How to learn to develop sustainably

In terms of mindset, there is a need for a change from “the world is a puzzle and we must solve the problem” to “the world is complex and we must first understand the dilemmas”. Away from the solutionist mentality. This means trying to figure out the question behind the question, asking and commenting, instead of just getting started with the execution. Is the problem really the real problem? And for whom? Is ICT really necessary to solve this problem? From that perspective, it makes sense to think about the broader impact of your work. The SDGs cannot, as is often the case now, be seen as separate ticked targets. There are tensions between the various SDGs. For example, by focusing on the SMART network, the goal of sustainable energy can be brought closer, but the extraction of the necessary raw materials locally threatens biodiversity and human rights. The challenge is to teach students to gain insight into and weigh different interests.

Sustainability competencies

In addition to good intentions, competencies are also needed to shape sustainability in ICT. We find useful competence frameworks at Wiek, for example[1] and in the UN.[2] These are competencies such as future-oriented, value-oriented and systems thinking. Value-oriented thinking means, for example, that the values ​​that the project influences have already been explicitly discussed in the design phase. A well-known example is privacy-by-design, but it can also be about whether you want to make an app deliberately addictive (value-free). The point here is not that there is one right answer, but that the discussion takes place with the direct and indirect stakeholders.

Open-ICT distinguishes ten competencies that are developed during the education. The sustainable competencies are woven into this, working with a structure in complexity. In year one, for example, students do not yet have to map the impact on all stakeholders, but in year three, they do.

In order to integrate sustainability into ICT training, interventions are needed at several points, as shown in the model below. Each of the elements is briefly explained and illustrated with practical examples.

Figure 1: SDG intervention model

SDG-safe environmental factors

First of all, there is an important role for the teacher. The teacher can be an “SDG role model” by demonstrating expertise in sustainability in ICT, by actively questioning SDG aspects such as accessibility and energy efficiency, and by including these aspects in the assessment. At Open-ICT, despite the use of the same sustainable content, there was a clear difference in the quality of student products among teachers who felt more involved in sustainability and teachers who felt less involved. Teacher involvement and expertise can be fostered by constantly being aware of this, for example in workshops.

Customers are also crucial. If sustainability is not explicitly addressed in the assignments and is not included in the conversation with the customer, then sustainability remains a must for many students from the program. Open-ICT only wants to create projects that contribute to one or more of the SDGs. This is also communicated to the customers. Just like in professional practice itself, you will encounter dilemmas: do you use a lower limit, and how do you operationalize it then? Do you exclude certain projects or customers? And what if it makes you get too few projects?

The partner courses are also an important environmental factor. The framework for the collective umbrella, HBO-I, determines where a student should stand after four years. Therefore, it is important to make sustainability a part of the professional tasks also at this level. This means that you collaborate with other vocational colleges to supplement and adapt the current framework.

SDG secure content

It can be difficult for teachers and students to know how to shape sustainable development in their professional actions. The current Body of Knowledge and Skills (BoKS) offers only limited starting points for this. The BOKS must remain recognizable to the professional field, so when adapting the BoKS it is necessary to keep in touch with tools and methods that are common in professional practice. Open-ICT is therefore working to expand existing instruments with sustainable aspects. Think of Design Thinking with explicit attention to spaciousness and value-oriented design, the business model canvas expanded with ecological and social aspects; an extension of SCRUM with SDG aspects; or an explanation of how a website can be made as energy efficient as possible.

Figure 2: Inclusive and value-based design thinking

Figure 2: Inclusive and value-based design thinking

SDG-secure learning experiences

The choice of appropriate content and projects already makes an important contribution to the SDG-safe learning experience. In addition, it can help to create targeted experiences with an emphasis on sustainable development. This includes organizing SDG events, serious games where sustainability is central, and ensuring that partners such as the Accessibility Foundation include students in the design of an accessible application, as is done at Open-ICT.

Reflections on the learning experiences

Experience alone leads only to a limited extent to development. For example, the implementation of a project with sustainability goals will not automatically lead to the development of sustainability competencies if it does not look at how the values ​​in the project interact with each other, with the student’s own values ​​and with the values ​​in the project. ICT professionals around him / her, her / them. Open-ICT does this by embedding reflection in its SCRUM teaching as shown in the image below.

Figure 3: SDGs in SCRUM education

Figure 3: SDGs in SCRUM education

on the road together

SDG-skilled ICT professionals are needed for a sustainable world. Anchoring sustainable development in education is a change task that requires intervention in the learning environment, content, experience and reflection. This leads to professionals who see sustainable development as part of their identity. This means that teachers and education leaders need to spend time and attention on structural anchoring. It is not enough to appoint someone separately who is from the SDGs or a sustainable profession here and a sustainable event there. For this to work, it must belong to everyone. This article pushes for an approach to achieve this with the message that we also still seek and want to continue on this path with others, from education, but certainly also from professional practice.


[1] Wiek, A., Bernstein, M., Foley, R., Cohen, M., Forrest, N., Kuzdas, C., Kay, B., & Withycombe, Keeler, L. (2015). Operationalization of competencies in higher education for sustainable development. In: Barth, M., Michelsen, G., Rieckmann, M., Thomas, I. (Eds.) (2015). Handbook for higher education for sustainable development. Routledge, London. pp. 241-260.

[2] UN Economic Commission for Europe Strategy for Sustainable Development Education (July 2012), learning for the future, competencies in education for sustainable developmentaccessed from

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