Poking holes in our mindsets: impressions from the Potsdam Summer School 2017

By Grace Mbungu

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As an unprecedented weather event unfolded last week across the Atlantic Ocean, affecting Gulf Coast states and major cities in the United States as well as island communities throughout the Caribbean, over 40 young professionals and graduate students from over 30 countries gathered at the IASS to discuss “Human Environments in a Changing World” – the topic of the fourth Potsdam Summer School. Together, they deliberated and exchanged ideas with researchers and practitioners from all over the world on topics ranging from the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to global governance and climate change, sustainable science, systemic risks, sustainable energy, and cities and air quality. While many issues were raised by both the presenters and the participants, most revolved around the concept of sustainability and the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). Participants were interested in how best to communicate the concept of sustainability in local contexts in the developing and developed world, and in practical strategies for implementing the SDGs in order to meet the needs of the present and future generations while staying within the limits of the planetary boundaries.

The diverse backgrounds of the Potdam Summer School participants made for inspiring discussions. (c) IASS/Rolf Schulten

Learning and re-learning with participants from thirty countries

Bringing together people with such a wide diversity of ideas and cultures provided an optimal learning and re-learning environment. As a participant, I was both inspired and challenged, all of which will add great value to my current PhD work and future research and career aspirations. Participating in this summer school revealed to me the importance of these learning environments to early career researchers and professionals as well as policy makers, implementers, end-users/ beneficiaries, and affected communities. Building a common understanding and vison of the SDG framework, for example, can only add value to the implementation and sustainability of its outcomes. Attempting to bridge the gaps in the understanding and conceptualization of the challenges, visions, and intended and unintended outcomes and consequences among various actors and stakeholders provides a basis for the relationships and trust that are so critical to the success and sustainability of any development vison or project — at the individual, community, country, regional or global level. This summer school attempted to do just that by poking holes in the participants’ thought processes and mindsets and by providing a larger perspective of the challenges we face today as well as possible pathways and opportunities to address them in a highly interactive environment.

A healthy life for all”: the manifesto

One major outcome of the discussions that took place over this ten-day event is the Manifesto of the Participants, which highlights in its preamble the value of “living in a society with informed and action-conscious members who foster sustainable development that provides a healthy life for all”. Key recommendations for the achievement of this goal are highlighted in the manifesto and include:

  • the use of transdisciplinary approaches to solve the complex problem of climate change by fostering collaboration between experts in different fields and by putting local communities and local governments in touch with the relevant experts, activists, and NGOs;
  • the integration of clean, affordable, and renewable energy at the local and global levels;
  • applying innovative approaches to broaden participation in policy planning; creating a balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches; and combining different methods to promote inclusiveness;
  • the fostering of urban farming and agriculture initiatives, the investment in decentralized renewable energy sources, the building of green and energy-efficiency technologies, and the use of green spaces to act as “bio corridors” in urban areas;
  • the use of collective participatory exercises that include both actors and experts to think collectively about how to address issues in ways that are mutually beneficial;
  • increasing effectiveness in global cooperation and partnerships, including all stakeholders and interested parties, as well as a strengthening of international agreements and organizations; and
  • ensuring gender equality and inclusive participation of all stakeholders and interested parties in the process of climate change mitigation, and the creation of effective frameworks that promote renewable energy technologies and bridge the gaps between science, policy, economy, and society.

As the home of numerous historical sites and institutions engaged in research across the sustainability sector, the state of Brandenburg was a fitting host for a summer school titled “Earth, Sustainability, Governance: Human Environments in a Changing World”. But the success and outcomes of this year’s summer school were made possible by the preparations and organizational expertise of diverse members of staff from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), the Alfred Wegener Institute – Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), the Helmholtz-Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and the University of Potsdam in cooperation with the Capital City Potsdam. So … thank you all very much!

Header image: IASS/Rolf Schulten

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