Building Sustainable Bridges: From a Workshop to a Comment to a Video

We hope the video shows how absolutely senseless it is, as well as solution-defeating, to continue with standard academic approaches when there is so much work to be done, and so many people ready and willing to do it.

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May 29, 2019
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Building Sustainable Bridges: From a Workshop to a Comment to a Video



By Stephanie Pfirman, Patricia J. Culligan and Elena G. Irwin

Our comment “Bridging barriers to advance global sustainability” by Irwin et al. Nature Sustainability 1.7 (2018): 324-6 took shape during discussions at the ‘Re-thinking interdisciplinary research for global sustainability’ workshop organized by Nature Sustainability and Tsinghua University from 14 to 16 January 2018, in Beijing, China.  The purpose of the workshop was to bring together a diverse set of experts to explore why we need interdisciplinary research to advance sustainability knowledge and action, and to discuss what defines successful interdisciplinary collaboration. It was a terrific experience for us to encounter so many people at the workshop from different cultures and backgrounds who were engaged in critical global sustainability work, and also were raising similar questions and encountering similar challenges in the translation of that work to action.

But the story doesn’t start or end there.  We – like many of you! -- have long been frustrated by the failure of valiant attempts taking place all around the world to forge the durable and meaningful connections among academia, communities and other societal stakeholders in the “real world” that are critical to advancing global sustainability. Through lively discussions during a conference breakout session, we came up with the idea of a valley of wasted knowledge, where good ideas – from both sides, the academic and the real world – go to die because the two sides continue to labor and produce know-how in different worlds. Time after time, we kluge together bridges with sporadic and ad hoc funding, or through the blood, sweat and tears of volunteering, to try to span this divide and bring the two worlds together.  But without enduring support, the bridges fall apart, sometimes taking us down with them because promotion and tenure criteria do not value these activities.

We needed an illustration of the problem, and our first sketches tried to represent the situation in panels.  The initial panel had academics throwing out both ideas and publications, where they accumulate in an abyss, or valley, that divides the worlds.  Crises, as well as ideas and questions, are seen growing just across the valley, which is inhabited by practitioners and society at large. There is only a rickety, unstable bridge spanning the divide.  An academic trying to traverse the bridge falls through a rotten plank as they carefully shield their idea from harm by holding it aloft.  At the same time community members on the other side of the valley, one with an idea and the other with a question, are walking down to approach the bridge.  The next panel showed what could be -- if only we had a stable bridge that we could rely on for working together to co-create the necessary knowledge and solutions for global sustainability.

In a subsequent version of the sketch, we added an ivory tower on the academic side, which housed disparate disciplines, to emphasize the still siloed structure of most academic enterprises, and used word balloons to highlight key concepts. These concepts included the necessity for the academic enterprise, including universities, research organizations, funding agencies, professional societies and national academies, to foster and support interdisciplinary and convergence research on the academic side of the bridge, and transdisciplinary knowledge generation between academics, practitioners and other stakeholders.    

But our hand-drawn sketches -- and the illustration (Fig. 1) that was ultimately included in our comment -- were missing the full narration of the problems we identified during our workshop discussions, as well as the dynamic aspects of the solutions we formulated as a group, which spoke to the question of “how do we get from where we are to where we need to be?”  In addition, we recognized that the comment itself was susceptible to falling into the valley of wasted knowledge. While Nature Sustainability is intended for a broad interdisciplinary audience, it is nonetheless an academic journal that is not accessible to many practitioners and non-academic stakeholders.

When the comment was first published it was publicly accessible for 30 days. We shared the link broadly, including with groups and associations that engaged practitioners and others involved in sustainability work outside of academia. It garnered spirited attention and interest from both academic and non-academic groups. Members of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), who are largely sustainability professionals working at academic institutions and other organizations, had a lively discussion of it on their listserv. Heather Tallis, Global Managing Director and Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation, received it from a colleague and followed up to say “BRILLIANT!! And THANK YOU!!! And again, THANK YOU!! I, The Nature Conservancy, and the world would benefit tremendously from these kinds of changes.”

Spurred by the desire to keep building bridges and inspired by the kinetic experience of sketching, we decided to make a public video “Bridging the Valley of Wasted Knowledge to Advance Global Sustainability” by S Pfirman, PJ Culligan and EG Irwin. https://youtu.be/0rlWEyadz4I

The video highlights – in an entertaining way, we hope -- the issues addressed in the "Bridging barriers to advance global sustainability" comment.  It is aimed at a broad audience within and outside the academy, and in particular any group or individual who feels the urgency, as we do, to minimize the academic barriers needed to achieve global sustainability.

Please feel free to share the video link with colleagues -- including administrators! – as well as collaborators outside of academia. We hope it shows how absolutely senseless it is, as well as solution-defeating, to continue with business as usual within our academic walls when there is so much work to be done, and so many people ready and willing to do it.

While the video takes a light-hearted approach, the challenges we face are deadly serious. Like many of you, the three of us are at institutions that have taken meaningful steps to implement the kinds of structures and incentives that are needed to support interdisciplinary collaboration, stakeholder engagement, and broader outreach. But these changes are too little, too slow, and wholly inadequate given the magnitude and pace of the sustainability challenges we are facing. The more people and groups from inside and outside academia that we can reach and engage in advocating for institutional innovations—including changes to faculty incentives, research metrics, support for boundary organizations, joint funding for working with practitioners—the more likely meaningful change can begin to happen.  As Irwin et al. conclude: Unless there is a commitment to change, academia will fail to deliver on the promise of a more sustainable world.

Stephanie Pfirman, Foundation Professor, School of Sustainability, Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University

Patricia J. Culligan,  Robert A.W. and Christine S. Carleton Professor of Civil Engineering and Faculty Member, Earth Institute, Columbia University  

Elena Irwin, Professor, Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics Faculty Director, Sustainability Institute, The Ohio State University


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Stephanie Pfirman

Foundation Professor, School of Sustainability and Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University

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