Grassroots Cross‐boundary Innovation in Higher Education: Lessons from the Process of Designing Transformative


The Initiative for Transformative Sustainability Education (ITSE) at Wageningen University is a grassroots working group of academics, teachers, and students who have developed a framework for cross‐boundary sustainability education that addresses theoretical knowledge and practical skills, but also guides students to question their values, attitudes and behavior, develop leadership skills, learn to empower themselves and others, and learn to facilitate social and collaborative learning among a great diversity of stakeholders. 

In a small town located near the Rhine River in the Netherlands, the Wageningen University is working on a cutting edge Institute, named the Initiative for Transformative Sustainability Education (ITSE). It is a project aimed at empowering students, which entails a process of self-understanding and introspection, or to put it in words of Lisa Schwarzin, “(ITSE) addresses not only theoretical knowledge and practical skills, but also guides students to question their values, attitudes and behavior... learn to empower themselves and others, and learn to facilitate social and collaborative learning among a great diversity of stakeholders.” (Schwarzin, 2010: 1) Ultimately, its goal is to ameliorate awareness of the increasing challenges faced by higher education all of which can be faced through innovation. Thus ITSE can be seen as a stepping stone towards that end, through means of thinking out of the box via cross-boundaries integration.

To meet human needs – in the present as much as in the future - while preserving the environment is a fundamental need, which has emphasized the call for Education for Sustainability, a call that has not fallen upon deaf ears for the Wageningen University. These concerns were put forward during several meetings of the University Students Council in spring 2009. The goal: to educate for sustainability through interdisciplinary and multilayered efforts via innovation. The result of those meetings was the ITSE project.

Lisa Schwarzin depicted some elements that drive grassroots innovation initiatives in higher education using, as an example, the above-mentioned ITSE project in the framework of the 5th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education. Furthermore, she presented the framework for transformative sustainability education developed by ITSE, constructing upon it, she brought forward that which, in her consideration, is needed to further a shared framework for action in higher education. In a nutshell, there are four steps – which she compares to the blossoming of a flower - are needed: 1) finding common interests 2) creation of learning and sharing a community of stakeholders 3) networking between and among universities, students and stakeholders and 4) a shared framework for designing educational programs.

ITSE is basically divided, Schwarzin explained, into three dimensions. First sustainability is understood as a reflexive and critical approach to different paradigms, theories and techniques for sustainable development. Second, it makes sustainability subjective “by focusing on uncovering values, paradigms, perspectives, and personal passion for being a change maker for a more sustainable world.” (Schwarzin, 2010: 2) Third, it forces sustainability to be subjective on several levels by highlighting the potential of diversity and principles of facilitation for collaborative learning process, thus emphasizing the role of interaction. Specially, ITSE focuses on cross-boundary integration, which accordingly can be fostered through the exposition of students to those three dimensions. Last but not least, Schwarzin called for “re‐framing higher education innovation initiatives as spirals of learning that require continuous planning, reflexive experimental practice, and adaptation of the shared framework for action.” (Schwarzin, 2010, 3)

ITSE has thus created a blueprint for sustainable education through the current design of a BSc Minor program (24 ECTS) in Sustainable Development: Empowerment for Action and by being the host of a conference on the Challenges for Higher Education in the 21st Century (June 2nd 2009).

The complete description of this experience was submitted at the Call for Good Practices of the 5th International Barcelona Conference and can be found atGUNI.HEiOBS


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government