The budding of IRIS: a search for sustainable solutions

As our world becomes more complex, it also becomes more unstable. Linear approaches to global problems no longer work in today’s multidimensional world. Now, researchers, academics, politicians and professionals must consider the political, economic, cultural, environmental and social factors relating to a problem and work together to create a holistic and sustainable approach to developing solutions.

Left: David Wheeler

David Wheeler is an expert in sustainable solution development and a policy specialist. He is also the director of York University’s new Institute for Research and Innovation Sustainability (IRIS), which will be formally launched today. York has identified sustainability as one of its four strategic research priorities, along with health, international studies, and culture and entertainment. The University created IRIS as an interdisciplinary initiative aimed at seeking sustainable solutions to a broad array of economic, scientific, social and environmental challenges.

For Wheeler, sustainability and interdisciplinary are two words that go hand-in-hand. “Sustainability is important because it focuses on how society can move beyond its traditional approach to problem-solving and away from hand-wringing and criticism into action.”

Taking an interdisciplinary approach and working together to consider the business, cultural, environmental, social and political ramifications of a problem is also a critical component for success, and any solution developed has a greater chance of working. “It used to be that governments would throw money at a problem,” he says. “That hasn’t worked. People recognize that today’s issues are multidimensional and a linear or unidimensional approach to a solution does not address all aspects of a problem.”

Each facet must be thought through and the ramifications of the proposed remedy considered. Akin to an algebraic equation, what problem-solvers do to one side of the equation will affect the other. For this to happen, says Wheeler, there must be a “bringing together” of minds and as a result, IRIS.

“There is nothing quite as strategic as IRIS,” says Wheeler. “By creating IRIS, York University has broken new ground. No one has all the answers, but through IRIS we can learn with others.”

“IRIS was conceived to support the full spectrum of sustainability research across the University and to bring academics together to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president, research and innovation.

Left: Sustainable solutions have been identified as critical to addressing food and water security issues in Sudan

Among its current projects IRIS is looking to create a new model for international development, by engaging the private sector and civil society organizations (CSOs) in promoting sustainable livelihoods. Two York academics, Wheeler and Senior Researcher Fellow Zoe Wilson, will head to Darfur, Sudan, in early December to explore opportunities for sustainable local enterprise in the region.

“Self-sustaining development was designated by Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin as a priority,” says Wheeler. “He believes very strongly that people need support that gives them the ability to become self-reliant.

“We have a very pragmatic approach to sustainable enterprise. We know that humanitarian aid is vital, especially in crisis zones such as Darfur. But, historically, humanitarian aid has not led to the building of local economies. We see the need to help build resilient local economies based on locally grounded enterprises – and not dependent on external sources of investment.”

As an example, Wheeler noted that York – along with civil society organizations and businesses – has formed a coalition for Sustainable Enterprise and Development in Africa (SEDA). The coalition will share its ideas with collaborators in Sudan, Tanzania and South Africa and will help coordinate strategic alliances between Canadian business, CSOs and African institutions. SEDA has received the endorsement of David Agnew, CEO of Unicef Canada, Doug Muzuyka, CEO of DuPont Canada, and Patricia Marsden-Dole, former Canadian high commissioner to Tanzania.

The activities of IRIS are not limited to overseas projects. In a unique initiative, IRIS is also supporting domestic sustainability projects, including the “Don Valley West One Tonne Challenge”, a local example of the federal government’s program aimed at encouraging citizens to reduce their annual greenhouse gas emissions by one tonne annually as part of meeting Canada’s Kyoto targets. The project was initially championed by Don Valley West MP and Minister of State for Infrastructure and Communities John Godfrey. Graduate students from York’s Schulich School of Business and Faculty of Environmental Studies worked with various stakeholders on the project, which focuses on personal road transportation and home energy use.

Visit the IRIS Web site for more information on the institute’s mandate, expertise, and current and future projects.