Daydream believer: APEC Science Prize winner seeks innovative solutions for the environment and society

Dr Jingzheng Ren has tasked himself with solving the world’s grand challenges, and daydreaming is an essential part of the process.

By Liana Cafolla - September 16, 2022  10 mins
Dr Ren Jingzheng accepts the 2022 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education (ASPIRE).
Dr Ren Jingzheng, an Associate Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, accepts the 2022 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education (ASPIRE).

For Dr Jingzheng Ren, a process systems engineer, professor and researcher whose work simultaneously targets economic, environmental and social outcomes, winning the 2022 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education (ASPIRE) has provided a welcome boost to his self-belief.

“Sometimes as a researcher, I really feel lonely, and sometimes I doubt myself,” he says, speaking from his home in Hong Kong, where he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “Winning this prize has heartened me a lot and given me renewed impetus. This award is very important for young researchers, and it belongs to all the young researchers who are working in this field. I would like to tell all my peers to keep believing in what we are working on.”

Read about the 2022 ASPIRE prize nominees

The ASPIRE prize has been awarded annually since 2011 to researchers age 40 and under in recognition of scientific excellence and international collaboration. It comes with a cash award of $25,000. Co-sponsored by Elsevier and Wiley, this year’s prize focuses on innovation to achieve economic, environmental and social goals with the aim of encouraging the integration of bio-circular-green economy models as well as environmental, social and governance practices and responsible business conduct in the private sector.

The award was presented on August 21 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Representing Elsevier at the ceremony, Dr Anders Karlsson, VP of Global Strategic Networks, said "This year’s focus on the bio-circular-green economy is timely, and we saw interesting work from all finalists. It was inspiring to meet and discuss with Dr Ren."

2022 ASPIRE ceremony
At the ASPIRE ceremony (left to right): Head of Hong Kong, China delegation: Helen Kwan, Assistant Director-General of Trade and Industry, Trade and Industry Department, HKSARG; Head of US delegation: Christin Kjelland, State Department; Dr Anders Karlsson, Vice President, Elsevier; Dr. Hwanil Park, Korea APEC PPSTI Vice Chair; Edwin Sagurton, Economic Counselor, US Embassy, Thailand; Dr Pasit Lorterapong, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation (MHESI), Thailand; 2022 ASPIRE Prize Winner Dr Jingzheng Ren, Associate Professor, Hong Kong Polytechnic University; and Ma Leju, China PPSTI Deputy Delegation Head, DiDi.

A multi-faceted career

Dr Ren’s work is deeply connected to this transformation and has garnered global recognition to an extent that would seem to allow him very little cause for doubt in either himself or his work. He specializes in using systems thinking to solve energy and environmental problems in industrial processes with the aim of helping economies and industry transition to sustainable and carbon-neutral systems. To achieve this, he has developed integrated and multi-dimensional decision-making tools and optimization models that have received broad recognition.

Academically, he has been very productive, having published more than 250 journal papers, books and publications, which have been cited more than 7,500 times. He is listed among the top 10 authors for both “sustainability” and “sustainability assessment” in Elsevier’s Scopus database. As well as being Associate Professor of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, he directs and reviews many grants both in Hong Kong and internationally, and edits a host of leading scientific journals in addition to acting as chair or committee member of numerous international conferences.

All this, and he is not yet 35.

With his work having already achieved wide acclaim, what could make him doubt himself?

In part, it’s his relentless search for perfection:

I am never satisfied with my work. I always want it to be better. I hope that one day when I’m older, by the time I’m retired, I will have one project that will make me satisfied.

Read Dr Ren's advice for young researchers

Converting waste to energy

Dr Ren's work has two parts:

  • Developing decision-making tools that help policymakers and stakeholders make informed decisions to achieve economic, social and environmental goals simultaneously.
  • Developing innovative processes to turn waste, such as agricultural waste, into energy or value-added resources.

“For example, we have developed alternative processes and technologies to treat sewage sludge,” he says. “Sewage sludge can be used in different types of ways. So we can tell the stakeholders, according to their own process and requirements, which one is the most appropriate or which one is the best for them.”

Many of these processes target companies in high energy intensive industries, such as the paper industry, which wastes a lot of water.

“We use a computer-aided mathematical model to help them identify the causes that lead to their very high energy consumption and tell them how they should change their operating conditions to achieve energy savings,” he explains. “We use systems thinking to identify the problem. Then we can help them to achieve energy savings, reduce costs, encourage profits, improve energy efficiency and achieve carbon emission mitigation.”

Dr Ren in the field: his team helps companies identify the cause that lead to high energy consumption so they can achieve energy savings.
Dr Ren in the field: using a computer-aided mathematical model, his team helps companies identify the cause that lead to high energy consumption so they can achieve energy savings.

It’s a lengthy, complex process involving multiple partners. For major breakthroughs, it can take several years from idea generation to implementing the whole process. One problem is that some of the new processes are not cost effective. “And the use of the technology leads to new environmental and social problems,” he adds. “Our industrial partners need to consider the capital cost and the operating cost in total, so sometimes we need to work step by step to help them upgrade their processes or their technology.”

Despite the complexities, he is committed to the task. “I would like someday to develop a cost-effective, environmentally friendly and socially acceptable process for converting one kind of waste into energy or value-added products. I think it’s a long journey for me to achieve this dream, but I will work hard.”

Collaboration on multiple levels

Communication and collaboration are essential ingredients and resources in his work. “I love working with researchers from different fields, and I like to combine hard tech with soft science,” he says. “To promote our processes, we also need to cooperate with policymakers. So we usually have very, very broad cooperation with researchers from different fields.”

He also collaborates extensively with the members of APEC, working with individual member economies  to collect primary data, verify results and then promote the processes on a policy level. More can be achieved on the sustainability front if economies focus on pooling their strengths, he says. “Different economies have their own strengths and weaknesses, so we can use the strengths of others to overcome our own weaknesses.

“No economy can solve all the problems alone, so I suggest we should work together, collaborate together. This summer there were many extreme weather events all over the world. They will influence humans everywhere. This is the best time for us to work together, to fight the extreme events together, to solve the problems, and to save ourselves. We should all work together to solve the grand challenges because it’s our common problem.”

An approach rooted in universality

His ambition to solve the world’s grand challenges came early in his career. After completing his master’s degree, his first job was as a chemical process design engineer, but he lasted less than a year before switching to research. It was the broad scope of research that attracted him, he explains: “As a chemical process engineer, I can help to solve an engineering problem. But as researchers, we can solve the grand challenges.”

His conviction that sustainable solutions must simultaneously address economic, environmental and industry concerns is rooted in his belief in the interconnectedness of all things, which he learned from the writings of the ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher known as Zhuangzi.

“He taught me how to solve complex problems, and that everything in this world is one, including industry,” Dr Ren explains:

Zhuangzhi said, ‘Heaven and the Earth live together with me, and the myriad things and I are one.’ ‘Heaven and Earth’ refer to the natural world. In my mind, economic, environmental and social issues are not independent; they are integrated and interdependent, so we should treat them simultaneously by using systems thinking to solve the problems.

The power of a relaxed mind

When it comes to resolving something himself, he likes to go for a run while listening to music. He enjoys music — traditional Chinese music and Taylor Swift are his current favorites — and it stops him thinking during his run:

I can empty my mind. Sometimes I don’t know how to solve a problem. I run for maybe half an hour and after that, some new ideas are generated. Making yourself relax is central for working better and improving your efficiency.

He also likes reading novels and watching movies for relaxation, but also as a means of learning about other cultures and understanding people with empathy.

In the distant future, he can envision a thinking role of some sort for himself:

I would like to be a thinker in the future. But for now, I like to use another word to describe myself: Daydreamer. I’m a daydreamer. My dream is to daydream in my bed. I like daydreaming to find innovative ways to work comprehensively and thoroughly, and to think about how we can achieve solutions to the problems of the economy, environment and society.

It’s a practice that he encourages everyone to try.

In his view, the most important obstacle to achieving a bio-circular-green economy is the mindsets of ordinary people who feel their individual actions are not enough to impact the fight against global warming, so they don’t make an effort. That’s a mistake, he says: “Global warming has a close relationship with us. It will influence our daily lives. Every individual’s actions count.”

At 7, Dr Ren’s son is an avid environmental advocate. It’s a lesson he also teaches at home, and its results have given him the biggest personal satisfaction in his work to date:

It’s a family project: my wife and I have succeeded in making our 7-year-old son a low-carbon lifestyle advocate. He turns the lights off immediately when they’re not needed, and he knows how to protect the environment, how to contribute to this world by mitigating carbon emissions. My son exclusively uses public transport; he’ll take the metro or the bus, no matter how complicated it is for him.

He and his wife have long been practicing a low-carbon lifestyle, he says. “My wife has a nice dress that she bought 12 years ago when we were master’s students, and she still has it. I’m happy we can influence my son. Other parents can also influence the next generation. If all families can enjoy a low carbon lifestyle, we can contribute a lot to carbon mitigation.”

Dr Ren’s advice for young researchers

  • Love yourself and love the world. Trust yourself. Believe we will have a more sustainable future if we work together.
  • Do more exercise to have a strong body and more ideas. Exercise can help you to improve your efficiency, and making yourself relax is essential to working better.
  • Everyone should be a daydreamer. It can help us find ways to contribute to this world, especially the grand challenges.


Liana Cafolla
Written by

Liana Cafolla

Written by

Liana Cafolla

Liana Cafolla is a journalist, editor and writer with a Master of Journalism degree from the University of Hong Kong. Originally from Ireland, she has lived in Hong Kong for the last 20 years, writing and editing stories on people, business, technology, academic research and culture for clients including the University of Hong Kong, IFC at the World Bank Group, the South China Morning Post and Standard Chartered Bank.

Previously, she worked for the European Commission in Brussels and Hong Kong. She is now based in Amsterdam and Hong Kong.

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