Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability

Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability


The international Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability (ISTS) was an early, international effort to accelerate the contribution of knowledge to environmentally sustainable human development around the world.  It was initiated in 2001 to help channel diverse regional perspectives to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and hosted a series of follow-up activities during the five years after WSSD.

The Initiative sought to advance an evolving vision of "science and technology for sustainability" that is:

  • anchored in concerns for the human condition, seeking knowledge and know-how that will help feed, nurture, house, educate and employ the world’s slowing but still growing human population while conserving its basic life support systems and biodiversity;
  • essentially integrative, bridging efforts across the natural, social and engineering sciences, the environment and development communities, multiple sectors of human activity, geographic and temporal scales and, more generally, the worlds of knowledge and action;
  • regional and place-based, focusing at intermediate scales where multiple stresses intersect, where complexity is comprehensible, where integration is possible, where innovation and management happen, and where significant transitions toward sustainability have begun; and
  • fundamental in character, addressing the unity of the nature-society system, asking how that interactive system is evolving and can be consciously, if imperfectly, steered through the reflective mobilization and application of appropriate knowledge and know-how.

The Initiative made significant progress toward three broad and interrelated goals:

  • expanding and deepening the research and development agenda of science and technology for sustainability;
  • strengthening the infrastructure and capacity for conducting and applying science and technology for sustainability; and
  • connecting science and policy more effectively in pursuit of a transition toward sustainability.

In pursuit of the first goal, the Initiative pursued the 2000 Friibergh Workshop on Sustainability Science finding, as reported in "Sustainability science" (Kates et al, Science, 2001), that existing global discussions on the challenges of harnessing science and technology to sustainability needed to be complemented with more localized, place-based perspectives of users.

To gain a better appreciation of these place-based user perspectives, the Initiative ran a series of regional workshops. Each of these locally organized workshops brought together from their respective regions individuals involved in research, development, and environmental protection. Each asked participants to assess regional priorities for harnessing science and technology in efforts to promote sustainability, to characterize obstacles that impeded progress, and to identify priorities for action. A steering group under the leadership of Dr. Robert Corell and consisting of the workshop chairs provided for overall coordination of the workshop series. The five initial regional workshops engaged 235 participants from 39 countries. They are listed immediately below.

  • Abuja, Nigeria: 13-15 November 2001, organized locally by the Nigerian National Committee on Sustainability Science, chaired by Professor Akin L. Mabogunje [Development Policy Centre, Ibadan, Nigeria].
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand: 4-6 February 2002, organized locally by Chiang Mai University and University Kebangsaan Malaysia, co-chaired by Dr. Louis Lebel [Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University and Science Coordinator for the Southeast Asian Regional Committee (SARCS) for START, Bangkok, Thailand] and Dr. Mohd Nordin Hasan [Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI), University Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi, Malaysia]. A series of small follow-up working group meetings on Sustainability and Human Settlements in Asia were held 29-30 July 2002, at the Rama Gardens Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand.
  • Bonn, Germany: 27 February - 1 March 2002, organized locally by the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), chaired by Dr. Jill Jäger [Executive Director, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, Bonn, Germany], with support from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research.
  • Santiago, Chile: 5-7 March 2002, organized locally by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), chaired by Dr. Gilberto Gallopín [Regional Advisor on Environmental Policies, Division of Environment and Human Settlements, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, UNESCO, Santiago, Chile] and Armando Rabuffetti [Director, Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, São Paulo, Brazil].
  • Ottawa, Canada: 25-26 March 2002, organized locally by Environment Canada, the Policy Research Institute, and the North American Free Trade Agreement Commission for Environmental Cooperation, co-chaired by Prof. Elizabeth Dowdeswell [University of Toronto], and Dr. Stuart Smith [Chair, National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy].This workshop focused on regional-scale issues of science and technology for sustainability in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

A summary of the findings from these regional workshops is provided in Annex 2 of "Science and Technology for Sustainable Development: Consensus Report of the Mexico City Synthesis Workshop, 20-23 May 2002."

Mexico City Synthesis Workshop on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development

It became clear during the Initiative’s first intensive year of regional workshops that a synthesis effort would be required to bring the results together in a coherent and comparative whole. When we discussed the need for such an effort with our grant officer at the Packard Foundation, Helen Doyle, she urged us to collaborate with other groups exploring some of the same issues in setting up the workshop, thus producing an integrated perspective for use by the community and the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The result was a joint proposal by the ISTS, TWAS and ICSU for supplementary funding to host what turned into the Mexico City Synthesis Workshop on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development. This was held 20-23 May 2002 and hosted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico on behalf of a joint Organizing Committee from ICSU, TWAS, and the ISTS. The Workshop brought together leaders of, and participants in, more than a dozen fact-finding studies, discussions, conferences, and workshops conducted over the two years leading up to the WSSD by the international scientific and technology community. Each of these contributing sessions had addressed the question “How can science and technology contribute more effectively to achieving society’s goals of sustainable development?” from a particular perspective. These perspectives included global views from international science organizations, regional views grounded in grass-roots efforts to harness science and technology in support of sustainable development, assessments of potential contributions from global change science, and critical analyses of experience in designing institutions and financing for science and technology directed toward solutions to sustainability problems. Thirty-six (36) people from 18 countries attended the workshop. Findings of the individual sessions were summarized in a background paper for the Mexico City Workshop (see Annex 2 of ISTS et al., 2002). Participants in the Workshop reviewed the background paper and the individual contributing reports in addition to bringing their own rich backgrounds of experience to the table. They then formulated a consensus report (ISTS et al., 2002). This was presented to President Vicente Fox of Mexico at the close of the Workshop and tabled by ICSU at the fourth Preparatory Workshop for the WSSD, immediately following the Mexico City Workshop. It was subsequently published by ICSU in their Series on Science for Sustainable Development, No. 9.

The Initiative evolved as an open-ended network of individuals committed to these goals. Initial Co-Conveners for the Initiative were Robert Kates (Independent Scholar, USA) and Akin Mabogunje (Development Policy Centre, Nigeria). The international Steering Group responsible for setting Initiative strategy included the following (institutional affiliation is listed for when they participated):

William Clark, Harvard University
Robert Corell, American Meteorological Society
Gilberto Gallopín, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean Mohamed Hassan, Third World Academy of Sciences
Jill Jäger, Sustainable Europe Research Institute
Narpat Jodha, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development
Robert Kates, Independent Scholar
Calestous Juma, Harvard University
Louis Lebel, Chiang Mai University
Jane Lubchenco, Oregon State University
Akin Mabogunje, Development Policy Centre
Pamela Matson, Stanford University
James McCarthy, Harvard University
Jose Sarukhán, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
John Schellnhuber, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Day-to-day support for the Initiative was supplied by a small Secretariat based at the Third World Academy of Sciences and Harvard University. Funding for the Initiative came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Global Programs, with additional support from numerous governments and institutions around the world. A virtual Forum on Science and Innovation for Sustainable Development,, was launched at Harvard in the run-up to Johannesburg (2002) and moved to moved to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007.