“We sometimes overestimate how familiar researchers are with the R&D ecosystem right in their own backyard,” says Michaël Aklin, an EPFL associate professor and one of the managing directors at E4S. “It takes a lot of time and energy to find partners who are conducting R&D that could be of interest, with the potential for leveraging synergies and complementary skillsets. That’s where our Sustainability Portal comes in – by doing the legwork for them, we can help experts team up on new, ambitious projects.”
This online directory was developed with the support of UNIL’s Competence Centre in Sustainability and EPFL’s Vice Presidencies for Academic Affairs and Responsible Transformation. Aklin, who came to EPFL recently and holds the Chair of Policy & Sustainability at the College of Management of Technology, sees real value in this kind of pragmatic endeavor.
Work began in 2022 and the public version was released on 12 September 2023. It contains information on over 330 people involved in sustainability-oriented R&D at either UNIL, IMD, EPFL, or an affiliate organization such as a spin-off or student association.
“Sustainability and climate change are issues that span several disciplines,” says Nicolas Tétreault, the executive director of CLIMACT. “There are major benefits to be had in taking a cross-disciplinary approach involving several research centers. Experts can pool their skills and design high-impact, system-based solutions.” He hopes that portal will “help drive the transition to a more sustainable society by catalyzing the formation of new R&D consortiums.”
The directory is grouped into sixteen topics including both technical ones – like energy, biodiversity and materials – and societal ones like justice, social norms and governance. The range of topics reflects the breadth of skills and experience found among its members.
“The portal also has examples of concrete projects members are working on,” says Tétreault. “It’s worth taking the time to browse through the directory and click around to see what people are up to. Our online resource illustrates just how much the work being done at our three universities covers all aspects of sustainability.”
The developers began compiling the experts’ data in March – mainly faculty members, but not exclusively. The decision on which people to include was based on the definition of sustainability adopted by the directory’s founders: “To ensure human well-being across generations, as well as the stability of ecosystems. Following the Doughnut Economics Model, this means keeping the impact of all human activity within the ecological limits of the planet, while ensuring equity and basic needs for all.”
Anchored in the local ecosystem
The Sustainability Portal is intended to serve as a useful tool for researchers and innovators as well as a welcome resource for journalists, business leaders and policymakers. Its founders made a deliberate choice to focus entirely on the local ecosystem. Aklin explains: “If we had developed the directory with a university in Berlin, for example, we wouldn’t have the same synergistic influence on Swiss and Vaud policymakers. What’s more, local officials have told me that with E4S, they’re happy to have one organization to call on that represents all three universities.”
Aklin adds: “There were times in the past when a lot of hassle could’ve been avoided if a cross-disciplinary approach had been taken from the outset.” One example is the failed June 2021 referendum on a proposed carbon-emissions reduction act. “The majority No vote in that referendum opened up a lot of people’s eyes at our universities,” says Tétreault. “We realized we can’t just put forth solutions and expect everyone to automatically be on board. We’ve got to explain the benefits to the general public.”
In Aklin’s view, researchers at EPFL are getting better at factoring in the societal and governmental aspects of sustainability. “Even the most academically-minded scientists realize that no matter how extraordinary new technology may be, it’s useless if it’s not adopted.”
Dialogue pays off
By providing a one-stop-shop for finding sustainability experts located within a five-kilometer radius, the directory will help foster the kind of cross-disciplinary dialogue that Tétreault and Aklin are calling for. E4S held its first Community Meet-Up, on the topic of the circular economy, just before the summer. The event included around a dozen short presentations examining the issue from different angles, followed by a networking drinks event. According to Julia Bory, the co-lead of innovation at E4S, the center plans to hold these Community Meet-Ups regularly so that members of the Sustainability Portal can get to know other experts in their field. She headed up the development work at E4S, and stresses that the directory was designed to be dynamic so that more scientists and engineers can be added down the line. Interested in joining? Get in touch!