28 October 2013

Building a framework for sustainability science

A meeting last week in Santa Fe brought together a diverse group of scientists and modelers to discuss both theoretical and practical aspects of sustainability research, and how to move between the two.

santa fe institute entrance

santa fe institute entrance

Leading researchers from IIASA and around the world gathered at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) on 22-24 October to explore the current state of theory and practice in sustainability science.  IIASA Director and Chief Executive Officer Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat opened the workshop, co-organized by IIASA and SFI. He said, “We need a positive paradigm to guide a new generation of partnership between academia, government, business, and civil society.”

Over the next few decades, researchers envision many changes for the planet including climate change, increased urbanization, and greater demands on food and water resources. These changes pose great challenges for sustainability, but understanding their complex and interdependent nature requires a systematic approach combining theory and observation to understand and manage the transitions of the 21st century. The workshop aimed to improve the conceptual framework for the complex field of sustainability research.   

The workshop was co-organized by IIASA and the Santa Fe Institute as a first step in strengthening institutional cooperation around the subject, bringing together the traditional theoretical strengths of both institutions with the international and applied focus of IIASA. Molly Jahn of the University of Wisconsin, one of the organizers of the meeting, introduced the Knowledge Systems for Sustainability (KSS) movement as an extra-organizational institution focused on catalyzing the generation and testing of hypotheses to inform strategies to meet societies’ challenges in providing water, food, energy and minerals. 

SFI External Professor and Science Board Member Nina Federoff, who coordinated the meeting organization, said, “Earth and its biological inhabitants, including people, are the most complex system we know. We don’t yet have either a theory of complexity or an experimental approach to manage this system, our global system, wisely.”

IIASA researchers Ulf Dieckmann and Nebojsa Nakicenovic spoke in a discussion panel with Tony Janetos of Boston University, on how theory and practice interface today, and where new approaches are needed. Kabat provided one example of such a melding of theory and practice, describing the unique approach planned by IIASA’s Water Futures and Solutions initiative, which will combine modeling with stakeholder participation and scenario building in order to find practical solutions to water security and development challenges.

Michael Obersteiner, Program Leader of IIASA’s Ecosystem Services and Management Program, offered one of five case studies presented to catalyze discussion on using data and case studies to develop theory and hypotheses that can ultimately provide useful guidance for policy and management of complex social-ecological systems.  IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Acting Program Leader Elena Rovenskaya was one of three speakers on a panel exploring the use of mathematical tools to clarify the relationships between important elements of these complex systems and to use those insights to understand critical transitions. The panel was moderated by former IIASA council chair Simon Levin.

The meeting concluded with proposals to build on these two days of discussions by developing working groups that would pursue the topics raised, both through independent collaborations and under the banner of the KSS initiative. Professor Kabat invited the participants to build on these activities by organizing a follow-up workshop at IIASA in one year, aimed at producing a book on the development of a theoretical framework for sustainability science.

More about the workshop

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Last edited: 05 November 2013

Event details

Find more information about the workshop.

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313