Research and Reports


GSSD Reports

Workshop on CyberPartnership for Sustainability

Session 3
International Institutions (continued) & Collaborative Initiatives


J. Kaufman: 

I am Assistant Director of the Center for Environmental Initiatives and I’ve been asked by Professor Choucri to talk a little bit this afternoon about an initiative under the center’s administration, which is called the Alliance for Global Sustainability and in this session, I want to focus on the aspect of this Alliance that is the partnership. We’re talking about partnerships here and creating alliances across disciplines and across institutions. And the Alliance was established in fact, to do that.

The AGS was founded in 1996 with a very generous contribution from the Avina Foundation headed by Swiss Industrialist, Mr. Schmitheing. They contributed $10 million over five years really to launch an ambitious research and education program to advance sustainability. This is a very tall order with little definition and we have spent some amount of time in defining what that meant to an academic institution.

I think from the discussion this morning, one of the things that I gleaned from it and perhaps you did as well is that sustainability is a concept, it’s one that certainly is contributing to progress around the world, but it lacks definition. We’re all struggling I think to operationalize it, to come to terms with what it means to our institutions, and to determine how it is that we can contribute to it. How do we make a better world, essentially. What does that mean?

So this Alliance started prior to the contribution that allowed funding to get some research underway in this area. Discussions had begun among three prominent technical universities world wide on what they should be doing in this area? What is the importance of sustainability to the academic enterprise, if you will. And those three institutions are the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, the University of Tokyo, and MIT.

Our purposes are to advance understanding of affective pathways to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the future.

Secondly, to translate the knowledge that comes out of our research into effective action on a timely basis.
And third, of course, as educational institutions to prepare a new generation of leaders in all sectors who are focused, competent, and decisive in their efforts to meet this challenge of sustainability.

And one of the things that we recognized in our collective discussions about sustainability is that these kind of problems what are becoming more and more as sustainability problems do not fit neatly into any one discipline nor into any one area. We realize that to address them, we have to draw upon disciplinary studies in all of these sectors: natural system, the sociopolitical system, and technological systems and bring expertise from each of those areas together to study these issues.

Since starting this and working with it, we now have gone through two rounds of funding research initiatives in those three areas and I’ll show you the project areas. Sustainability areas that we’re focusing on. We have tried to address, to advance the goals of sustainability and to say, “Well, what does it mean to do that?” And last year our international advisory board mandated us to carry what is called a mapping exercise where we’re trying to understand articulate what the AGS portfolio, how it is actually contributing to sustainability? And this prompted us to develop a model. What do we mean by enabling sustainability. And this is taken us to articulate what the problems are in the current state? If we’re talking about moving from a current state to a future state, the sustainability is something we wanted to achieve in the future, what is that future state and what do we lack in the current state. 

These are the, in general, in an unsustainable society. There are disparities in a distribution of resources. If there’s growing demand from goods and services worldwide. Many decisions in the private and the public sector are based on short-term economic interests. Sustainability really requires societies and interests within those societies to take the longer view. To take a long perspective.

Major infrastructural investment is being made that will have long-term effect. The decision to build roads, agricultural processes, engineering techniques, decision-making methodology for decision-making. These can have both in the infrastructure level and in the policy sector can have very long-term effect. Of course, we are very well aware of the major environmental health problems that stem from this and we can’t ignore that population growth contributes to this as well.

Then the question for an enterprise like ours is, how do you get from this current state to moving toward the future state or the vision. What we felt is that we had to have a vision. What are we working for and then how does an academic collectively institutions contribute to that. And we have identified a set, and these will seem very broad. And they are: critical pathways for moving from the current state to the future state. What is needed to get from here to there. There is still a lot of basic research that needs to be done to answer the question. What do we really know and what don’t we know about climate change. What do we really know and what don’t we know about the growth of urban systems and this is, we need improved scientific knowledge.

We will need to promote technological innovation. Technology is going to be part of the solution, even as it has been part of the problem. How do you do that? What a very complex question. In order to do that, we’re going to need better design and evaluation tools to access what we’re doing and what we will be doing in the future.

We recognize the importance of policy and institutional change in addressing these issue. In part this goes to the capacity question that was raised this morning, as well. But, not just in developing countries [that] we recognize the need for policy and institutional change at all levels. And of course, improved public awareness. This relates to population growth in a sense, too, where the increase in consumer demand is driving a lot of the problems that exist in the current state.

GSSD is an important part of what the Alliance is looking at as a vehicle and in learning a lot about others. Here, by the way for putting out the results of the research. The results of the knowledge that’s being generated in the synergy across these three universities.

C. Broadhag: 

I thank Professor Choucri to for inviting me to participate at this meeting. I have two lives. In the first, I am the President of the Commission of Sustainable Development, which is an official role. In my second life of research and teaching we are busy implementing Internet sites.

My talk will be in three parts. First I will focus precisely on the place of information in Agenda 21. Then we will propose some technical development and then this will lead us to the problem translation in different languages and the culture of the critical concept of sustainable development.

With regard to Agenda 21: Information is very present in Agenda 21 as a tool for implementing sustainable development. Agenda 21 chapters have been elaborated on in separate processes have introduced strong differences in content related to information status, sources, and targets of information systems.

In fact, we see three parts in Agenda 21. The first part addresses social and economic dimensions, and conservation and management and the resource of developments. The second part is the strengthening of major groups. And then there is the third section, Chapter 14, which deals on information. The technical part, includes two sections: one, the social and economic dimensions, and two, the conservation and management and resource aspects of development.

If we look at the information status in the first section, we have a statistical study of the information in different parts of the agenda. What is very interesting is there is mostly information? about sources of information There is less about targets. And if we look at the source, many of the sources are international, i.e. international organizations. The UN system 
itself, is the major source. And then the other main source is the national level and information is coming down to individuals, for example. Individuals are only a minor source, for one time and 33 times they are the target. So, you understand at this level, the view is very topdown information. The logic is from top to down.

If you look at the other part of Agenda 21, the third section, we have no statistics because it’s shorter. That’s mainly the reference is access to information. It is about the right to have access to information. So it’s also a very topdown process.

The third and last part is Chapter 14, which deals with discussion, information process and related developments. At this point the vision is not topdown, it is everyone is a user and a provider.

The vision of Chapter 14 builds upon the understanding that the division of rationale knowledge and international information is only part of the information issue. Networking and exchange of experience is necessary to make sustainable development. Everybody is concerned with sustainability and it will work if everybody’s commited. So we can place this issue in a larger one of governance. We can contrast (a) the traditional decision process referring to command and control approaches and topdown with (b) a new governance mechanism mode and strategy. So we can have this view in different parts. These contrasting views are seen as representing very different types of stakeholders. This contrasts with government and parliaments. And there are also differences in the processing of information.

So, my proposal here is that we must address the governance mechanisms related to generation and management of information.

I will now speak about technical problems; 

We had made an effort to enhance the presence of information in French on the Internet. Two concepts emerged from this work. The first was to implement a distributive umbrella site, giving access to all the others. So missing is a very centralized view. Arguing that the centralized chain is conflicting with the Internet might even propose another solution and I will present some ideas about that. The second concept enables horizontal mobility and. It is based on three principles: (a) commitments, (b) common goals, and (c) cooperation on more technical areas.

On the technical side, we recognize the very important problems of terminology. At first, in English, for example, if we look at the work of UNET about transfer of sound technology. All those words are used to index information: Pollution prevention, cleaner production, ecoefficiency, waste minimization. cleaner industrial development and industrial ecology. Those words are not far from one to another, but they are not identical. So in English there is problem. But it’s worse when you look at translation. For example, in the French version of Agenda 21, the word “rationale” is used 225 times. But, if we look precisely what are the English term. The term environmental sound appears 133 time. “Sound” is not rational. These are different concepts. But, French speakers working on Agenda 21, work on “rationale,”~ and I have seen some jurists publish the concept of rationality in Agenda 21. There are also major differences in cultures and contexts.

In addition, there are serious issues and challenges related to “meta-concepts” in different languages, cultures. I will propose now another term which could be very interesting and doesn’t exist somewhere else. It is the word “terroire” in French. What is it? If you look at the translation in English, you will find land soil or rural. But it is not terroire. Terroire is a territorial entity whose features and values are the fruit of complex and long term relation between cultural, social, ecology economy and government. Terroire depends on singular relationship between human societies and their natural habitats. In France we use this concept for cheese, for wine, for different productions. But if you look closely to that, it could be very important to incorporate in our discussion of sustainability. We need to protect local social diversity with a concept, with some rules and find a way of giving economy value to that. So we can propose in French, this new concept. Other countries have other concepts to propose. This is how we can incorporate cultural context in the quest for sustainability. Thank you.

M.A. Sharpe: 

I’m with Environment Canada, the environmental agency for the Government of Canada and I’m just going to tell you about three initiatives that we have ongoing that relate, in some ways, to sustainable development and the exchange of information. 

First I’d like to talk to you about Canadian Bio-diversity Information Network which is the Canadian node for the Agenda 21 Biodiversity Networks and how that information network is shaping up. We started, I think in fact when I was in Paris a year and half ago. Basically it’s organized around the Convention and around trying to help people exchange information on products and services of expertise that they may have that would help them address biodiversity issues and particular implementing the Convention.
The site is organized around subject matter and you can search from any one of these areas. And people can also enter in information. What we’ve done is set-up a series of forms for people to fill-in using pick lists with key words to help with the searching afterwards. So that anyone in Canada who has reference material or product or service to offer, can enter their information and interestingly enough that following along the conversation this morning about quality control and so-called official information. This has been a real debate among the biodiversity community in Canada, and with some, I think trepidation the Biodiversity Convention office in environment Canada has made the decision that any an all information will be accepted for this site. The only proviso is that material is screened for trivialities, or other profanity, or something like that. Basically the people are required to say who they are and what they represent and why they’re putting this information on.

Just a brief word about the search. We are experimenting with a particular technology that’s available for searching meta-data and converting meta-data. A lot of the information that we have is not set up in a meta-data format, so that becomes a problem for us in trying to archive and search existing information.

At the moment, we also have three databases that you can search. We’re intending to add to that, so this list, I hope will be growing. So once your search is finished, it gives you a report and tells you how many hits you’ve had on your different subject areas and then you can go directly and view the records and what you first see is simple a title with a name of an author and then if you want further information or more detailed information, you can obtain that as well and that gives you then the information on who holds that information where the record resides. Another example that I’ll talk about very briefly, and some of you may have seen this in New York, at UNCSD. In fact some members through the Canadian delegation were using this database as they were working on the negotiations with the CSD.

There is our example where we were searching water planning, it tells us that we had 58 hits on the word water and 17 on the word planning, but water planning together gave us 14. So, it gives you a way of navigating what’s happening with your search. And then you get a result like this. So, it tells you the documents where it’s turned up and you can click on those and go to the detailed document and get more information. 
Now there’s another initiative that we have underway at the moment. The four natural resource departments within the government of Canada signed a memorandum of understanding several years ago to say that we would work together on natural resource issues of common interest. This is a surprise to some of these people who worked in isolation.

And what we’ve done for this group is we’re creating a pair of web sites. One that is aimed at the general public and they can enter into that through the sustainable development rubrick and come into the four departments and health is recently joined, so now we have to change to logo.
Thank you.

A. Rahman: 

I come from Bangladesh which is one of the poorest countries with 120 odd million people at risk. What we did about four years ago was probably the largest participatory plan on knowledge with people at the grassroots.

So how do you do a Plan where peoples’ needs are reflected in the Plan. In most places plan is plan. And most planners don’t know what they’re talking about. So, how do you plan based on peoples needs what they perceive as their needs.

We tried a methodology by which the whole country as about 22 agro-ecological zones. We divided the country into 22 agroecological zones. This was a very difficult exercise because there was no money for planning at the time. So we had to do with very little funds. Because there was a plan called the National Environment Management Action Plan which was as usual subcontacted to an international company which came and did a plan. Then they wanted peoples’ response and acceptance. But when they came to us, we said, “We are not part of the plan. Why should we accept it or talk about it?” So they said, “What do you mean?” They never heard that response before. But the government did and the donors did. So we said if there was going to be an environment plan, it can only be based on local systems, and the local people are only ones who know best about it. And it was based on that premise that we developed a methodology for a participation-based plan. This took about one year over 70,000 people mobilized with about 300 facilitators who were trained for this particular way of extracting information.

First, in the case of when we enter the villages, working with the people, we just did song and dance the first evening. So that is called breaking the ice. You start learning to communicate. You will start building trust. Those people who have the knowledge have some trust in the people claim they are collecting the knowledge. There has to be confidence building. And that happens over four, six hours of talking about things which matter to both people and where the facilitators or accumulators of knowledge have to prove their sincerity. And as we know, the information that comes depends on how you put the question and what is the relationship between the person who is talking and the person who is getting the information.

We had to train about 300 facilitators because we had to do what such a short time about a hundred of these workshops. And the facilitators not only had to know the language, they had to know the local dialect. There had to be an equal number of women facilitators so that there could be genuine communication.

Now when you ask these people to say, “What are the environmental problems?”, a very long list is generated. They are scattered from water, water scarcity, water shortage, access to land, productivity of land, poultry, insecticide, agricultural productivity, soil conditions, air quality. But there is also population and population management. After about two hours, two and one-half hours, all the problems which are listed in front of them are presented pictorially so that they have an understanding of what we are talking about.

So, then we have to prioritize problems and develop some consensus and see who is involved at each stage. Just an anecdote here. One of the lessons I’ve learned, if it’s educated people with degrees, graduates, they always say, “The government should solve the problem.” If it’s a non-literate group, they say I should solve the problem. There comes a particular bias that we see that the education of the illiterate is one of the principle objectives of any planning.

Subsequently, information gets structured in one sheet of paper, one problem, one solution and many causes. And the final product is the design of action, and a framework for action The Bangladesh plan government has now been subject to a whole range of outside evaluation.



T. Willard. 

I am from IISD. A couple of people earlier this morning and then again during this session mentioned the need for controlled vocabulary and thesaurus. More and more around the world this is getting difficult. I suggest that there are probably two main obstacles.

One is that each organization working in sustainable development positions itself by its framework. It's the way that you get identified is your framework. So there are political reasons to maintain differences from the view of information providers.

And then the second one is the fact that it does encapsulate really different cultural views of sustainable development. What is included, what is not included? And how you arrange these. At the same time people realize that information users are not aware of all of these distinctions. They may want a single access point. How familiar are all of you with the development markup language discussions? And how some of this is moving forward.

I just get the sense a lot of times that the people who are familiar with the content side are not necessarily talking to those pushing ahead the technological innovations that will include the metathesauruses. So I'm just wondering if you could comment on that and how your organization is trying to bring this together.

C. Broadhag: 

I think there are some meta concepts along with common sense on the global level which must be pushed. And some of the differences in culture, in organization which will remain, anyway. So it's a balance. And today there is no way of working on the content of the words. But I'm pretty sure sometimes decisions are taken at a level in which there is no discussion about the meaning of the key concept. For example, we had a big problem in the French community about the word “sustainable development.

J. Kaufman: 

I would agree that there's a big separation and we experience that, too. The ways that we keep the communication channels open and try to make them more robust is through public meetings and inviting people in, etc. And now we are working more on the communications side. That's a whole new area that we'll be entering into to do the crosscut. And, of course, at these three universities we have a lot of resources to draw upon and to work with us to develop that. So you'll be seeing that.

From the floor: 

It strikes me that we're talking at very different levels in this group. This fascinating picture of what happened in Bangladesh is very encouraging. But I don't suppose many of the villagers talked about implementing the convention on biodiversity or about global warming. And yet these are real issues of sustainability that we have to address. And the way we've so far chosen to address them is through international organizations, through NGOs, through policy development, through, if you like, top down approach. I've argued always and I did this morning the importance of the bottom up approach. Now how does one make the links? In Bangladesh you took it to the cabinet. Did the cabinet bring in issues of biodiversity protection and climate change? If in Canada is developing the biodiversity connection, do you plan to take it down to grassroots level in the same way as in Bangladesh or in some other way? Because I think we need both levels. And we have to build a bridge some way.

M.A. Sharpe: 

In Canada we've been doing the bottom up and the top down for some years. In fact, in 1989 we did a consultation, a cross country consultation. It was the largest ever in Canadian history. Led by Environment Canada we went out to communities all over the country and developed 
the so-called “Green Plan” which was kind of a rejuvenation of environmental policies for Canada. Certainly, we see in communities all across the country people are--we don't have as large a population as Bangladesh and we don't have the illiteracy problems. But we're seeing people who are demanding to be involved in decision making. And they're not accepting the 

government official is going off to wherever to make this decision for them. They're very much demanding to be involved. And one of the biggest issues that we're grappling with at this point is trying to incorporate traditional knowledge. Because our native people are also quite vociferous about wanting to be included.