI region can facilitate the design and implementation of new initiatives and new approaches, maximizing and accelerating potential of higher education in social change toward sustainability.

In this sense, it should be noted that higher education institutions are still important references for societies that shelter them and configure themselves as centers of production of knowledge and possibilities for solutions to the problems they experience. This way, they represent an opportunity to quality of life improvement and a place for individual training. Thus, what is done in it and how it performs, it can serve as a parameter for different society sectors (Sorrentino and Nascimento 2010) and in various themes related to sustainability.

Building and Educating: An Example of Knowledge Transfer Approach

The following study was carried out by Research Center of UNIFAAT University Center, located in the city of Atibaia, São Paulo, Brazil, seeking to demonstrate the importance of knowledge transfer aiming at sustainability. The case study was carried out at the sewage treatment plant (STP) of Bragança Paulista, São Paulo, Brazil, whose administrative building is certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). To obtain the data presented below, an interview was conducted with the technical manager of the institution that is responsible by the STP administration – São Paulo State Basic Sanitation Company (SABESP). Field visits previously scheduled and accompanied by the technician were also important to the data collection.

City of Bragança Paulista is located in the State of São Paulo and is part of the Bragantina region, which has undergone an intense process of industrialization and disorderly urban growth with diverse negative effects on the environment. It can be highlighted the impacts on water resources, considering that one of the main region characteristics is its abundance of water resources and that three of the four reservoirs that make up the Cantareira system find themselves in this region – (1) the Jaguary and Jacareí River reservoir, (2) the Cachoeira River reservoir, and (3) the Atibainha River reservoir. The Cantareira system provides water to São Paulo Metropolitan Area – SPMA (66% of SPMA consumption) – and Campinas Metropolitan Area, CMA (85% of CMA consumption), probably the largest urban and industrial centers in the country, and that find themselves in continuous conflict over water use (Machado 2014).

In this scenario of urban and industrial growth, various sectors of society must face the challenge of sustainability by proposing measures and developing programs that significantly reduce the environmental impact of its activities, in partnership with public power and civil society to improve life quality.

It is part of this challenge to promote actions, projects, programs, and research that can build and disseminate knowledge about sustainable development. Through this process, it will be possible the intervention of different social actors in the environment in which they live, aiming at achieving sustainability. For this, as mentioned by Castro and Pelicioni (2007), it is fundamental that those involved can clearly know the socio-environmental problems in a given reality, elucidate their causes, and determine the means to solve them.

In this context, educational process is essential, and it can be done in an articulated way, considering formal and nonformal education, involving universities, schools, communities, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and companies, among other actors.

Thus, this study, carried out at Bragança Paulista STP, represents an example among the various learning spaces that can be used aiming at knowledge transfer to sustainable development. In this case, an analysis was made on how the STP physical space can be used as an educating element for environment conservation.

Bragança STP was a pilot project of the sanitation company and has the first certified green building of SABESP. The area certified by the LEED seal is 19,322 m2, of which 391 m2 are built – the rest of the space is occupied by green areas. According to the certification rules, the construction meets sustainability requirements in six categories: space, rationalization of water use, energy efficiency, internal air quality, innovation, and design.

According to the study carried out at the STP, the main challenges for a construction based on the context of sustainable development are low availability of products and components that meet the requirements of LEED certification in the market, awareness and training of employees during the execution of daily activities, and absence of adequate sites for the disposal of construction waste in the region, relying only on recycling cooperatives to deal with the waste generated at the construction site in a proper way (Machado 2017).

The benefits identified during the research at the STP are related to the following factors: the architectural design privileges the natural lighting, and the double-height ceiling improves ventilation, avoiding the need to use air conditioning; 13,000 m2 occupied by green areas preserve the riparian forest; the structure for collecting rainwater retains suspended materials, which are not carried to the point of discharge; paving is permeable and reduces heat island effects; alternative transportation for employees is encouraged with preferential seats for vehicles powered by alcohol and natural gas, bicycle, bicycle locker, and access ramps; the consumption of water and electricity is smart; the toilets have box coupled and double command and the taps count with automatic closing and flow restrictors; more efficient presence sensors, fluorescent lamps, and motor hoods are also used; during construction there was a preference to use materials produced regionally; and the estimation that a certified building can reduce solid waste emissions by up to 70%, drinking water use by 40%, CO2 emissions from 33% to 39%, and electricity use by 24–50%.

Raising and knowing the benefits and challenges related to choosing a more sustainable posture in Bragança Paulista STP can help those directly and indirectly involved in the research to acquire and disseminate knowledge about sustainable development, as they delve into the analysis of different aspects related to this concept. From this perspective, it is worth highlighting that, regarding environmental education, Bragança Paulista STP already has a permanent program of visitation in its facilities.

In these activities, participants are sensitized about the water issue regarding the region and the importance of sewage treatment to maintain both life and environment quality. However, during the development of this work, it was noticed that elements related to sustainable development that target construction sector are little approached during these activities. Through an environmental education perspective, the awareness potential of these visits could be leveraged, once options for less impacting alternatives in this sector have great educational potential, such as the intelligent and efficient use of water and energy, the incentive to alternative transportation, and the natural ventilation and light improving environmental comfort with low impact.

From the case study development, it could be noted that benefits of sustainable construction go beyond the reduction of environmental impacts, making enterprise more efficient and, thus, collaborating to sustainability in a more wide perspective. However, some challenges are faced for its implementation, such as sensitizing society that sustainable construction can be an economically and environmentally viable alternative if it is developed in a planned way and if it considers the evaluation of all construction life cycle.

One of the connections between environmental education, knowledge transfer, and sustainable construction is that these spheres can create conditions for a critical ecological awareness and show that human beings and nature can coexist in a balanced way. The study in the STP made it possible to verify the benefits of sustainable construction. However, it was also observed that the LEED-certified administrative building is not exploited in its total capacity for environmental education and knowledge transfer regarding sustainable development. Sustainable construction can be an important tool for education by encouraging a reflexive critical analysis of environmental problem, thus helping to minimize socio-environmental impacts.

The example of SABESP building case study was a practical way to demonstrate how sustainable construction can be an instrument for environmental education and for knowledge transfer with regard to sustainable development. The SABESP building has the most basic LEED certification available, and yet, it was possible to identify several important environmental aspects that it meets. They are aspects that depend much more on construction-conscious development than on financial resources. It demonstrates that lack of financial support is not an obstacle to sustainable construction. Therefore, the awareness of society is extremely important, and the lack of it is the main barrier to a sustainable future.

Final Considerations

According to Lukman and Glavic (2007), sustainable development principles represent one of the major challenges for the establishment of a better common future. They also remain a challenge at university level.

In this context, it is becoming increasingly clear that education and knowledge transfer related to sustainable development are essential if effective changes are to take place as regards how humans have interacted with environment. In this sense, it is expected that sustainability may be feasible now and in the future.

The sewage treatment plant case study (Bragança Paulista, São Paulo, Brazil) presented in this paper demonstrates that research and actions for sustainable development must also take place beyond the university campus and involve diverse institutions and social actors. Conducting this research provided the teachers and students involved to raise and develop knowledge about themes that contribute to sustainable development. On the other hand, it enabled the sewage treatment plant to know its potential in promoting knowledge transfer involving sustainability, regarding its administrative building, which is certified by LEED seal.

In view of the above, it can be mentioned that there are many efforts of higher education institutions in promotion of actions, projects, research, knowledge construction, teaching and learning processes, and management systems that enable a more inclusive society. But there are also many challenges to overcome, which are part of the process of understanding and consolidating HEIs’ role for sustainable development. Such challenges must be overcome in a critical, reflective, participatory, and collaborative way, involving society as a whole, outside and within academic campus. In order to do so, the more knowledge about current environmental problem and its different perspectives are developed and shared, the closer society is to sustainability.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • André José de Toledo
    • 1
    Email author
  • Estevão Brasil Ruas Vernalha
    • 1
  • Micheli Kowalczuk Machado
    • 1
  1. 1.Núcleo de Estudos em Sustentabilidade e Cultura – NESC/CEPECentro Universitário UNIFAATAtibaiaBrazil

Section editors and affiliations

  • Luciana Brandli
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Passo FundoPasso FundoBrazil