Throughout history, progress in human societies has come about thanks to an improved understanding of the world around us, which, in turn, has enabled us to identify new ways to draw advantage. The knowledge upon which such new understanding is based is derived through informal or organized observation—where organized observation is more commonly referred to as research. That new knowledge is a fundamental driver of societal development was formally recognized at the time of the Enlightenment and, since then, the mantra “scientia potentia est” (knowledge is power) has been an integral component of societal thinking, and has manifested itself in the establishment and support of universities and research. Knowledge, in itself, however, can only enable, and thus not ensure, progress, as it cannot dictate the choices that societies make. If and how knowledge is used to identify societal goals and make decisions is inextricably linked with the values that we hold.  Our values, in turn, are largely derived from the culture of which our society is a part.

While knowledge remains a prerequisite for societal progress, there is increasing awareness that the challenges facing humankind today differ from those of the past, and that new types of knowledge are needed to support the continued development of a global society which now exceeds seven billion individuals and which is likely to grow to nine to ten billion by the middle of this century. Human societies always have been, and always will be, dependent on the Earth’s natural resources for their economic growth, development, and well-being. The Earth’s resources are, however, limited, and numerous studies indicate that human activities have begun to alter critical global processes. Human-caused climate change is the best known example of this, but there are many others. We are living in the Anthropocene, a period in the Earth’s history where human activities have become a dominant force impacting the function of the Earth as a whole.

As worrying as this knowledge is, it also puts us in a position of recognizing possibilities for managing the interaction between human activities and Earth processes. This newfound knowledge makes us the first generation with the power to actually control the trajectory of our relationship to nature. Sustainable societal development within this framework requires that human demand for resources respects the Earth’s capacity to supply. It also requires the establishment of mechanisms for sharing critical resources within a global population where all have a right to development.

Katherine Richardson speaks at the opening session of the IARU Global Challenges: Achieving Sustainability congress.

The International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), whose members include The Australian National University, ETH Zurich, National University of Singapore, Peking University, University of California Berkeley, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University of Copenhagen, Cape Town University, and Yale,1 recognized early on that traditional university disciplines must work together in novel ways to generate the new types of knowledge needed for society to respond to these new challenges. Therefore IARU, in 2009, hosted a scientific congress addressing the societal challenge of climate change. That congress, Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions,2 was instrumental both in bringing disciplines together to address potential solutions to the challenge of climate change, and also in generating media and public interest for the results of climate change research in the run-up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP15 held in Copenhagen in 2009.

Recognizing that climate change is not the only challenge to be overcome in order to achieve sustainable development, in October 2014 IARU hosted another scientific congress, Global Challenges: Achieving Sustainability.3 More than 700 participants representing both researchers and societal decision makers from 54 countries attended the congress. This special issue of Solutions takes their deliberations as its starting point.

An important take-home message from the congress was that while the times in which we are living are challenging, they are also very exciting. In the same manner that our ancient ancestors realized that they—for the sake of the continued development of their societies—needed to develop rules and regulations to manage their local environmental resources, our society is recognizing the need for management of resources at the global level. This special issue of Solutions provides insight into how the knowledge being generated in different disciplines can be brought together to develop these management tools.

Another important message was that optimizing within individual sectors will not bring us on a path towards sustainable development. We must consider the systems that the individual sectors combine to create as a whole. Therefore, the feature section of this volume examines how research can contribute to bringing our food, urban, government, and economic systems on a path towards sustainable development. In addition to reporting on-going research, however, this volume contains provocative contributions inviting the reader to consider the changes occurring around us from new perspectives.

Bringing disciplines together, for example, may require new ways of organizing our universities. In “Transforming the World by Transforming the University: Envisioning the University of 2040” (pages 12-16), the reader is presented with one compelling vision for the future of higher education, and we are hard pressed to imagine anyone who would not want to attend that university.

Dr. Adil Najam gives a plenary keynote address at the 2014 IARU congress. Dr. Najam emphasized the importance of taking a global perspective on issues relating to the environment, development, and security.

It is only natural that we interpret the changes occurring around us through the eyes of the society of which we are a part, but that does not mean that people living in the future will interpret our experiences in the same way that we do. In “How Will Future Historians Tell the Story of How We Are Tackling Climate Change Today?” (pages 86-93), the reader is invited to consider how future historians might view the current political efforts to manage human-caused climate change and the hypothetical historian we visit sees things rather differently than most people do today.

The challenge of finding pathways to a just, sustainable, and worthwhile future is not a trivial one. However, the central message coming from the authors and articles contributing to this special issue of Solutions is that humans do have the knowledge to indicate where those pathways are. We now need to pivot from focusing on what is the state of the planet and its people to what ought to be the state of the planet and its people. Given what we already know, we need the collective political will to choose those pathways that lead towards those common goals of living well and living sustainably.

Humanity is likely facing the most daunting challenge in its history—developing the mechanisms to ensure that its combined activities do not undermine the basic foundation of our societies. This issue reminds us of the magnitude of the challenges we face in achieving sustainable development, but also the uplifting message that knowledge is power, and that research being carried out right now is helping humanity identify sustainable societal trajectories and, thus, giving humanity the power to control its future. Let us hope that societies embrace this knowledge.


  1. International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) [online] (2016)
  2. Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions. University of Copenhagen [online] (2016)
  3. Global Challenges: Achieving Sustainability. University of Copenhagen [online] (2016)

Katherine Richardson

Katherine Richardson is a professor in biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre.  She was Chairperson of the Commission on Climate Change...


Robert Dyball

Robert Dyball convenes the Human Ecology program in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. He is also Visiting Professor at the College of Human Ecology, University...

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