Arizona State University: Interdisciplinary solutions for a sustainable future

 Phoenix residents drink water that has traveled uphill over 300 miles from the Colorado River. They hole up in air-conditioned buildings during the 100+ days a year that temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Some argue that Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the United States, shouldn’t even exist.

“There’s this idea, which we dispute, that there shouldn’t be any cities in the desert,” says Nancy Grimm, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

Yet arid lands take up over 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface and account for some of the highest population growth rates in the world. Whether or not people should live in deserts, they do and will continue to do so.

Grimm and her colleagues view Phoenix as an opportunity. It is a living laboratory to help us understand how people and nature can survive and thrive in the face of extremes. And it is home to ASU, the largest research university in the United States. 

In 1997, ASU became a pioneer in the newly emerging field of urban ecology as one of only two National Science Foundation long-term ecological research sites located in a city. The Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) project, co-led by Grimm,  launched ASU on a trajectory of leadership in sustainability.

In 2004, ASU created the Global Institute of Sustainability with a $15 million gift from Julie Ann Wrigley. Two years later, the institute launched the nation’s first School of Sustainability and ASU made a commitment to lead by example through the sustainable operations of its campuses.

Today, researchers across the university actively contribute to all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

“ASU researchers take a solutions-focused, transdisciplinary approach to sustainability,” says Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of the ASU Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer. “We have scientists working to understand the interactions between human and natural systems, engineers developing technological solutions, social scientists exploring the impact of those solutions, and economists and policy experts testing their feasibility. We can only solve our biggest challenges by drawing inspiration from multiple disciplines and converging all of the expertise.”

 This approach is apparent in a variety of sustainability-related initiatives across the university. At the Biodesign Institute, scientists use nature as an inspiration to develop solutions in health, sustainability and security. ASU’s National Science Foundation-funded Sustainability Research Network is working to make urban infrastructure more resilient in the face of extreme weather events. ASU leads two national Engineering Research Centers—one that seeks to improve solar power efficiency and another that uses biologically-based solutions for infrastructure challenges. And ASU’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, established in 2017 with a gift from ASU alumnus and trustee Brian Swette and his wife Kelly, takes a holistic and collaborative approach to the challenges of global food systems.

While each researcher and project focuses on a specific challenge, the ultimate goal is nothing short of the very habitability of our planet.

“We have built a global laboratory,” says ASU President Michael Crow. “Now we’re focusing on the future of the planet — not only fixing problems we have created, but also using knowledge and innovation to secure its habitability.”

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