Future Earth Australia workshop #FutureEarthOz

Since February, I’ve been spending time at the Australian Academy of Science as an intern in their Science Policy team. As part of this role I recently had the privilege of attending  the Future Earth Australia workshop. Below is a summary of the event – also posted as a Storify (with tweets and images): https://storify.com/megcevans/future-earth-australia-workshop 


Over 28-29th April 2016, over 100 participants from diverse disciplines and professions came together at the Shine Dome in Canberra, to discuss how to translate the global Future Earth program into a regional initiative: Future Earth Australia.

Future Earth is a global research platform designed to provide the knowledge needed to support transformations towards sustainability. It is a ‘federation’ of projects and other initiatives related to Global Environmental Change, and will contribute to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Future Earth Australia aims to develop a strategic and business plan for an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable Australia. The workshop, hosted by the Australian Academy of Science, was an opportunity for scholars from the natural and social sciences, humanities and the arts to come together with business leaders, sustainability practitioners, NGO representatives, policymakers and members of the arts community to develop a roadmap for Future Earth Australia.

I was there in my role as a policy intern for the Australian Academy of Science, and my job was to tweet, tweet, tweet!

The workshop was designed to stimulate ideas and constructive debate, and so formal presentations on day one were short and punchy, with the aim of stimulating dialogue and discussions during break-out sessions, and on all of day two.

The Future Earth Australia workshop was opened by Prof Andrew Holmes, President of the Australian Academy of Science. Prof Holmes described Future Earth as an exciting and important global initiative, that has the potential to make a huge impact in Australia and in the surrounding region if we grab the opportunity. He argued that we must harness the full range of talent – from the sciences, humanities and arts – to meet the potential of Future Earth.

Prof Xuemei Bai from the Australian National University (and member of the Future Earth scientific committee) introduced the Future Earth global framework, including the Knowledge-Action Networks, Open Networks and the opportunities available for early and mid-career researchers. More than 20 international research projects, 7 regional centres and 5 global hubs make up the architecture of Future Earth.

Dr John Finnigan, Chair of the Future Earth Australia expert working group, described Future Earth as a platform for international, collaborative research to deliver local & regional outcomes. Ultimately, Future Earth aims to enable communities to thrive in the future amidst massive global change. He argued that if we are to identify long term solutions for sustainability, we need everyone to be involved – business, civil society, government, researchers and the arts.

The first series of presentations focused on people in a sustainable society, and featured contributions from a number of scholars. Prof Freya Matthews from La Trobe University discussed the ethical dimensions of sustainable development, and questioned whether anthropocentrism is an appropriate ethical lens through which to make decisions around sustainability and biodiversity loss. A/Prof Linda Williams from RMIT outlined how the arts & humanities can contribute to Future Earth, and told us that the arts have power to change people’s hearts and minds about environmental issues – but this can be intangible and hard to measure.

Andrew Petersen from Sustainable Business Australia described how the business community can play a crucial role in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. He argued that there is no way business can ignore the SDGs because of the risks and opportunities they present. Future Earth has a key role in developing tools that businesses can use to implement the SDGs, and in return business will be a massive incubator for achieving these goals in collaboration with researchers and the wider community.

In the first breakout session, participants joined discussion groups based on the topics raised in the morning presentations. This session featured a lot of introductions, as everyone was offered the opportunity to tell the group what interests them and why they wanted to discuss a topic. This initial (rather large!) investment of time proved very useful for the remainder of the workshop – as it then became easy for participants identify others with common interests, and develop an understanding of what skills and expertise they brought to the table.

Theme 2 was on the economy and a sustainable society, and featured presentations by Dr Imran Habib (ANU) on green growth, Dr Stephen Bygraves from Beyond Zero Emissions, and Professor Bob Costanza from the ANU.

Zoe Piper provided a fascinating example of how businesses can develop innovative, profitable products that also make a positive impact on the environment and human health. Ecolour takes waste engine oil and turns it into non-toxic paint – creating a useful product from waste, and one that is safer to use.

Theme 3 focused on the environment and a sustainable society. Professor Stuart Bunn from Griffith University described how water is strongly linked with the SDGs and is key to finding solutions for sustainable development. The Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University hosts the secretariat for the Sustainable Water Future Program, which is supported by Future Earth.

Dr Pep Canadell from CSIRO described the Global Carbon Project of global Future Earth, and pointed out that a climate future which limits warming to 2 degrees is unlikely without a social transformation – in which he argued Future Earth had a key role to play. Prof Karen Hussey from the University of Queensland somehow managed to summarise 40 years of governance research into 5 minutes. She argued that integration across disciplines and sectors remains the most urgent and yet most difficult challenge for sustainability.

During the next break-out session, Prof Glenda Wardle from the University of Sydney made what I thought was a crucial, yet so far neglected point. Amidst all of our discussion about the future, she reminded us that it is in fact a luxury to be thinking about the future, when for many communities across the world (including many of our regional neighbours) resource scarcity and climate disruption is happening right now. This highlighted the need for Future Earth Australia to have a regional focus, and to ensure that solutions for sustainability don’t have perverse outcomes or lead to “leakage” of unsustainable impacts elsewhere.

The final session focused on links, feedbacks and actions, and the relationships between the first three themes. Dr Jenny Gordon from the Productivity Commission argued that investment in the right kind of human and physical capital is crucial for the future, Prof David Griggs from the Monash Sustainability Institute questioned whether it would be possible to implement the SDGs in Australia (and if not here, where?), and Kate Harris closed by asking us to consider how we can all use our power and potential to drive transformational change.

In the evening, we were treated to a series of performances in the New Acton precinct. Visceral Communications helped to stimulate our thinking about what our future may look like, provided some incisive critiques of the barriers to sustainability, as well as hope for what we could achieve by working collaboratively towards a shared vision.

Day Two of the workshop was devoted to consolidating and further developing the ideas generated by discussion on the first day. Everyone was given the opportunity to pitch questions or projects in the “Open Space”. The day’s agenda was then mapped out from the ideas generated during this session.

By the end of the day, 14 projects were identified by participants as having potential to contribute to sustainable futures for Australia and our region, that also align with the goals of Future Earth globally. These projects will be included as part of an initial portfolio for Future Earth Australia and will form part of a final plan for the initiative, to be delivered in May 2016.

Overall, the Future Earth Australia workshop was a fantastic opportunity to connect with a diverse group of people, to “think big”, and to consider innovative & collaborative approaches for sustainable development. The key now will of course be to keep the momentum going, and translate the ideas into implementation. Although sustainability can often seem like a daunting, unachievable goal, I think it can sometimes be closer than we think. Connecting with people across disciplines, sectors and cultures can be a challenge in a world full of silos – but if given the opportunity, it’s possible to make these connections and identify “leverage points” for positive change. Future Earth Australia might just be this opportunity for change. So, let’s get to work!

Support for Future Earth Australia has been provided by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) and the Australian Academy of Science.

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