Collective action toward shared goals: Day 3 of SRI2021

Over the past three days, SRI2021 has provided a platform for diverse perspectives across disciplines, age groups, ethnicities, genders and countries, all with a view towards action and a global sustainability transformation.

In the forum, Supporting the Ambition to Sustainability through Funders Perspective, discussants representing major foundations in the US, Australia and Asia unpacked the need for change in science philanthropy structures to match the urgency and ambition of the SDGs. In the session, Erica Key, Executive Director of Belmont Forum asked panel members for their thoughts on whether there is the potential for collaboration between funders.

Dusan Pejakovic, Program Director of Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation said, “there is a great potential and promise of collaboration of funders, both with one another and also with other stakeholders — but there are also barriers.” He elaborated that those barriers include that each agency has their own timelines, requirements and guiding frameworks to comply with. 

This was echoed by Evan Michelson, Program Director of Energy and Environment at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who added that the challenge is not the high-level ideals which many funders share, “it’s the practicalities about process, approval timelines, strategies, restrictions and areas of emphasis.” Michelson pointed to the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a group of foundations with shared interests across areas including climate and ocean science, and related groups that can help funders overcome such mechanistic barriers to collaboration.

Ensuring that the research they fund leads to impact was another area of discussion for panellists. Craig Connelly, CEO of The Ian Potter Foundation explained their internal processes towards this, adding: “One of the things we try to ensure as a funder is that we learn from these projects, and that we assist others to learn, so that future projects are better designed to maximise impact.”

Asia’s Role in the Anthropocene was opened by Hein Mallee, Deputy Director of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) who framed the session to come: “Asia has seen enormous economic growth and also very large environmental burdens, at the same time it’s an area with a cultural background that has historically emphasized harmony with nature,” he said. It is a region that has both contributed towards reaching our planetary boundaries and offers solutions. Experts in the session provided the historical economic and environmental context and observations on Asia’s role in the Great Acceleration, a current snapshot, and visions and solutions for the future.

Speakers in the Building Resilience through Youth Leadership in Environmental Education session shared their experiences in using a wide variety of educational approaches to build community resilience to social and environmental pressures.

Nina Hamilton, Manager of International Programs and EE 30 Under 30 at the North American Association for Environmental Education opened the meeting by saying, “we often say that young people are the next generation of leaders, but I think all of our speakers here will show you that is not true. They are the leaders of today, of right now.”

Panellists presented their experiences, lessons learned and results from leading some of the most innovation efforts to educate and empower their peers with the skills and knowledge to take action on a wide range of sustainability issues, both in and outside of school. Initiatives from the Philippines, Nigeria and the US were featured in the session.

Notably at the event was the launch of Future Earth Australia’s 10-Year Strategy for Sustainable Oceans and Coasts.

85% of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the ocean, placing them within the ‘blue ribbon’—the interconnected waterways, coasts and seas that surround Australia and support major industries, provide recreation and cultural heritage to communities, and offer new economic frontiers like offshore energy.

There is an urgent need to manage this blue ribbon in a more sustainable way, to both build resilience to threats and position Australia for the huge opportunities associated with a sustainable blue economy. The ten-year strategy launched at SRI2021 presents a national implementation plan to ensure healthy coasts and oceans for a just and environmentally sustainable future.

“The strategy recognizes that our oceans and coasts do not respect state or other jurisdictional boundaries. We need a coordinated and sustainable management approach involving all levels of government,” said Tayanah O’Donnell, Executive Director of Future Earth Australia.

“This strategy outlines the steps needed to transform how we think about, govern and protect oceans and coasts across Australia, and will serve as a blueprint for the national change that Australia’s oceans and coasts need,” she said.

In Plenary 4: To 2030 and beyond: Insights from the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report and SRI2021 Early Career Champions, members of the Independent Group of Scientists presented their focus areas for the Global Sustainable Development Reports, which mark milestones in reviewing and evaluating worldwide progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs. It is the only independent report mandated from within the UN system that can speak candidly about how we can still achieve the vision of Agenda 2030.

John Agard, Director of St. Augustine Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at The University of the West Indies spoke of the many aspects required to move us towards transformative change, including the interactions among SDGs with a focus on climate and biodiversity. “There has to be interactions and they have to be handled as a whole not on an individual basis. This is very important going forward as we don’t want people to be thinking in silos,” he said.

The theme of breaking down silos continued when we heard from the SRI2021 Early Career Champions who presented highlights from across the event, including Andrew Kadykalo, PhD Candidate at Carleton University who reflected on theme ‘Advocating knowledge to action’. “Across sessions, many different presenters emphasized the challenges associated with inflexible institutional cultures, and the resulting geographical and disciplinary silos. Thus, an emerging theme in many different sessions was the need for increased inter- and transdisciplinary approaches,” he said.

In the final session of the Congress, Plenary: Reflecting Forward, Program Committee member Mark Stafford-Smith, Honorary Fellow, CSIRO, shared a 10-year perspective on the event and the path moving forward.

“There were quite a few things in this conference which 10 years ago we would not have been talking about,” said Stafford-Smith. As one example of this, he said: “I don’t think we would have had anything like the emphasis on First Nations knowledge and the potential for that to be a real part of sustainability solutions, and as a consequence all the issues around the partnerships and the right ways of doing it there.”

“This has been an extraordinary few days together. What we’ve seen here at this inaugural SRI Congress is a strong showing of the power of the collective, what happens when we work together. We all have a role in sustainability,” concludes Tayanah O’Donnell. “SRI2021 has shown us that truly enabling transformative sustainability is a fluid process, and that has been demonstrated throughout the varied, diverse and deep interventions.”

The event concluded with the announcement that SRI2022 will be held in Pretoria, South Africa, hosted by the Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria.

“No matter the policy, the business, the social aspiration, the opportunities, no matter what, the future of our planet must rely on sustainable approaches. Sustainability Research IN Innovation is not an option, but a requirement for a just equitable and low carbon development. Each context matters and Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria is very pleased to host SRI2022 to emphasize the global nature of genuine sustainable development pathways,” said Director of Future Africa, Professor Cheikh Mbow.