On the 20th anniversary of the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), we take a look back at how a chance meeting in 1995 influenced the centre’s development and how it has pioneered transdisciplinary research.
Professor Cynthia Mitchell
I fell into an academic career accidently. A few years after graduating from university I began a PhD in biotechnology, but I quickly became disillusioned with that sector. So I took off travelling around Australia for a year camping in the bush. All these years on, Western Australia’s Karijini National Park still holds a special place in my heart.
As much as I loved the nomad life, I needed to get a job! My background was chemical engineering and biotechnology. But my passion for the environment got me a position in a civil engineering department. I had to come up with a research area quick smart, and when you add that mix together you end up in the shit, so to speak – with sewerage. My work focused on more environmentally sound technologies, like artificial wetlands.
Over the years at ISF, I’ve sought to bring sustainability to water and sanitation projects in Australian cities and in an international development and social justice context in the Asia-Pacific region.
When I met Stuart in 1995, I was running international short courses at the Gold Coast. I’d take participants on field trips down to wetlands and ponds around the wonderful NSW Northern Rivers area. Stuart had installed a composting toilet and greywater system in his Lismore home, so I integrated it into the field trips and he kindly let my professionals crawl in and under his house!
Fast forward a few years and Stuart and I were both in Sydney – he was working at the institute and I was at Sydney Uni. I was actually working with Stu’s partner, and one day I told her what I really wanted to do was, ‘engineering as if sustainability mattered’. And she said, ‘You know Stu is looking for people?’. So, in 2001, I joined the ISF team. It was a big decision – all the advice I got at the time was that I shouldn’t take it – but it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. A big part of that lies in Stu’s enthusiasm and positivity – he always asks, ‘What would it take to… ’; encouraging all those around him to be the best they can be.
Part of my motivation for joining ISF was to work out how we create learning environments that are motivated by something other than marks. Over the decade before I joined ISF, I had become very passionate about learning. For me, creating change is all about learning; each of us has to learn to do things differently if change is going to happen. When I arrived at ISF, Stu asked me to take on the postgrads. Most PhD students elsewhere were another brick in the wall, bounded to deep explorations of a single discipline within their supervisor’s work. That certainly has its place, but I felt something more practical and unconventional was necessary in the face of the world’s complex sustainability challenges.
It’s been so rewarding, and just plain fun, to learn and grow with our higher degree by research (HDR) students over the years. They’ve always been a disparate bunch; it’s the nature of a transdisciplinary PhD. But we’ve developed a rich community of practice and now the HDR program is an engine room of innovation for ISF’s research programs.
What’s remarkable is that we’ve always had a kind of magic at ISF. That’s something I think is still here. It’s impossible to pin it down to one thing or another, but for sure part of it lies in how we build capacity in people. Stuart has a wonderfully inclusive and humble leadership, and our increasingly decentralised model of decision-making encourages innovation and fosters respect.
Most of all, our staff and students are passionate and committed to making big and audacious change. We believe that tomorrow can be better than today.
Professor Stuart White
Cynthia and I first met in 1995. I was a sustainability consultant, walking the halls of the national water industry conference in Sydney. I gravitated towards a research poster making the case for alternative methods of treating sewage using constructed wetlands – as you do!
Sustainable sanitation was a pretty new concept at that time, especially for an engineering crowd, so I struck up a conversation with the researcher presenting the poster, and that was Cynthia.
Cut to 1997 and I heard about a senior research position at this new institute. The role was exactly what I had been doing as a consultant – I’d been working for a number of government agencies on everything from energy to sustainable buildings. But, I felt, with the credibility and backing of a university I’d have much greater prospects for creating change.
And, for me, it wasn’t just any university. I have a long history with UTS. In the late 1980s, as a physics PhD student at the Solar Energy Group at Sydney University, I was a casual lecturer for the Design School at the Sydney College of the Arts. Of course, that was absorbed into the faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the very founding of UTS in 1988. So some of my last pay cheques before I finished my PhD were from UTS!
Shortly after I started at ISF, contacts at Sydney Water rang and said they wanted to work out how to meet their targets for reducing water demand. We pioneered an approach called ‘integrated resource planning’ and focused on water recycling, leakage and efficiency. That became a major body of work for ISF, especially during the Millennium Drought, which started in 2001 and was the country’s worst dry-spell since European settlement. We’re now sharing that expertise with governments in California, Sao Paulo, The Philippines and other drought-affected areas around the world.
This relationship was also important because it led to the contract research model that ISF operates under today. It’s been so successful that we’ve grown from a handful of staff and postgraduate students to almost 70 staff and 40 students across 10 research areas.
In many ways, Cynthia has been fundamental to ISF’s evolution. Her arrival was a lifesaver. We had very few senior staff and were growing rapidly. Cynthia led the development of a world-class transdisciplinary postgraduate program, and mentored students and staff.
She was also a vital part of grounding our transdisciplinary approach to research. We have always done it at a practical level – every project has a diverse team approaching the problem holistically, using systems thinking to examine the economic, policy and technical aspects – but Cynthia’s really elevated that practice to be more transparent and reflective, and in the process become a global transdisciplinary thought leader.