FtF 2016 – Interdisciplinarity and the Sustainable Development Goals

In the very first blog post for the Facing the Future Community, I explored the complex nature of problems that link human and environmental systems. As I sit here, now, on the eve of the 2016 Facing the Future Conference, familiarising myself with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I am struck once again by the immense complexity faced by human-environmental systems now and in the immediate and long term future. The SDGs themselves cover an extensive range of topics, including: poverty, food and water security, health and nutrition, gender equality, energy, economics, climate change, conservation, conflict, resilience, to mention but a few.

As I’m so excited to engage with the wide range of interdisciplinary research at FtF 2016, I thought it would be great if we could use the blog to profile the research being done by FtF 2016 attendees. In this post, ahead of the conference, FtF Community members Nora Morocza and Sam Poskitt introduce their research, explore how it may be linked to the SDGs, and highlight interdisciplinary challenges and questions associated with their work.

 

Nora

There is a deepening understanding of climate change related health concerns. In recent years extreme weather events, infectious disease outbursts, or increasing level of air pollution, have all drawn attention to the serious possible impacts of environmental degradation. Policy initiatives and research therefore focus more and more on building adaptability and resilience of communities. Public awareness ideally includes both understanding the individual’s culpability for environmental degradation and its negative health effects, and understanding how health prevention and promotion can be supported by the natural environment.

I am interested in how people think about the connection between health and environment, and how exposure to the natural environment while exercising might have scope to challenge these views. In my Masters project I work with Paths for All, a large walking organization in Scotland. I interview individuals who have joined walking groups twice: once at the beginning of their walking experience and then a second time, six months later. I aim to explore how walking might affect their views on health and environment, and whether it poses any changes on a behavioural level.

One of the first times I felt my project fits into the current stream of thinking about climate change was when browsing the UN’s Sustainable Development Knowledge platform and reading about the SDGs. I feel that if my research has the scope to bring new understanding, it can help “to combat climate change and its impact” and promote health. But to be honest I think changing people’s environmental awareness could have a positive impact on nearly all of the SDGs.

Here in the Facing the Future Community we are aiming to work around climate change related “wicked problems” from an interdisciplinary perspective. My research lies somewhere at the intersect of the social sciences, health sciences and even biological sciences. I am concentrating on the individual choices people make, and views that drive these, which is just part of the whole picture. I believe if we will be able to combine with data from other scientific fields’ that gives us a more thorough understanding and tools to act on it.

 

Sam

As emphasised by SDG #17 tools and processes are needed that build the capacity of societies, around the world, to better manage complex and uncertain human-environmental problems. Participatory scenario planning (PSP) is often presented as such a tool by scholars and practitioners working in sustainable development as such an approach. PSP involves the creation of narratives that depict multiple plausible future situations and pathways by groups of stakeholders. Proponents suggest PSP can help manage complex problems by breaking down complex systems into manageable chunks, and can facilitate processes of learning by bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders from different disciplines, roles and perspectives.

My research explores the question of what, exactly, does learning in PSP involve? In in my first year I conducted a review 31 cases of PSP in the literature. The review demonstrated that, although learning is commonly expected and reported to occur in PSPs, there is a lack of explicit knowledge regarding what exactly is learned in PSPs, how learning in PSPs occurs, who learns what from whom. From an interdisciplinary perspective, the question of who learns what from whom is particularly salient. If complex human-environmental problems are to be tackled effectively, there is a need for knowledge to be applied to such management from across disciplines and at multiple levels. Domination of PSP processes may simply lead to reproduction of existing unsustainable, inequitable human-environmental systems.

In my research, I build upon the review of 31 PSP cases using interviews with PSP practitioners, and through two empirical case studies of ongoing PSP work. Initial results show PSP helps participants to learn the importance of a greater awareness of complexity and uncertainty in specific human-environmental systems, and the importance of planning for the future. The how and the who of learning in PSP require further analysis.

Looking forward to meeting you all at the conference!

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