German Future Earth Summit 2016

Conference Topics / Session Topics

The proposed research themes for Future Earth (Dynamic Planet, Global Sustainable Development, Transformations towards Sustainability) critically depend on access to cross-cutting capabilities. The ICSU-ISSC Visioning process and the Belmont challenge identified several core capabilities needed to respond to the grand challenges of global environmental change including modelling and observations.
The Future Earth Transition Team has identified additional cross cutting capabilities needed to advance the science of global environmental change and translate it into useful knowledge for decision making and sustainable development. Many of these capabilities lie beyond the boundaries of the Future Earth initiative per se, residing in national and international infrastructures, training programmes, and disciplines.
Future Earth will work in partnership with the providers of these capabilities for mutual benefit.


Cross-cutting capabilities to discuss at the German Future Earth Summit include:


1. Observing, monitoring and data systems

Future Earth research depends on extensive and well administered data for being able to observe changes across scales, to discover unknown relationships, and to drive Earth system models or macro models of society. Since the demand for appropriate information is growing rapidly, innovative observation and data management technologies need to provide a sufficient coverage in space and time for meeting these requirements as well as for optimizing processes and usability. Future Earth will support the emergence of international networks on these issues particularly in areas where the existing ones are still in a premature stage (e.g. biodiversity, governance, social attitudes).

This session aims at contributing to the development of new approaches to observing, monitoring and data management by addressing the following - partly overlapping - questions: (1) Can we provide good examples for observing and monitoring systems in natural- and social sciences? (2) Are there thoroughly worked out cases of integrated monitoring systems? (3) What can the German community contribute to the establishment of appropriate data systems and tools in natural- and social sciences? (4) What are good examples for assimilation schemes to synthesize different data types? (5) How can observational data be confronted with output from numerical models? and (6) What are the most urgent areas for innovation?


2. Earth system modeling and social macrodynamics

Future Earth will depend on access to state of the art Earth system models and integrated assessment models and will contribute to the development of a next generation of improved models that capture dynamics of human-environment interactions, feedbacks and thresholds in a better way and allow for predictions of risks and changes taking advantage of computing power and skills from a wide range of countries. Although understanding of the Earth system is maturing, challenges remain in knowledge gaps about environmental, biological and social processes and computationally efficient and flexible ways to couple model components to an overall Earth system model. Mathematicians and system analysts play a key role in their improvement and refinement.

Questions to discuss:

  • What are uncertainties in Earth system models and coupled approaches?
  • What are good examples for modeling approaches of environmental, biological and social processes?
  • What are good examples for decision-making based on modeling approaches?


3. Metrics and evaluation for human well-being and sustainable development

Future Earth can play a key role in providing scientific advice and expertise to the UN post-Rio+20 and post 2015 processes, including the implementing and monitoring of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The interdisciplinary nature of the SDGs, including environmental, social and economic aspects, means that they will require interdisciplinary knowledge and monitoring during the implementation. Furthermore the global, but regionally and nationally differentiated nature of the SDGs would be complemented well by Future Earth’s global coverage with regional and national level interfaces. In order to provide an understandable, extensive view on sustainable development and human well-being, especially with regard to spatial and temporal changes, comparable measures and evaluation procedures are needed. As social aspects in particular are often more difficult to assess and still often underestimated in their interconnections and influences, it is important to close this gap. Future Earth will support efforts to develop systems of metrics to combine representative data in order to make it accessible and processes easier to understand and compare.

Questions to discuss:

  • What are the benefits and limitations of indicators?
  • What are good examples to measure and evaluate sustainable development and human well-being?
  • What do we know about the interconnections between natural and human drivers of change, the resulting environmental changes and their implications for human well-being?


4. Theory and method development

In its endeavor to understand the interactions between natural and social systems and to provide fundamental insights into the social, economic, political drivers of behavior as well as institutional adaptations to global change problems, research under Future Earth will need to engage in theoretical debates that draw from a wide range of disciplines. These debates influence research approaches, provide insights and solutions, and encourage or prevent collaboration across disciplines.

Our understanding of earth and societal systems is underpinned by basic theories and frameworks of how natural and social systems function and interact. Yet, explanations for individual, societal and political responses to global environmental change often differ fundamentally, generating barriers for cooperation and integrative results. This is due to the fact that theories and frameworks underlying these explanations draw on a wide range of disciplines from physics, chemistry and biology to anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology or philosophy. The new ideas emerging continuously from or in the combination of these fields often have significant impact on explanations of global environmental and social change. This development is, however, often project-specific and uncoordinated. This session aims at a systematic assessment of the challenges and the framing of integrated research approaches. A specific focus will be on the human response to environmental change from the perspective of natural and social sciences.

Questions to discuss:

  • What are important preconditions for integrated theoretical research?
  • Can frameworks constitute a way to integrate theories from different disciplines?
  • Are there important gaps in existing theoretical approaches that have to be filled in order to address Future Earth research questions adequately?
  • How are human-environmental relationships conceptualized or framed in natural and social sciences and what are the basic theories behind this framing?


5. Science-society interface

Future Earth aims to position itself as an international platform for knowledge exchange and transdisciplinary research in order to provide knowledge for societies to face challenges of global environmental change and transition to global sustainability. To accomplish that, stakeholder engagement and a variety of communication possibilities, e.g. science-policy activities and broader science-society interfaces, are seen as a key constituent of Future Earth work.

In research and practice on the various science-society interfaces, different dialogue approaches have evolved, with different interpretations and solutions to resolving the tension between advocacy and providing scientific advice. Effectiveness of approaches varies depending on the topic, interface mechanism, cultural context and relationship between the scientists and policymakers in question. In many cases the role of science can be clearly limited to providing new knowledge and to assess and advise on the consequences of different options. In this situation, scientists comfortably are identified as knowledge brokers but not as issue advocates. In other cases scientists may be expected by both policymakers and the public to advocate more strongly for a course of action. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue, and it will always require careful consideration. Against this background we raise the question how Future Earth can be policy relevant and most efficient in this rather than being policy prescriptive.

Different elements of the science-society interface can be distinguished (without claiming completeness):

  • Co-Design: in sustainability-oriented research setting the research agenda is not a task of the sciences alone. Instead, processes of ‘Co-Design’ of the research agenda usually have to involve stakeholders, decision-makers and civic society organizations and are, thus, an important element of the science-policy-interface
  • Co-production: The co-production of knowledge as cooperative research at the science-society interface is an essential approach to generate knowledge for sustainable development, e.g. for the transformation of infrastructures. The co-production process shall include local knowledge of stakeholders and people concerned but also different perspectives and values in order to provide ‘robust’ knowledge.
  • Scientific policy advice including the communication of research results and the discussion of consequences with respect to political decision-making is a further and more established element (e.g. in the fields of technology assessment and environmental policy). Scoping studies, synthesis reports and assessment exercises of the status of scientific knowledge in specific areas play a major role in this field as they (1) are able to integrate huge bodies of knowledge, and (2) can be linked to the formal intergovernmental science assessments (e.g. IPCC, IPBES). Monitoring activities are an important element of the science-policy interface in order to enable decision-makers to learn from real-world developments and to adjust the measures.
  • Enabling mutual understanding and mutual learning: Establishing constructive and fruitful processes at the various science-society interfaces needs mutual understanding and mutual learning. For a fruitful and constructive science-society interface both sides of the interface must be capable to understand the respective other side and to assess its possibilities and restrictions. Deficits in this respect not only occur at the side of science but also at the side of policymakers. Thus, the necessity of capacity building affects both sides. Dialogue and participation as well as education for sustainable development are key properties.  Particular attention will have to be given to research and education systems in less well-resourced countries.

The session will work on these issues, with the main aim to clarify the diagnosis of objectives, targets and obstacles in the respective fields, to discuss examples of good practice and of deficits, to discuss the roles of scientists including their risks and opportunities, and to explore action strategies for improvement (e.g. what could DKN and Future Earth do in order to ensure constructive and effective science-society interfaces?).




updated 4.9.2015
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