HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: Building sustainability 2.0

Director’s Almanac: Building sustainability 2.0

As director of the Institute on the Environment, I have three responsibilities. I’m one third professor, conducting original research and teaching. I’m one third manager, making sure that IonE is running well. (Check out our new strategic plan!) And I’m one third public intellectual: a public speaker, an op-ed writer, and an academic cheerleader. It’s part of my job to push for ideas about sustainability out in the broader world – and to help build an academy that fulfills its mission to serve the public on sustainability issues. This often is the most rewarding part of my work: It’s in this role that I get to advocate for ideas, champion others, and feel myself making change.

Over the last week I’ve been in that third mode, at two meetings where a small group of thought-leaders were invited to strategize together about how to affect change. Some insights from those meetings mirror or inform IonE; others mark the path forward for all of us striving within higher education to build a future where people and planet prosper together.

I think those insights are worth sharing, and I hope you agree. The following ideas are filtered through my biases and interests, of course, but perhaps you’ll find something here of interest – or something that sparks an insight of your own.

Building Sustainability 2.0

On May 24, an international science organization called FutureEarth convened about 30 academics, NGO scientists, and science funders to talk about the future of sustainability science. I should note: Most of us were natural scientists, but to truly make progress on sustainability, we need sustainability “science” to include humanities and the arts too.

Overall, the current state of sustainability science — despite important progress — is not good. The assembled group could identify a number of indicators showing that we have a long way to go as sustainability scholars working to affect societal change. For example, we still see reticence in the business and public sectors to take-up sustainability practices, even in the face of evidence that it’s urgent to do so. We worry about growing skepticism about science at a time when novel solutions to social-environmental problems are desperately needed. We recognize the pace of research at most universities is often slower than the pace of decision-making. And we see disciplinary silos throughout academia that are difficult to cross and integrate, in spite of the necessity of integration to do real-world problem-solving.

Still, the group could also point to pockets of hope, where effective and engaged sustainability science has appeared and is growing. The emergence of sustainability institutes and colleges — focused on interdisciplinarity and the translation of research and engagement outside the university — are a positive innovations, and they are gaining traction. New funding directorates, such as the Belmont Forum, that incentivize academics to widely collaborate and cross boundaries are gathering steam. And we see new products emerging in the financial markets that push businesses to deliver sustainability outcomes, such as green bonds and verifiable environmental-social-governance (ESG) metrics that are based on sound science.

Drawing on my own experience and dialogue at the meeting, I see two things as critical to building on these leading indicators and fulfilling a vision for “sustainability science 2.0.”


First, we need vastly more research that makes information about sustainability – problems and solutions – accessible to decision makers. The word of the meeting was “co-production,” the idea being that we can’t achieve a science that effectively drives sustainability without working collaboratively with implementers and change agents. For me, this requires that sustainability scientists know what they are working toward and who they are working with – a level of intentionality that’s still rare in the academy (but is a cornerstone of IonE’s Impact Goal initiative). This importance and transformative power of mission is forefront in my mind these days.

Second, sustainability science must be vastly more attentive to equity, be more inclusive, deliberately recognize different ways of knowing and learning, and work to decolonize science and cultivate cross-cultural trust. We cannot serve only particular interests if we strive to operationalize sustainability around the world, and sustainability 2.0 will enable all people.

Beyond the Academy

On May 29 and 30, Cambridge University hosted the first of three meetings under a grant (led by the University of Minnesota) aiming to bring sustainability science “beyond the academy.” This is critical work: a lot of innovation about sustainability happens at universities, but universities are not sufficiently effective at translating and collaborating to put this scholarship into service for society, as evidenced by the profound gap between the need for sustainability and its broad-scale implementation.

About 25 academic leaders who are working hard to put sustainability science into action took part in the meeting, from vice-provosts and deans to institute directors, independent scholars, postdocs, and grad students.

Most of the meeting participants are pushing for cross-disciplinarity and engagement with seed grants and programs that focus on the soft skills of collaboration that are often missing in traditional university training (gaps our Boreas and Associates programs work to fill). The Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University also felt that boundary organizations within universities (such as IonE) have an important role to play and are making positive change.

Still, the group felt that engaged scholarship in sustainability is not happening enough — at the scale that it’s needed. We face profound sustainability challenges, with human and other life in the balance, and we don’t have all the insights and activated leaders we need to address those challenges. (Also, as I mentioned above, society still isn’t reacting fast enough to the alarm bells rung by sustainability science.) To accelerate the uptake of engaged scholarship in sustainability, we need to change the culture within universities. Jason Neff (University of Colorado at Boulder) argued that universities have (mostly) completed two cultural shifts: encouraging (i) more team science and (ii) greater collaboration among disciplines. But the transition to engagement isn’t there yet, and that’s where leadership is truly needed. I couldn’t agree more.

When academics talk about incentives, the conversation goes quickly to tenure — the coveted status of senior university scholars, designed to safeguard their academic freedom. Tenure criteria – the metrics that determine who receives it – have begun to recognize points (i) and (ii) above, but we don’t yet have good ways of incorporating engagement and measuring its impact. That change is desperately needed. But for me, the focus on tenure has two problems. First, large institutional changes, like changing the criteria for tenure, won’t happen fast enough relative to the urgent challenges we face. And, second, tenure applies to only a portion of the people within universities who are doing important sustainability work. At IonE, for example, we have a large group of senior scholars – full-time researchers and leaders outside of the tenure system – who work directly with decision-makers on a daily basis. Universities need to recognize and reward people outside the tenure system but within academia for their work, and encourage the tenured faculty to emulate them.

Finally, we talked about the incentives for units within universities, not just for individuals, as a pathway to change. This is what I love most about IonE — that we are incentivized, upon our founding, to act differently than other parts of the university and, through our innovation, we can bring about change in the way universities do business. And, we hope, when the leaders and institutions represented at this meeting act together, that institutional change can happen even faster.

While we can learn from each other, no two universities are exactly the same. The different strengths of different universities allow us to be stronger together — to span the full spectrum of interactions, economies, and geographies. The University of Minnesota has profound assets to bring to the “beyond the academy” movement. We obey a land grant mission. We sit at the confluence of biomes and economies undergoing profound change from a shifting climate. Our region includes some of the world’s largest and most globally integrated corporations. And we lie in the heart of one of the world’s greatest bread baskets. Fortunately, these assets — as well as the innovations we have already deployed at IonE — give us a seat at the table of people driving change across all of higher education.

And one more thought…

These meetings do raise an issue that’s been on my mind lately. I generated about 1.3 metric tons of greenhouse gas (CO2 equivalents) to attend these gatherings. That’s about one-fifth of the emissions of the average American driver for an entire year. On the one hand, it’s critically important to collaborate with colleagues, particularly when the goal is to change the way a system — science and the academy — works. On the other hand, it’s downright fishy to justify degrading the planet by claiming to save it too. Lowering our carbon emissions from airplane travel and off-setting the negatives of that travel with concrete positives and carbon sequestration is something we are working on at IonE. Stay tuned.

In planetary prosperity,


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