13 February 2018

Creating a sustainable future by bringing people together

Panel discussion at Pathways to Sustainability conference 2018

“Sustainability is our collective wake up call. The challenge is to tap into our imagination and come up with pathways that lead towards sustainability.” With these words Prof Maarten Hajer launched the annual Utrecht University Pathways to Sustainability Conference at TivoliVredenburg on 9 February 2018. Aimed at creating a meeting place for a transdisciplinary community of sustainability experts, the event inspired nearly 500 scientists, policy makers, consultants, directors, students and practitioners working in various disciplines.

Utrecht University president Anton Pijpers opening the Pathways to Sustainability conference 2018

“Bringing people together is the way to tap into the imagination needed to think of new solutions and approaches.” The university has a key role to play here, emphasised president Anton Pijpers. With the Pathways to Sustainability programme, Utrecht University will invest in collaborations with societal partners. “It is an invitation for bright minds to work on a better future”, said Pijpers.

Utrecht as living lab

To illustrate these ideas, Hajer invited Prof John Robinson from the University of Toronto to present his ideas. A renowned scholar on problem-driven interdisciplinarity, Robinson advised the university to use its campus as a living laboratory of sustainability. He shared his vision of a university campus where staff and students, along with private, public and not-for-profit partners, maximise the opportunities to work together on sustainability issues.

The university’s physical plant, and its education and research capabilities are then used to test, study, teach, apply and share lessons, technologies and policies. The idea is to increase both human and environmental wellbeing, through what he calls ‘regenerative sustainability’.

Sea level rise

One of the urgent issues that requires transdisciplinary cooperation is sea level rise, a topic where the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) and Utrecht University researchers often collaborate on. Dr Aimée Slangen from NIOZ enticed the audience with her expertise on sea level rise. “We all know that sea levels will rise. But exactly how much? And where? Should we prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario or not?” In her on-stage discussion with polar meteorologist Prof Michiel van der Broeke about the climate sensitivity of the Antarctic ice sheet they both concluded that the sea level will irrevocably continue to rise. Further improving prediction models and reducing existing uncertainties is therefore of great importance. Despite the promising ability of these techniques, they stressed that we should stop greenhouse gas emissions now.

Break-out session at Pathways to Sustainability conference 2018

Interaction on four sustainability issues
Ample space for transdisciplinary cooperation was created in the interactive break-out sessions where Utrecht University researchers teamed up with external stakeholders focusing on four topics: Towards Industry with Negative Emissions, Future Food Utrecht: Pathways towards Healthy Planet Diets, Transforming Infrastructures for Sustainable Cities, and Water, Climate & Future Deltas. Hot topics were discussed in smaller working groups, including the question how scientific experts, industry partners and stakeholders can work together to radically transform the industry to meet the Paris climate ambitions. Other issues for debate were pathways for sustainable food production systems, pathways to cities and infrastructures of the future, and the impact of the effects of climate change on delta areas worldwide.

Imagining new futures

With all these topics and opportunities for transdisciplinary cooperation in mind, what would the world of tomorrow look like? Inspiration caught during the day was reflected in the final panel discussion with Prof Bert Weckhuysen (Utrecht University, Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis), Marjan Minnesma (Director of Urgenda), Roald Laperre (Director General for the Environment and International Affairs at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management) and Marco Waas (Director RD&I and Technology at AkzoNobel). The discussion was led by Maarten Hajer.

“Can we envisage a truly sustainable society?”, Hajer asked. “What would be different? What are game changing innovations, for instance in the field of industry and chemicals, in what we consider waste and what is regarded a resource? How can we facilitate the transition?”. Thirty minutes were hardly enough to answer these ambitious questions.

And what should be Utrecht University’s role in this transition? Which key players can join us to create a sustainable world? Marco Waas described his vision for the future: “My dream is that science, government and industries really start working together. We should all adopt the same vision and work together to make the energy transition within twenty years a reality. A lot of solutions are already on the table, they just need extra effort. And for that we need all stakeholders on board.”