How are the global leaders of tomorrow going to secure renewable sources of energy, solve the problems of water scarcity, and maintain our standard of living – all while improving health, ending poverty, and accommodating a growing population and changing environment? The World Economic Forum, with its commitment to “improving the state of the world,” realizes that future global leaders cannot address these complex challenges without a sound understanding of environmental science and policy, and came to Columbia University to gain these important tools. From July 15-20, 2012, The Earth Institute, the School of the Arts, the School of Continuing Education, and the Mailman School of Public Health welcomed the Global Leadership Fellows from the World Economic Forum. The Fellows, Forum employees who are enrolled in a highly selective leadership development program, participated in an intensive series of science-based workshops about global sustainability. The program takes a cross-disciplinary approach to these issues, grounding the fellows with knowledge of theoretical concepts and the basic underlying science while facilitating larger discussions of the challenges and complexities in these areas.
The Fellows, who hail from over 20 countries, came to Columbia for the third consecutive year with a diversity of backgrounds, experience, and areas of interest. The “Global Sustainability and Complexity” program immerses the Fellows in issues of sustainability, public health, and poverty. Over the course of the week, they engaged in discussions, exercises, and case studies on topics as varied as the economics of renewable energy; carbon capture and storage technology; climate change; natural hazards and risk management; water scarcity; food security; urban development; and much more. The program charges the Fellows to provide solutions at the local and global scale using interdisciplinary tools and a systems thinking approach.
Top faculty and researchers across the University along with leading practitioners in the public and private sectors discussed innovative, cross-disciplinary strategies to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. Kristine Billmyer, Dean of the School of Continuing Education opened the week with an introduction to the interconnected nature of emerging global problems that lack easy solutions. Dean Billmyer noted that strategies to address complex problems, such as climate change, require cross disciplinary thinking, a systems approach to problem-solving, and a multi-stakeholder engagement process. Throughout the week, as the Fellows were presented with the current state of knowledge on various topics, they were challenged to think about these pressing issues in these terms, and were introduced to skills that will help them to do so.
Steven Cohen, Executive Director of the Earth Institute, in speaking about the opportunity this program represents, noted “leadership is essential to building the sustainable economy we require in order to both preserve the planet and sustain quality of life for a growing population. We hope that the programming this week and the connection between our world-class researchers and these diverse leaders will help drive this change.”
The program provided a platform for faculty, researchers, and practitioners to share not only research, basic science, and problem solving approaches but also served to build and strengthen relationships between researchers, academics and the business community. Jason Smerdon, Lamont Assistant Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory presented the Fellows with the foundations of climatology, discussing where climate science stands today: “It is hard to imagine an environmental challenge more relevant to contemporary business practices than climate change. Time and again it has been shown that the level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is rising due to human activities and that the climatic consequences will be severe under business as usual scenarios. Business as usual therefore is no longer sufficient and it was a pleasure to engage the Global Leadership Fellows in discussions of climate change, its anticipated impacts and prospective mitigation strategies. Private sector leadership is such an essential element of any solution to human-caused climate change, and interacting with the highly talented professionals from the Global Economic Forum is an uplifting reminder of the potential for our business leaders to engage this serious and urgent problem.”
The Earth Institute and School of Continuing Education-led portion of the week culminated with a synthesis activity, where the Fellows were challenged to examine a sustainability issue within an urban context. Ronald Philip, Associate Director, Supply Chain & Transportation Industries and Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum, attested in his blog that, “the Fellows used their rich and diverse backgrounds to propose cross-disciplinary solutions to wicked problems in cities ranging from Sao Paulo to Lisbon, teaching us how rapidly growing cities need to learn from each other’s best practices in collaborating to address sustainability and how organizations like the World Economic Forum and C40 can serve as effective platforms for that discourse.”
In the evenings, the Global Leadership Fellows were treated to exceptional programming by the School of the Arts that continued to challenge how the Fellows view the world. After watching the documentary The Interrupters, the Fellows discussed solutions to youth violence with filmmaker Steve James and Violence Interrupter, Ameena Matthews. The Fellows also attended “Theatre of War,” a groundbreaking theatre performance project which presents dramatic readings of ancient Greek war plays—Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes—as a catalyst for town hall-style discussions about the psychological impact of war on veterans.
Charged with the task of solving the world’s problems, the Fellows leave Columbia University with a deeper understanding of both the challenges we face as a planet and the tools to create viable solutions for a more sustainable future.