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Q&A with Paul Shrivastava, Executive Director of Future Earth

You join the team as Future Earth's first Executive Director. What are your first impressions?

Paul Shrivastava – My first impression when I read the vision, mission and design document of Future Earth was “wow, what an ambitious and timely project.” It seeks to make not one but two historic redirections. First, it seeks to scientifically solve real-world problems of global sustainability, and not simply research and study them. Second, it seeks to make sustainability science transdisciplinary, impactful, and responsive to stakeholder needs – not an isolated conversation among scientists.

These are aspirations that I wholeheartedly endorse.

The programme struck me as being very timely and urgently needed. Despite 40 years of research on sustainability, most of the commonly used measures of sustainability such as pollution, population, consumption, biodiversity and atmospheric carbon have all worsened on a global scale.  The time for action is now, and Future Earth is just the type of action-driven and community-engaged scientific process the world needs.

Can you tell me a little more about yourself and your background?

Paul Shrivastava – I was born in Bhopal, India, at a time when the world population was about 2.5 billion, and the concepts of sustainability and climate change were unheard of. I have an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from Bhopal University, and a Master’s degree in Management from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. I helped launch Hindustan Computers Ltd, now one of the largest computer companies in India, and later did a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh focused on understanding organizations and enterprises, particularly from the angle of technological innovation and the societal contexts in which they occur.  

My research was abruptly redirected in 1984 after the Bhopal disaster at the Union Carbide plant. My first book, Bhopal: Anatomy of a crisis, was a study of that disaster, in which I articulated the need for multi-perspective understanding and multi-disciplinary solutions to industrial or technological crises. The book came out in 1987, so for the last 25 years I've been doing multi-perspective, multi-disciplinary work, which is what excited me about Future Earth. 

In the early 1990s I turned my attention towards the ongoing environmental and social crises and the possibilities of moving our enterprises and economies towards sustainability, pursuing the ideas contained in the World Commission Report Our Common Future. I helped develop ideas of environmental management or sustainable management, founding the Organizations and Natural Environment Division of the Academy of Management.

In 2009 I moved to Concordia University Montreal, as the first Director of the David O’Brien Centre for Sustainable Enterprise. I come to Future Earth with experience in starting up organizations and a passion for sustainability.

What is your vision for Future Earth?

Paul Shrivastava – My vision for Future Earth is a collaborative  global platform providing integrated knowledge required for environmental transition to global sustainability, by engaging strategic stakeholders, and communicating actionable knowledge to communities.

I’ve highlighted a few words there which I feel are key to Future Earth: Collaborative: Future Earth has to build the collaborative tradition of groups like the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), DIVERSITAS, the International Human Dimension Programme (IHDP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), and others. It also aspires to deep collaboration across disciplines, sectors and interest groups. Future Earth must be global in reach, cutting across the North-South divide, as well as national divisions, to seek global solutions that transcend borders. Future Earth will produce integrated knowledge across disciplines, in line with stakeholder needs. Sustainability is a holistic idea that cuts across all disciplines. It means meeting the needs of a population that will reach 10 billion in a few decades within the limits of a flourishing ecosystem, and connecting people and nature to live a meaningful and flourishing life. The notion of transition emphasizes movement from where we are today to a sustainable future, carrying along all stakeholders and communities; it’s a continuous transition, an action in motion. Another emphasis has to be engagement, seeking deep involvement, connection and co-creation with stakeholders. It’s not a vision of isolated scientists working in ivory towers or laboratories, but rather of science engaged with the real world. Finally I want to emphasize the importance of producing actionable knowledge that empowers communities to act in a scientifically informed manner, changing policies, institutions, individual and collective behaviours.

Future Earth has ambitious aims. What would success look like for you?

Paul Shrivastava – As the first Executive Director, I would like to take the ‘interim’ aspects of the Secretariat with the many uncertainties and organizational gaps that ‘interim’ implies, and make it feel more ‘permanent’ by maturing its staff, existing systems and engagement with stakeholders.

I would like to reduce the liabilities and risks of ‘newness’ that Future Earth faces by institutionalizing resilient internal processes, systems and external relationships that will endure for a long time.

Success would be building Future Earth into a smoothly functioning, collaborative, knowledge-creation and action-enabling enterprise that is also financially self-sustaining.

Another key measure of success for Future Earth is the impact we make on sustainability science and real-world sustainability problems. I would not be happy if we produced a lot of knowledge but it didn't make any difference to the sustainability challenges we all face.

What do you see as being the main challenges for Future Earth?

Paul Shrivastava – There are many challenges facing Future Earth – it is an ambitious programme. Having a name that focuses on ‘the future’ of ‘the Earth’ sets up some seriously big expectations! 

The overall challenge is developing the scientific knowledge needed to better understand the interactions between natural and human systems. Global climate change, biodiversity, and energy processes are exceedingly complex, have many interacting subsystems and component variables, and are characterized by dynamic interdependence and unpredictable coupling. Many of these processes are only partially understood. So we need first of all to define the problems in holistic ways. 

An equally important challenge is that the knowledge we produce needs to be translated into concrete actions that solve problems globally. This focus on action and changing behaviour has not historically been within the scope of scientific activities. Getting the knowledge component right and linking it to the action component is another major challenge for Future Earth, requiring us to do science differently – in a transdisciplinary, stakeholder-engaged, co-designed manner. 

This leads to another challenge. We have a group of very good scientists who have been trained within their respective disciplines. Going outside disciplinary comfort zones and working with stakeholders to develop what we call co-designed science requires a whole new set of skills. A huge challenge for us is to help our partners and scientists to do this. To meet Future Earth’s aspirations, we will need training for scientists, innovations in scientific research procedures and more sophisticated communications and engagement strategies.

For the Executive Secretariat I see several short to medium-term challenges, including hiring a multi-talented, diverse staff. I’m very serious about diversity in all its forms. We also need to establish structures, systems and new activities. Finally, we will need to fundraise to support our ambitious plans, including from the private sector and other non-traditional sources of funding.

The Future Earth Secretariat is taking shape during what could be a pivotal year for action on climate change and sustainable development, with the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COP21 in Paris. What are your priorities for 2015?

Paul Shrivastava – There are important events coming up this year, but in my opinion every year is now a pivotal year for sustainability. We are so behind on sustainability on so many fronts. Many of the promises agreed at the first Rio summit in 1992 still haven’t been met.

My priorities for 2015 will be shaped in consultation with the Science Committee and Engagement Committee. The SDGs and COP21 are important benchmarks along the path to development, and Future Earth will support these efforts, but we need to move forward rapidly on multiple fronts at the same time. Ultimately success for me will come not just with signing these agreements but in acting upon them, in investing resources and measuring results. We hope to bring to these meetings novel perspectives based on scientific research.

The Future Earth Secretariat will be distributed across five different headquarters, located on three different continents. Where will you be based? How will the different hubs interact? Who will be you be working most closely with?

Paul Shrivastava – The globally distributed Executive Secretariat is a wonderful innovation in organizational design, but it will only work if we have a strong central identity bound by common purpose.  So I think of it as a single executive secretariat, in which functions such as communications, coordination, enabling research etc. are deployed globally from five locations. As Executive Director I will be working equally with all five locations and with the Interim Secretariat which has done a great job of bringing Future Earth thus far. Each hub is supported by a consortium of universities, government organizations and businesses. Having this extended network of some 60 to 70 partners is a strategic asset that I would like to fully exploit.  

I will also work closely with the Future Earth Governing Council, Science Committee, Engagement Committee and key stakeholders. We also hope to work with a Secretariat Board, Regional hubs, and National Committees of Future Earth.  

The mandates of our hubs will be global, with functions distributed across the hubs. Many of our interactions will be digital to minimize our own carbon-footprints. I will be based in Montreal, but directly involved in the recruitment of hub directors and staff. A big challenge in a distributed organization is building a coherent identity, cohesive team and a unity of purpose – all these come from people’s intentions and good will, and we are looking for people with a passion for sustainability, who – regardless of location – have the vision and desire to create Future Earth as a one integrated whole.

So we can get to know you a bit better, can you tell me some more about yourself? Where do you call home? What do you do to relax?

Paul Shrivastava – Home is a challenging concept in the globalized, mobile, digitized, fragmented social world we live in. I associate home with “Wi-Fi” and “wife-y”. Home is anywhere my computer automatically connects to Wi-Fi, and wherever my wife and I hang out. 

I am equally comfortable in Canada and France, where I have worked for the past 6 years, in the USA – which is my country of citizenship, in India where I was born and grew up, in Japan and Argentina whose cultures my wife and I are enamored with, and in China which is a hugely different and fascinating place to me. To that list I would add Senegal where my son lives and which I am getting to know through him. I am reminded of Van Gogh who after traveling the world said “I am gradually turning into a cosmopolite; that is, neither a Dutchman, nor an Englishman, nor yet a Frenchman, but simply a man”.

Relaxation for me comes from training for triathlons. I run, bike and swim several times a week, and commute to work by bike even during Montreal winters. My wife and I are avid Argentine tango social dancers. And I sleep very well!