No less than saving the world

Hand picking up beach trash

One of the most audacious initiatives since the creation of the first university more than 1,000 years ago began in the Yucatan jungle in 2004.

Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow convened a meeting in Temozón, Mexico, of a small but distinguished group of intellectual leaders who were exploring a new idea: sustainability science.

Could sustainability be a core value of a large public research university?

It would have to instruct and inspire new generations. It would have to solve pressing real-world problems. And it would have to walk its talk.

On the 15th anniversary of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS), ASU has proven it can do all of that and more.

The institute is the hub of the university’s sustainability initiatives. It advances research, education and business practices for an urbanizing world. Its School of Sustainability, the first of its kind in the U.S., offers transdisciplinary degree programs focused on finding practical solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges.

Now 143 universities teach a sustainability degree.

At ASU, more than 550 sustainability scientists tackle wicked problems including biodiversity and conservation; business practices and economics; climate change and adaptation; the transition to renewable-energy sources; food systems; water use, quality, and supply; environmental humanities; urbanization, and future and systems thinking.

“I have been at ASU for (more than) 20 years, and have always been impressed with its culture of collaboration and interdisciplinarity,” said Ann Kinzig, one of the institute’s first sustainability scientists.

“In many ways this predates GIOS, but GIOS allowed us to ‘take it to the next level,’” Kinzig said. “It has served as an incubator of true inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration on solutions to many of society’s most pressing problems — food security, access to clean water, creating cities that enhance human and environmental well-being, development that lifts the most impoverished. It has created a space and a culture where I get to continuously learn from some of the most impressive and dedicated scholars I have ever met.”

The initiative’s angel investor was philanthropist Julie Ann Wrigley. In 2004, Wrigley made a $15 million investment to establish the institute.

In ASU, Wrigley saw a young research university that was not locked into the silos of academic disciplines. Crow, also a forward-thinking nontraditionalist and conservationist, was willing to make sustainability a university pursuit.

“Sustainability is an issue that is bigger than all of us,” Wrigley said soon after. “Therefore, it will take all of us to solve it. Here we can think outside the envelope, which is critical to people like me who want to invent the future. We don’t want to be bound by tradition. At ASU, research is defined around the real needs of society. This is one of the rare places in the world where we can solve these problems and do it cohesively. We can create the ideas and provide the solutions on an ever-enlarging scale.”

To date, Julie Ann Wrigley has donated more than $50 million to the institute that bears her name.

The institute began with two missions, one internal and one external.

“Internally, the institute’s mission was to stimulate and support sustainability teaching, research and operations throughout all of ASU,” said Rob Melnick, director of international programs and executive director of the institute from 2008 to 2018. “Externally, to inspire and be a lighthouse for institutions and organizations everywhere to find their own ways of helping to create a more sustainable planet. I’ve observed, firsthand, both of these missions being accomplished at ASU and around the world based on GIOS’s contributions to education, government, private and nonprofit organizations.”

The external mission is also for the institute to be a symbol locally and globally of the university’s commitment to sustainability now and in the future, said deputy director Dave White.

“For the last 15 years, GIOS has supported a transdisciplinary environment for discovery and learning at ASU, bringing together scientists, scholars and stakeholders to cooperatively develop new knowledge, technologies and innovative solutions,” White said. “The Wrigley Institute is an inclusive environment that fosters creativity and empowers faculty, students, staff and partners to imagine transformative approaches to seemingly intractable societal problems.”

With more than half of the world’s population living in cities — just shy of 4 billion people, according to the United Nations — the key to global sustainability is making cities sustainable. The institute places special emphasis on urban environments in research and education, particularly focusing on greater Phoenix as an urban laboratory where solutions to water, energy, transportation and livability are largely applicable to other rapidly urbanizing areas around the world.

By 2045, the global city-dwelling population is projected to top 6 billion people. In the United States alone, 90 million additional people will live in urban areas by 2050. How they will sustainably do so is a component of the institute’s many projects. A few of those projects include:

  • A long-term study housed at the institute called the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research project. For 23 years, biological, physical, engineering and social scientists have been conducting research that provides a foundation for understanding urban socio-ecological systems in an arid, but rapidly growing, metropolitan area.
  • LightWorks is a loose network of scientists, policy experts, social scientists and humanities professors, all working on the Great Transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  • The Decision Center for a Desert City, a research unit of the institute. The center conducts climate, water and decision research, and develops tools to bridge the boundary between scientists and decision makers. The center has worked hard to become an example of how academia can work with policymakers and is regularly praised by the public sector for building successful relationships.

White, director of the center, said he thinks it is one of the institute’s greatest successes “from my earliest involvement as a faculty investigator on the initial NSF proposal in 2004 to my time as associate director, co-director and director,” he said.

“It’s been the greatest joy of my professional life to work with an amazing team of faculty, students, staff and community partners as we endeavor to develop new, transformational solutions to guide transitions to a more sustainable water future in an era of climate change. I’m particularly proud of the fact that the center was an inclusive environment that actively recruited and supported individuals from historically underrepresented groups in STEM fields, including women and people of color. The center provided unique opportunities for students and early career scientists to work in teams with senior scientists and practitioners.”

The institute’s newest initiative is the Global Futures Initiative, launched in 2018. Its goal is to harness the innovative capacity of ASU and academia as a whole to develop options for proactive management of our planet. Led by Peter Schlosser, one of the world’s leading earth and environmental scientists, Global Futures envisions ASU as a world hub where prominent scientists from across the globe come together to address the most critical issues related to human society and the future of our planet.

Celebrate 15 years of GIOS

What: A free, public celebration to honor the institute's achievements and envision our collective future. Remarks by Michael Crow and Peter Schlosser, followed by a conversation with Kristin Mayes and Bryan Brayboy. Special message by Johan Rockström, co-chair of the Earth League.
When: Monday, Feb. 17. Reception is at 4 p.m.; remarks and panel discussion from 5-6 p.m.
Where: Marston Exploration Theater in ISTB IV, Tempe campus.
Details: RSVP on the event page.

Learn more about the GIOS journey

Top photo by iStock/Getty Images

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