This post was written by Pablo Villoch
On May 7-10 the Earth Institute, Columbia University, hosted the 17th Annual International Sustainable Development Research Conference, in partnership with the United Nations Division of Sustainable Development (UNDSD) and the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI). Following are some notes from the conference.
More than 400 researchers from over 50 countries came together for this three-day event in Alfred J. Lerner Hall to share their latest scientific research on sustainable development and explore the fundamental question of how global society’s aspiration to continued growth can be harmonized with the existing limits imposed by earth’s resources.
At the opening session, keynote speaker Nina Fedoroff discussed the limits of a future in providing for 9 billion through sustainable agriculture. She surprised the audience with a strong defense of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and questioned the scalability of organic agriculture.
Following Dr. Fedoroff’s exciting talk , Peter Schlosser, UpmanuLall, Klaus Lackner, Marc Levy, and Peter Dobers introduced the five themes of the conference: pressures on earth’s natural and socioeconomic systems imposed by continued development and their interaction; the limits of earth to support future development; solutions to the problems created by continued development of a growing world population; adequacy of existing local, regional and global institutions and governing structures to implement policies for a sustainable future; and assessment of existing programs aimed at moving society towards a sustainable future. Some of the most thought provoking insights were inspired by Mark Levy’s reflection on science and politics.
Participants were able to comment on the conference via Twitter, using the hashtag #isdrc17. This allowed many people who could not attend the conference to keep updated from distant places. Re-tweets registered from Sweden, Chile, Japan, Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia. The second day of the conference opened with a lecture from Lester Brown, a scientist and longtime prominent figure in the environmental movement. He presented the main arguments of his latest book “World on the Edge,” which outlines the actions needed to save civilization. This was followed by a wide range of parallel sessions where participants presented their research work and received feedback from peers. Between the first and second days, more than 350 people presented research through PowerPoint presentations and posters. The second day ended with a lovely reception at Low Library, where participants kicked back for informal and inspiring conversations.
The third day of the conference consisted of exciting and deeply inspiring discussion between scientists and policymakers. These conversations explored how progress in the field of sustainable development can be translated into political action through international environmental agreements, national legislation, good business practices in the private sector, and the engagement of civil society. The participants also discussed how the conference could best engage with the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Earth Summit 2012 (Rio+20). Presenters on the third day included: UN DSD Director Tariq Banuri, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, Ruth de Fries, Ashok Khosla, Vijay Modi, HE Ambassador In-kook Park of South Korea, Alissa Park, The Earth Institute Director Jeffrey D. Sachs, UNEP Director Achim Steiner, Klaus Töpfer, Laurence Tubiana Anbumozhi Venkatachalam, and HE Ambassador Morten Wetland of Norway, , .
One highlight of the third day was the presentation of student paper awards. Julia C. Kennedy and Deepali Khetriwal tied for the “Best Student Paper Award,” while Stephanie Caudill, Trang Thi Thu Nguyen, and Temitope Ogunyoku all received “Outstanding Student Paper” Awards. The awards accentuated questions of gender diversity in the conference program–while the program was male-dominated, the five outstanding female awardees sparked comments that it was evident who’s got the power and who’s got the talent.
Despite the success of the conference, I do have one suggestion for future organizers: radically improve upon the way participants interact in innovative ways. Two days of isolated presentations could lead to death by PowerPoint. The current academic tradition of presenting papers does not necessarily guarantee a mutually-enriching, trans-disciplinary dialogue. It seems that the few informal gatherings during coffee-breaks, receptions, and lunches did not make the most of talented participants with the desire to network. Open Space Technology and the World Café are examples of the many ways to bring meaningful engagement. I strongly encourage the ISDR Society to explore these kinds of options in future conferences.