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Creating a united front on sustainability science so it reaches society

Prof. Alexander J. B. Zehnder talks about how universities can ensure that sustainability research results are considered by policy makers

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Prof. Alexander J. B. Zehnder presents at the Singapore Sustainability Symposium. He is the conference chair and visiting professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, where he heads the Sustainable Earth Office.

Editor’s note: This month, we are exploring “how science can build a sustainable future” – revealing opportunities we may not have considered. The Singapore Sustainability Symposium (S3) is all about bringing people together and discussing the future. Elsevier’s Dr. Anders Karlsson, who spoke at the conference, caught up with conference chair Prof. Alexander J. B. Zehnder to understand what’s needed for sustainability research to make a difference in the world.


From Prof. Alexander J. B. Zehnder’s perspective, sustainability science isn’t just about research, it’s about solutions. As a visiting professor and member of the Board of Trustees of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore and chair of NTUs Sustainable Earth Office, Dr. Zehnder is the driving force behind the Singapore Sustainability Symposium (S3), organized in partnership with Singapore’s ministries, university partners, and various private sector organizations including Elsevier.

The 4th annual event was held on May 3 and 4 at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore under the theme “Civic Engagement Driving Urban Solutions.” As before, it brought together stakeholders from academia, industry and politics to discuss how sustainability research can be implemented to make a difference in the world. One of the outputs from the conference is that Dr. Zehnder was invited to the World City Mayor’s forum in Suzhou to present the main conclusions and recommendations.

“Singapore universities have always been encouraged by the government and the agencies that fund the research to think about the implementation of the results of their research,” Dr. Zehnder said. “The usage is part of the project – the politicians, agencies and ministries often come back and ask, “What is this for?’”

Dr. Alexander J. B. Zehnder, PhD, talks about the challenges of moving from pure sustainability research to implementation.

Without that perspective, Dr. Zehnder said, there is a danger that research institutions can lose sight of what sustainability research is for. “Here in Singapore, the role of universities is clearly defined as for society. They have to educate the leaders of tomorrow, and the research has to contribute to the well-being of the nation.”

However, in the case of sustainability, moving from pure research to implementation can be tricky:

It’s transdisciplinary, but to be quite frank not many know how to do it effectively. The moment things get concrete, it gets complicated.

The key, he said, was in collaboration – whether between academia, government and industry or simply within academia itself. “The issues of the future are complex and cannot be solved by one discipline alone. Universities are still organized in a disciplinary way – it’s the setup of how we do science, how we publish, how we plan the careers of scientists. Fully interdisciplinary research in universities is rare. I’m not referring to an organic chemist talking to an inorganic chemist, but rather the social scientists, engineers and mathematicians saying ‘Lets tackle this together.’”

 Dr. Anders Karlsson, Elsevier’s VP of Global Strategic Networks (Asia Pacific), speaks on a panel, surrounded by Larry Cheng, Director, Senior Principal Architect, of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in Singapore, and Dr. Veena Sahajwalla, ARC Laureate Professor and Director, SMaRT Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Breaking out of disciplinary silos isn’t easy; that’s part of the reason the S3 symposium exists. Dr. Zehnder argues that it’s an essential step. “At NTU we created an online course on sustainability that all first-year students have to take,” he explained. The aim: to emphasize that sustainability is not mono-dimensional, and its many facets extend throughout science and society. “All students know from their former education and learning that sustainability is important, and the course exemplifies that almost any of the students’ activities and projects have a sustainability aspect.

Dr. Zehnder was one of the advisors for Elsevier’s 2015 analytical report Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape, conducted in collaboration with SciDev.net. Released on the eve the UN adopted its Sustainable Development Goals, the report aimed to contribute to the understanding of sustainability science as a research field – and the dialogue between science and society in sustainable development. Continuing that dialogue will be essential to ensuring the successful implementation of sustainability research, he said.

Dr. Zehnder recalled a comment made by Kim Chang-Beom, Ambassador for International Relations to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, at last year’s symposium: “He said, ‘Whatever we do to make the city and life of the citizens more sustainable, we need the undivided the support of the people. Otherwise implementation is close to impossible.’ This created a strong impression among the participants and was determining for the theme for this year’s conference – civic engagement.

“Throughout the entire conference (this year), attendees continued discussions based on that topic,” he added. “People do tend to tell their preferred sustainability stories but very often forget how important civic engagement actually is. After this year’s symposium, we are even more convinced – sustainability solutions without the people’s support will just not fly.”Speakers and Scientific Advisory Board Members of the Singapore Sustainability Symposium (S3): John Keung Kam Yin (Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority), Chang Chew Hung (NIE), Mely Caballero-Anthony (NTU), Koh Kheng Lian (NUS), Kamlesh Yagnik (Surat), Lauren Sorkin (Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities), Stanley Yip (Peking University), Simon Upton (New Zealand Commissioner for the Environment), Alexander J.B. Zehnder (NTU), Koh Poh Koon (Senior Minister of State for National Development and Trade & Industry), Choi Shing Kwok (Permanent Secretary of Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources), Anders Karlsson (Elsevier), Per-Christer Lund (Innovation Norway), Lam Khin Yong (NTU), Gustav Guggenheimer (Hans Andersson Recycling), Victor Tay (NTU) and William Henry Clune (NTU).

Watch a video about the conference

How science can build a sustainable future

This month, we are exploring “how science can build a sustainable future.” At Elsevier, we support sustainability science throughout our business, bringing sustainability research to a wider audience, for example, and providing information and analytics that shed light on sustainability research to help inform policy.

Ludivine Allagnat, Senior Academic Relations Manager in Elsevier’s Tokyo office, and Merrylyn Yeo, Marketing Manager, Southeast Asia, contributed to this report.

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