Rootlinks – Students and the Sustainable Future

As part of our Innovation Series, we present you with 5 projects of the ETH Student Project House: an initiative of the ETH Zurich to foster maker and innovator mindset in students. All these projects have started during the Pandemic and have found the positive in a volatile period. The projects are Fyn.Food, Greenovate, Developer’s Club, Seismohealth, rootlinks

The 25th of June, was a special day for 25 students of different universities around Zurich. It was the moment for rootlinks’ first cohort to present its final project results. Rootlinks was launched last year with the goal to empower students from all backgrounds as changemakers for sustainability. 

I’ve interviewed Johannes Wüllenweber, one of the 11 organizers, about the organization, their goal and their projects. It all started in October 2020, when Johannes had the idea of starting a student initiative that closes the gaps in sustainability education at universities. He sent out a request for co-organizers to set up rootlinks. A successful request, because 10 other people, from different faculties and universities in Zurich, signed up to help. All of them with different cultural and study backgrounds, but eager to unite for sustainable development. Which was a huge benefit and resulted in rootlinks being launched’ after only 3.5 months of preparations. 

“Even though we started in Covid-times and everything was done via Zoom,
we really managed to grow as a team and build an impactful project.”

The first rootlinks cohort embarked on their learning journey in the beginning of the spring semester. Over the course of four months, the 25 participants met every Wednesday during the “weeklink” for a workshop, talk, or reflection session. Topics included systemic design, stakeholder interaction, ideation, prototyping, regenerative systems, and personal development. Next to the learning journey, the rootlinkers worked on real-world sustainability challenges in interdisciplinary teams of 4-6 people.

Rootlinks’ System
For the learning journey, rootlinks collaborates with the ETH Student Project House and the ETH Transdisciplinarity Lab. However, the rootlinks’ program is open to students from all five higher-education institutions in Zurich, regardless of their study background. In line with its mission to foster interdisciplinary and cross-university cooperation for advancing sustainability, rootlinks wants to build stronger ties with UZH, ZHdK, ZHAW and PHZH in the fall semester.

You can join the program from any kind of faculty via any University in Zurich.
Additional points of view increase the impact of the program.

But not only the collaborations at the academic level are important. In this first cohort, 5 organizations submitted a sustainability challenge for the students to work on. 

  1. The city of Zurich – How can they support homeowners more effectively in replacing their fossil fuel heating with a renewable alternative?, which wants to make sure that heating homes will become more sustainable, to reach their net 0 by 2040 goal. 
  2. Swisscom and Postfinance – How can the Swiss Climate Challenge promote climate-friendly mobility in the Zurich university landscape? 
  3. Intercomestibles – How can the company’s activities become more sustainable?
  4. Fidenso – What’s the best way to visualize carbon emissions? 
  5. Übermorgen Ventures – What are trends in clean technology that combine emission reductions with an investment opportunity?

More sustainability students
The short-term vision for rootlinks is that the student organization continuously sustains itself. Six of the participants in the spring semester have joined the organizing committee for the next cohort. In the longer term, rootlinks could become an accredited course, such that students can receive ECTS for their participation. Furthermore, the organizing team seeks to build a knowledge base, which would make it easy for other students to replicate the concept in their universities. Johannes says: “We would love to create a platform in which we can share all our knowledge. Not only about sustainability but mainly about how we’ve set up rootlinks, how to set up a similar program elsewhere and what it could best include.”. 

Broadening the system
To continue and further improve rootlinks’ several actions and resources are needed. First of all, getting in touch with people more people working for an organization with a sustainability challenge for the students to work on. Secondly, experts who want to share their skills or point of view in a talk or workshop, are very welcome to increase the quality of the program. Other than that, new students for the fall or next spring cohorts can reach out. And finally, since rootlinks is and will stay as a non-profit student organization, financial help is always very appreciated. 

So are you interested in being involved in the future of sustainability? Check out the rootlinks website and reach out! 

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026;