Mark Stafford Smith: A New Approach to Sustainable Global Development

By Mark Stafford Smith, Future Earth


There is no escaping the fact that our world is changing fast. A global population of 11 billion by the year 2100. ‘Severe and irreversible’ climate change. Demand for efficient renewable energy sources and more sustainable consumption. Escalating concerns for food and water security.


How can science, policy and business assure that we do not flounder in this new world? And can we even approach this as incentive to create new market opportunities?


A newly launched report from global sustainability research platform, Future Earth, has identified eight critical development challenges for science to address in the years ahead. The report, which is the result of a global consultation process spanning 74 countries over the past year,  calls for new collaboration to strengthen our global innovation system in the following areas:


1. Deliver water, energy, and food for all.

Businesses are one of the main drivers in the creation of innovative technologies. Demand for the Earth’s finite resources continues to swell, not only because of population increases but also as the world’s growing middle classes begin to consume more per capita. How will innovative business learn to cope amongst the environmental, economic, social and political forces which govern our supply of basic resources?


2. Find a new fuel for economic growth.

Breaking the link today’s economy still has with fossil fuels will require global policy and commitment, especially in rapidly developing countries. Viable and attractive alternative energy and technology found by businesses with the support of research will be crucial in ensuring the transitions advocated in policy agendas.


3. Improve management of land, freshwater and marine natural assets.

Human well-being and development have deep foundations in the health of the environment. While the assessment and protection of these features is a task for science and policy, businesses reliant upon them will become more creative to satisfy the need for space and demand for resources in more sustainable ways. 


4. Develop new cities that are healthy, resilient and productive.

It is clear we need to reduce the finite resource footprints of urban areas, and innovative business will be crucial in this process – identifying new forms of energy and realising the potential in the mega-cities of the future. Given that half the city infrastructure that the world will have in 2050 is not yet built, this provides a huge opportunity.


5. Create more sustainable rural systems.

Agricultural businesses will need to step up considerably if they are to sustainably produce the increasing amount of food demanded in the future, creating both a great challenge and opportunity for innovation. 


6. Find ways to improve human health.

Changes to the global environment, changing populations, pollution, and increased travel are likely to foster new diseases and change they way they spread in the future. If we are to be more resilient to outbreaks, companies will need to play a major role in identifying, handling and treating diseases.  


7. Create a market for sustainable consumption and production.

Government policies to encourage sustainability and incentives for new technologies will create a wealth of opportunity for innovation. What are the future trends that will influence purchasing patterns? How will these depend on availability of resources? Which companies will be the big suppliers of the future depends on how quickly they can adapt practice now.


8. Improve governance and early warning systems to respond to complex future threats.

As natural and anthropogenic forces exert greater pressure on our populations, how can we be become better at dealing with resultant threats? Scientists, governments, businesses and civil society must work together to identify the locations and magnitude of threats, and as the benefits from advanced preparation swing to outweigh the costs, business must be on hand to deliver action on the ground.


This report illuminates how the globally-connected problems of the 21st century require globally-connected efforts. Science must start to address society’s emerging needs, but this knowledge needs to be developed with society so that policymakers and businesses can turn it into action rapidly.


The future of our world is already here, we can no longer wait to act. Researchers are ready to provide the tools and information required to find solutions posed by our rapidly changing planet, working with policy makers to make sure sustainable development theory is turned into action; however, businesses must also step up to commercialise the innovations and deliver the transformations towards sustainability which we require.


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