Sustainability is a critical strategic imperative for global prosperity and social progress. The National Research Council defines sustainability as “…improving society’s capacity to use the earth in ways that simultaneously meet future needs, sustain the life support systems of the planet, and substantially reduce poverty.” Through partnerships with industry, government, and other organizations the Sustainable and Resilient Economy (SRE) program is developing new knowledge and transformative solutions to help achieve a transition to a sustainable world.
However, in a tightly-coupled and turbulent global economy, sustainability is not enough. Faced with constant crises, companies and governments are challenged to maintain continuity, let alone to pursue transformative changes. We define resilience as “the capacity to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of turbulent change and uncertainty.” While sustainability focuses on strategies to improve human well-being over time, resilience focuses on preparing for unexpected shocks that may destabilize our cities, supply chains, or natural resources.
The SRE program is advancing the science of sustainable production and consumption by developing a comprehensive, integrated approach to sustainability and resilience assessment. We combine advanced tools such as life cycle assessment, multi-scale modeling, and data analytics to evaluate the costs, benefits, risks and possible hidden consequences of changes in technology, policy and the natural environment. The resulting innovations will enhance the value of material and energy flows through the economy and society, while reducing their adverse impacts.
Our applied research integrates across the natural and social sciences, engineering, medicine and public health. The emphasis is on coupling biophysical and social sciences to generate new transdisciplinary knowledge and develop practical, scalable solutions for a more sustainable and resilient society. In particular, understanding human behavior is critical for identifying potential unintended consequences that may offset technological or business innovations. For example, introducing a more efficient technology (e.g., LED lighting) may cause a “rebound effect” that actually increases energy demand, due to lower prices and emergence of new applications.
The SRE program encompasses several major innovative research thrusts:
Humanity’s growing appetite for material goods is driving increased resource consumption and ecological degradation. This is largely due to our traditional linear economy—raw materials are extracted from the earth and industrial waste products, including greenhouse gases, are released into the environment. The resulting irreversible losses to forests, soils, wetlands, freshwater supplies and other ecosystem services threaten the natural systems on which society depends.
Innovations in renewable materials and waste re-use can reduce these pressures, enabling a circular economy. For example, industrial wastes can be used as soil amendments or as feedstocks for production of steel, cement, and gypsum, while agricultural wastes can be converted into biofuels. But sustainability isn’t guaranteed just because a material is bio-based or recyclable—it depends on the supply chain processes whereby these materials are collected, transported, converted, utilized, and disposed. Hence the need for integrated assessment from the process level to the planetary scale.
Ohio State has been instrumental in developing methods for converting wastes into valuable resources and helping companies and communities to establish waste-to-profit networks. We worked with the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development to develop and apply advanced software tools for optimizing waste recovery, and we have assisted many of our partners in adopting new technologies for sustainable materials management. The Ohio By-Product Synergy Network, originally launched by Ohio State in 2009, has grown into a self-sustaining organization with dozens of industry members.
In the long-term, mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions is essential to stabilize the earth’s climate. The SRE program is pursuing materials development initiatives that will enable a transition to a low-carbon economy, including industrial-scale technologies for cost-effective capture, sequestration and/or utilization of wasted carbon, and development of renewable, bio-based products, such as biorubber and biofuels, as substitutes for materials based on fossil fuels or scarce minerals.
Meanwhile, we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, including volatile weather, sea-level rise, and species migration. To adapt to these changes and enable continued human well-being, we must develop climate-resilient solutions for our households, businesses, and communities. For example, the use of engineered ecosystems, known as "green" infrastructure, can help to reduce flooding and stormwater overflow and preserve critical ecosystem functions, while providing green space for recreation or urban agriculture.
More broadly, Ohio State has developed a framework and tools for supply chain resilience that helps companies to identify all sorts of vulnerabilities and create adaptive organizations that can survive and prosper under any circumstances. Examples of resilient business practices include redundancy in manufacturing locations and supply channels, geographic dispersion of critical assets, and use of information technology to increase supply chain visibility.
Coupled Human-Natural Systems
Sustainable and resilient solutions must take into account the complex nexus of linkages among materials, food, energy, water, land and other resources. Recent natural disasters have revealed hidden vulnerabilities in the infrastructures and resources that support basic community needs. The combined stresses of population growth, climate change, and industrial development only exacerbate these vulnerabilities, so that communities are increasingly exposed to the risk of cascading effects that can impose both social and economic hardship. Integrated planning and investment is needed to ensure the continuity and adaptability of interdependent infrastructures for food-energy-water systems (FEWS).
Ohio State has been at the forefront of research on integrated systems modeling, supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other agencies. In November 2015 Ohio State held an NSF-sponsored workshop, involving over 50 leading scientists, to explore research needs for improving the sustainability and resilience of FEWS. The direct effects of climate change will be most dramatic in coastal or drought-prone areas. Moreover, human adaptations to climate change may include migration to less vulnerable regions, thus increasing FEWS stresses such as competition for land and other resources. This underscores the need to integrate social and behavioral sciences into technology and policy development at a community and regional level. FEWS White Paper.
The Sustainable and Resilient Economy program builds upon the vast intellectual capital of Ohio State, including centers of excellence in the fields of Economics, Social Sciences, Engineering, Manufacturing, Business, Agriculture, Environmental Sciences, Psychology, Medicine, Decision Sciences, Humanities, Law, and Public Affairs. In conjunction with these research thrusts, the SRE program engages in partnerships with industrial enterprises and other key stakeholders who will help to test the sustainability and resilience of new technologies and to facilitate commercialization and adoption of promising innovations.