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Proposed new institute would study what drives transitions to sustainability

Scholars from across the university have contributed to a vision for a Sustainable Societies Institute in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability that would focus on understanding change in systems where people and nature are inextricably linked – such as cities, food, or global markets.

For communities, governments, organizations, and industries with ambitions to address global challenges and help people and nature thrive together, an important question will be how to make changes that stick – given all the complexities of social and environmental systems. 

By the end of 2024, the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability aims to launch an institute that seeks to inform answers to this question through scholarship and partnerships. 

“The heart of the proposed institute is a question of how societies accomplish changes that lead to greater sustainability,” said Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, an assistant professor of Earth system science who has co-led discussions with faculty and scholars from across Stanford’s seven schools to develop a vision for the Sustainable Societies Institute, or SSI. “We’re suggesting that SSI can help answer this question by working in the real world with partners to develop solutions and bring them to scale in a way that is just and appropriate.”

Profile photos of Gabrielle Wong-Parodi and Jim Leape
Gabrielle Wong-Parodi and Jim Leape co-led the visioning process for the planned Sustainable Societies Institute.

Over the past year, Wong-Parodi and co-leader Jim Leape, the William and Eva Price Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, have brought together dozens of Stanford scholars and institute leaders in meetings and a workshop and consulted with the school’s advisory council to explore possibilities for an institute focused on sustainable societies.

Now, building on the vision for SSI that emerged from this exploration, the school is launching a search for a director or co-directors to bring the vision to reality.

At the helm of the director search committee are energy science and engineering professor emeritus Lynn Orr, the founding director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, and organizational behavior professor Sarah Soule, who directs the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Officially launching a new institute will also require review and approval by the Academic Council Advisory Board and the provost.

The question of how to catalyze research that can lead to a sustainable future lies at the heart of the school’s commitment to addressing the big challenges of sustainability. “Just like the Woods and Precourt institutes, the new Sustainable Societies Institute will cultivate the connective tissue across disciplines critical to advancing research and scholarship needed to foster sustainable societies across the world,” said Dean Arun Majumdar

Supporting transdisciplinary research

The vision developed by faculty from across Stanford calls for the proposed Sustainable Societies Institute to focus on understanding what scholars call “socio-ecological systems,” or systems where people and nature are inextricably linked, such as cities, food systems, and global markets. 

The institute will create programs that foster “vibrant communities of scholars from across the university who are building our engagement with issues that are of pressing importance,” Leape said. This will support research that can build a base of evidence for what actually helps sustainable changes take hold, rather than relying on intuition about what might work, said Wong-Parodi.

In addition to initiatives and seed-grant programs modeled on other successful institutes, SSI will support ambitious, long-term research projects – potentially as long as 10-20 years. “We can follow changes over time and test the effectiveness of possible solutions, which could then meet some of the educational goals of the university as being a place where students can be embedded in long-term research projects, and where they contribute and work with partners,” Wong-Parodi said.

The Natural Capital Project, which began in 2005, illustrates how such a project could look, Leape said. Similar to the way the Natural Capital Project has engaged partners around the world to bring the value of nature into decision-making, future SSI initiatives might work with farmers, food companies, and governments to create healthier, more sustainable food systems, for example, or with international aid organizations to slow down migration in the wake of disasters fueled by climate change.

Bringing partners together

Like the work of other institutes, partnership is another key aspect of SSI. “To achieve its goals, SSI will need to work with communities, countries, companies, and organizations at any level, to develop solutions that can actually help them crack the challenge of sustainability,” said Leape, who is also co-director of the Center for Ocean Solutions.

SSI researchers will work with partners to identify appropriate solutions for them. Not every solution fits every context, Wong-Parodi said, but each problem offers lessons to learn and the possibility of adapting or scaling solutions to meet other needs.

Stanford’s strength in multiple domains makes the university an ideal place for fostering these critical partnerships. “Not only do we have the expertise, we also have the convening power. Something that we do really well is to bring people together, bring partners together, bring researchers together,” Wong-Parodi said. “That’s something that we think we should leverage and lean into.”

Leape is also a professor, by courtesy, of oceans in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Wong-Parodi is also an assistant professor of environmental social sciences in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and a center fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. 

Orr is the Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor, Emeritus, and an affiliate of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He served as dean of the Stanford School of Earth Sciences from 1994 to 2002. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, the Sara Miller McCune Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), and a professor, by courtesy, of sociology in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Additional members of the Sustainable Societies Institute director search committee include Nicole Ardoin, Jack Baker, David Cohen, Peter Henry, Roberta Katz, Isik Kizilyalli, Desiree LaBeaud, and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi.

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