Empowering Sustainability Leadership through SDGs Centers in Indonesian Universities

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Summary: Indonesian universities are leveraging SDG Centers to integrate sustainability leadership into their educational and operational frameworks, addressing local and global challenges.

Sustainability in Indonesia

Indonesia, a country with a vast archipelago of over 17,000 islands and the world’s second-largest Muslim population in the world, is still facing significant challenges, including poverty and economic inequality. As an agricultural country, these issues are amplified by its geographic diversity, which impacts the accessibility and quality of healthcare and education. The nation’s diverse landscape presents unique challenges in delivering consistent services and opportunities across its numerous islands. In response, the Indonesian government has embraced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are translated into four main pillars: Economic, Social, Environmental, and Law and Governance. This framework is designed to promote balanced development across crucial areas such as economic growth, social inclusion, environmental protection, and legal reforms. Despite the progress marked by an improved global ranking in SDGs efforts, from 97th in 2021 to 75th in 2023 among 166 countries, Indonesia continues to face pronounced social and economic issues. The economic disparities between the more developed Java Island and the less developed eastern regions are evident. While the rate of extreme poverty is gradually declining, it remains a concern for Indonesia. Disparities in educational participation demand significant improvement to ensure equal opportunities for all Indonesians. The education sector requires focused investment to enhance accessibility and quality in remote areas. Health challenges also persist, with diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and hepatitis prevalent in less accessible regions, underscoring the urgent need for enhanced healthcare services. These ongoing issues highlight the critical need for targeted policies that address both the diverse geographic landscape and the varied socioeconomic conditions across Indonesia. By tailoring solutions to meet specific local needs, Indonesia can foster equitable development and significantly improve the living conditions of its widespread population. Given these challenges, it becomes imperative to explore how universities apply sustainable leadership to lead the charge toward sustainable development. 

Current Challenges

Indonesia’s development landscape is sharply divided, with its expansive and varied archipelago facing numerous unique challenges. In remote areas, the lack of educational facilities and a shortage of qualified teachers significantly restrict opportunities for personal and economic advancement. This educational deficit impedes the development of skills and knowledge necessary for community and individual growth, limiting the potential for socioeconomic improvement in these regions. Moreover, economic activities are predominantly concentrated in major urban centers like Jakarta and Surabaya, which contrasts with rural areas where residents endure persistent poverty and a dearth of employment opportunities. The situation in these less developed areas is further aggravated by the mismanagement of natural resources and environmentally destructive practices such as illegal logging and overfishing. These practices not only deplete the natural wealth but also hinder the country’s ability to utilize these resources sustainably. Additionally, inadequate infrastructure in critical areas such as transportation and sanitation exacerbate the difficulties faced by these communities, hampering their access to essential services and constraining further economic and social development. Environmental degradation compounds these problems, with deforestation, pollution, and biodiversity loss creating adverse effects on public health and key economic sectors such as tourism and fisheries. These environmental issues not only deteriorate the quality of life but also threaten the livelihoods dependent on these natural resources, thus creating a cycle of poverty and environmental damage that is hard to break without concerted effort and comprehensive planning. Addressing these multifaceted challenges requires the Indonesian government to implement comprehensive policies that are specifically tailored to the diverse geographic and socio-economic conditions. By adopting an integrated approach that considers both the environmental and human factors contributing to regional disparities, the government can promote equitable development and enhance living standards across the country. Such strategic efforts are essential to ensure that progress and prosperity reach every corner of the nation, fostering a more balanced and inclusive model of growth that benefits all Indonesians, regardless of their geographical location. Moreover, sustainability leadership provided by higher education institution is crucial since it can give impact to the society through education, research, and community development. 

University and Sustainability Leadership

Universities are important in advancing the United Nations SDGs by incorporating sustainability leadership education into their curricula and advocating for sustainable practices across their campuses. This educational focus equips students with the necessary skills and knowledge to integrate sustainable practices into their everyday lives and future professional endeavors. Beyond academic instruction, universities play a critical role in addressing both local and global sustainability challenges through in-depth research that extends knowledge, shapes policy, and influences both business strategies and community initiatives. By promoting sustainability leadership, applying academic research to real-world problems, and collaborating with local governments and organizations, universities can enhance community capabilities, accelerate sustainable projects, and provide essential services to underrepresented areas. Their leadership initiatives often serve as models of effective engagement, inspiring broader community involvement and positioning these institutions as key partners in tackling significant national issues such as public health challenges and environmental conservation. 

One exemplary of sustainability leadership initiative that highlights the potential impact of university-led projects is the floating hospital project undertaken by Universitas Airlangga, which has significantly advanced Indonesia’s efforts toward achieving the SDGs. Since 2017, this project has conducted 1,720 medical operations and visited 96 islands, bringing critical healthcare services to remote regions typically neglected by conventional healthcare delivery systems. Moreover, the floating hospital goes beyond just providing medical care; it also delivers basic education to children during its visit, offers business workshops to local entrepreneurs, and helps establish renewable energy sources like solar panels in these communities. These comprehensive efforts not only demonstrate the university’s commitment to enhancing healthcare and education but also to fostering broader socioeconomic development in isolated areas, thereby emphasizing the crucial role that universities play in embedding sustainability leadership, promoting SDGs, and building resilient communities.

Photo 1. Floating Hospital by Universitas Airlangga

The Role of SDGs Centers

By April 2024, more than 47 SDGs Centers have been established across Indonesia’s 4,000 higher education institutions. This development marks significant progress, yet the number of centers is still relatively modest, and many are hindered by a lack of capacity and resources necessary for optimal impact. These centers act as catalysts for sustainability leadership, fostering collaboration between academia, government, and the private sector. They play an essential role in raising SDG awareness among university stakeholders, generating sustainability reports, and ensuring that university operations align with international sustainability standards. The practice of SDGs Centers in Indonesia exemplifies how universities can significantly contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals at the national level. Their efforts are further amplified through coordination with the government and joint program implementations, demonstrating a proactive approach to advancing sustainable development. Moreover, these centers facilitate critical dialogues and partnerships that bridge academic knowledge with practical applications, involving students and faculty in projects that have tangible impacts on local communities. Through these initiatives, universities not only contribute to academic enrichment and sustainability but also foster a culture of responsibility and active citizenship among students. The integration of SDG-related activities into the academic and operational fabric of universities underscores their pivotal role in promoting sustainable practices. This model not only enhances the educational landscape by providing students with real-world problem-solving experiences but also positions higher education as a leader in societal transformation towards sustainability.


SDGs Centers in Indonesian universities play a pivotal role in promoting sustainable development, yet they require more support and resources from all parties to realize their impact fully. Enhanced backing from both government and private sectors, coupled with strengthened interdisciplinary collaboration and international partnerships, is crucial for these centers to effectively contribute to the SDGs. The sustainability reports produced regularly by these centers are instrumental in helping the government evaluate SDG implementation at universities and in identifying best practices from academia. With sufficient support, these centers have significant potential to boost their effectiveness and drive sustainable development throughout Indonesia.

These centers not only support the theoretical understanding of sustainability but also apply practical solutions that address local and national challenges. By serving as a bridge between academia and real-world applications, they facilitate a deeper integration of sustainable practices within communities. This approach helps in crafting policies that are both scientifically sound and culturally relevant, thereby increasing their acceptance and effectiveness. Moreover, the SDGs Centers play a critical role in fostering a culture of sustainability among students, who are future leaders. Through various educational and outreach activities, these centers instill a sense of responsibility and urgency toward environmental stewardship and social equity. The engagement of students in sustainability initiatives not only enriches their academic experience but also prepares them to be proactive participants in solving global challenges and becoming impactful sustainability leaders.

Ultimately, the success of these centers in advancing SDGs development in Indonesia hinges on continuous learning, adaptation, and collaboration. By focusing on these key elements, Indonesian universities can enhance their contributions to the SDGs, ensuring that their efforts lead to meaningful and lasting impacts. This requires not only a commitment to ongoing education and responsiveness to changing global and local dynamics but also a strong emphasis on collaborative efforts that include various stakeholders such as government entities, private sector partners, and community organizations. Such collaboration can help synthesize diverse expertise and resources essential for addressing the complex challenges of sustainability. The strategic enhancement of these centers will be crucial for Indonesia to meet its sustainability goals and foster an educated populace that is committed to making a difference both locally and globally. This involves not only expanding the reach and capabilities of these centers but also integrating sustainability more deeply across all academic disciplines and university operations. This holistic approach will empower students and faculty to take active leadership roles in achieving SDGs, applying their learning and research in tangible ways to achieve the SDGs, thus making a substantial impact on both the local and international stages.


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About the Author

Bayu Arie Fianto

Bayu Arie Fianto is currently an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Islamic Economics Undergraduate Program at the Department of Sharia Economics, Faculty of Economics and Business, Universitas Airlangga. Bayu is also a faculty member at the Bank Indonesia Institute and the chairman of the SDGs Center at Universitas Airlangga. Bayu earned his PhD in finance from Lincoln University in New Zealand.

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