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Guide for readers of KTH’s Sustainable Development Policy

What does it mean, when one says “promote sustainable development”?

The text contains footnotes to each section.


According to the Swedish Higher Education Act, universities and other institutions of higher education such as KTH are required to promote sustainable development. To assist in the fulfilment of this task, a definition of the term and concept “sustainable development” could be useful. It may also be necessary to have a condition for when an enterprise, activity or technology may be regarded as promoting sustainable development. This document contains definitions and proposals for interpretations of the concept sustainable development and other similar concepts.

One definition commonly used is from the Brundtland Commission Report1 from 1987:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of ‘needs,’ in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.” This definition can also serve as a starting point for KTH’s work to promote sustainable development.

In 2015, governments around the world adopted the new Agenda 2030 and 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the “Global Goals.”’ Thus these goals have a very broad acceptance and legitimacy. The goals cover issues of basic needs, distribution in society, technological development, and ecological aspects. Under each goal there are a number of targets. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a description of what society wants to achieve with a sustainable development and can therefore be seen as clarifications of the definition of sustainable development and making it more precise.

In order to be able to assess whether an enterprise, activity or technology contributes to sustainable development, the following conditions are proposed: “An enterprise, activity or technology can be considered to promote sustainable development if it clearly facilitates the possibilities of achieving the global sustainable development goals of Agenda 2030 in a life cycle perspective.” A life cycle perspective means that consideration is given to how raw materials are acquired, products are produced and used, and how they are disposed of after use. This means that an analysis and assessment may be needed in relation to the global sustainable development goals.

KTH’s Sustainable Development Policy and sustainability objectives have clear links to the global sustainable development goals. When KTH works with its sustainability objectives that relate to education, research, joint collaborations, buildings, campus areas etc, it will also contribute to sustainable development.

Footnotes to Summary

1 World Commission on Environment and Development (1987); Our common future.


According i.a. to the Swedish Higher Education Act2 and KTH’s Sustainable Development Policy,3 KTH should contribute to sustainable development. One question that can then be asked, is how should the concept of sustainable development be interpreted. How can it be defined, and how should an activity or a part of KTH know if it is meeting the objective of promoting sustainable development? The intention with this document is to point at some established documents and publications, along with some definitions of concepts, and to provide guidance on these issues for KTH. Although the purpose of this document is primarily for use at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the discussion here is likely to be relevant for many other institutions of higher education, public authorities, companies and NGOs.

Footnotes to Introduction

2 Swedish Parliament. Swedish Higher Education Act (1992:1434).

3 KTH. Sustainable Development Policy for KTH.!/Policy%20f%C3%B6r%20h%C3%A5llbar%20utveckling%2 0f%C3%B6r%20KTH%20-%202016-06-01.pdf

Sustainable development

The concept of sustainable development has a long history.4 KTH’s Sustainable Development Policy uses a definition based on the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report:5

“Sustainable development is a development that meets our needs today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It contains two basic concepts: needs, and in particular the basic needs of the world’s poor for whom priority should be given, and thelimitations of ecosystems’ ability to meet current and future needs as determined by technology and social organisation.”

The first sentence in the paragraph above is probably the globally most cited definition of sustainable development. It is important because it points i.a. to the importance of fulling the needs of both the current as well as the future generations. The continuation is not as often cited, however provides additional important information. Among other things, it is relevant since the text points to the role that a technical university can have by developing technology and social organisation within the constraints imposed by ecosystems.

The Swedish Higher Education Act, Chapter 1, Section 5 states that

“In the course of their operations, higher education institutions shall promote sustainable development to assure for present and future generations a sound and healthy environment, economic and social welfare, and justice.”

This quotation states not only what the institutions of higher education should do, it also contains a definition of sustainable development. It stresses that both current and future generations must be assured of welfare, justice, and a sound and healthy environment.

The two definitions, that in the Swedish Higher Education Act and that in the Brundtland Commission Report are not identical and have a slightly different focus, nevertheless they have clear similarities and in no way are in conflict with each other. The definition in the Brundtland Report has a large international dissemination and says somewhat more about the role of technology and the ecosystems’ limitations. It therefore can continue to be a starting point for KTH’s work on sustainable development.

The concept of sustainable development has been used and expanded in a large number of contexts. For example, people talk about Sustainable Urban Development and Sustainable Social Development (or Social Sustainability). One reasonable interpretation of these concepts is that they refer to sustainable development for a city, a society as a whole, etc.

Even when the word “development” is not explicitly included, such as in Sustainable Built Environment, Sustainable Finance, Sustainable Procurement, Sustainable Investment, Sustainable Consumption, Sustainability Reporting, Sustainable Communication, and Smart Sustainable Cities6 it is often a reasonable interpretation that the origin is from the concept “sustainable development.” This means that what is meant is a built environment, finances, procurement, etc., which is compatible with sustainable development. However, in its interpretation, the context must be taken into account.

Footnotes to Sustainable development

4 Robinson, J. (2004): Squaring the circle? Some thoughts on the idea of sustainable development. Ecological Economics, 48, 369-384.

5 World Commission on Environment and Development (1987); Our common future.

6 See for example, Höjer, M. and Wangel, J. (2014): Smart Sustainable Cities: Definition and Challenges. In Hilty, L. and Aebischer, B. (Eds): ICT Innovations for Sustainability. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, 310, Springer.

Goals for sustainable development

In 2015, the governments around the world adopted Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.7 This contains 17 goals and 169 targets for sustainable development for the time period up to 2030. The 17 global sustainable development goals are listed below, however the targets should also be read as they contain in-depth clarifications.

  • Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  • Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Goal 6 . Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation
  • Goal 10. Reduce income inequality within and among countries
  • Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable
  • Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy.*
  • Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  • Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  • Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

* Acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.

Agenda 2030 emphasises that these goals are universal, that is that they apply to all countries, and are indivisible, i.e. it is not possible to focus on only some of the goals and ignore the others, but rather they must be seen as a collective whole. They are also intertwined and interdependent upon each other. For example, it becomes more difficult to reach Goal 2 on food security and zero hunger and Goal 6 on access clean water and sanitation if Goal 13 on combating climate change is not achieved; and is becomes more difficult to achieve Goal 16 on peaceful and inclusive communities if Goal 2 on food security is not achieved. The global sustainable development goals provide a description for what is to be achieved with sustainable development and therefore they can be seen as clarifications of the definition of sustainable development discussed above.

In several of the goals, the word sustainable is used, for example in Goal 2 where sustainable agriculture is part of the goal. It can then be asked how the word sustainable should be interpreted in this context. One reasonable interpretation is that it refers to farming in sustainable ways that is in line with sustainable development. This means that it should be able to continue for a long time, which is in line with definitions of sustainable development, and that it should not make it more difficult to achieve other sustainable development goals.

The global sustainable development goals can work together in a variety of ways. There may be synergies between the targets (so that attaining one of them will make it easier to attain another); however there may also be conflicts between the goals. Several studies indicate that synergies are more common and stronger than conflicts between the goals8 and that conflicts between the goals are often “potential” conflicts, i.e. it should be possible to avoid them. Therefore it is important to identify potential conflicts between the goals and develop solutions that avoid them.

Footnotes to Goals for sustainable development

7 To change our world. Agenda 2030 for sustainable development. Appendix 3 to the Swedish Government’s Decision 2016-04-07 (Fi2016/01355/SFÖ)

8 See for example, Ekener, E. and Katzeff, C. (2018): Knowledge overview of mutual dependencies. Report 6805. Naturvårdsverket/Environmental Protection Agency; Fuso Nerini, F. et al (2018): Mapping synergies and trade-offs between energy and the Sustainable Development Goals, Nature Energy, 3, 10-15; Nilsson et al (2018): Mapping interactions between the sustainable development goals: lessons learned and ways forward. Sustainability Science, 13, 1489-1503.

To promote sustainable development

According to the above, institutions of higher education are expected to promote sustainable development. This may require an assessment whether an activity or technology supports sustainable development. For the purpose of developing such a condition, we can also look at other similar definitions. The term environmental technology (sometimes referred to as clean technology) is often used. Terms such as “cleantech” (for clean technology and “greentech” (environmentally-friendly technology) are also often used. A definition of Environmental Technology that is often used (for example by Formas9 but also internationally) is:

“Environmental technology includes such products, systems, processes and services that provide clear environmental benefits over existing or alternative solutions seen in a life-cycle perspective.”

The definition is interesting not only in that it emphasises the need for a life-cycle perspective, i.e. that the environmental impacts must be taken into account throughout the life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials, through production and usage to waste management. In order to determine whether a particular technology (product, system, process or service) can be classified as environmental technology, an analysis is required to assess this in a life cycle perspective taking a wide range of environmental aspects into account. The analysis is also necessary to avoid sub-optimisations, i.e. that something which has a clear environmental benefit with respect to one phase of the life cycle and/or an environmental aspect turns out to have obvious disadvantages elsewhere in the life cycle or with regard to some other environmental aspect. The definition for environmental technology can also mean that if something is to be classified as environmental technology, or not, can change over time. This is because production processes change over time.

Based on the above definitions and interpretations, the following conditions are proposed for when an activity or technology can be considered to promote sustainable development:

“An activity or technology can be considered to promote sustainable development if it clearly facilitates, in a life cycle perspective, the opportunities to achieve the global sustainable development goals of Agenda 2030.”

Thus, to determine whether an activity or technology promotes sustainable development or not, it is necessary to make an analysis and assessment regarding the sustainable development goals in a life cycle perspective. An activity or technology can also be regarded as conditionally promoting sustainable development, i.e. it promotes sustainable development if a certain precondition is met, for instance using a certain production method or avoiding a certain raw material. It is also conceivable that an activity or technology can be considered as potentially promoting sustainable development, i.e. there is a potential for it to develop in a certain way, however this has not happened yet.

One can imagine situations where there is a conflict of objectives, i.e. an enterprise, activity or technology has a positive impact linked to certain sustainable development goals but a negative impact with respect to others. In line with the above criterion, it is then necessary to assess whether the advantages/benefits clearly outweigh the disadvantages. To weigh different types of impacts against each other, there are scientific methods in two areas that can be used: economics and decision theory. In economics, cost-benefit analyses are often used to weigh pros and cons against each other. In decision theory, a variety of methods for multicriteria analysis have been developed to weigh different advantages and disadvantages. Common to these methods is that values are needed to make decisions about how different aspects are to be weighed against each other. However the fact there are values does not preclude that a broad consensus can been reached concerning them. However if no broad consensus has been reached, it can hinder the possibilities to show that an enterprise, activity or technology contributes to sustainable development. It should also be noted that a traditional economic cost-benefit analysis is not necessarily compatible with sustainable development, since normally a discount rate is used which reduces the value of the needs of future generations.10 Depending upon the discounting method, the value of future generations being able to meet their needs can become completely negligible, which is not consistent with the definitions of sustainable development as discussed above. In addition, too often the distribution of costs and benefits is not taken into account. This means that one group’s costs can be offset by the benefits to another group. This may conflict with sustainable development, as expressed for example in the global sustainable development goal number 10 of reducing inequality within and among countries, or the definition in the Swedish Higher Education Act which emphasises social and economic justice.

When assessing whether an enterprise, activity or technology contributes to sustainable development, it may also be relevant to take the scale of the changes that might take place into account. An enterprise, activity or technology that has negative impacts which in a limited scale may be considered acceptable but which on a large scale can threaten any of the goals or sub-goals of sustainable development, cannot be considered to promote sustainable development, even if the benefits would be greater than the costs. This is because the goals are intertwined and indivisible. This means that if one goal is not achieved, it will prevent the possibilities to attain several other goals. The possibilities of compensating impacts between different goals are therefore limited.

The above provides a condition for an enterprise, activity or technology to be considered to promote sustainable development. However it should not be confused with that this enterprise, activity or technology can be regarded as being sustainable. For an activity to be considered sustainable, it is not enough to facilitate opportunities to achieve the global sustainable development goals, it must also fulfil the goals and the overall definition of sustainable development, i.e. not compromise the ability of present and future generations to meet their own needs. This can be a difficult analysis to make. For social sustainable development aspects, it may require criteria for when needs are regarded as having been satisfied. For environmental sustainable development aspects, it may require deciding what proportion of an environmental space a particular activity may use. This cannot be done without ethical tradeoffs between different groups in society, including future generations. Since these analyses and assessments can be both difficult to make and difficult to argue, it may be wise to be careful in describing an enterprise, activity or technology as sustainable.

Footnotes to To promote sustainable development

9 Formas-funded research on environmental technology. 0100%20Miljoteknik%20broschyr_inlaga.pdf

10 Crépin, A.-S., et al (2018): Möjligheter och begränsningar med samhällsekonomiska analyser (Opportunities and limitations with socio-economic analyses). Vetenskapliga rådet för hållbar utveckling/Scientific Council for Sustainable Development.

Ecological sustainable development and the environment

The global sustainable development goals integrate ecological, economic and social aspects. But sometimes one wants to study ecological sustainable development separately. In Sweden, the Swedish environmental objective system11 is often referred to. It consists of 1 generational objective, 16 national environmental quality objectives with clarifications, and 24 milestone targets. The generational objective shows the direction of what must be done within a generation in order to achieve the national environmental quality objectives. The environmental quality objectives describe the state of the Swedish environment which the environmental work should lead to. The clarifications should clarify what the environmental quality objectives mean and are also used as criteria in the follow-up of the objectives. The milestone targets are steps on the path to achieving the generation objective and one or more environmental quality objectives. If one wants to make an interpretation of the ecological dimension of sustainable development, or the word environment, the Swedish environmental objective system can be a good starting point.

Footnotes to Ecological sustainable development and the environment

11 Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. Sweden’s national environmental quality objectives.

Social sustainable development

Compared to ecological sustainable development, there is a more fragmented view of social sustainable development in the literature. But despite this, there are some themes that are pervasive such as social capital, human capital and well-being,12 Health is central and in Sweden, there are eight target areas of public health objectives established by the Swedish Parliament.13 These are:

1. Conditions in early life
2. Knowledge, skills and education/training
3. Work, working conditions and the working environment
4. Income and opportunities to earn a living
5. Housing and local neighbourhood
6. Lifestyle factors
7. Control, influence and participation
8. Equitable and health-promoting health care and medical services

These target areas affect several of the global goals for sustainable development and are thus broader than just the third of the global sustainable development goals that specifically concern health. Together, the eight target areas of public health objectives capture parts of what can be described as social sustainable development.

There are also Swedish clarifications in other areas that can be interesting, when seeking to define social sustainable development. One good example is the gender equality policy targets,14 which have the following sub-objectives:

1. An equal division of power and influence.
2. An economic gender equality
3. Equal education
4. Equal distribution of unpaid house and care work
5. Equal sexual and reproductive health
6. Men’s violence against women must end

These sub-objectives also affect several of the global sustainable development goals.

Footnotes to Social sustainable development

12 Weingartner, C. and Moberg, Å. (2014): Exploring Social Sustainability: Learning from Perspectives on Urban Development and Companies and Products. Sustainable Development, 22, 122-133.

13 Public Health Agency. Public Health Authority. Public health policy objectives.

14 Regeringskansliet/Swedish Government Offices. More about gender equality policy objectives.

Economic sustainable development

Economic and social well-being is dependent upon functioning ecosystems. The definition from the Brundtland Commission Report highlights the limitations of ecosystems. Sustainable economic development is thus dependent upon sustainable ecological development and in order to be able to assess economic sustainable development, it is also necessary to study ecological and social aspects at the same time.

Economic sustainable development is integrated into the global sustainable development goals. When assessing economic sustainable development, the object of study can be important to define. If the sustainable development of an enterprise, activity or technology is to be assessed, then a necessary (even if not sufficient) condition for an enterprise or activity to be financially sustainable may be that it does not show systematic financial deficits but rather can be profitable. As this applies to a country, one criterion may be that the total capital (measured as the total of economic capital including machinery, labour and knowledge) and natural capital (including natural resource) must be constant.15

Footnotes to Economic sustainable development

15 For example, Atkinson, G. et al (2014) (Eds.): Handbook of Sustainable Development, 2nd ed. Edward Elgar.

KTH’s contribution to sustainable development

KTH’s Sustainable Development Policy16 says that
“KTH is to be a leading technical university in sustainable development, and actively and responsibly contribute to sustainable development through education, research, collaboration and by reducing the environmental impacts of its own operations along with promoting social responsibility.”

In addition to the Policy, more detailed objectives are also included in KTH’s sustainability objectives.17

The global sustainable development goals are integrated into KTH’s operations and activities, for example by incorporating them in the educational programmes, research activities, collaborations with other parties, and in the work with KTH’s own operations and activities. According to the Policy, sustainable development must be integrated at all levels in KTH’s strategic and operational activities. However, this should not be interpreted as it must be integrated into each and every research project or course that is given. It is the operations as a whole that are to contribute to sustainable development in line with KTH’s Sustainable Development Policy and sustainability objectives.

KTH’s Sustainable Development Policy and sustainability objectives have clear links to the global sustainable development goals. When KTH works with its sustainability objectives that affect its educational activities, research, joint collaborations, campus areas or other activities, it will also contributes to sustainable development.

Footnotes to KTH's contribution to sustainable development