“There is a tremendous amount of untapped potential embedded in every university throughout the world to help make tangible, sustainable community change right now if only those resources could be harnessed effectively and efficiently. We have stumbled onto a radically simple way to match the urgent social and environmental needs of communities with the vast amount of talent and energy of our universities, all while utilizing existing administrative structures, faculty, students, and courses.” – Marc Schlossberg

Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP) – 2015 Awardee

In 2009, the University of Oregon pioneered a radically simple effort called the Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP) based around a yearlong partnership between a university and a city. With this partnership, existing courses spread across a university then are directed towards that city’s self identified ‘real-world’ sustainability and livability projects and plans. The scale of annual engagement changes everything; 500+ students across 12+ disciplines and 30+ courses give 60,000+ hours of effort to city-identified vexing issues, expediting the introduction and adoption of innovative thinking into local government, accelerating adoption of new sustainability policy and practice, re-charging city staff toward their public sector work, and training the next generation workforce in effective, applied, multidisciplinary approaches toward solving local quality of life issues.

This new approach to leveraging existing institutional resources in a way that creates more impact is one of “Catalytic Learning”. “Catalytic Learning” is an approach toward the classroom that is explicitly designed to create change – both in the ability of students to be effective when working on vexing community issues and in helping move communities toward more sustainable practice and policy. Catalytic learning has an explicit action orientation. This practice-based work is much more than a client-consultant relationship; rather, city leadership and community stakeholders engage in a trusting, collaborative partnership with the university where problem definitions, scopes of work, and setting of mutual expectations are all developed in partnership, with the full understanding that all parties have ‘skin in the game’, and that the project work is directly related to each organization’s goals.


Perhaps SCYP’s biggest impact is in helping universities rethink their role and capacity to address some of society’s most pressing social problems utilizing the resources that already exist. Prior to SCYP, there were few if any examples of universities harnessing a large number of courses and directing them to help address a single city’s sustainability (or other area) goals. With a shoestring approach over the least three years, there are now 20 institutions that have adopted and adapted this model, from large research universities to small liberal arts schools. This collection of institutions is now forming the EPIC Network (Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities) to strengthen and expand the number of institutions adopting and adapting SCYP to their university and community contexts.

SCYP has helped put the ‘public’ back into public higher education in our State and made it clear that the University of Oregon serves the entire State. SCYP has worked with a different Oregon city each year since 2009. On the University of Oregon campus, SCYP has become one of the main pillars of focus because it has created a mechanism for teaching and research to occur across silos, focuses on translating knowledge into practice, and advances the implementation and training of sustainability practice in cities. There are scores of examples in each community we have worked with of new plans, policies, and projects getting implemented.

How can people become involved in or replicate your innovation? 

There are three primary ways to learn how to replicate this model.

  • Each April SCYP hosts a replication conference and workshop. He existing programs and new programs come together to share about the work and grow the network.(Additional regional workshops can also be conducted by request.)
  • SCYP can provide individual consulting to universities. This consulting includes site visits to help catalyze key stakeholders within a university, assistance in identifying and supporting key internal champions, and help developing potential external partners and the expectations around this fee-based model. Additional consultations (phone or web) can help program leadership make key decisions in preparation for a pilot year.
  • SCYP is developing a set of digital and print training materials that will be available for a fee or through annual membership to the EPIC Network (EPIC-N) for all stakeholders. Additional modules will focus on the elements necessary for successful administrative implementation.

Contact information

Marc Schlossberg, Co-Director, Sustainable Cities Initative at the University of Oregon, schlossb@uoregon.edu

Cordes Innovation Awards

In partnership with Cordes Foundation, Ashoka U seeks to recognize globally relevant teaching, learning, and partnership practices that may be adapted and replicated across the field.