A sustainable future is in our hands

From climate science to agricultural upcycling, and food packaging to urban farming, meet four researchers from around the world working towards a sustainable future.

Dr Ferne Edwards is a Research Fellow for RMIT's Centre for Urban Research and is based at RMIT Europe in Barcelona.

She coordinates RMIT's work as a partner on the research project EdiCitNet: Strategies towards integrating urban Edible City Solutions for social resilient and sustainably productive cities in Europe, funded through the Horizon 2020 (H2020) research and innovation scheme.

1.  What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

“To achieve ongoing and real change we need supportive collaborations without ego or competition that employ empathy to consider others’ perspectives.”

“Such collaboration requires establishing a shared language and common values. If we’re going to achieve sustainable change, we need to work together.”

“We need more than the individual actions (which are still important but are not enough in themselves) of diverse groups who can agree on solutions to then support each other to harness, maintain, and propel the motivation to achieve them.”

Change needs to occur in places where they’ll be of impact – be it in policy or at crucial junctures – to disrupt and impact structural issues that can ‘lock in’ environmental and social justice achievements to be carried on.

So rather than getting caught up on the small details, people need to work together to achieve broad strokes of socio-political change that keep in sight the bigger picture of what we want to achieve.

07 March 2019

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Ferne Edwards is based at RMIT Europe and works in sustainable cities, food systems and social change.

2. How is your research helping to drive change?

My field is sustainable cities, food systems and social change.

Through my work I identify many exciting and innovative urban social food projects across the world that demonstrate that such change is possible, and happening, with many ways to engage.

By making visible such approaches, people who are doing these actions can see that they are part of a wider movement enhancing solidarity, in addition to giving hope to others that it’s worth getting involved.

Social food projects provide so much more than food – they’re also about health, urban greening, overcoming social isolation and more.

By bringing people together in cities through food practices, we can create clusters of understanding to support each other to create social change in many ways.

My current job involves supporting the establishment of an international edible cities network that strives to help initiatives learn from each other.

We aim to make this movement inclusive and representative within and across cities, to value grassroots actions for change, and to ask how can we best integrate innovative, community urban agriculture practices into policy to help this movement take its next step to create greener, more socially inclusive and resilient cities.

Tien Huynh is a science lecturer and researcher who specialises in medicinal plants and waste reduction.

Dr Tien Huynh is a science lecturer and researcher who specialises in medicinal plants and waste reduction. Her achievements include establishing community transformative projects for endangered and medicinal plants, environmental sustainability and agricultural upcycling.

Recognised as a 2017 Superstar of STEM, Huynh lives in Australia and travels back to her home country Vietnam each year to work with coffee farmers to make their industry more sustainable.

1. What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

“Most environmental issues that we face aren’t easy to solve, there is no single solution. The challenge is also to convince people to rethink the way they see things.

“The coffee farmers I work with have been growing these plants for generations. Why should they listen to me when I suggest using a different technology or planting a different variety that will better suit a changing climate?

“There is a lot of waste in coffee and farming practice needs to adapt.

“We use less than 1% of the beans and globally each year, 6 million tons of recorded ground coffee is wasted. And that’s just accounting for the selected beans, but more than 50% is lost in the initial selection process.

“As we grow as a population, we’ll consume more and produce more waste.

“I love plants and they have so many applications. But I can see that a lot of people are becoming very removed from their natural environment. We need to appreciate the amount of energy that’s gone into producing these plants and reduce waste. We don’t see it because it’s all wrapped up in plastic in a supermarket.”

2. How is your research helping to drive change?

“A lot of people keep looking at problems in the same way and there is no motivation to be innovative.

“My focus is on changing how we view waste as a valuable resource and commodity, so we future-proof ourselves from living in our own filth.

“I hope my research helps people to see the world with different eyes and understand the benefit of being innovative. We need to find solutions that are more relevant to tomorrow’s problems.

“I also hope my passion for plants and research inspires people to be less wasteful. Plants are the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in - without them, we wouldn’t have a planet and there’d be no humans or animals.”    

Lauren Rickards is based in the Centre for Urban Research in Melbourne and is focussed on social elements of environmental issues, including climate change.

Associate Professor Lauren Rickards is passionate about asking the big hard questions when it comes to and dealing with our big environmental challenges.

Rickards is a co-leader of the Climate Change and Resilience research program of in the Centre for Urban Research, and Senior Lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, at RMIT’s City campus in Australia.

Her work focuses on the social elements of environmental issues, including climate change.

1. What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

“Understanding the scale, scope and complexity of the changes occurring on our planet and finding ways to work in this new environment is one of the biggest challenges in my field.

“Part of the challenge is balancing the very strong certainties that we know such as the direction and risks of climate change, with the extreme uncertainties including the timing and location of changes.

“Looking at that global scale and understanding cities as part of a process that involves non-urban spaces at the planetary scale is vital.

“For example, we might say to ourselves, ‘my car doesn’t have much of an effect’ but we need to think more broadly and understand that we live in an automobile-centred system.

“Cars are key to our identity and a sense of what it means to be a part of a modern society. Cities are structured around roads. So we need to look at how we change the whole way we operate as a society.

2. How is your research helping to drive change?

“I see my role as being a translator – I translate complex and overwhelming science and other emerging knowledge about the future into language and ideas to inform decisions in diverse realms, from individuals and households to board rooms and even cabinet

“It’s good to remember that although the world is changing, this includes changes for the better. And we must think of hope for our future as an active practise. We are only truly hopeful when we actively work to make a better world.”

07 March 2019

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Anh Thu Nguyen is based at RMIT Vietnam and is focused on sustainable consumption and changing consumer behaviour.

Dr Anh Thu Nguyen is a lecturer in marketing in the School of Business and Management at RMIT Vietnam. She is focused on sustainable consumption and changing consumer behaviour.

1. What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

“My home country, Vietnam is a rapidly industrialising and increasingly consumerist society, with a mounting plastic waste problem.

“About 60% of the 120 tonnes of packaging used every day in Ho Chi Minh City is plastic.

“The government has initiated social marketing campaigns to raise consumer awareness of plastic pollution and reduce consumption. However, changing consumer behaviour is not easy. We need to fully understand people’s behaviour to identify the best actions and change things for the better.

“The biggest challenge is collecting primary data on consumer behaviour because it is product-specific, person-specific and situation-specific.

“Researchers need to focus on specific product categories as people’s choices and motivations can be different for each. Consumers have different social cultural backgrounds, emotions and personalities. This challenge requires hard work, commitment and passion of the researcher.”

2. How is your research helping to drive change?

“My passion is to get involved in changing consumer behaviour towards a culture of sustainable consumption. Tackling food packaging is a priority given the shift towards a culture of convenience and the resulting environmental effects.

“Many factors can affect whether consumers make eco-friendly purchase decisions. I believe a full understanding of the internal psychological and external social factors influencing consumer behaviour is required before we can successfully encourage consumers to buy products with environmentally friendly characteristics, including eco-friendly packaging.

“Motivating sustainable consumption must involve building awareness of environmental issues, developing supportive communities and promoting meaningful actions, starting from every day.”

Story: Kate Milkins / Karen Matthews

  • Research
  • Sustainability
  • RMIT Vietnam
  • RMIT Europe
  • Environment

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