Unleashing innovation for sustainability

By Verena Rauchenwald, IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program.

“This is just the beginning…” were the visionary words of Henrik Skovby, one of the founders of the global innovation lab UNLEASH, at the UNLEASH Award show in Aarhus, Denmark, on 21 August 2017. Honorary guests, such as the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the Danish Crown Princess Mary, and Ashton Kutcher, US actor and investor, came to Aarhus to deliver awards to UNLEASH’s top teams with the best ideas on how to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The UNLEASH innovation lab invited 1000 international ‘talents’, aged 18-35, to Denmark for 10 days, to undergo a unique innovation creation procedure facilitated by Deloitte, one of UNLEASH’s partners. As one of the selected talents, I had the privilege of spending a few days at one of Denmark’s Højskole (a Danish community college) where the concept of lifelong learning really comes to life. These community colleges’ principles go back to the Danish philosopher Grundtvig, who believed that education should be available to everyone. Nowadays, many young adults choose to live and learn at Højskole for four to five months at a time, to learn about themselves and various themes. Tests do not exist, instead participants are encouraged to go to their classes and are given a certificate in the end.

Our team in Copenhagen. Left to right: Jerry Zhu, Nazly Abdel Azim, Verena Rauchenwald, Tiffany Yu, Raymond Besiga © Jerry Zhu

For the innovation process, I was grouped together with brilliant minds from Shanghai, Cairo, Kampala and San Francisco. Our team worked on the SDG 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Among other sub goals, the SDG 11a further aims to “support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.” After many hours of brainstorming and discussions, our group agreed on the following problem statement: Small-scale farmers in Eastern Africa have difficulties selling their produce to urban businesses.

From there on, we interviewed Eastern African farmers, intermediaries and urban businesses via phone to understand their needs. We found that efforts to cut out intermediaries are often not beneficial as they hold many connections on both sides and take care of the logistics. Furthermore, farmers often do not know what to produce and therefore plant a variety of crops of smaller quantities. As a solution, we came up with a digital platform that supports the overall information flow between the actors. It communicates via text message between farmers and intermediaries and through online forms between intermediaries and urban businesses. This way, all actors win through increased business based on a better match between supply and demand, and less produce is wasted.

The many hours of work and pitching of our ideas to UNLEASH’s facilitators, experts and investors were accompanied by daily sessions of singing in the morning (a Højskole tradition), immense cooperative efforts to help each other, and a shared drive to make the world a better place for all. As a result, a strong, collaborative, global community was born.

Our welcome to Copenhagen © Jerry Zhu

Following Henrik Skovby’s vision, the UNLEASH organization announced that they would continue to support the UNLEASH community and their ideas for at least one more year, both financially and through advisory services. From now on the UNLEASH innovation lab will take place once a year until the year 2030, when the 17 SDGs need to be fulfilled. My hope is that more initiatives such as UNLEASH will arise, and young people will become empowered to act upon their beliefs and consequently guide our world into a sustainable future.

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.

Interview from Alpbach: Stop praising innovation

Johanna Mair is a professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governance, Academic Editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Co-Director of the Global Innovation for Impact Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and Academic Co-Director Social Innovation and Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mair is also a member of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, which holds its annual retreat this weekend on the sidelines of the European Forum Alpbach.

Johanna Mair ©Hertie School of Governance

At the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group retreat this weekend, you will be joining a discussion on governance and institutional transformation towards sustainability. What do you see as the biggest barriers to sustainable development?
Sustainability challenges typically require a concerted effort to achieve impact. We still lack the appropriate governance and accountability mechanisms that ensure implementation of well-intended strategies and commonly devised goals.

As an expert in social entrepreneurship and innovation, what new developments have you seen that you think could drive a transformation towards sustainability? Could you give examples of successful innovations that have taken hold?
We do see innovation on many fronts. Especially in governance technology has enabled a number of useful and helpful innovations that allow for more transparent and accountable processes. At the same time we still face enormous challenges that cannot be fixed by technology and require us to face deeply rooted relational and cultural problems. The prevalence of open defecation and lack of sanitary infrastructure in India is just one example.

Sometimes it seems like there are many great ideas, but adoption is slow. What do you think is necessary to make the leap from innovative idea to widespread practice?
“Most new ideas are bad ideas” as Jim March from Stanford University would say. We must stop praising innovation and start to think and act on linking innovation and scaling as two distinct process to create impact.  Innovation is an investment and creates the potential for impact. Scaling enacts and grows this potential and transforms innovation into tangible outcomes – improving the lives of marginalized people and communities and making progress on stubborn societal and environmental problems.

We have elaborated on this in our new book on “Innovation and Scaling for Impact – How Successful Social Enterprises Do It,”  which I co-wrote with  Christian Seelos.

How do innovation and governance go together? What are the challenges and opportunities for bringing new ideas into institutions and governments?
Governance needs to exert an enabling role. We need to craft and design governance systems that foster innovation. At the same time, governance systems need also make sure that the potential and usefulness of innovation can be tested along the way. This requires reflecting on markers of success that are process and not outcome focused.

The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group brings together leaders from business, and young entrepreneurs, along with government leaders and science experts. What do you think can be gained from a meeting of this type?
The most important outcome will be a shared understanding of priorities, pathways, and markers of success for this journey.

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.

More information
IIASA at the European Forum Alpbach 2017 and Alpbach-Laxenburg Group Retreat: 27-29 August 2017
Johanna Mair appearances at Alpbach: 19 August – 1 September

The roads to 2050

By Owen Gaffney, Stockholm Resilience Center (excerpted from a post on Rethink.earth)

What will the world be like in 2050?

Of course, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, as the Danish proverb goes.

Part of the difficulty is that we – individuals and the institutions that allow us to act collectively and in the long term – routinely assume the future looks very much like the past. Just as routinely, though, this assumption is flipped on its head. Think of the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, Brexit, or the recent US election.

But what if we already know what we want the world to look like in 2050. How do we get there?

By Andrew Hitchcock - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1708457

Dusk on Chang Jiang (Yangtze) Credit: Andrew Hitchcock | Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

I was reminded of the Danish proverb as I arrived at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) outside Vienna earlier this month for a three-day meeting of The World in 2050 (TWI2050) initiative. This was the third such scientific meeting hosted here at the home of some of the leading economic, demographic and energy modellers.

TWI2050 is arguably the most ambitious research being undertaken in the world today. At its heart is an ambition to map out the pathways for a sustainable planet. As with the previous meetings, it attracted about 130 complex-systems thinkers and computer-modelling experts.

Unlike other international modelling initiatives, TWI2050 was not created to explore a range of possible utopian to dystopian scenarios focusing on energy prices or climate change. The baseline assumption is a single scenario: successful completion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by all nations in 2015, and arriving in 2050 with a global economy operating within planetary boundaries – the limits of natural systems that keep Earth in a relatively stable state, relating to climate, biodiversity, deforestation, and fertilizer use, among others.

The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets are extremely ambitious. Buried in the detail are many trade-offs but also potential win-wins. Meeting the climate goal means reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, and this could affect the energy, biodiversity, or consumption goals either positively or negatively. The goals and their inherent trade-offs are already catalyzing research and the results show how challenging this will be.

This month, scientists publishing in the journal Nature explored Australia’s land-use trade-offs to reach the goals. The team, who were not at the TWI2050 meeting, used a massive computer simulation called Land Use and Trade Offs (LUTO) to see how factors such as climate policies or crop prices could shape Australia’s landscape by 2050. Exploring 648 scenarios, researchers Brett Bryan and Lei Gao found just 1% of scenarios achieved five goals simultaneously. However, some goals seemed to go better together than others. Achieving targets related to food, water, and biofuel production was possible in 6.5% of scenarios, for example. The authors, whose work contributes to Future Earth’s Global Land Programme, conclude that national policymakers need more of this type of analysis to elucidate trade-offs and avoid conflicting policies. Moreover, they argued for more scientific coordination internationally for a global perspective on implementing the SDGs.

Other research groups have also begun exploring the world in 2050. Recently Karl Heinz Erb from the Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna, who attended the TWI2050 workshop, and colleagues explored 500 scenarios to assess options for feeding 9 billion people in 2050 without further deforestation .

Their work, which also supports the Global Land Programme, concluded that it was possible, but would likely mean low meat, vegetarian, or vegan diets globally. Meanwhile, Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, also attending, and colleagues showed that by 2050 a global vegetarian diet would reduce diet-related global mortality by 6-10% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29-70% – contributing to several goals. This type of research is essential to understand potential win-wins but these examples do not provide the pathways to arrive at these scenarios.

So, are computer models powerful enough to capture essential elements of incremental and disruptive change across complex issues relating to poverty, equality, education, technology, policy, energy, food, water, and climate? Read more on the Rethink.earth website

This article is excerpted from an article on the Rethink.earth website. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

*The Stockholm Resilience Centre is one of the founding partners of The World in 2050 alongside the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and IIASA. Contributing organisations include the European Commission, Future Earth, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Future Earth. Check out the website for details.


1. Nilsson M, Griggs D, Visbeck M (2016). Policy: Map the interactions between Sustainable Development Goals. Nature 534:7607 PDF for download
2. Nilsson M, Griggs D, Visbeck M, Ringler C (2016). A draft framework for understanding SDG interactions. ICSU – International Council for Science. PDF for download
3. Stafford Smith M, et. al. (2016). Integration: the key to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability Science DOI:10.1007/s11625-016-0383-3
4. Gao L, Bryan BA (2017). Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability. Nature 544:217–222 DOI:10.1038/nature21694
5. Bryan BA et al. (2016). Land-use and sustainability under intersecting global change and domestic policy scenarios: Trajectories for Australia to 2050. Global Environmental Change 38:130–152 DOI:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.03.002
6. Erb K-H, Lauk C, Kastner T, Mayer A, Theurl MC, Haberl H (2016). Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation. Nature Communications 7 DOI:10.1038/ncomms11382
7. Springmann M, Godfray HCJ, Rayner M, Scarborough P (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. PNAS 113:15(4146–4151)DOI:10.1073/pnas.1523119113

Female-headed households hit harder by climate change

By Raya Muttarak, IIASA World Population Program

Taking action on climate change is one top priority of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially since its adverse impacts can undermine sustainable development. At the same time, reducing gender inequalities and empowering women and girls is fundamental in making progress across all the goals.

These two issues are also closely linked:  in certain circumstances, women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men, for example, due to weaker physical ability, lower socioeconomic status, and greater social, economic and political barriers in coping capacity.

This is why, in recent work, we have been exploring the differential impacts of climate change on subgroups of population such as by gender, age, education, and income. The rising number of households headed by women across the world and, in particular, in southern Africa calls for special attention to their economic welfare. In general female-headed households are more likely to be in poverty. Under the context of the changing climate, it is likely that weather extremes, rainfall variability, and natural disasters associated with climate change will exacerbate economic disadvantages of female-headed households.

Female-headed households are more economically vulnerable to climate-related shocks for three big reasons, which researchers call a “triple burden”. First, persistent gender disparities in the labor market and other productive activities, including limited access to formal credit markets and land contribute to greater economic disadvantage for female-headed households. Second, these households often have a higher total dependency ratio–that is, women take care of a higher proportion of dependent children and the elderly. Third, women who are heads of households with no other adult help have a “double day burden” where they have to fulfil both domestic duties and make money outside the home. That means that female heads face greater time and mobility constraints and may have to work fewer hours or choose lower-paying jobs.

Female-headed households are more economically vulnerable to climate-related shocks for three big reasons, which researchers call a “triple burden”. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Female-headed households are more economically vulnerable to climate-related shocks for three big reasons, which researchers call a “triple burden”.
Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Add climatic shocks to an already disadvantaged family, and the livelihood disruption can be a catastrophe.  However, there have been very few studies of how female-headed households actually fare in the context of climate change. In our new study published in World Development, we used  household survey data from South Africa and local rainfall data over the period 2006-2012 to examine how female-headed households fare economically when facing variation in rainfall. The study provides new empirical evidence on economic welfare of households headed by women following climatic shocks.

The new and unique part of our study is that we are able to control for observed and unobserved characteristics of households using a statistical technique called fixed effects estimation, which enables us to control for the household-specific effects on income. It also lets us account for different income trajectories in households with different demographic compositions. Furthermore, we were able to evaluate the impacts of income shock on economic vulnerability of female-headed households using rainfall variability as an exogenous source of risk. Income loss due to other variables such as death of a household member or losing a job are likely to be endogenously determined by household characteristics, that is, female heads have lower level of education and hence are more likely to fall into unemployment. But because rainfall variation is not connected to household factors, we were able to measure the causal effect of climate variability on incomes, comparing different household types.

Our study shows that female-headed households in South Africa are indeed more vulnerable to climate variability than households headed by two adults, and not just because of the greater economic disadvantages that they start with. Even after controlling for household socioeconomic characteristics, female heads still fare worse when facing economic shocks. This might be due to limited access to family support and protective social networks who can step in to help in time of crisis.

Our analysis also reveals that not all types of female-headed households are vulnerable to rainfall variability. This finding is especially important for designing a policy to reduce vulnerability of female-headed households. Given different routes into female headship, we show that never-married female heads, women with a non-resident spouse (for example, where the husband has moved to work in another region), and widows have greater economic vulnerability to climate variability. The group of female-headed households where the female head has never been married is the largest of these groups. Households with adults of both genders where the female works but the male does not work and households of separated or divorced women are no more vulnerable than male-headed households.

We also found that vulnerability to climate impacts is related to the effect of rainfall on agriculture. We find that female-headed households face greater economic vulnerability only in the districts where rainfall has a large effect on loss in agricultural yields. Regardless of household engagement in agriculture, crop losses in a district can affect food and livelihood security through surges in food prices and shortfalls in local demand.

Although our study focuses on South Africa, the results showing that female-headed households are more vulnerable to climate variability call for particular interventions to their vulnerability in the context of climate change. The number of female-headed households is rising, with an exceptionally high proportion in southern African countries (36.3% in Lesotho (2006), 43.9% in Namibia (2013), 47.9% in Swaziland (2007). As climate variation and extremes also increase, policies to reduce vulnerability to climate change need to explicitly consider the plight of this subgroup of population.


Flatø, M., Muttarak, R., & Pelser, A. (2016). Women, weather, and woes: The triangular dynamics of female-headed households, economic vulnerability, and climate variability in South Africa. World Development. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2016.08.015

Muttarak, R., Lutz, W., & Jiang, L. (2015). What can demographers contribute to the study of vulnerability? Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, 13, 1–13. doi:10.1553/populationyearbook2015s001

Rosenhouse, S. (1989). Identifying the poor : is “headship” a useful concept? (No. LSM58) (pp. 1–62). Washington, DC: The World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/1989/07/442370/identifying-poor-headship-useful-concept. Accessed 24 February 2015

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.

Leave no SDG behind

By IIASA Deputy Director General Nebojsa Nakicenovic and Caroline Zimm, IIASA Transitions to New Technologies Program and The World in 2050 (TWI2050) initiative. (Originally published on The Guardian)

2015 marked a historic turning point. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) unanimously adopted by the United Nations last September provide an aspirational narrative and specific targets for human development: a world free from hunger, injustice and absolute poverty; a world with universal education, health and employment; a world with inclusive economic growth, based on transparency, dignity and equity.

The 17 SDGs’ call for “global citizenship and shared responsibility” and provide legitimacy for a new global social contract for a grand transformation toward a sustainable future. They fully acknowledge the scientific advances achieved during the last three decades that have established compelling evidence that otherwise, as the UN general assembly warned, “the survival of many societies, and of the biological support systems of the planet, is at risk.” Humanity has pushed the Earth system and its global commons to their limits and the SDGs provide us with the long-needed paradigm shift towards realizing the opportunity of a sustainable future for all.

The climate agreement adopted in Paris last December has further strengthened understanding that our society depends on sustainable stewardship of the global commons, shared by us all – and particularly on the stability of the climate system. The Earth system can no longer be viewed as an economic or social externality. Last year we moved beyond the traditional view of global commons as merely the common heritage of humankind outside national jurisdiction. Now we must move beyond national sovereignty to deal with the Earth system and human systems holistically, as the SDGs require. The Paris agreement is a huge step in the right direction.

Time is running out, so we must take urgent action to implement the UN 2030 agenda. Just 14 years are left – less than the wink of an eye in the history of human development, or of the Holocene’s stable Earth systems. But where to start? Which of the 17 goals, which of the 169 targets should be tackled first? Policy makers, the media, civil society and scientists all ask these questions.

However, the 2030 agenda stresses that the SDGs are indivisible and integrated – and cumulative, since efforts to achieve them must be sustained well into the second half of the century, especially in preserving the regulating function of the global commons, Some of the goals, such as SDG13 on climate, must operate on a time scale longer than century.

Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation.
Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

Moreover, there are interactions between and among the SDGs. For example, achieving SDG7, the energy goal, could jeopardize SDGs related to water, health and climate. Tackled in harmony, however, these goals can support one another: there would, for example, be clear health benefits from reducing indoor and outdoor air pollution through global decarbonization. Jointly implementing all the SDGs would contribute both to further human development and to safeguarding the commons and the stability of the Earth systems. Importantly, joint implementation that avoids silo-type thinking would be cheaper and faster than tackling them separately.

All these goals should be achieved in such a way as to maximize synergies and minimize investment costs and trade-offs. The SDG credo “leave no one behind” also applies to the SDGs themselves. They are indivisible. We have to deliver on all of them if we want to succeed.

The SDGs are very ambitious but it appears that tackling them together will help humanity make rapid progress and enter a new era for human societies and the Earth system. Yet, many interactions – and their scope – are unknown, and this hampers holistic policy making. We lack clear understanding of the benefits of achieving SDGs and of costs of inaction, especially when it comes to regional and national differences. We urgently need this fact-based information.

We have a plethora of knowledge, but need new ways to synthesize, integrate and share it so as to use its full potential in support of the SDGs and the global commons. Science – one of the strongest voices of the environment in governance – must become more active and leave its ivory tower to engage more intensely with other stakeholders.

This is why we at IIASA, together with the Stockholm Resilience Center, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network have launched the scientific initiative The World in 2050 (TWI2050), designed to provide the scientific knowledge to support the policy process and implementation of the 2030 agenda.

TWI2050 aims to address the full spectrum of transformational challenges in fulfilling the SDGs in an integrated way so as to avoid potential conflicts among them and reap the benefits of potential synergies through achieving them in unison. This requires a systemic approach.

The time for “climate-only” or “economic development-only” approaches is over. We urgently need an integrated understanding of the processes that account for the inter-linkages between the economy, demography, technology, environment, climate, human development, all global commons and planetary boundaries. TWI2050 brings together leading policymakers, analysts, and modelling and analytical teams to collaborate in developing pathways towards the sustainable futures and policy frameworks necessary for achieving the needed transformational change.

Such a grand transformation goes beyond a purely technology-centered view of the world or the substitution of one technology by another. It encompasses social and behavioral changes at all levels, as well as technological ones. Incremental changes, now being experienced in some areas, are useful but will not suffice: we have waited too long and the window for action is closing rapidly in some domains including such global commons as climate. We will need radical changes in human behavior and technological paradigms. TWI2050 will look beyond 2030 to 2050 – and, in some cases, even to 2100 – to draw a vision of the world where the SDGs are eventually fulfilled.

The SDGs and the Paris agreement show what institutional international governance can achieve with joined forces. We have entered a new era of global governance, acknowledging the complexity and the connectivity of human development with the global commons and the Earth system. TWI2050 hopes to serve the global community with the best science available in tackling these key global challenges for humankind.

This article originally appeared on The Guardian.

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