A sustainable future for all: highlights from the opening day of SRI2021

Nearly 2,000 people from 100 countries converged for the first day of SRI2021 in Brisbane, Australia and online. Over 30 sessions featuring experts from around the world took place throughout the day online and were broadcast to ‘watch parties’ onsite at the Brisbane Entertainment and Convention Centre. Recordings of sessions can be viewed through the Congress platform.

The inaugural event, which has been over two years in the making, kicked off with a welcome address by Executives from the SRI2021 Convening Organizations: Joshua Tewksbury, Interim Executive Director, Future Earth; Erica Key, Executive Director, Belmont Forum; Tayanah O’Donnell, Director, Future Earth Australia; and Paul Bertsch, Science Director, CSIRO.

Erica Key explained how SRI2021 was created to fill a critical gap in the calendar: “We realised there was no annual convening where we could come together to exchange lessons learned with other transdisciplinary practitioners as well as connect and grow a community of sustainability scientists. The Congress grew out of that need and has matured and developed into a global gathering to foster sustainability as a profession and a human inclusive activity.”

The transdisciplinary nature of the event remains one of its greatest strengths, which was echoed across the session and throughout the day.

“The sustainability transitions that we’re heading into today make all of us stakeholders, and SRI2021 is the first congress focused explicitly on bringing together the full suite of science and innovation we need to tackle those transitions,” said Joshua Tewksbury.

“What we do in the next ten years, how we bring science and research and innovation to the table across all of the sectors to chart a way forward will be absolutely fundamental to our future, and I think this is a moment for us to move forward into that future together,” he added.

Paul Bertsch spoke of the critical contributions that the Global South can make to the future of sustainability and Australia’s responsibility as a privileged nation in the region to drive this forward. Bertsch also highlighted the deep knowledge of Australia’s First Nations peoples.

“Here in Australia our First Nations peoples are recognized as our first scientists and engineers who have been innovating on this continent for greater than 60,000 years around the sustainable management of land, water and coastal resources, and so it is that perspective of diverse knowledge systems that we felt was quite critical,” said Bertsch.

Opening plenary: Oceanic Perspectives on Advancing the Global Sustainability Agenda

Speakers in the opening plenary gave insights into how experiences and worldviews from different communities across Oceania can shape research and innovation and forge sustainable futures both at home and abroad. This begins with the peoples of Australia’s First Peoples, Maori Peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand and Pasifika communities.

There was a strong message of coming together in the session, both of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, but across borders too.

Meg Parsons, Senior Lecturer from the School of Environment at The University of Auckland, gave the perspective of New Zealand’s Maori community and called for Pākehā (non- Māori New Zealanders) to learn about the Maori world, values and norms.

“We all need to learn together and find a bridge and the intermediary ways to coexist, to find new ways forward. And that starts with acknowledging our past and present colonial realities, the injustices, but also finding productive ways to move forward, in a more equitable, just and sustainable manner,” she said.

Josh Gilbert, Worimi man, farmer and business adviser, framed the discussion of sustainability beyond simply one generation, instead looking ahead one hundred generations into the future. “If indigenous peoples have been here 60,000 years, how do we actually connect and make decisions not just for 20 or 30 years-time, but for the next 60,000 years?” he asked.

“If I think about the future and what that might hold, I think about the way in which we have indigenous knowledge starting to interweave with modern knowledge,” he said. “Indigenous people have adapted over time and we are having a key understanding of not only Indigenous knowledge but Western knowledge and its through that combination that we will be able to have a stronger narrative.”

Sustainability and Science Showcase

Nearby, the wider Brisbane community was able to come together and enjoy the Sustainability and Science Showcase hosted by the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist. The event was open to the public and gave the community a chance to meet some of Queensland’s leading organizations, researchers and businesses who are at the forefront of research and community education.

Photo: Samuel Stacey/Cultivate Communications

Plenary 2: Sustainability for Whom?

Inclusivity continued as a major theme in the event’s second plenary session “Sustainability for Whom?”.

Global sustainability cannot be achieved without achieving equity for the most vulnerable and underrepresented communities – many of them in the low-and middle-income countries, as well as those increasingly left behind in high-income countries. Yet the framing of sustainability, investment in innovation, and academic analysis has been dominated by processes that give relatively little regard to and participation from these communities, even when they are about them.

Moderated by Tayanah O’Donnell, the session explored perspectives that have been historically overlooked in the sustainability agenda with panellists discussing approaches that support greater inclusivity.

Panel member Rebecca Matsie, Senior Researcher with the South African Local Government Association spoke about the benefits of co-production as an approach that gives community participants greater influence from planning right through the implementation process of interventions. Co-production, she said, opens up ideas for new discoveries and brings together different perspectives and groups as equal stakeholders.

Rebecca Matsie speaks at SRI2021

This was echoed by Lidia Brito, Regional Director for Science, Latin-America and Caribbean at UNESCO, who added, “you can’t develop the solutions if you don’t involve the people who are facing the challenges.”

SRI2021 continues over the next two days from June 12-15. Follow @SRICongress and #SRI2021 on social media for live updates and to join the conversation online.