Interview: An empirical view of resilience and sustainability

University of Tokyo researcher Ali Kharrazi credits the 2012 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) with strengthening his passion, and giving him the research skills, to make a positive impact on humanity and sustainable development. He continues to collaborate with the institute as a guest researcher.

Ali Kharrazi

What is your research focus?
I’m currently examining both theoretical and empirical dimensions related to resilience and the wider application of sustainability indices and metrics. Towards this end, I have lately completed a literature review of empirical approaches to the concept of resilience, examined the resilience of global trade growth, and examined the resilience of water services within a river basin network.

My future project includes the examination of the application of modularity for resilience and its impact on other system characteristics of resilience, such as redundancy, diversity, and efficiency. In addition, I am collecting more data on the water-energy-food nexus, to empirically examine the resilience of these critical coupled human-environmental systems to various shocks and disruptions. I am working with other researchers towards channeling the emergence of urban big data towards practical research in sustainability indices and metrics, especially those which are related to resilience. Finally, I am engaged in what may be called ‘action research’ towards better teaching and engaging the concept of resilience to students.

How do you define resilience for a layperson or a student?
At its simplest, resilience is the ability of a system to survive and adapt in the wake of a disturbance.

The concept of resilience has been dealt by various disciplines: psychology, engineering, ecology, and network sciences. The literature on resilience relevant to coupled social-environmental systems therefore is very scattered,  not approached quantitatively, and difficult to rely upon towards evidence based policy making. There are few empirical approaches to the concept of resilience. This makes it difficult to measure, quantify, communicate, and apply the concept to sustainability challenges.

In a recent study, Kharrazi explored the resilience of the Heihe river basin in China ©smiling_z | Shutterstock

What is missing from current approaches of studying resilience?
There is a need for more empirical advancements on the concept of resilience. Furthermore, empirical approaches need to be tested with real data and improved for their ability to measure and apply in policymaking. If you look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the concept of resilience is used numerous times, however the indicators used to reflect the concept need to be improved to better reflect the elements of the concept of resilience. This includes the ability to consider adaptation, the ability to integrate social and environmental dimensions, and the ability to evaluate systems-level trade-offs.

We need to apply the different empirical approaches to the concept of resilience towards real-world sustainability challenges. With the emergence of big data, especially urban big data, we can better apply and improve these models.

How did you personally become interested in this field of research?
I always wanted to make a positive impact for humanity and our common interest in sustainable development. When I first started my PhD, my PhD supervisor at Tokyo University, Dr. Masaru Yarime, told me to always set your sight on the ‘vast blue ocean’ and how as researchers we should dedicate our time to  critically important yet less researched areas. Given the global discussions of SDGs and the Agenda 2020 at that time I became interested in the concept of resilience, its relationship to common sustainability challenges, and our inability to measure and quantify this importance concept. My research stay at IIASA and YSSP and especially my experience with the ASA group strengthened my passion to contribute to this area and therefore since my PhD I have continued to research in this area and apply it to various domains, such as energy, water, and trade.

How would you say IIASA has influenced your career?
Without IIASA and especially the YSSP in the Advanced Systems Analysis program, my academic career would have never taken off. I am truly indebted to the YSSP, where I learned how to engage in scientific research with others from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds and most importantly had the chance to publish high quality research papers. IIASA also gave me the chance to get experience in applying for international competitive funding schemes and truly believe in the importance of science diplomacy and influence of science on global governance of common human-environmental problems in our modern world.

Follow Ali Kharrazi on Twitter

Ali Kharrazi, second from left, received his certificate with other participants of the 2012 YSSP

References
Kharrazi A, Akiyama T, Yu Y, & Li J (2016). Evaluating the evolution of the Heihe River basin using the ecological network analysis: Efficiency, resilience, and implications for water resource management policy. Science of the Total Environment 572: 688-696. http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/13594/

Kharrazi A, Fath B, & Katzmair H (2016). Advancing Empirical Approaches to the Concept of Resilience: A Critical Examination of Panarchy, Ecological Information, and Statistical Evidence. Sustainability 8 (9): e935. http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/13791/

Kharrazi A, Rovenskaya E, & Fath BD (2017). Network structure impacts global commodity trade growth and resilience. PLoS ONE 12 (2): e0171184. http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/14385/

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

How the Tohoku disaster is changing Japan

By Junko Mochizuki Research Scholar, Risk and Resilience Program

After a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunamis struck the northeast of Japan on March 11, 2011, large-scale destruction of the coastal communities, including nuclear accidents, turned into a political maelstrom. Debates over the country’s alternative energy futures became intense; worries over ailing energy infrastructure, public safety, and the lack of transparency and accountability led to the most extensive restructuring of its power sector in the country’s recent history.

Against this backdrop, renewable energy was heralded as one of the important solutions: A new nation-wide Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) was introduced in July 2012, replacing the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which many had perceived, until then, as largely inadequate.

Nearly six years have passed since. Japan’s reconstruction, originally envisioned to last for 10 years, is now in its latter phase. The coastal communities are slowing recovering, with many focused on the idea of ”building back better.” We now hear less about the country’s energy future in the national and international media. But less documented is how well these communities are performing in terms of the ambitious reconstruction plans that they had proposed.

The 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster led to major destruction in Northeast Japan. But did it also bring an opportunity to “build back better?” ©mTaira | Shutterstock

This was the context in which my colleague Stephanie E. Chang and I began our research titled Disaster as Opportunity for Change, recently published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. We evaluated renewable energy transition trends in the 30 coastal communities in Tohoku, Japan from 2012-2015. We focused on energy transition as one measurable dimension of ”building back better (BBB),“ because this is a popular concept that is often talked about, but rarely analyzed through empirical modelling.

In this study, we sought to answer three simple questions. First, are the disaster-affected regions really “building back better?” Have they introduced more renewable energy than the rest of Japan?. Second, why did some communities achieved greater renewable energy transition than others during recovery? Third, what was the role of government policy? We were interested in answering these questions through quantitative analysis, instead of an in-depth case study, since such in-depth analyses are rare in the field of disaster recovery.

In a reconstruction study, we typically need about 10 or more years to make major conclusions. Since we did our study in year six, this study doesn’t provide the final answer, but rather whether the disaster led to opportunity to build back better.

Our research indicated some clues in answering the above three questions, but many puzzles remain. First, it was clear that the disaster-affected regions achieved a greater transition to renewable energy, particularly in both small and mega-solar adoption. Other renewables including wind and geothermal are lagging due to many factors such as more complex approval processes. We focused our analysis on energy transition, measured in terms of per capita approved renewable capacity, as opposed to indicators such as installed capacity or power generated, since the latter depend on many factors such as the readiness of grid systems in accommodating intermittent renewables.

We also found that the relationship between a transition to renewable energy and the extent of disaster damage, and other post-disaster changes such as number of houses being relocated, appears to be non-linear. This means that the destruction caused by disasters, and subsequent decisions to relocate population, provided at least some momentum for wider societal change. Clearly, when communities experience very large destruction or extensive change such as land-use adjustment, this can overwhelm the local capacity to implement broader changes such as major investments in renewable energy. Balancing competing reconstruction demands is, therefore, an important policy question that must be dealt with, most ideally, prior to any large-scale disasters.

Japan is building mega solar installations like this one in the region affected by the tsunami and earthquake ©SE_WO | Shutterstock

 

Third, our results remain somewhat inconclusive as to the contribution of government policy. Counter-intuitively, communities having renewable energy plans prior to 2011 adopted significantly less solar energy after the Tohoku disaster. Statistical modeling such as ours tells little about how different aspects of national and prefectural policies have fostered or hindered local energy transitions and these are better answered through other means such as in-depth interviews.

Overall, we find potentially complex drivers of “building back better” and we hope that this study motivates further systematic studies of societal change in the context of post-disaster reconstruction. Of course, a better articulation of what policies work in promoting change and why will also help foster the sustainability transition even without the impetus of a disaster.

Reference
Mochizuki J & Chang S (2017). Disasters as Opportunity for Change: Tsunami Recovery and Energy Transition in Japan. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction DOI:10.1016/j.ijdrr.2017.01.009. (In Press)

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

What you probably don’t know about higher education in sub-Saharan Africa

By Anne Goujon, IIASA World Population Program

Less than 6% of the working age population has a post-secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Wittgenstein Centre Data Explorer. However, there is a huge diversity of experiences in the region: those countries located in Southern and Western Africa have higher shares of highly educated people compared to those in Eastern and Middle Africa.

The potential for increasing education levels is tremendous as there is a huge demand for higher education, partly driven by rapid population growth. The population in the age of attending higher education—18–23 years—is forecasted to increase by 50% from its 2015 level (110 million) by 2035 (183 million), and will have doubled by 2050 to 235 million. The number of colleges and universities in the region has been burgeoning to fulfill the demand. Those are not always of very good quality, whether they are in the public sector or the private, as most are. While regulatory bodies exist to check whether all education providers meet national and international standards, they are not universal.

A 2015 graduation ceremony for the Open University of Sudan. ©Hamid Abdulsalam, UNAMID via Flickr

The expansion of higher education has led to substantial brain drain to Europe, North America, and Australia, because highly educated find better opportunities there for studying and jobs–and better salaries. Researchers have estimated that in some countries such as Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Uganda, more than a third of the national high-skilled labor force had migrated to OECD countries in 2000. While remittances that these people send home help compensate and reinforce the education in their countries of origin, they do not compensate for the departed skills and knowledge.

These facts about education in sub-Saharan Africa are well-known to education professionals and researchers in the field. But as we show in a new book Higher Education in Africa: Challenges for Development, Mobility and Cooperation, published in January 2017, there are a lot of other aspects of education in the region that are not so well-known and that could provide interesting avenues for further research.

For instance, you probably did not know that the African Union has a higher education harmonization strategy. The general idea is the same as the Bologna process in Europe:  enhance the mobility of students by making higher education systems more compatible and by strengthening the quality assurance mechanisms. One chapter by Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis, which looks at the process of harmonization of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, shows that it follows in the footsteps of the Bologna process mostly because of the involvement of international donors and of the strong links between African universities and European ones.

Students in lecture room at St. Augustine University of Tanzania © Max Haller and Bernadette Mueller Kmet 2009

Many chapters of the book look at the mobility of more highly educated people between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. This is the case of a chapter by Julia Boger who interviewed graduates from Germany returning to their countries of origin: Ghana and Cameroon. The experiences of those graduates from the two West African countries are radically different: because mainly of their networks, the Ghanaian graduates face less difficulties in finding a job upon return to their country than the Cameroonians.

The last part of the book looks at some cooperation programs that are in place between the North and South (also between the South and the South). Lorenz Probst and colleagues, in their chapter, report about the challenges in implementing a transdisciplinary course in Africa within the context of the rather compartmentalized sectors of higher education in Africa.

The development of higher education could push forward change and innovation, just as much as capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa where it is direly needed.

Reference
Goujon, Anne, Max Haller, and Bernadette Müller Kmet. 2017. Higher Education in Africa: Challenges for Development, Mobility and Cooperation. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Why are the refugees who came to Austria in 2015 more educated than expected?

By Anne Goujon, IIASA World Population Program

According to the Displaced Persons in Austria Survey (DIPAS) conducted by a team at the Vienna Institute of Demography and at IIASA, the large number of asylum seekers who came to Austria in the fall of 2015 appeared to possess levels of education that are higher than the average level in their country of origins. Moreover, the share of displaced persons from Syria and Iraq with a higher education is close to that of the Austrian population – around 30%.

Students at school in Beirut, Lebanon. Two-thirds of the students at the school are Lebanese and one-third of the students are Syrian. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Students at school in Beirut, Lebanon. Two-thirds of the students at the school are Lebanese and one-third of the students are Syrian. Photo © Dominic Chavez | World Bank

This seemed surprising to many, judging from the number of critical and even aggressive comments that were posted online after the results of this study appeared in PLoS ONE in September and were covered by the press, mostly in Austria. Some of these comments even suggested that people were lying, and/or that the scientists were “do-gooders” covering up the truth.

However, there are several logical reasons for these findings, none of them having anything to do with deceit. The main reason why we know the study participants were not lying is that they had no incentive to lie. They were informed about the purpose of the survey and the fact that there was nothing at stake for them besides contributing to knowledge on the refugee population. Second, their levels of education matched very well with other information they gave, for instance their previous employment, so that if lying, they were uncannily consistent. Moreover, they were rarely alone when taking the questionnaire and it is difficult for a father or mother to lie for instance in front of their children. So we tend to believe the 514 displaced persons that answered the questionnaire. But these are not our only reasons:

Not everyone can afford the adventurous trip to Austria. We asked in the survey how much their journey to Austria–mostly through Turkey–cost, and 75% reported more than 2.000 US$ per person, and 30% more than $4.000. Such a sum is not easy to come by in countries where the average salary is low. The group of asylum seekers that fled to Austria was a selected group with a higher income, and consequently more likely to have had better access to education than those who could not afford to move further and were displaced within Syria or in the neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan).

Furthermore, this is a young population. Most of them are below the age of 45 years, in fact, the mean age of the respondents was 31 years. Therefore they most likely benefited from the improvements in education that were prevalent in recent times before the war started.

What we cannot say is whether the level of education in their home countries is or was equivalent to the level of education in Austria. For example, we cannot say if an engineer in informatics from the Damascus University has the same knowledge and skills as an engineer trained at the Technical University in Vienna. However, studies implemented by the Public Employment Service in Austria show that refugees’ levels of competence and skills are largely in line with their levels of education and/or occupation. Furthermore, people who successfully pursued a higher education are more likely to be willing and interested to learn new things, such as learning a new language, developing additional skills, or  retraining for other professions.

Therefore, the displaced persons that came to Austria at the end of 2015 have a high potential for contributing to the economy that should not be ignored.

edu

Reference
Buber-Ennser, I., Kohlenberger, J., Rengs, B., Al Zalak, Z., Goujon, A., Striessnig, E., Potančoková, M., Gisser, R., Testa, M.R., Lutz, W. (2016) Human Capital, Values, and Attitudes of Persons Seeking Refuge in Austria in 2015. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0163481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163481

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Should food security be a priority for the EU?

By David Leclère, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

August was the warmest ever recorded globally, as was every single month since October 2015. It will not take long for these records to become the norm, and this will tremendously challenge food provision for everyone on the planet. Each additional Celsius degree in global mean temperature will reduce wheat yield by about 5%. While we struggle to take action for limiting global warming by the end of the century to 2°C above preindustrial levels, business as usual scenarios come closer to +5 °C.

However, we lack good and actionable knowledge on this perfect storm in the making. Despite the heat, world wheat production should hit a new record high in 2016, but EU production is expected to be 10% lower than last year. In France, this drop should be around 25-30% and one has to go back to 1983 to find yields equally low. Explanations indeed now point to weather as a large contributor. But underlying mechanisms were  poorly anticipated by forecasts and are poorly addressed in climate change impacts research.

©Paul Townsend via Flickr

©Paul Townsend via Flickr

Second, many blind spots remain. For example, livestock has a tremendous share in the carbon footprint of agriculture, but also a high nutritional and cultural value. Yet, livestock were not even mentioned once in the summary for policymakers of the last IPCC report dedicated to impacts and adaptation. Heat stress reduces animal production, and increases greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product. In addition, a lower share of animal products in our diet could dramatically reduce pollution and food insecurity. However, we don’t understand well consumers’ preferences in that respect, and how they can be translated in actionable policies.

How can we generate adequate knowledge in time while climate is changing? To be able to forecast yields and prevent dramatic price swings like the 2008 food crisis? To avoid bad surprises due to large missing knowledge, like the livestock question?

In short: it will take far more research to answer these questions—and that means a major increase in funding.

I recently presented two studies by our team at a scientific conference in Germany, which was organized by a European network of agricultural research scientists (MACSUR). One was a literature review on how to estimate the consequences of heat stress on livestock at a global scale. The other one presented scenarios on future food security in Europe, generated in a way that delivers useful knowledge for stakeholders. The MACSUR network was funded as a knowledge hub to foster interactions between research institutes of European countries. In many countries, the funding covered travels and workshops, not new research. Of course, nowadays researchers have to compete for funding to do actual research.

So let’s play the game. The MACSUR network is now aiming at a ‘Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship’, the biggest type of EU funding: 1 billion Euros over 10 years for hundreds of researchers. Recent examples include the Human Brain Project, the Graphene Flagship, and the Quantum Technology Flagship. We are trying to get one on modeling food security under climate change.

© Sacha Drouart

© Sacha Drouart

Such a project could leapfrog our ability to deal with climate change, a major societal challenge Europe is confronted with (one of the two requirements for FET Flagship funding).  The other requirement gave us a hard time at first sight: generating technological innovation, growth and jobs in Europe -but one just needs the right lens. First, agriculture already sustains about 44 million jobs in the EU and this will increase if we are serious about reducing the carbon content of our economy. Second, data now flows at an unprecedented speed (aka, big data). Think about the amount of data acquired with Pokemon Go, and imagine we would harness such concept for science through crowdsourcing and citizen-based science. With such data, agricultural forecasts would perform much better. Similarly, light drones and connected devices will likely open a new era for farm management. Third, we need models that translate big data into knowledge, and not only for the agricultural sector. Similarly, models can also be powerful tools to confront views and could trigger large social innovation.

To get this funding, we need support from a lot of people. The Graphene project claimed support from than 3500 actors, from citizens to industrial players in Europe. We have until end of November to reach 3500 votes, at least. If you think EU should give food security under climate change the same importance as improving the understanding of the human brain, or developing quantum computers, we need you. This will simply never happen without you! Please help us out with two simple actions:

  • Go the proposal, and vote for/comment it (see instructions, please highlight the potential for concrete innovations)!
  • Spread the word – share this post with your friends, your family, and your colleagues!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.