By R.F. “Rick” Shangraw, Jr.
If you’ve ever wondered why sustainability is so difficult to achieve, consider the Thanksgiving dinner. Each year in homes across our nation, many hours of preparation go into making a big meal that is consumed in a fraction of that time, followed by a lengthy cleanup effort and several days of leftovers. While overly simplistic, it’s an example of the inherent difficulties in balancing production and consumption while also managing their byproducts of waste and surplus.
Whether the goal is wise use of natural resources or economic stability, achieving stasis—the state of optimal balance—is a highly dynamic process that requires timely intervention to keep systems in check. Many experts agree that a variety of factors, including exponential population growth, are increasing the frequency and severity of change in many previously “stable” ecosystems.
As a result, there is an urgent need for more rapid innovation in response to changes in our natural and societal ecosystems in order to sustain or improve living standards and protect our planet. Research universities can play an important role in catalyzing this innovation, but only if they learn to accelerate the pace of discovery and improve the mechanisms for quickly driving these discoveries into the marketplace. In particular, we desperately need innovations that enable society to identify and correct imbalances earlier to prevent cascading effects.
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