According to the perception of the sample on the current level of emphasis given to the relationship between their universities and city organisations on initiatives related to sustainable development, the most common context is cooperation as part of the activities (39%). For 45% of the respondents, the cooperation is a priority or a top priority (23% and 12%, respectively), and for 26% of the respondents, the cooperation is among the most challenging circumstances, from a spectrum of limited cooperation (24%) to no interest at all (2%).
Figure 3 summarises the three aspects dedicated to analysing terms of cooperation between the respondents’ universities and city organisations: (a) cooperation partners, (b) type of cooperation, and (c) challenges that hinder cooperation.
Teaching and research institutions seem to be the most common partners addressing sustainable development, selected by 85% of the respondents, followed by the city government, with 76% of the respondents. Local companies and NGOs represented 63% of the sample, while other partners (10% of the respondents) include cooperatives, state and federal government, international organisations (such as the United Nations), local communities, and regional associations.
Collaboration through joint projects is the main strategy reported (85%) followed by joint events (68%) and internships from students in the organisations (61%). Other mentioned means of relationship include community engagement and service-learning activities, agreements for knowledge transfer or sustainable purchasing, memberships, research and teaching activities, guest lectures, technical reports, and participation in municipal councils.
When it comes to challenges that hinder efforts to cooperate on matters related to sustainable development with city organisations, the lack of time to invest in relationships was indicated by 54% of the sample; the lack of interest is also a worrying barrier, both from the local counterparts (39%) and from the universities (26%). Lack of interest and lack of local contacts in cooperation for sustainable development does not seem to represent significant challenges based on the sample perception. On the other hand, lack of funding and resources represented 15% of the total sample; respondents listed several challenges, namely the lack of skills to collaborate properly, lack of political will, the existence of other more urgent matters, risk of corruption on political level impacting the cooperation, greenwashing, complicated governance on local issues, and excessive teaching work and little integration and participation of society.
The examples of synergies presented in Table 1 are illustrative of the in-depth investment that higher education institutions (HEIs) are willing to carry out in order to successfully intervene and inspire the surrounding communities to achieve a higher level of commitment towards sustainable development and the pursuit of the SDGs.
The University of Southern Santa Catarina, Brazil, is invested in acting as a driver of sustainable communities. Accordingly, the study by Amorim et al. 22, includes, among other reflections, a project developed in the state of Santa Catarina, the “Water Resources Plan of the Itapocu River Basin”. It is a partnership between the government, the University, and the community, aimed at attaining sustainable collaborative management of the Itapocu basin and its water resources, reducing the water losses and improving the savings, combating the scarcity of water in the region. This example helps to illustrate how important are the actions implemented in the context of the University to promote sustainable development in the region surrounding the campuses, with implications at the local and global level through the investment in specific actions that contribute to saving money and reaching efficiency in public resources, specifically in connection with hydric resources stored in aquifers in the Itapocu river basin to be used to ensure water security in the region, with implications in the environment, e.g., floods, and health, e.g., sewage, of the communities, resulting in a symbiotic prolific effort to advance sustainable development.
More than half of the sample reported a lack of time to invest in relationships. Withycombe Keeler et al. 23 underpin that a one-to-one relationship between the city, as well as regions, and the university contributes to a better understanding of how places and contexts shape their sustainability transformation and how to learn from one another. Over the five case studies presented in Table 1, city–university partnerships (CUPs), Withycombe Keeler et al. 23 found that the co-creation of a framework to assist in diagnosis—gaps and synergies, strategy development, continuous learning, and research, strategy transfer, and scaling, promoted a common language in terms of goals, approaches, and solutions in a systematic way for sustainability. Moreover, the framework represents a useful tool for continuous learning and transfer, supporting the capacity building in the city, for example, joint research, joint projects, and student experience. For strengthening the effectiveness of the capacity building of CUPs, Withycombe Keeler et al. 23 propose to invest in bridge-building with students as interns in the city; a networking platform to elevate evidence and provide legitimacy; educational and research activities to develop engaged teams; resilience building in expertise and relationships; and a transparent flow of information.
As stated by Iwaniec et al. 24, urban planners and decision-makers tend to focus on more easily applicable solutions for sustainability challenges, even though these require further thinking and planning. This represents an opportunity for universities to collaborate, e.g., by means of joint events or projects, the most common types of cooperation. Additionally, the approach of establishing a governance committee with members from HEIs, industry, and the community in the context of university towns 25 could also be useful in broader contexts, as a strategy to foster symbiotic collaborations between universities and cities to promote sustainable development. This strategy could be valuable to overcome the most common challenges of lack of time and interest in these relations, as responsibilities and resources could be shared, assuring that managing sustainable development solutions to be implemented in practice, besides being both pro-environmental and pro-social, are profitable for involved stakeholders 33.