On a planet increasingly threatened by climate change, poverty and conflict, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the world’s most important agenda. The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has embedded the SDGs across the curriculum to cultivate future leaders with a sense of social responsibility.

A global university consortium to cultivate SDG talents and build a better world

CUHK has joined the Future17: Sustainable Development Goals Challenge Programme (Future17), a multi-institutional educational programme started by the University of Exeter and leading global higher education company Quacquarelli Symonds Limited (QS). The initiative has brought together a consortium of renowned universities from four continents: CUHK in Hong Kong, Exeter in the UK, Stellenbosch University in South Africa and the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

Future17 is an online programme that supports students as they develop the skills needed to tackle the global challenges of the 21st century by developing innovative solutions to real-world issues associated with the United Nations’ 17 SDGs.

Students form cross-university, multi-disciplinary teams to tackle challenges through projects defined by businesses, charities, and non-governmental and public sector organisations. They are mentored by academics and industry partners, and learn to diagnose problems, design innovative solutions and showcase their projects online.

CUHK Provost Professor Alan Chan stressed that, “Higher education in the 21st century must address the grand challenges that confront humanity. The programme presents an excellent opportunity for students to work with an international team and organisations to solve real-life problems. We hope they will not only gain valuable experience and acquire new skills but also become future champions of sustainable development. CUHK is pleased to be a founding partner of this global initiative, which aligns with the goals of CUHK 2025, the University’s new strategic plan.”

Associate director of the Office of University General Education Professor Amos Tai explained that the programme introduces students to the complexity of real-world sustainability issues and makes them appreciate the necessity of joining forces to find practical solutions. “Everybody can play a role, not only through their own career but also by adjusting their lifestyle, in creating an economically vibrant, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable world.”

Future17 connects students from different cultural and educational backgrounds to collaborate with international organisations and tackle sustainability challenges.

Vision and action must go hand-in-hand

Through the Future17 programme, CUHK students not only grow more motivated to realise a sustainable society but also learn valuable skills such as design thinking needed to achieve the SDGs and become future leaders.

Year 2 public health student Enzo Li said during the climate action project, he did a lot of research and found that environmental changes, such as sea-level rises and droughts, can affect people’s health. Therefore, they have designed educational toolkits to help academics and other members of the community educate others on the importance of climate action and how it influences all the other SDGs. “It was an excellent opportunity to integrate academic learning with life experiences and community engagement.”

Year 3 urban studies student Osbert Leung took part in a project that explored the use of timber in sustainable buildings in Europe. He said the project gave him a broader view of the construction industry and the challenges of transitioning to a circular economy. He pledged to continue to raise awareness of all the SDGs.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 seek to end poverty, address various social needs, fight climate change and ensure a sustainable future with peace and prosperity for all people.

The pilot programme was launched in the second term of 2021–22 and attracted some 120 students from the four universities. Participants included 25 students and 10 academic mentors from CUHK. The programme received positive feedback and is available in the new academic year. Future17 also looks forward to joining hands with more universities and companions on the road towards sustainability.