10.06.2016 - Education Sector

UNESCO prize-winners spread Green Office model across Europe

© RootAbility

UNESCO-Japan 2015 prize-winners rootAbility are putting sustainability at the heart of universities and higher education institutions through their innovative Green Office Model.

In 2012 four students brainstorming in the Green Office at Maastricht University in the Netherlands came up with an idea. The Green Office is an environmental hub and coordinator developed and launched by the students in 2010. Its team creates new sustainability projects – like educational events, solar cells on rooftops and student-led sustainability research – as well as connecting existing sustainability initiatives by students, staff and faculty.

The students, Felix Spira, Valentin Tappeser, Ulrich Scharf and Arian Meyer (later joined by Ragnar Martens) realised that their idea would work well in universities everywhere. As a result they started a social enterprise called rootAbility to spread the model across Europe.  

Four years later there are 23 Green Offices to be found in six European countries with the respective universities providing funding, positions, office space and mandates. And with more than €1.1 million raised, numerous other Green Office initiatives across Europe are lobbying their universities for funding and support. In recognition of its achievements, rootAbility received the 2015 UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development.

What’s so new about the Green Office Model?

The model differs from other existing university sustainability programmes in several crucial aspects. Felix Spira explains: “With traditional sustainability management, the biggest downside is the students are not sufficiently involved. The Green Office Model sets up a mixed team of five to eight students and at least one university staff member. They then work with many volunteers to run a dynamic sustainability process.

Each Green Office works independently but all follow six principles which build in robust structures. These require each team to comprise a mix of university students and staff, and to have an official mandate, be funded by the university and part of its organizational structure and collaborate with internal and external stakeholders, such as student groups, facility services, research institutes, the city administration and local civil associations. The sixth principle dictates that Green Office members must be trained by rootAbility.  The result is a deeply integrated platform that is also adaptable and easily communicated.

Open source change-making

At first the team had difficulty spreading the message but, as funds were running out, they found the answer in open source materials in the form of videos, handbooks, research reports, case studies and presentation slides. Rather than selling the model they shared knowledge freely on rootAbility’s website and still managed to stay in business.

Spira explains: “We started to develop a freemium business model which puts some content for free on the web, whereas other services are paid for. That means that we inform university students and staff about the Green Office Model via Skype or on the telephone, but we charge a fee for workshops, presentations and intensive support services.”

Now rootAbility has its first non-academic uptake from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), a national institute for strategic policy analysis. 

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