Purpose – The paper aims to explore the nature and purpose of higher education (HE) in the twenty-first century, focussing on how it can help fashion a green knowledge-based economy by developing approaches to learning and teaching that are social, networked and ecologically sensitive. Design/methodology/approach – The paper presents a discursive analysis of the skills and knowledge requirements of an emerging green knowledge-based economy using a range of policy focussed and academic research literature. Findings – The business opportunities that are emerging as a more sustainable world is developed requires the knowledge and skills that can capture and move then forward but in a complex and uncertain worlds learning needs to non-linear, creative and emergent. Practical implications – Sustainable learning and the attributes graduates will need to exhibit are prefigured in the activities and learning characterising the work and play facilitated by new media technologies. Social implications – Greater emphasis is required in higher learning understood as the capability to learn, adapt and direct sustainable change requires interprofessional co-operation that must utlise the potential of new media technologies to enhance social learning and collective intelligence. Originality/value – The practical relationship between low-carbon economic development, social sustainability and HE learning is based on both normative criteria and actual and emerging projections in economic, technological and skills needs.