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Cultivating better networks for sustainability research and innovation

I have always been a people person. When I started as Director of the Colorado Hub of Future Earth a bit over three years ago, what struck me most about the formation of Future Earth from the previous global change programs was the potential of so many exceptional networks coming together. Almost two dozen international global change research communities, many containing thousands of scientists from around the world, saw the value in working together on the biggest sustainability issues of our time.

The nugget of the problem, from the very start, has always been how to organize.  How do we maintain the powerful focus of the individual research communities focused on on governance; carbon; deep ocean biogeochemistry; the connections that bind the past, present and future; the links that guide our understanding of land systems; and a dozen plus other big topics, while also building a whole that connects research and decision-making in the most robust ways? How do we best support the strengths in our global community while aggressively working to identify and fill the gaps so that we can better connect knowledge to decision processes? How do we support sustainability research and innovation networks all over the world to maximize their capacity to connect evidence and innovation with decisions and actions?  I don’t have the all the answers to these questions just yet, but I am really excited that we are now hiring a “Future Earth Network Lead” to help us move the needle.  

This new position is the first devoted to cultivating the network itself – at national, regional, and global scales – but the challenges they will be working to solve are not new ones. Humans are social primates. We love to form tribes. And these tribes are built on trust and on shared purpose. This is a challenge, of course, becauses sustainability is massive and it does not fit neatly into any tribe. Even if we constrain ourselves to the most well recognized framework for sustainable development, the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, we are still talking about everything from hunger to healthy oceans; clean energy to equity, equality and education. It is also a challenge because our originating networks reflect many of the biases of science itself: more natural science than social science; more members from Europe, East Asia and North America than Africa, South America and the Middle East. And, of course, we are a community with much stronger roots in research than than innovation.  

And here is the rub – the decisions that will determine our progress toward a sustainable future will be made in countries, provinces, cities and boardrooms all over the world. If these decisions are going to be based on the best available evidence, the context and the messenger matters.  National and subnational decision-processes will require robust local sustainability research and innovation communities. And for many of the the same reasons, evidence-based decision making will require much stronger connections between disciplines, sectors, and decision processes at all scales. So what have we done, and what do we need to do now, to create and support these locally relevant and globally connected research and innovation communities?

Looking back over the last three years of Future Earth, and thinking about networks, I can see one huge well of knowledge that we need to draw from more effectively – the Future Earth Global Research Projects – and three newer Future Earth pillars we should consider: Anthropocene Magazine, The Future Earth National Networks, and the Open Network.

The Global Research Projects of Future Earth are the backbone of our core community. More than 20 global change research networks, many over 25 years old, some containing thousands of members, the Global Research Projects collectively support hundreds of projects, student travel fellowships, and major sustainability convenings each year. These networks exist because they have been successful in creating community, and the lessons they have learned will be absolutely critical as we work to support networks that connect across and beyond their areas of expertise.

So what has Future Earth done to date to stitch together broader sustainability research and innovation communities? Over two years ago, we started Anthropocene Magazine, because journalism has always been about supporting and informing communities. Anthropocene has no pay-wall, and we work with world-class journalists to scout innovative and often counterintuitive sustainability solutions and to make the latest sustainability research and technology accessible and relevant to people’s everyday lives. This brings people together. The Anthropocene Daily Science newsletter, for example, highlights the very best sustainability research coming out every week, and it reaches over 15,000 people in 139 countries (#1). I am excited about the potential for Anthropocene, as it aims to be that go-to place for the very best intelligence on sustainability, regardless of whether you are a scientist, a policy maker, an entrepreneur, or a thought leader in a major fortune 500 company. And yet a magazine is not, by itself, a community. It is a critical part of the social fabric, but it is not designed to support the full breadth of multi-sector issues, conversations, and decision-processes that we need.  

So what about networks? One of the structures with the most potential in this arena are the Future Earth National Networks. Future Earth now has 25 different national structures established or in development, each working to support national sustainability research and innovation communities. These structures are critical, as almost all decisions affecting sustainability happen at a national or subnational scale (implementation of the Paris Accord being a prime example). Each national structure has developed in its own way – hosting national convenings, publishing policy briefs, advising governments, working with national funding bodies – but I am convinced that these structures have huge potential to create and support the kinds of multi-sector communities we will need to bring evidence to bear on our major sustainability challenges.

We also started the Open Network. This is a global platform designed to connect research and innovation communities across borders.  It is a digital place to find opportunities, seek colleagues, and get work done. The Open Network now has almost 5,000 members from 189 different countries, and even though membership from the top four countries – the US, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany – makes up about 33 percent of the total membership, almost a quarter of members are from low income and lower and middle income countries(#2). This is a good starting point, because sustainability solutions will come from local engagement and global connections. That said, the Future Earth Open Network has limitations – it is an excellent place to find opportunities (conferences, jobs, etc), to join international communities, and to develop international research teams focused on key subject areas in key geographies, but to date, it has had limited capacity to support the development of a shared identity for sustainability research and innovation communities from around the world.   

And so we need to think big. Last month, working with the Belmont Forum, we announced Sustainability Research and Innovation 2020, the first in a new series of international collaborative convenings.  But there is much more to do.  We need to address, head on, questions like “what does it mean to join or “be a part of” Future Earth? Or, more broadly, what do we need to do to cultivate a national, regional and global “home turf” for sustainability research and innovation communities? What kinds of support structures do we need so that students getting PhDs in sustainability in Taiwan, Japan, South Africa and Denmark have a recognized path and the networks they need to be successful in the private sector, in academia, and in public sector and civil society? How do we support and recognize academic leaders that are already stretching beyond the ivory tower to create actionable science, and business leaders that are going the extra mile to connect with the best possible research and innovation? All of this will be in the remit of the new “Future Earth Network Lead.” For me, Future Earth comes into its own as a network organization, and I am really excited to form a team around this new position to drive this work forward.  

So, if you want to be a part of this evolution, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Take a look at the Network Lead Position, and apply yourself, of pass this along to others you think could roll their sleeves up for this work.  
  2. Go check out SRI2020, sign up, and think about how you can engage. Could your organization help sponsor this event, are their key partners you would like to be involved, or could your networks develop a local host application that would bring this global sustainability convening to you? If you can answer yes to any of these, get in touch.  
  3. Take a look at our National Networks page, and see what is cooking up in your country, and how you can get involved.  If you don’t see a national network in your country yet, and you think there should be one, let’s get busy.
  4. Join the Open Network, and help this community grow.  Over the next year, we will be working to re-think how the Open Network is structured, and how we can support the communities more effectively, but the power of the Open Network will always be in the size and engagement of the community itself.  
  5. Sign up for and support Anthropocene Magazine. The magazine is powered by supporting members who recognize that high quality solutions journalism focused on sustainability does not write itself. It is a public good, and our ability to keep writing is dependent on our ability to demonstrate the existence of committed readers around the world.


(1) The daily science newsletter goes out as an e-mail newletter each week.  A map of the current distribution of subscribers to this newsletter can be found HERE. In addition, we recently launched a spanish language version of Daily Science, with its own newsletter.

(2) 61 percent from high income countries, 16 percent from upper-middle income countires, and 23 percent from low income, and lower and middle income countres, according to the 2018 world bank country classification.  Clearly distance to travel, but for a reference point, it is useful to look at György Csomós’s 2018 analysis of global scientific output (here), which shows far more concentration in high income countries.