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By Cara Kennedy-Cuomo

The world is made up of fragile ecosystems upon which all life on Earth depends. Once natural tipping points, or planetary boundaries, have been breached within these crucial natural systems, society risks “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”(Steffen et al. 2015).  The term planetary boundaries was first coined in 2009 by a cohort of scientists led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University. According to them, the Earth has already surpassed four of the nine boundaries.

To enhance awareness of planetary boundaries, the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University, Malaysia, paired up with the SDG Academy, a free online education platform offering graduate-level courses related to sustainable development. The result was a Blended Learning Program that combined the SDG Academy’s expert-led online syllabus with in-person classroom instruction tailored specifically to the national context of Malaysia. The Blended Learning Program educated participants about the global environmental consequences of their everyday life choices, to encourage more conscientious decision-making.

The course was developed with a dual objective. First, to familiarize participants with the concept of planetary boundaries and second, to encourage practical application of the knowledge gained in the course. One case study that was featured demonstrated how human-led deforestation has created a positive feedback loop resulting in an increased occurrence of forest fires in the peat swamp forests of northern Selangor, Malaysia. Thanks to concerted efforts, reforestation initiatives are slowly raising the water table and restoring the swamp forest as a natural carbon sink. Participants were also invited to present case studies from their own individual life experiences, and to consider how they actively address sustainable development. One participant recorded the number of times she was able to refuse plastic by carrying her own reusable water bottle, plate, and cutlery. As a result, the participant was able to roughly calculate her reduced carbon footprint.

Later in the course, participants were introduced to several analytical thinking tools, including stakeholder mapping, issue trees, and DPSIR (driving forces, pressures, states, impacts, responses) models. The 15 participants ultimately applied these tools to three main projects, all designed to be implemented within the Sunway community. Many of the participants were Sunway University administrators, professors, students, and Sunway Corporation officers, allowing the perspectives of a variety of stakeholders in the three projects.

The three final projects focused on efficiency and accessibility to public transportation (SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities), food and plastic waste (SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production), and the energy-efficient design of buildings (SDG 7, Affordable and Clean Energy). To improve local transport efficiency in Sunway, one group proposed changes to the city’s bus routes. In addition, to enhance the safety and increase accessibility for pedestrians, the group also indicated where to build new sidewalks and zebra crossings. Another group proposed changes to the Sunway cafeteria and food vendor policy to reduce both food waste and plasticware consumption. Drawing inspiration from a new building under development in Sunway, the third group drafted a design proposal on how to enhance the building’s energy efficiency.

As a result of the course, participants were able to gain a greater understanding of the concept of sustainable development, planetary boundaries, and how to transpose this knowledge into a local context.  As the first edition of the Blended Learning Program, the experience offered an opportunity for facilitators to establish a proven methodology for future iterations. With its unique application of adaptable education tools and materials, the course proved to be a valuable learning experience for both participants and facilitators, as well as an interesting model to study and replicate in knowledge institutions worldwide.