TARDIS Workshop 2014

Bridges vol. 40, July 2014 / Institutions and Orgs

By Michael Narodoslawsky

Bridging the US and Europe, as well as different disciplines, to foster sustainable development

The Trans-Atlantic Research & Development Interchange on Sustainability (TARDIS) Scientific Workshop Series has been held biannually since 2004 (with the exception of 2010), with alternating venues in Estes Park, Colorado, and Schloss Seggau/Austria. The workshop series was conceived as a platform of exchange between the US and EU high-level scientists dealing with strategic research questions that will shape the sustainability discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. The workshop series was cofounded mostly by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy (or its respective predecessors) and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

TARDIS workshops are by-invitation-only events that pair high-quality scientific lectures with ample discussion time. Each participant is asked to provide scientific background material as well as lecture slides for the TARDIS homepage (http://tardis.tugraz.at/). Wiki software supports users of the homepage to locate content of interest, as well as to follow the timeline of thoughts throughout the history of the workshop series. In addition to the material stored on the web page, each workshop has generated a brief summarizing important strategic outcomes for decision makers in Europe and the US.

True to its mission, the workshop series addressed topics that required discourse about strategic research approaches at the time each workshop was held. These started in 2004 with the topic of mathematical modelling of sustainable development, continued in 2006 with the topic scientific principles of sustainability, and in 2008 with energy and sustainable development. The TARDIS workshop in 2012 targeted time frames for sustainable development. Detailed information on the content and results of each workshop can be downloaded from the TARDIS homepage.

TARDIS 2014, held in Estes Park, Colorado, June 3-6, was financed by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy, and the US National Science Foundation, and was organized by the research association ARENA, the Vishwamitra Research Institute, and the US EPA. The 2014 workshop, which addressed the topic Policies and Technologies for Sustainability, convened 27 participants from seven countries, including India.

Participants were confronted with four questions to focus their discussion at the workshop:

  • What progress has been accomplished in sustainability?
  • Why has there not been more progress in moving societies towards sustainability?
  • What are the roadblocks to progress towards sustainability?
  • What are the policies, technologies, and other changes that are needed to make further progress towards sustainability?

This TARDIS workshop proved to be particularly fruitful and timely. During two-and-a-half days of intensive exchange in the form of lectures and both formal and informal discussions, participants ventured into a thorough analysis of the current state of the sustainability discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. They arrived at a strong consensus about the necessary strategic orientation of the sustainability discourse in the future. The most important findings of the workshop were:

Sustainability is clearly established as a new development paradigm

The workshop participants agreed that the concept of sustainability must be seen as a new paradigm for development. It is based in a holistic perception of reality that human beings are inherently linked across the globe as well as across generations and are inseparable from their natural context. From this point of view, individuals become an integral part of a global, finite, “living” system, each action of an individual influencing the whole system and acting back on the individual’s fate by changing the system. Participants also agreed that within such a holistic view of reality, the concept of growth must be thoroughly recalibrated.

The change from the current development paradigm, which is largely defined by the concept of perpetual growth, to a concept of sustainable development is profound. The time frame for this change must therefore be measured in decades and generations rather than in years.

The sustainability discourse has crossed the threshold of the pioneering phase

Both the term "sustainability" and the main tenets of sustainable development have already gone mainstream in the societal discourse about the future. Conversely, the discourse about sustainability has become much more refined over the quarter century since it first entered the political arena via the Brundtland Report, which was commissioned by the UN in 1987. A diversity of thoughts and normative positions has entered this discourse, which is now loaded with partly contradictory visions for the future, development goals, and possible strategies to achieve them. In addition, we still confront strong traces of the agendas set by a relatively small group of pioneers. This makes the current sustainability discourse colorful but at the same time divisive.

Crossing the pioneer phase threshold, however, creates increased and visible resistance to change. The plurality of actors and institutions are still shaped by development focused on unlimited growth and the assumption of infinite natural capital. The participants of the workshop agreed that a change towards sustainability requires profound institutional change as well as changes in the behavior of individual citizens. Such change clearly meets resistance, as it requires rethinking and rebuilding the very structure of society. The participants mentioned, among other topics, the current structure of subsidies, the predominant reliance on markets to solve societal challenges, and the strong preference for individualism over societal integration as particularly critical areas of tension between the current paradigm and that of sustainability.

The first results of the change to sustainable development were mentioned in the workshop. These include the transformation of European energy markets, which is currently underway and clearly accommodates more environmentally friendly technologies. They also include the first successful business models, such as the Zero Waste initiatives that have already taken hold in the US and in Europe.

The way forward

True to the objectives of TARDIS, the workshop discussions pointed towards some critical strategic orientations for the whole sustainability discourse. Among the most important issues raised were:

A broad and open discourse about the normative aspects of sustainable development

The participants pointed out that the maturing of the sustainability discourse has resulted in a diversification of visions and normative positions. This, however, requires a new openness in the discourse between disciplines as well as societal actors, acknowledging the diversity of objectives as well as the differences in basic positions. The mostly defensive nature of the sustainability discourse that emphasized a few tenets as axioms must give way to an open discourse that also acknowledges conflicting objectives and diverse points of departure. The goal is less an artificially unified model of sustainable development than an effort to set the stage for the rich discourse of society as it pursues a new development paradigm.

Including and sharpening the cultural narrative of sustainable development

Change towards this new development paradigm requires a broad base of public support. Such support can only be achieved if sustainability becomes embedded in the cultural context of societies. This calls for an emphasis on developing strong cultural narratives that form the reference for aspirations of coming generations as well as for societal and institutional change.

Acknowledging the key factor of governance for change

One aspect of the coming of age of sustainability is that the technological means to achieve its objectives have already been developed, to a great extent, over the last two decades. Implementing sustainable development is therefore much more dependent on societal and institutional change than on some anticipated technological breakthrough. Thus, a strong emphasis on new governance approaches will be required. The participants called for an intensified and open-minded discourse about new governance forms. They characterized these new approaches as being participatory as well as anticipatory. The discussions revealed a distinct lack of knowledge about the function and interaction of new governance approaches, as well as their efficacy regarding institutional change given the current well-entrenched institutional systems.

TARDIS 2014 proved again that the discourse between the sustainability communities on either side of the Atlantic is not only inspirational but crucial for providing a strategic orientation regarding future scientific discourse about sustainability. Although the discussions revealed marked differences between the US and Europe in their approaches to sustainability, they also demonstrated broad agreement on the current state and future goals of the sustainability discourse at a global level.