Opinion: new knowledge partnerships involving a range of actors are required to address future sustainability challenges

There has been a clear shift in how we talk about climate change in public over the last five years. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, we have progressed from "climate change" to "climate action". In the past two years, the preferred nomenclature amongst activists and NGOs, and more recently policymakers and scientists, has become "climate emergency" reflecting the urgency of the climate challenge.

How should our higher education system respond to the requirement for urgent action on not just on climate change but also on biodiversity loss, circular economy and a just transition? Universities have tremendous potential to help understand and catalyse action on sustainability challenges. The extraordinary depth of expertise across the natural and social sciences, engineering, the arts and humanities, and business, can be called upon to examine the causes and consequences of sustainability problems.

However, universities often struggle to mobilise their unique capacities in ways that effectively link knowledge with action. The curiosity-driven approaches within sophisticated academic disciplines, which form the bedrock of academic research, have worked exceptionally well for problems that are well defined and technological in nature. However, these approaches may be less-well equipped to provide answers to complex problems that are systemic, interdependent, and multi-faceted. A large proportion of the UN Sustainable Development Goals fall into this category of "wicked" problems.

For many sustainability challenges, additional scientific information about the underlying problem is not necessarily the limiting factor in the development of more sustainable outcomes. An equally important task is to link the production of this knowledge with actions where it matters. The transition towards sustainability thus requires not just more novel knowledge but also more usable knowledge. For practitioners wishing to address sustainability challenges, the knowledge within our higher education institutes matters only to the extent that it can be used to construct actions around issues of concern.

Let's take one example. Poor air quality continues to be a real and persistent environmental problem in our cities and towns and has a significant impact on human health. There are few that would argue that solving this problem is a clear win for our society. What would it take to do this?

To develop the best possible strategy to address poor air quality would require the integrated expertise and knowledge of many stakeholders including scientists to comprehend the atmospheric chemistry and public health effects, engineers to develop viable solutions, economists to assess best value options, policy-makers to create enabling legislation, local authorities with knowledge of city planning, along with a sustained dialogue and input from business and communities to ensure benefits and impacts are understood. However, even if there was the willingness and funding to engage with such a challenge across multiple levels and sectors we lack the organisational frameworks for building these type of collaborations.

Yet, it is precisely this approach that is being advocated for within the new Horizon Europe programme which focuses on mission-oriented science (big science deployed to meet big problems) requiring the integration of multiple forms of knowledge and the expertise of end users. Guided by the work of Mariana Mazzucato (Mission-Oriented Research & Innovation in the European Union), mission oriented science is conducted stimulates cross-disciplinary academic work and requires new forms of partnerships between the public sector, the private sector and civil society organisations. Crucial to the implementation of EU missions will be the need to reinvigorate capacity and competence building in public organisations and institutions.

The co-production of knowledge can be a powerful means to meet the requirements posed by mission oriented research. Co-production approaches bring actors from outside academia into the research process in order to integrate the best available knowledge, reconcile values and preferences, as well as creating ownership for solution options. Knowledge co-production can enhance research quality and produce more usable knowledge and is increasingly seen as a possibility to foster sustainable futures. One of the most notable recent initiatives in this area in Ireland has been Campus Engage based at the Irish Universities Association (IUA) which has the ambition to promote civic and community engagement as a core function of Irish higher education.

This collaborative co-production of research advocated by Horizon Europe and Campus Engage is the focus of an online symposium by the Royal Irish Academy taking place on Thursday. The symposium will explore how the Irish research system can respond to the demand for increased levels of collaboration and interaction amongst scientists, stakeholders and funders to co-produce knowledge form sustainability, and increase its use in policy, decision-making and practice.

Over 50 case studies on research co-production across the island of Ireland were collected In advance of the symposium encompassing research across a wide variety of sustainability and environmental research areas with non-academic partners from industry, government departments, local authorities, NGOs, community groups, and the public. Some examples of case studies include:

· university partnerships with local community groups to reimagine restoration of the River Camac in Dublin.

· creating community maps in Galway City not just to record the city's social, environmental, economic and cultural assets but also as a tool to work with communities to explore what they value in their city.

· an innovative multi-partner initiative for Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle Peninsula) working with the local community, schools, businesses, and farmers to enable the broader societal changes emanating from the low carbon transition.

The case studies show that is a diverse community of academics and researchers in Ireland who are deeply committed to co-producing knowledge with non-academic stakeholders. Ireland's relatively small size and population, our traditionally close connections between academia-policy-industry, and our strong civic base within towns and villages gives us a unique advantage creating knowledge co-production communities. However there is a need to move beyond individual exemplars of good practices to scale up and build capacity for these multi-actor partnerships to catalyse the necessary transition to a zero carbon and resource efficient society in the coming decades.

Better together: knowledge co-production for a sustainable society is hosted by the Royal Irish Academy in association with the ERI and SEAI. This free event takes place online from 9am on Thursday June 3rd.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ