Beyond Sustainability: Radical Transformation Through System Thinking

Under the New Frontiers in Research Fund – Exploration grant, this new project brings opportunities to engage and exchange ideas with the public about the need for such transformative thinking and action. Experts in environmental science, philosophy, economics, Indigenous culture, performing arts, literature and political science will work with our community partners both local and global to nurture this new way of thinking idea. The objective of the project is to further develop the concept of rethinking humans and their relations with nature with the aim of embracing a worldview that genuinely reflects our relationship with nature to bring a more sustainable social-ecological system.

Why and why now?

There is an urgent need to rethink and transform our relationships with one another and the natural environment (plants and animals). The economic and population growth of human societies should not come at the expense of nature. We need to change the current worldview that causes our current capitalist-neoliberal way of life to be unsustainable. Pursuing infinite economic growth and resource exploitation when we have a finite planet, is not working. People need to think differently about themselves and their relations with the natural world that supports them.

The Western Humanist (or western human way of thinking) sees humans as the most important species on the planet. With this worldview (set of beliefs and values about one’s reality) comes the idea that humans have dominion over the natural world with the right to exploit natural resources (including plants and animals) as they wish.

Scientists have long documented how globalisation, urbanisation and industrialisation, such as unsustainable mining and agricultural practices, result in air and water pollution, land degradation, biodiversity loss that negatively affect human and ecosystem health.

Transdisciplinary research is needed to look at new transformative ways of thinking about how humans interact with the natural environment to create a more inclusive worldview. At the heart of this transformation is the idea of “systems thinking,” a holistic look at how all components (to see the whole picture) of our lives from people to nature are forming an integrated system where all components are interrelated and interdependent with one another. Systems thinking means that a person does not look only at an product int terms of its exploitation but what are the impacts and influences on other part of the system, natural and human as forming one.

Our Vision

The ultimate goal of this two-year project is to develop an international “think tank” that will push forward the discussion and gradually the implementation of systems thinking through pilot projects where humans and nature can all thrive together in balance.

CCUNESCO collaboration

The Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO) connects Canadians with the work of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It aims to create a society in which Canadians share knowledge and learn from each other, locally and globally, in order to build peaceful, equitable and sustainable futures. It does so by supporting collective reflection, identifying priorities and facilitating concerted action in the fields of education, sciences, culture, communication and information to address some of the most complex challenges facing humanity. Recognizing this mandate can only be fulfilled by engaging a broad range of partners, a spirit of cooperation is at the core of the Commission’s work.  As a key partner in our “Beyond Sustainability” project, we gratefully acknowledge the expertise and support CCUNESCO brings to this project. As the path toward transformation requires transdisciplinary engagement, we would like to thank Sébastien Goupil, Secretary-General and Dr. Eleanor Haine-Bennett, Programme Officer. A fundamental overhaul of how we see ourselves with respect to the natural world is at the core of this work. CCUNESCO’s support with the production and public dissemination of project reflection papers and publications is of critical importance. A paradigm shift from a humanist understanding of the world toward a system thinking model that puts nature at its center requires a diversity of actors to be successful.

Research Team

UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global; President, Canadian Commission for UNESCO; Vice-chair (North America) and Lead (Ecosystem Governance Thematic Group) at the Commission for Ecosystem Management of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; Professor of Biology and member of the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University ON, Canada

Liette Vasseur is a full professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and a member of the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre. Since 2014, she holds the UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global at Brock University. Her research is highly interdisciplinary, linking issues such as community-based ecosystem management, climate change adaptation and resilience, and sustainable agriculture. Her national projects are in the Niagara region and in Quebec (Baie St Paul). She works globally in the realm of community sustainability including her work in China, where she is a visiting scholar at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. When working in Ecuador, she focuses on community sustainability and ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change of rural native communities. Another work focuses on food security and gender issues in Burkina Faso and Senegal. As the former President of the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology (STEM), she is a strong proponent of the importance of mentoring women in STEM. Liette’s hope for “Beyond Sustainability” is to change the way people think about the relationship nature-people and see its importance for survival of all organisms by creating new ways to manage our lives not only globally but especially locally. When she not out in the field or in the lab conducting research with her students, you can find Liette either hiking in nature or in her backyard urban garden where she brings the knowledge of her global work down to the local level.

Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence; Director, Posthumanism Research Institute; Professor of Philosophy, Brock University ON, Canada

Dr. Christine Daigle is a full professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Humanities and Director of the Posthumanism Research Institute. Her research has focused on Existentialism and Phenomenology, specifically the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Her current research focuses on feminist theory and posthumanist thinking. Specifically, she is working on an ontological reconceptualization of the human being that understands our entanglement in being and with all other beings in a novel way, focusing on vulnerability and its ethical potential. Her research links well with “Beyond Sustainability” through ramifications in terms of environmental thinking and our collective and individual responsibility toward our individual, collective, and entangled selves. She also collaborates with the Montreal theater company Post Humains. Christine’s hope for “Beyond Sustainability” is to be able to better examine the Anthropocene through the “systems” thinking lens and contribute to reframing the notion of what sustainable systems look like. She is interested in overhauling our worldview that privileges humans and put forward instead an understanding of all beings as equally valuable as interconnected. Her non-academic interest in horror and extinction narratives relates to this project insofar as it often revolves around alien or horrific nonhuman others and put forward stories of human extinction that seem to be more probably everyday.

Director, Niagara Community Observatory (NCO); Associate Professor, Public Policy, Department of Political Science, Brock University ON, Canada

Dr. Charles Conteh is an Associate Professor of Public Policy in the Department of Political Science, and Director of the Niagara Community Observatory (NCO), a public policy think tank at Brock University. His research interests are in the areas of Canadian and comparative public policy, environmental policy, and political economy. He is currently examining policy processes and governance structures in complex and dynamic systems.  This involves investigating how local, regional and national economies are reinventing themselves through innovation policy discourses and practices in the face of seismic global ecological and economic changes in the Anthropocene.  Through the Niagara Community Observatory, Charles works in partnership with the Niagara community to foster, produce and disseminate research on current and emerging environmental, economic and social issues.  His operating philosophy is to build synergies in knowledge creation and mobilization by creating inclusive forums where people interact together genuinely, where they are open to each other’s influence, and open to gaining new insight.  Charles’ hope for “Beyond Sustainability” is to engage with the Niagara community to investigate the region as a complex adaptive system in terms of the pursuit of sometimes conflicting environmental and economic policy agenda. For instance, these include local and regional programs like land use planning, agri-food innovation, bioproduct waste management and cleantech. What are the tensions and synergies between conventional and alternative forms of pursuing regional economic and environmental policy goals?

When he not in front of the computer or in the field conducting research with his team, you can find Charles biking on Niagara’s spectacular trails, playing guitar in his backyard, gardening, or simply exploring an exciting book outside his discipline.

Professor and Graduate Program Director, Earth Sciences, Associate Member, Biological Sciences and member of the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University

Francine’s research employs microfossils as proxies of climate change and anthropogenic impact on freshwater ecosystems and resources. In addition, she has taught extensively in the Liberal Arts program and her inter/ transdisciplinary course on the cosmos (and our species’ concept of its place in it) will be the foundational course in the new program in Arts and Science at Brock. She is part of an international effort to formally (stratigraphically) define the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch, and has recently been appointed as a voting member of the Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy.  The working group is currently evaluating the suitability of geologic sections to formally define the Anthropocene as an interval of geologic time, to be forwarded to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (probably by 2022).  Analysis of key markers of the Nuclear Era and Great Acceleration, selected as the basis for erecting a new epoch, is being funded by the Kulturveranstaltungen des Bundes in Berlin. One of the potential ‘golden spikes’ to identify the base of the Anthropocene Series is the unusual accumulation of annual layers (varves) in the deep basin of Crawford Lake, a sinkhole in the Niagara Escarpment near Milton. In addition to paleoecology/ paleohydrology and stratigraphy, this research includes aspects of Iroquoian archeology as well as colonial history and conservation science. This idyllic lake protected by Conservation Halton provides an opportunity to explore and communicate the impact of humans on our planet, both long before the mid-20th century and during the Anthropocene. Through this “Beyond Sustainability” project I would like to explore whether the formal definition of the Anthropocene will positively or negatively impact our attempts to convince people of the global scale of anthropogenic alteration of Earth Systems, clearly captured in stratigraphic records like the varved sediments of Crawford Lake).  Her non-academic interests include music and (usually!) travel to both natural and cultural points of interest around the globe.

Professor in the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology and Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Waterloo, Canada; Board Member of Alectra’s Green Energy & Technology Centre; Vice Chair of the Board of the Saskatchewan Research Council.

Dr. Kozinski is Founding Dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University and Founding President of the New Model Institute in the United Kingdom (the newest University of Britain). Janusz was educated in Kraków, Poland, and subsequently attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and spent much of his academic career at McGill University, where he was Sir William Dawson Scholar and Associate Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations). He is currently leading a new trans-disciplinary initiative applying key driving forces in the 21st cen­tury science and engineering to create a novel type of research-based academic programs.

He was awarded the International Chair in Bioenergy at the Institute for Advanced Studies and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France and has completed the prestigious Advanced Management & Leadership Programme at Oxford University and the Executive Education Program, Crisis Leadership in Higher Education, at Harvard University. Janusz’s research includes projects related to the environmental impact of energy technology, greenhouse gas mitigation, fabrication of nanomaterials, public security in buildings vulnerable to bio-agents, and Mars exploration. Tying some of these research interests together, he went into ‘space’ on a series of zero-gravity flights organized by the European Space Agency. Janusz sees the necessity and beauty in bringing people together to not only solve problems of today and tomorrow, but to inspire each other to improve the social fabric of our societies. This is exactly what the ‘Beyond Sustainability’ project has to offer. You can often find Janusz racing cars and go-karts in different parts of the world.

Professor and Chair in the Department of Dramatic Arts, Brock University.

Dr. David Fancy is a Full Professor and Chair in the Department of Dramatic Arts, Brock University. He brings his theoretical and philosophical interests in immanentism thought to the intersection of a range of disciplines including philosophy, theatre studies, performance studies, science and technology studies, and critical disability studies. He is pursuing two major research projects at the moment. The first explores the ways in which the concept of ‘resonance’ can help engage the biopolitics of electromagnetics and telecommunications, and the second engaged his concept of ‘geoartistry’ as a means of exploring how other-than-human entities create and receive artistic expression. David has an extensive professional creative practice as a singer, playwright and director of theatre, opera, and circus that includes long-term community engaged arts practice with seasonal migrant agricultural workers, intellectual disabled groups, and other populations. David’s hope for ‘Beyond Sustainability’ is that more open-ended process-based systems thinking can provide anticipatory modeling for human and other-than-human co-habitation on this planet. His practice in mindfulness meditation, subtle energy healing work, dowsing and his own lived experience of electro-hypersensitivity continuously lead him into rich transdisciplinary exchanges.

Assistant Professor, Tecumseh Centre for Aboriginal Research and Education, Brock University, ON Canada.

Catherine is a holder of knowledge from both the Anishnaabe and Mohawk Indigenous peoples on ways of seeing and living on the land through story and practice. She seeks to embed truths and reconciliation of relationships by inviting transformational conversation with her Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. She encourages the deeper conversations on sustainable practices prior to the 1500’s and the beginning of the Anthropocene before addressing the harder issues of loss and materialism. Catherine’s interest in this study is investing in a united front of Indigenous and Western knowledge about the Anthropocene for mutual consideration of solutions that re-assess the relationships necessary for enduring sustainability practices. Catherine is interested in the challenges of cross-cultural relationship building and the stories needed for changes in policy and leadership endeavors in the field of education. Catherine spends her time outside of academia carrying on the duties and responsibilities as handed down through generations of her Indigenous heritages. Her goal is to re-learn the language lost in her childhood as she believes the development of a good mind and innovative approaches for Peace as envisioned by First Peoples on Turtle Island begins with the first languages of the land.

Governor General’s Award Nominee for Poetry; Winner of Faculty of Humanities Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activity; Professor of English, Brock University, Ontario, Canada.

Dr. Adam Dickinson is a full professor in the Department of English Language and Literature. His scholarly and creative work focus on intersections between science, poetry, and the environment. He is the author of four books of poetry, one co-edited anthology, several chapbooks, and many articles and book chapters. His latest book, Anatomic (Coach House Books), which won the Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize from the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada / Association pour la littérature, l’environnement et la culture au Canada, involves the results of chemical and microbial testing on his body. His work has been nominated for numerous awards and prizes, including the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and the Raymond Souster Award. He was also a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize and the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature from the Ontario Arts Council. His work has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, and Polish. He has been featured at international literary festivals such as Poetry International in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the Oslo International Poetry Festival in Norway, and the Berlin International Poetry Festival. His hope for “Beyond Sustainability” is to make legible through artistic practice the often inscrutable biological and cultural writing intrinsic to the Anthropocene. His non-academic pursuits include canoe tripping and camping through the lakes of the Canadian Shield.

Associate Professor Biology; School of Environment, McGill University, Quebec, Canada.

Dr. Leung is an Associate Professor at McGill University, UNESCO Chair for Dialogues on Sustainability, and the Director of the Neotropical Environment Option (NEO) graduate program – a collaborative program between McGill and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). The team member’s research main expertise is on ecology and the natural sciences, but is strongly multidisciplinarity. His research focuses on predictive, integrative modeling under uncertainty, and has
included global, country-scale and regional ecological forecasts, bio-economic risk analysis, management and policy as well as development of theoretical tools. He has worked across terrestrial, aquatic, and marine biomes. Most recently, he has initiated construction of the Panama Research and Integrated Sustainability Model (PRISM; http://prism.research.mcgill.ca/) – a spatially-explicit, country wide, computational model for sustainability, that will serve as a platform for sustainability science, using Panama as a template. Herein, he and collaborators generate predictive layers (e.g., biodiversity, land-based processes, economics), which will be publicly available, to rapidly answer diverse scientific and socially relevant questions. His research links well with “beyond sustainability”, in seeking to develop a broader vision of sustainability, which includes diverse views, values, priorities, and challenges. This will hopefully identify a broader set of possibilities as well as more effective policies. Outside of work, you can find Brian enjoying good food, good wine,
hiking, cross-country skiing and canoeing.

Advisor at the SLU Centre for Biological Diversity in Uppsala Sweden and Chair of the Resilience Theme Group in the Commission for Ecosystem Management of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Mike teaches complex systems thinking for sustainable development to Master’s and Undergraduate students at Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. He does policy research in relation to ecosystems and environment with an emphasis on the application of theory to create transformational change. He has a background in wildlife and rangeland ecology, protected area management, community conservation and forty-seven years of experience in conservation and development, mostly in Africa and western US. Mike hopes that his engagement with the “Beyond Sustainability” project will promote the people as nature perspective; a shift in the roles of governance entities so that national governments support the rights and roles of local people as agents of change; and the importance of feminine attributes in caring for community and nature. Beyond work, Mike’s primary interest is in applying permaculture ideas to his garden and foraging for berries and mushrooms in the forest that surrounds his house.

Darwin is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Environmental Planning at the University of Northern British Columbia, Canada.

Over the past 25 years, Darwin has worked as a Professional Planner internationally, on a variety of community sustainability projects. Darwin’s primary research is focused on socio-ecological processes and climate change governance and Indigenous community planning. Darwin incorporates an applied approach often partnering with Indigenous communities and local and regional organizations and governments. Participation in “Beyond Sustainability”, Darwin hopes to advance the Indigenous notions of “All My Relations” and “Two Eyed Seeing” to a broader policy base to advance the transition towards a more caring and responsible society.

Dr. Bernal Herrera-Fernández (Costa Rica). Policy Advisor for Post 2020 Biodiversity Support Project, EU- Costa Rica and Nature-Based-Solutions for the Ministry of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica. Vice-President for Latin America & the Caribbean at the Commission for Ecosystem Management of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Associate Professor at the National University of Costa Rica (International Institute of Wildlife Management & Conservation) and invited professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Mexico.

Dr. Herrera-Fernández, is an associate professor at the International Institute of Wildlife Management & Conservation (National University, Costa Rica), and currently leads the coordination of the Convention on Biological Diversity post 2020 national goals as well the preparation of the national policy on nature-based solutions. As researcher his focus is on the generation and transfer of information related to biodiversity and ecosystem services in decision-making and human well-being in Central America and Dominican Republic. Currently, Dr. Herrera is undertaking research in Oaxaca (MX) with the main aim of identifying ecosystems collapse risk and its implication for conservation and local community’s decision making. He has also led national and international initiatives for designing territorial models to increase community resilience to global change. Bernal`s hope for “Beyond Sustainability” is to improve people´s knowledge of the importance of the links and interactions of the nature-society interphase by increasing self-awareness of the implication of individual and social decisions in our future. When he is not on his professional and research duties, Bernal is writing poetry, hiking in nature, or playing sports.

Senior Researcher, Jumbunna Research Hub for Indigenous Nations and Collaborative Futures, University of Technology Sydney, NSW, Australia.

Dr. Simone Bignall has worked for several decades in alliance with Indigenous Australian scholars and communities aspiring to reclaim First Nations’ sovereignty and restore environmental security in resistance to settler-colonialism. Simone’s research traverses Continental philosophy, political ecology, postcolonial transformation and feminist cultural studies. Her main contribution to research in these areas is an original conceptualisation of ‘excolonialism’ as a complex systems theory of radical discontinuity or ‘exit-from-colonialism’. Excolonialism renews scope for cooperative political society through an ethic of assemblage geared towards shared benefit. This approach attends to the transformative possibilities that result from the complex nature of individuals, from the multi-levelled networks of relations into which they enter, and from the shifting structures that emerge from their interactions. Simone’s hope for “Beyond Sustainability” is that interdisciplinary and intercultural knowledge alliances informed by systems thinking can foster responsible approaches to natural diversity and relational impact, considered in terms of the ‘more-than-human’ agencies that influence the development of intertwined orders. Sustainable development urgently needs new methods of collaborative enquiry responding to colonial legacies of assimilation, conflict, competition and environmental destruction. Bringing her philosophical approach into conjunction with personal practice, Simone enjoys combining differences through diverse arts of joyful assemblage including textile art, gardening, jazz, and non-human companionship.

Research Assistant (Vasseur, UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global)

Jocelyn is a research assistant with the UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global. She holds an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts and Geography, with a diploma in Water Resource Management and GIS. She recently completed a Masters in Sustainability Science at Brock, looking at governance and management in Canadian Ramsar sites. She has been working in integrated natural resource conservation at the local community level in Niagara for the past 30 years. Jocelyn’s early career focus was water quality improvement through the implementation of restoration Best Management Practices, her focus evolved to include Great Lakes remediation and restoration project management.  As a Project Management Professional (PMP), she is the Canadian Co-chair of the Niagara River Binational Ramsar Designation Steering Committee. Jocelyn’s hope for “Beyond Sustainability” is robust community involvement working to ensure a better future for people and nature (social-ecological structures), where the valuation of all components are weighted equally and no one component (economic development as an example) does not outweigh the others (environment or society).  In her spare time, Jocelyn is working with local partners to secure the first transboundary (in the America’s) Ramsar designation for the Niagara River.

Scientific Research Manager/Contributor, Teaching Support Department of Biological Sciences, Brock University ON, Canada.

Heather VanVolkenburg is a scientific research manager and teaching support in the Department of Biological Sciences. She recently graduated with a Masters of Biological Science (Ecology and Evolution), her research thesis focused on agroecological systems, specifically the ecological effects of agrominerals and cover crops in local vineyards. Her recent work has focused on several ecological and social science initiatives of the Brock University UNCESO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global, some of which include the Organic Science Cluster 3 (applying systems thinking to agricultural management), the Canadian Commission for UNESCO’s IdeaLab (Building Back Better Post COVID-19 Task Force position paper contributions), and Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology (researching barriers faced by mature women entering STEM disciplines). Heather began at Brock as a mature undergraduate student after spending nearly two decades as a senior manager in the private sector. These experiences have fostered within her a passion for participating in diverse projects with ultimate goals of understanding and creating more inclusive and sustainable pathways for the betterment of both the local and global community. “Beyond Sustainability” provides such an opportunity, and she hopes the project will advance how results from diverse collaborations benefit all of society (both human and otherwise). Her passions include both understanding and teaching the complexity of ecological systems, mentoring youth (including her own three children), continuous learning, and anything that involves the natural world.

About the New Frontiers in Research Fund

The Canada Research Coordinating Committee designed the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) following a comprehensive national consultation, which involved Canadian researchers, research administrators, stakeholders and the public. NFRF is administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat, which is housed within the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), on behalf of Canada’s three research granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and SSHRC.

The fund will invest $275 million over the next 5 years beginning in fiscal 2018-19, and $65 million ongoing, to fund international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and high-risk research.

NFRF is composed of three streams to support groundbreaking research.

  • Exploration generates opportunities for Canada to build strength in high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research;
  • Transformation provides large-scale support for Canada to build strength and leadership in interdisciplinary and transformative research; and
  • International enhances opportunities for Canadian researchers to participate in research with international partners.

Visit the website for more information.