Co-creating solutions at the Sustainability Institute

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The climate crisis and climate activism are topical subjects in the media. Menán van Heerden chats to Dr Jess Schulschenk, director of the Sustainability Institute, about this institute’s various initiatives and programmes.

Dr Jess Schulschenk

How does the Sustainability Institute contribute to combatting climate change (including the Lynedoch Eco-village)?

Climate change is certainly one of the greatest problems we as species/humanity face at the moment. That said, we also need to keep in mind that climate change is interconnected with a range of systemic risks and drivers such as land use change, biodiversity loss, inequality and dominant economic models, resulting in significant challenges in realising resilient and equitable development.

The way in which the Sustainability Institute hopes to contribute to tackling some of these major social, economic and environmental issues is through the educational programmes that we offer, perhaps most evidently through our partnership with Stellenbosch University, and by delivering degree programmes that help students to really understand the challenges as well as more nuanced, appropriate and impactful ways of co-creating solutions.

We also offer a number of technical credited skills-training programmes, whether in early childhood development in partnership with Indaba Institute, or through our AgroEcology Academy, in order to equip young people with the skills to live and work very differently as we need to in a post fossil fuel and climate secure future.

We’re situated within the Lynedoch Eco-village, which means that we’re deeply committed to being a part of living in ways that are restorative and regenerative, and we attempt to do that through careful use of energy, as well as deep investment into ecological restoration.

We are by no means perfect and while we do try and conserve energy, we still have aspirations of making a full transition to renewable energy, and the climate crisis is calling on us to take much more immediate, swift and decisive actions on these important topics.

Examples in action:

Sand Sports Court

Knowledge garden 

Eskom MicroGrid

Be mindful about water

The future of food security in South Africa and globally is a topical debate. Tell us more about the AgroEcology Academy.

AgroEcology was founded against the backdrop of the convergent national challenges of high youth unemployment, food insecurity and the need to accelerate land reform. The AgroEcology Academy offers a nationally accredited four-year youth development programme in sustainable food systems.

The Academy is a partnership between the Department of Rural and Land Reform, Stellenbosch University and local farmers who all share a vision of developing a nationally scalable model for supporting young people in following meaningful green economy careers in sustainable agriculture and food value chains. The model is designed to create a safe-to-fail incubation space for young agro-entrepreneurs.

Three intern farmers with seedlings

Source: Sustainability Institute

Through the combination of formal qualifications and extended periods of hands-on learning (both on farms and in their own businesses), the AgroEcology Academy has been designed to support the emergence of sustainable food systems at a grassroots level. The AgroEcology Academy is grassroots focused, but is not intended to act as a standalone training offering. It forms part of an integrated research programme run by the Sustainability Institute and Stellenbosch University aimed at addressing youth unemployment, land reform and food insecurity.


Links to stories related to our young farmers:


Tell us more about the local and global perspective of the Immersive Learning Journeys programme.

We offer immersive learning journeys in both South African and international contexts to provide participants with an opportunity to deeply understand the need for both local and globally relevant responses, as well as how climate change impacts people from across the world.

We find that the investment of time and resources to deeply immerse in other cultures, geographies and experiences has the potential to open up different ways of seeing the world that helps us to move beyond our own direct experiences and to think in systematic and innovative ways.

Climate change is a global phenomenon; it’s not limited to a specific country or specific community, so it is actually important to see how other people live and survive, how they need to adapt and what we can take from that.

Through considered use of resources, we think the investment is worth the learning outcomes and has helped us think in radically different and innovative ways.


The youth are the future and ultimately the generation that will be greatly affected by climate change. What programs are available at the Institute for children and students?

We run programmes for 3-month-old babies up to working professionals. Specifically relevant for youth, is our Lynedoch Children’s House (ages 0 to 6), our primary school bursary programme and our Dream Space for young adults and youth in transition.

All of these programmes focus on creating better and just futures for children and youth by providing access to the best possible education, while also taking into consideration social needs such as healthy meals, transport and socio-emotional support.

Our Dream Space assists high school youth to prepare for life beyond school and provides them with a host of opportunities for work and study, while building soft skills and self-confidence. We also help “youth in transition” who have completed school and wish to enter the job market.


“Climate change is certainly one of the greatest problems we as species/humanity face at the moment. That said, we also need to keep in mind that climate change is interconnected with a range of systemic risks and drivers such as land use change, biodiversity loss, inequality and dominant economic models, resulting in significant challenges in realising resilient and equitable development.”


How sustainability comes into play, is in terms of taking a long-term, future-focused view of what is needed to ensure just futures for our children and youth by focusing on education, life skills, the role nature plays in education and development, how everyone should have the same opportunities and the importance of social justice. In total, there are about 200 beneficiaries in our children and youth programmes.

We are the academic partner of Stellenbosch University for their undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in sustainable development, which are presented at our premises. We offer executive development programmes in sustainable development, and also do research and consulting for national and international organisations.

Your academic programmes have a transdisciplinary focus. What is the value of transdisciplinary studies, especially with regard to sustainability as well as transformation?

The challenges that we are faced with calls for more than just the contribution of each discipline in and of itself, but ask of us to develop skills and competence in ways of seeing the world that can bring these disciplines together, as well as to recognise knowledge that sits outside formal academic programmes.

Transdisciplinarity places emphasis on the contribution each of our disciplines can make, as well as the importance of process, co-identification of the problem or challenge, and co-creation of the solution with those directly affected and who will ultimately be able to drive change in the world.

How would you define sustainable development and what can citizens do to practically reduce our carbon footprint?

Sustainable development is ultimately about living in ways that are respectful to ourselves, others and the life-sustaining environment, ensuring that we restore and maintain life-giving resources and social foundations for future generations, as opposed to degrading and undermining them.

Critical to notions of sustainable development is understanding social justice, both for future generations and within current generations, and I think it calls for us to move beyond the technical solutions to innovate deeply within social process and outcome.

I think a message to every individual is to consider carefully what really matters most. If you take a step back and reflect on what you ultimately value, it is most often experiences and relationships that make up the memories that count the most, and not necessarily the material possessions that increasingly define our identities.

One of the critical roots at the heart of sustainability is the crisis of consumerism, and it’s something that we are often afraid or reluctant to address. There are so many challenges we face and so many people who lack access to basic resources and opportunities, but insofar as those who might be in the position to be reading an article such as this one, and to be making decisions differently, we are also often the ones with some of the greatest environmental impacts, and consumerism can sit at the heart of a lot of this.

A more practical set of guidance can be found in the Nedbank Smart Living Guide that was co-produced by the Sustainability Institute, which has a number of amazing ways that you can reduce your impact on the environment at home and in your lifestyle choices. Ultimately, I think we have to consider what we value most and identify what we’re prepared to do in our everyday lives to celebrate and protect it.


Read more about current environmental issues in LitNet Akademies:

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