Coordinating Sustainability Research & Innovation

Evidence of climate change is all around us. Melting glaciers, thawing permafrost, more frequent and intense hurricanes, and more frequent and more destructive wildfires. Scientists predict even more catastrophic changes, including rising sea levels that threaten millions of people living on coastlines, if our actions do not change and keep average temperatures from rising another few degrees Celsius.

The science of what has already happened is clear and mounting. The science of how we can live sustainably is still being done. The clock is ticking. We need that science done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The world’s climate scientists need to come together in a coordinated way so that precious time and resources are not lost. And that’s the job of Future Earth: an international initiative focused on global sustainability science. Future Earth harnesses the experience and reach of thousands of scientists, experts, and innovators from across the globe with the goal of solving the most pressing challenges facing the planet and its people

Future Earth is an organisation that serves a vast network of Global Research Projects, Knowledge-Action Networks, National and local Committees, Regional offices and centers. Furthermore, it includes and convenes programmes, projects and networks working on sustainability. The organization is funded by a range of public and private foundations, universities and government agencies of 12 countries. The organisation is in its 5th year of a 10-year charter and was recently the subject of an external review, putting it at a critical crossroads for course-correcting in order to achieve its mission in the remaining 5 years.

Going Virtual

Under those circumstances, the leadership of Future Earth faced a daunting challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of it’s in-person internal meeting, which was to be held in Brisbane, Australia in June 2020. Instead, the leaders of FE chose to convene a Virtual Summit that month, allowing 195 individuals representing their communities to conduct a meeting of the global organization. 

“Future Earth is an evolving scientific community,” says Vincent Virat, one of the Summit’s organizers. “It’s a very complex ecosystem and we’ve sort of struggled in the past to bring people together and find good entry points for everyone into the various programs and initiatives within the organization.”

According to Virat, the goals of the Virtual Summit were to:

  • Give an update on where Future Earth is now and open up the conversation to co-design the plans for the next five years.
  • Understand how each of the member organizations works individually and strategize ways they can work better together.
  • Figure out ways to involve members in on-going programs and discuss any proposals for new initiatives.

Like most meeting organizers, Virat says there is no replacing in-person meetings. But, designed well, a virtual meeting can sometimes be more productive. In this case, KI-facilitated a 1.5 day event held over a three-day period instead of the continuous, back-to-back sessions typical of an in-person meeting. “We achieved probably just as much, if not a little more, than we would have otherwise,” Virat says. “People had time to think in between each day and we could take a reflective approach. It was really impressive.”

Getting More Involved

Susanna Ehlers is a science policy program officer with the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI), which includes 19 member countries. In attending the Summit, Ehlers’ hoped to get a better understanding of the FE governance and the role Regions play within the organization.

“It was great to sit down with other regions. Some have much more defined roles and are very active in Future Earth and some are brand new Regions that are still figuring out how to get active. But we all had similar experiences,” Ehlers says. Since the Summit, she has volunteered to sit in on executive committee meetings where Future Earth leadership is considering restructuring so that Regions, especially those in the Global South, don’t get lost in the reshuffle and can participate in a meaningful way.

Meetings of the Future

Rees Kassen, Ph.D., is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Ottawa. Kassen has been involved with Future Earth for some time and was recently nominated to be co-chair of its EvolvES Group, which applies the tenets of evolutionary biology to biodiversity research. He also happens to be an alum of several KI events, with this being his first virtual one.

“What I missed most compared to an in-person meeting was the opportunity to skip a session and continue talking in the hallway,” Kassen says. The virtual format kept participants engaged and on-task. Kassen also says he appreciated the virtual Water Cooler for those who wanted to network during breaks. 

Being an organisation focused on sustainability, these kinds of virtual meetings will continue to be part of FE’s future, Kassen says. “I appreciated the structure and the space that was allowed for the tone of the meeting to be set.”

And, how did the Virtual Summit compare to other KI events? “It was totally different, yet reassuringly familiar,” Kassen says. Others were much smaller than the Summit. “But this event shared with the others a spirit of effort and the effective guidance of the KI team. I was as exhausted after a day at the summit as I would have been in person, which must mean I was well-engaged.”