Rapid response: Sustainability demands more speed and agility from universities

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.

Following are several concepts being applied at Arizona State University (ASU) that help ensure educational and research programs emphasize rapid responsiveness to globally important needs.

Improving our ability to "see" the best option: Sometimes, action is hampered by too many potential solutions. Technology that increases the ability to predict the impacts of various options before they’re pursued provides the clarity necessary for consensus. ASU’s Decision Theater uses advanced visualization, simulation and decision system tools to do this. For example, it is used by local water resource planners to project the impact of new development on water tables.  Being able "see" the long-term outcomes of decisions helps identify the best approach for sustainable development. Generally, these tools also accelerate the decision process when multiple stakeholders are involved.

Sharing information: Information technologies have created new channels for sharing information, but they can also lead to information overload. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time is an area of need that is ripe for innovation. The emerging field of sustainability informatics is developing tools that integrate information across the complete decision life cycle. More importantly, sophisticated systems are explicitly addressing the uncertainty, credibility, timeliness and relevancy of data, especially as it is aggregated into information and knowledge.

Nurturing and identifying market-ready research: Strategically aligning existing strengths with urgent societal priorities is key to delivering timely solutions. This requires realistic assessment of an organization’s differentiated capabilities, which can be difficult in large, multifaceted research universities. We employ mapping software to spot new research cluster opportunities in national priority areas like alternative energy and then assemble the strongest possible interdisciplinary teams. We assign well-trained project managers to large, complex efforts to help with integration and ensure all milestones are met.

Consolidating efforts: At many universities, entrepreneurial programs are isolated in business programs with few links to science and technology efforts. There is often poor integration between research, entrepreneurial and educational functions. This can result in a gap between great discoveries and the great entrepreneurs who are able to drive them forward to impact urgent problems. Also, students are too often given theoretical problems to solve, when they could contribute greatly by engaging real-world problems through university research programs. For these reasons, we nurture strong linkages between the Global Institute of Sustainability, the School of Sustainability, and other ASU programs. We offer numerous entrepreneur development programs and engage students in use-inspired research.

Engaging with decision makers and industry: Rather than relying on traditional lobbying, more attention should focus on understanding national priorities and the existing barriers to commercializing potential solutions. With this insight, we can then tune our research efforts to address or avoid these barriers. We have developed a "solutions" group within the Global Institute of Sustainability to connect more directly with decision makers and industry.

These efforts have required the passionate commitment of faculty, students, administrators and supporters of ASU, and they are producing results. Some positive indicators are the fact that ASU ranks first among peers in the number of invention disclosures it produces for every $10 million spent on research and ranks third in terms of patents issued.

The impressionist artist Henri Matisse said, "What I dream of is an art of balance." Sustainability requires we bring this dream to fruition with ingenuity and speed.

Contributor's Biography:

Dr. Shangraw is the director of the Global Institute of Sustainability, and he is ASU’s senior vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development.