An international sustainability conference held in the most environmentally sustainable manner possible: via online streaming – that was the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress 2021 (SRI2021). It brought together 2 000 participants from more than 100 countries between 12 and 15 June 2021.

The SRI2021 was the world's first transdisciplinary gathering on sustainability, which attracted advocates of sustainability scholarship, innovation, collaboration, and action from around the world. SRI2021 was a joint initiative of Future Earth and the Belmont Forum, convened in partnership with Future Earth Australia, and hosted in Brisbane. The congress served as a conduit to unite the Global North and the Global South, supporting the objectives of Future Earth's global network of scientists, researchers, and innovators to ensure a more sustainable planet.

As a hub for capacity building, leadership, and transdisciplinary research to advance the priorities of the African continent, the University of Pretoria's Future Africa Institute was proud to host the African satellite event of the congress in collaboration with the Future Earth Regional Office for Southern Africa (FEROSA) on 14 and 15 June. It formed part of a series of Future Africa Science Dialogues to promote new sustainability science and transformative knowledge that would offer scalable solutions, policy interventions, regulatory and governance frameworks, and sustainable financial systems.

The panellists who were selected to take part in the different sessions were all experts in the field of sustainability research. This gave the participants access to a diverse range of views from experts who are driving the global and regional sustainability agenda.

 

Prof Cheikh Mbow

Prof Cheikh Mbow, Director of the Future Africa Institute, reflected that the satellite event, held in parallel with the main congress, addressed an African agenda, as opposed to a global one. He considered this an innovative approach taken by Future Earth. "It is a creative way of bringing scientists from across the world together to discuss regional issues in a global congress." This enabled the scientific community to contemplate how sustainability research can impact on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

As the objectives of Future Africa are well aligned with the sustainability goals of Future Earth, particularly those of its regional office in the Global South, FEROSA, it is in a prime position to contribute to solutions for issues pertinent to Africa, especially those related to food security, water, energy, climate change, health challenges and the impact of COVID-19.

The input of regional institutions such as the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Country Systems Office for Agricultural Transformation, the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems and the Future Africa Institute contributed to identifying research priorities for Africa.

The theme of the dialogue facilitated by Future Africa was "Innovation for Sustainable Development: Perspectives from the Global South". Through this event, Future Africa intensified existing efforts and conversations in sustainability, created a space for the sustainability community, and cultivated a space for the dissemination of sustainability solutions and innovation. Ultimately, the event contributed to the establishment of a solid community on sustainability to guide growth in sustainability-promoting communities, while encouraging best practices in stakeholder engagement, legacy activities, and accessibility of outcomes.

Four panel discussions formed part of the satellite event. These included topics such as sustainability research to accelerate innovation in Africa, the regional dimension of Future Earth and its role for a sustainable world, socialising the SDGs for enhanced awareness and effective implementation, and building climate resilience. The two-day event was concluded with a discussion on Africa's position in the sustainability and innovation debate.

Prof Stephanie Burton

 

Prof Stephanie Burton

The session on Sustainability Research to Accelerate Innovation in Africa was moderated by Prof Stephanie Burton, the current Chairperson of FEROSA, Professor in Biochemistry and Professor and Strategic Research Advisor at the Future Africa Institute. Prof Burton's leadership has been instrumental in organising the satellite event, as well creating linkages between Future Africa, FEROSA and Future Earth. Under her stewardship, the panel discussion sought to answer five pertinent questions:

  • Which cross-disciplinary innovations are priority needs for Africa?
  • What key research is needed to bring about the innovations that Africa urgently needs?
  • How can research drive sustainable innovation in Africa?
  • How can sustainability science research best achieve scalable solutions?
  • What policy interventions can best achieve these innovations in a sustainable way?

From the panellists' backgrounds in environmental policy making and climate change, small-scale agriculture, food security and sustainability research, they agreed that many innovations are emerging in the developing world. These relate to agriculture, water security, human health, biodiversity, and ecosystems. What also emerged was the sense of urgency, and importance of accelerating the innovative research that needs to be established in Africa.

The panel agreed that there is a need to build resilience and adaptation, as well as nature-based solutions, particularly among vulnerable groups. What also emerged was the need for an integrated systems approach, which could connect the activities of different sectors at different scales.

There was a clear call for the availability of information and data, and for mechanisms to make this information accessible to communities. The informal sector (small farmers, small enterprises, women, and the youth) need to be enabled to make use of information from research and development. The panellists finally identified the necessity for new financial and social innovations, as well as multistakeholder dialogue. Overall, the resounding message was about empowering people through access to information and innovation.

Another topic that received much attention during the satellite event was the regional dimension as it relates to the sustainability of the Global South. A key objective of this panel discussion was to discuss the suitability of strategies developed at the global scale, their application to the regional and local scale, and adjusting existing strategies to serve this aim.

Prof Stephanie Burton

 

Mr Thabo Dikgale

A key outcome of this session, facilitated by Mr Thabo Dikgale, Secretariat of FEROSA, was to conceptualise a draft inter-regional collaborative framework that considers multiple stakeholder views from academia, policy makers and civil society. The session sought to add new layers of knowledge to the Future Earth initiative by exploring existing and new science-to-policy strategies that took the inter-linkages and inter-dependencies between science practitioners, users and policy makers into account.

The panellists identified an urgent need to find transformative pathways, strong leadership and political vision, effective regional, national, and local institutions, inclusive multi-stakeholder collaboration and the integration of the SDGs into local development plans and budgets. They discussed the key principles of making the SDGs a reality in Africa, and agreed that, although much is being done, what is needed is policy innovation and implementation, conversations with communities and government structures, and an understanding of supply chains and information. The overall call was for co-creation, cooperation, consultation, and collaboration.

In wrapping up the congress, Thabo Dikgale remarked that SRI2021's satellite event succeeded in amplifying the voice of sustainability science in the Global South by raising awareness and propelling discussions about sustainable priorities for Africa. There was a call to reconnect with Mother Earth by thinking beyond the wellbeing of the humans on the planet, and to make a paradigm shift to consider the wellbeing of both humans and the planet. "What is essential is to establish what action and impact can be taken to benefit the communities on the ground. This can only be done by changing our production and consumption systems and being cognisant of how we can best use the scarce resources at our disposal."

Mr Thabo Dikgale

 

A successful outcome of the African satellite event was the selection of the Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria to host SRI2022 in South Africa. Prof Mbow is excited about this announcement, as he believes that Africa has much to discuss on sustainability, and he is pleased to do so in collaboration with the continent's international partners.

The Future Africa Institute looks forward to hosting the international sustainability community, SRI2022, in South Africa next year.

Published by Tebogo Menong, August 20, 2021

Future Africa at the University of Pretoria hosts regional satellite event for sustainability research and innovation | University of Pretoria (up.ac.za)

SRI2021 is now open access - Access 100+ expert sessions on sustainability and innovation!

The world's first transdisciplinary gathering in sustainability is now open access, with over 100 session recordings exploring some of the most urgent intersections of science, policy, and technology.

This year's Sustainability Research & Innovation Congress (SRI2021), held in June, was the first in an annual series to unite global sustainable development leaders, experts, industry, and innovators to inspire action and promote sustainability transformation. The fully recorded Congress brought together over 2,000 participants from more than 100 countries and featured 700 speakers.

Recordings of sessions at SRI2021 are now available to watch online through the Congress platform with a wealth of knowledge and learning to explore with over 100 presentations, discussions and workshops addressing some of the most urgent intersections of science, policy, and technology. https://bit.ly/3hHy7LE