How to fight environmental degradation? Teaching the theory and practice of sustainability in the Netherlands and in China

How to fight environmental degradation? Teaching the theory
    and practice of sustainability in the Netherlands and in China

                                   Dr. L.M. Kamp1, Dr. W. Ravesteijn2
  Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, 2600 GA Delft,
the Netherlands,
  Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, 2600 GA Delft,
the Netherlands

At Delft University of Technology a series of courses has been developed on technology development from a
social perspective, transition management and sustainability. In this paper, we discuss two examples: the course
Design Methodologies and Innovation Tools for master students of the Industrial Ecology Master program of
Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the course Technology Dynamics and Transition
Management for master students Engineering and Policy Analysis at Harbin Institute of Technology in China.
The paper gives a comparison of the problems and the solutions and implementation paths the students work on.

Key words: technology dynamics, sustainability, transition management, project and problem based learning,
interactive teaching methods


Sustainable development is a hot issue, both in Western countries like the Netherlands and in ‘upcoming
economies’ like China. At Delft University of Technology a series of courses has been developed on technology
development from a social perspective, transition management and sustainability, dealing with questions like
how to design sustainable solutions for socio-technical problems and how to manage a transition from the
current systems of production and consumption to more sustainable ones. These courses consist of a theoretical
part about the process of technology development, the concept of sustainable development, and the actors and
factors that are involved in sustainable technology development and transition management. The courses also
contain a practical part in which student groups have to apply the theory to a real problem and write an essay on
solutions and their implementation.

In this paper, we discuss two examples of such courses. The first is the course Design Methodologies and
Innovation Tools for master students of the Industrial Ecology Master Programme of Delft University of
Technology in the Netherlands. The second is the course Technology Dynamics and Transition Management for
master students Engineering and Policy Analysis we teach at Harbin Institute of Technology in China. We will
present the courses and show how students used the theory to solve practical problems. The student essays we
discuss concern essential sustainability problems in the Netherlands and China and the roles engineers can play
in dealing with these problems.

Our paper will give a comparison of the problems and the solutions and implementation paths the students deal
with and propose in their essays. We start with a small section on the theoretical backgrounds.


Technology Dynamics studies technology development from a social perspective, both in order to raise our
understanding of how technology develops in a social setting and to increase our capabilities for steering this
development. It connects technology and society through a conceptual and theoretical framework that is still
under construction. Main concepts, are ‘actors’, ‘socio-technical systems’ (technical systems and related actors
and institutions) and ‘technological regimes’ (rule-sets concerning engineering works). With regard to the
relationships of technology and society, the ‘technology push’ and ‘market pull’ approaches are criticized and
replaced by the viewpoint of co-evolution and co-construction of technology, which is considered as a more
realistic point of departure for describing and analysing socio-technical phenomena and also forms a good base
for interference.

Transitions to sustainable development constitute complex processes of technology development and societal
change, involving socio-technical system innovations and technological regime shifts. Such processes are largely
autonomous, though a variety of actors has an influence, especially the government. Initiating, steering, adjusting
and/or sustaining transition processes requires ‘transition management’, covering new forms of governance and
new policy tools.

Sustainability is defined in terms of ecology and social rights. Following the well-known 1987 Brundtland-
report, a development is considered ‘sustainable’ as long as it supports the present generation without
endangering the living conditions of the next generation. Consequently, it strikes a bridge between development
and environment, the needs of North and South and the needs of this and future generations.


This course takes place at the Applied Sciences Faculty at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands,
every year from the first week of February until the first week of April. It forms part of the Master Programme
Industrial Ecology of Delft University of Technology (DUT) and Leiden University. It is taught by dr Linda
Kamp and dr ir Gijsbert Korevaar (both DUT); the number of credits involved is 3 ECTS. Type of examination:
essays based on readings, lectures and workgroup assignments. The number of students is 20-25 on average.

3.1 Contents
In this course an introduction is given on principles and methodologies of sustainable design and innovation
regarding economic, societal, and ecological constraints.

3.2 Study goals
- knowledge of principles and methodologies of design and innovation for realizing Industrial Ecology
applications and sustainable technologies
- knowledge of drivers and barriers in processes of technological innovation
- insight in social, economic and technological complexity of sustainable system innovations

3.3 Education method
Lectures, group work and project presentations. During the lectures the students gain insights in theories and
tools regarding sustainable design and sustainable innovation processes. Sustainable design methods are
introduced, as are theories and tools to analyze and handle facilitators and barriers to the introduction of
sustainable technologies. The lectures are very interactive, with ample space for questions and discussions, and
are set up in a varied way, containing also exercises, games and role plays.

For the group work, groups of 3 students are formed. Each student group chooses a sustainable technology that is
not fully implemented yet. It can be still in the ‘idea phase’ or in the research labs, or it can be a niche
application. The subject can be chosen freely, but has to be agreed upon by the teachers. During the course, the
student groups work out this innovation and its implementation trajectory using an interdisciplinary socio-
technical approach of problem-analysis and problem-solving. Every week, the students need to hand in an
assignment. Feedback is given within two days. In the final report a research question needs to be answered,
using the input from all the assignments. The assignments are the following:
1. Prepare a 10 minutes presentation introducing a sustainable technology that has the promise to become a
     breakthrough innovation.
2. Make a more detailed description of the technology of your choice and argue why this technology is
     sustainable and why you think it can be implemented.
3. Define the system boundaries of your innovation, the subsystems and the input-output structure. Also define
     the knowledge that you will need to further develop this technology and the evaluation criteria that you will
     use for a final go/no-go decision.
4. Describe the innovation context: the stakeholders involved (with names of companies, organizations etc.)
     and their interests and the technologies that are in the context of this innovation (e.g. infrastructure, sub-
     components, competing technologies).
5.   Describe a possible controversy for this technology, and the position that you will take as a developers and
     the arguments that you will use. Or: describe possible bottlenecks for the introduction of this technology and
     argue how you will overcome these problems.
6.   Define a research question for your final report, which takes all previous assignments into consideration.
     Also present an outline of your report, with Chapter titles.

3.4 Literature
Reader “Sustainable design methodologies and innovation tools” by G. Korevaar, L.M. Kamp and K.F. Mulder.
Furthermore, students are expected to collect additional literature and internet sources and – if necessary – to
consult experts.

3.5 Assessment
The participants will write, present and defend a 15-20 page group report that:
- Analyses the introduction of a sustainable process, product or system with regard to its socio-economic and
political environment
- Synthesizes a feasible and applicable design solution or innovation trajectory to a clearly defined problem

Criteria for the (group) report are:
1. The structure and consistency of the report
2. A clear specification and delineation of the problem
3. The approach of the problem and the evaluation of (a) solution(s)
4. The use and integration of tools, theories and insights presented during the lectures
5. A good balance between and integration of technical and socio-economic aspects
6. The quantity and quality of the references used

Criteria for the (individual) presentations:
1. Clarity and comprehensiveness
2. Dealing with questions and defence of positions

3.6 Experiences
The course is being taught for the fourth time at this moment. Students are working on subjects like: the paper-
nanotube battery, small vertical axis urban wind turbines, PV cells on cars, energy production by algae and
electricity production by hothouses. Since the course is only halfway now, we cannot write anything yet about
this year’s experiences. Therefore, we will discuss last year’s experiences.

As written above, each student group chose a sustainable technology that is not fully implemented yet. The
subjects were chosen freely, but had to be agreed upon by the teachers. During the course, the student groups
worked out this innovation and its implementation trajectory using an interdisciplinary socio-technical approach.
In the academic year 2006-2007 the following subjects were chosen: the laddermill, the solar-powered hydrogen
fuel pump, the Davis blue energy ocean turbine, and the self-propelled electrically powered wheel. We will
describe two reports.

The laddermill is an innovation that is being developed at Delft University of Technology by a.o. Professor W.
Ockels. It consists of a number of kites that are attached to each other in a loop and produce energy. The students
investigated whether this technology is sustainable and whether it can make a significant contribution to the
growing demand for renewable energy. They concluded that the technology is more sustainable than wind
turbines, especially when recyclable fibers would be used for the kites and wires. For a significant contribution
to renewable energy demand, a lot needs to be done. The technology can be used in a stand-alone fashion but
then it has to be complemented by some way of power storage. Linking it to the grid is still a far away option.
The students were excited by the technical challenges of this innovative high-tech sustainable technology.
However, they foresee that social perception and public awareness can become serious obstacles.

The self-propelled electrically powered wheel is an example of fairly easy technical solution that is relatively
easy to implement in technical terms. Four self-propelled electrically powered wheels can be implemented in
existing public buses, for instance. The payback time is calculated to be 551 days and large sustainability
improvements can be made (better efficiency, and therefore less CO2 emissions – with the possibility to easily
shift to even more sustainable bio fuels or fuel cells – and far less particulate matter). However, the students
were surprised to find that implementation of this technology is meeting some serious obstacles. A big problem
is the fact that bus companies and manufacturers find the value the technology unproven because they were not
involved in the development process. Furthermore, most other actors are unfamiliar with the technology. The
students proposed the following solutions: involving ‘foreseen’ users already at an early stage in technology
development, better communication and marketing already at an early stage, setting up broad pilot projects to
gain experience with the technology and prove its potential.

3.7 Evaluation
This course has been taught for four years now, and the results are remarkable. The students write good to
excellent reports, especially after the first year, when we introduced the weekly assignments with quick

Student evaluations on the basis of lecture response groups show that the students are very enthusiastic about the
course. They feel challenged, are happy that they can choose their own subject, are positive about the quality and
quickness of the feedback and have the impression that they have learned a lot. Often, the students start working
on the project with the idea that a good technical solution will automatically be easily implemented and after the
course they know that this is definitely not the case. They are able to argue the pros and cons and the possibilities
of the innovation in a well funded manner, using a broad perspective. Furthermore, their reports show that they
have learned, based on thorough feedback on the assignments, how to write a consistent report, how to set up a
line of argument and how to make good use of references.


This course took place at the Technology Policy and Management (TPM) Centre at the Harbin Institute of
Technology in China, 26 November – 7 December 2007 (on a daily base). It forms part of the ‘Double degree in
Engineering and Policy Analysis’ programme of the TPM Faculty of Delft University of Technology (DUT) and
the TPM Centre of Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT). The course was a variation on the Technology
Dynamics course given in Delft. The China course was given for the first time, but it forms part of the 2008
programme again, though in an expanded form (see below). The student group consisted of both Chinese and
Dutch students. The course was taught by dr Wim Ravesteijn (DUT) and prof. Jianing Mi (HIT); the number of
credits involved was 3 ECTS. Type of examination: essays based on readings, lectures and workgroups.

4.1 Contents
At the heart of this module lies a model of technology development from a socio-technical perspective, which
will be applied to water problems in present-day China. The model prescribes an interdisciplinary approach of
problem-analysis and problem-solving in which problems are defined and solutions are judged from both social
actor perceptions and expert views, especially as to sustainability. Consequently, implementation strategies are
explored and designed, especially in terms of transition management, because sustainable solutions require
‘socio-technical system innovations’ and ‘technological regime shifts’.

4.2 Study goals
1. ... able to identify and redefine problems in which developments of technology and society are intertwined,
especially in terms of social actor perceptions, socio-technical systems and technological regimes.
2. ... able to analyze those problems in terms of sustainability.
3. ... able to identify technological alternatives, considering the perspectives of all parties involved, especially
relevant social actors’ and sustainability perspectives.
3. ... able to devise integrated solutions on the basis of at least two technological alternatives, acceptable for all
parties involved, both actors and experts.
4. ... able to evaluate the adequacy of the proposed solutions, in view of the original problem, and of possible
new problems that would result, and come up with a final solution.
5. … able to devise implementation strategies for the proposed solutions in terms of transition management.

4.3 Education method
Lectures, group work and project presentations with feedback and discussion are the educational methods to be
used. Expert sessions inform the students about the basic concepts and theories of the course. Students get the
assignment to tackle a specific problem within a project group, combining the usual ‘Engineering and Policy
Analysis’ competencies with the broad framework of technology dynamics and transition management. The
focus is on water problems in China and students can make a choice out of a collection of specific problems.

Students have to use the theoretical concepts and lecture materials in general in dealing with a specific socio-
technical problem in the context of China. They have to form groups and analyse a socio-technical problem,
explore two alternative solutions and make an assessment of both, including the implementation problems and
possibilities. They are asked to explore a conservative solution fitting in the existing ‘socio-technical system’
and ‘technological regime’ and a radical solution requiring a ‘system transition’ and ‘regime shift’. The
assessment should include an actor analysis. The students are invited to make recommendations to ‘problem

The morning programme consists of lectures, films and two times a presentation, one halfway about the chosen
problem, their problem analysis and two solutions possibilities, and one at the end, their final presentation on the
basis of which there are assessed.

Their 2007 afternoon assignment programme was as follows:
1. Choose a water problem. Specify the problem. Analyze the problem: what is precisely the problem? Which
    actors, systems and regimes are involved?
2. Investigate the background of China’s water problems: What causes can be distinguished? Which historical
    solutions have been applied? Which processes of variation and selection could be distinguished?
3. Which solutions could be designed? Which aspects/effects would you take into account?
4. Prepare a presentation of your problem analysis and an analysis of the two solution possibilities you
5. [Morning: Student presentations]. Make a sustainability analysis of your problem and solutions. Use (one
    of) the tools from the lecture.
6. Make a new technology assessment of your solutions, using the insight from the lecture.
7. Which type of transition process is necessary in the case of your solutions? Design these processes and
    indicate the tools that you could use.
8. Which type of transition process is possible in the case of your solutions? Design these processes and
    indicate the tools that you could use.
9. Discuss the pros and cons of big hydraulic plans in general and in China. Prepare your end presentation.
10. End presentations.

4.4 Literature
Wim Ravesteijn, Leon Hermans and Erik van der Vleuten, ‘Water systems. Participation and globalisation in water
system building’. Special issue of Knowledge, Technology & Policy 14 (2002) 4.
Students are expected to collect additional literature sources and – if necessary – to consult experts

4.5 Assessment
Students are assessed on the basis of their final project reports and the presentations of these reports. Each group
produces one report; each student sees to a part of the end presentation. Reports are assessed collectively (if
necessary, lecturers can differentiate individual scores) and count for 75%; presentations are assessed
individually and count for 25%.

Criteria for the (group) report are:
1. (clear) specification and delineation of a problem
2. (complete) application of the theoretical model in analyzing the problem and working out (two) alternative
3. originality of the solutions
4. use of the actor and sustainability perspectives
5. quantity and quality of the used sources
6. integration of the various perspectives in the solutions
7. weighing the pros and cons of the solutions, in view of the original problem and including the creation of
     new problems
8. quality of the final solution choice
Criteria for the (individual) presentations:
1. clarity and comprehensiveness
2. dealing with questions and defence of positions
Final marks are determined collectively by the lecturers, in which each expert especially considers the way his
topic has been dealt with, and will be individually assigned.

4.6 Experiences
A selected number of themes were presented and the 10 students chose pollution problems in Harbin and Lake
Tai and water problems in the form of the South-North Water Transfer Plan. We will describe two reports.
The project ‘Operation Snow White’ dealt with the problem of dirty snow in the wintertime in Harbin due to the
particular de-icing salt used and air pollution (especially carbon particles) in general. Harbin, situated in the far
northeast of China where summer temperatures are high (ca + 30o C) and winter temperature low (ca -30o C), is
world famous for its annual January ice sculptures festival and it attracts many tourists interested in seeing the
impressive and ingenious ice statues and constructions. Dirty snow does not fit in with this picture. The students
explored two possibilities: the use of relatively harmless chemicals that should be applied before the snow falls
(the ‘prevention instead of repression’ strategy) and a system of highway heating that would use the summer
heath (the ‘from black ice to green heat’ strategy). They mapped all actors involved (citizen groups, the
municipality, salt companies etc.), established their ‘perceptions’ and made an assessment in terms of
technological complexity, cost, avoidance of harmful substances, use of green energy, social acceptance,
reliability, area covered, transition process and maintenance, using a specific sustainability tool. They did not
present a specific preference and they proposed further research to reach a final conclusion, which in their view
could well be a combination of both. They also used a long-term perspective of global warming and finished
their presentation and essay with the alarming sentence: ‘Maybe there will be no need of any of the two solutions
in the near future!’.

The second group of students focussed on the water shortage in North China and made an assessment of the
ambitious North-South Water Transfer (SNWT) Plan aimed at transferring water from the Yangtze River in the
south of China to the north, using three routes (the Western, the Middle and the Eastern ‘Grand Canal’ Route).
The students compared this plan, which is being implemented, with a Dutch inspired reorganization of water
management, aimed at addressing water problems locally and, consequently, in a decentralized way. They were
also aware of the need for further research, but still recommended the ‘transition of water management solution’.
However, in their view, that could be done separately from a decision to continue or not the large-scale SNWT
Project. They substantiated their suggestions with extensive analyses resulting in, among others, a goal tree, a
water system diagram, a causal relations diagram, a list of factors and actors related to the causal relations
diagram and an actor diagram with regard to the SNWT Project. They concluded their work with the following
recommendations: ‘In order to take away the doubts about the continuation of the SNWT Plan we recommend to
do further research into the effects of this plan for the south. To create more clarity about the impact of the
transition of water management solution we recommend to further study the effectiveness of efficiency
measures. To ensure a good transition of the organizational framework of Chinese water management we
recommend paying special attention to the political situation in China’.

4.7 Evaluation
The student presentations and essays were assessed as ‘good’ and ‘excellent’. Operation Snow White was
presented to the local government in Harbin and attracted press attention.

Evaluative conversations showed the students were very satisfied because they were challenged. They managed
to use the theoretical concepts, although in a loose way. In fact, they were asked in an open way to think in terms
of actors, systems and regimes and that is precisely what they did. Students explored the relationships between
technology in society in the Chinese context where the dominant role and position of the government plays an
important part and thus became very aware of the contextualised nature of their work. Students were pleased
with the variety of teaching methods applied; films missed during the morning sessions circulated among
students who watched them in their leisure time.

What students missed in the course and in the involved semester programme of courses in China as a whole, was
‘economic development’, a topic especially relevant in the Chinese context. On the basis of the students’ and
lecturers’ evaluations of the course and the semester programme in general it has been decided to continue the
Technology Dynamics and Transition Management course and expand it with ‘economic development’, making
the course a three weeks instead of a two weeks event.


In this paper we presented two courses in which the theory and practice of sustainability are taught in an
interactive way. The paper clearly shows that China and the Netherlands challenged the students in completely
different ways. In China, where the government is a dominant actor, students faced large implementation or
‘transition management’ problems in the case of ‘politically incorrect’ solutions. They felt engineering
arguments should be done justice to in their own right, loose from power or bureaucratic considerations.
However, they were realists enough to recommend (combined) solutions that made a chance in the existing
conditions, placing radical approaches in long-term perspectives. Though not insensitive to aspects like free
enterprise and civil society, they focussed on the government and, in general, on the political context of their

In the Netherlands students especially considered the need to give more space to social actors. They realised that
social perceptions, public awareness and customer benefits and preferences are crucial for a successful
implementation of sustainable technologies. As engineering students they were especially attracted to
technologies that form challenges in technical terms, but during the course they found out that often an even
bigger challenge lies in the socio-economic context in which the technology has to be implemented and which
they felt has to be taken into consideration already in the design phase. The students applied broad design
perspectives and innovation strategies in which they explicitly included these socio-economic aspects.

More general conclusions of the two courses are as follows. Firstly, it is very useful to design project or problem
based courses in which students have to work on complex sustainability problems in such a way that they can
receive feedback on partial aspects of the project in a quick way. This situation of direct learning seems to meet
present-day students’ expectations. Secondly, these kinds of courses are very suitable for interactive teaching
approaches. The combination of group work and lectures enables lecturers and students to develop new ways of
learning, dialogue and even co-operation, which benefits the cross-fertilization of theory and practice. Thirdly,
the introduction of teaching methods like playing games and role plays as well as watching and discussing
movies stimulates not only learning but also motivation, an essential precondition for all processes of gaining
knowledge and applying it, hopefully, for a better world.
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