The Centre for Sustainability is a premier research centre of the University of Otago, with an international reputation for its innovative interdisciplinary research, across a number of fields including aspects of kaitiakitanga, climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainable food and agriculture, resilient communities, natural hazards, energy, mobility and biodiversity.
The rationale for the Centre is that human demands are exceeding environmental capacities, and that the wellbeing of current and future generations of humans and non-human species are seriously threatened. Human society will also be increasingly exposed to natural hazards, including from earth system processes and climate change. Significant changes are required to systems of production and consumption, and in human expectations, practices and relationships with the environment.
Our research seeks implementable solutions to these issues by incorporating social along with technical and/or physical sciences, as well as mātauranga and local/experiential knowledge. Our work generally aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
The Centre was established in 2000 and is part of the School of Geography within the Division of Humanities. Centre researchers and research associates are from a wide range of disciplines including from Science, Commerce, Health and Humanities Divisions. Centre personnel comprise full-time and part time researchers, support staff, postgraduate students (mainly PhDs) and emeritus professors.
We also frequently host summer scholarship students, interns, visiting scholars on research leave from elsewhere at the University of Otago, and visiting international academics and PhD students for short or extended stays.
As a research-focused Centre, we seek opportunities to inform, shape and influence positive change at many levels.
Within the Centre, we build capacity and capability amongst our postgraduate students and staff.
Within the University, we help build sustainability-related knowledge and collaborations within the University’s academic and general staff and students.
Within Otago, we engage with and help support local runaka, the Dunedin public, councils, businesses and NGOs on sustainability issues.
Nationally, we develop strategic relationships with government, Māori communities and organisations, businesses, NGOs and sector groups to understand the issues they face, develop research collaborations, and influence change.
Through our research and outreach generally we seek to assist Aotearoa New Zealand to become more sustainable and more resilient. We also seek to be internationally influential through our research collaborations, conference presentations and publications.
Our primary activity as a Centre is undertaking externally-funded research, delivering excellent academic publications and translating our findings into user-relevant insights. Māori-focussed research has always been an important part of the Centre’s activities, totalling around 25 per cent of the Centre’s total externally funded research over 2010–2019. Research staff based at the Centre lead or contribute to bid preparation, research delivery, and communication of research findings.
Many projects emerge from relationships developed with stakeholders such as iwi, communities, councils, businesses and government agencies and most involve collaborations with other researchers based elsewhere across the University or in research institutions in Aotearoa-New Zealand and internationally.
Our second key focus is on postgraduate students undertaking research degrees in topics aligned with the Centre’s mission. We are regularly approached by prospective students, and are limited only by the capacity of research staff at the Centre to supervise students.
The Centre is known as a place for connecting people, by hosting meetings and seminars for pan-university groups, or linking university and external groups that have common interests. We communicate our research widely and in accessible ways, both through regular seminars and workshops at the Centre, and directly with our stakeholders using a wide variety of communication methods. We also engage with these stakeholders to discover what issues they are concerned about and how we might collaborate to find solutions.
The Centre is internationally known for and through the quality of its research and research collaborations, and also through its alumni and visitors. Our frequent hosting of international visitors is a strength which contributes to the Centre, to the University and to the Otago community more widely.
While each of our research staff has an excellent foundation in a specific discipline or disciplines, our particular point of difference is our commitment to interdisciplinarity and collaborative research. Our interdisciplinary research is demonstrated by collaborations between Centre researchers and people located in other departments and institutions.
We value diversity and are committed to inclusiveness supporting and encouraging one another and celebrating our successes.
Māori concepts and perspectives are woven into our organisational culture, and are central to many of our research programmes. We welcome the insights that come from bringing together different ways of understanding the world and we support the development of new and emerging Māori researchers.
The quality of our research is supported by the culture of the Centre as a community of researchers and support staff who are passionate about sustainability, who value openness and are committed to the sharing of ideas. We appreciate the mix of perspectives brought from having people from many countries, disciplines and cultures. We are a flexible workplace and recognise the wider context of people’s lives, including the importance of their families.
As well as our research, we take a lead in stimulating thinking and action about sustainability within the University and in Society more widely. We provide opportunities for learning and discussions, we model sustainable behaviour, and we contribute to media and events where sustainability issues are discussed.
Our work is enriched by the genuine committed relationships that have developed with people who have spent time at the Centre as researchers, visitors and students; with other researchers at the Otago campus, elsewhere in Aotearoa New Zealand and globally; and with the communities, iwi, businesses and government agencies with whom we work. These long-term relationships are an important part of our identity.
The operating environment for the Centre is evolving. The University of Otago is now committed to a sustainability agenda, and key stakeholders such as councils, businesses, iwi and government are increasingly aligning themselves with sustainable, resilient and low-carbon futures. Our experience and track record stand us in good stead here. The 2019 Review of the Centre was strongly supportive of the Centre and provides guidance on key areas for future development, which are incorporated into this Strategic Plan.
The impact of COVID-19 from early 2020 will have ongoing repercussions for society, the economy, and the Centre’s operating environment, but creates an opportunity for Aotearoa New Zealand to shift to a sustainable pathway.
With these emerging opportunities we seek to become even better at developing solutions to complex problems, including through applying scientific expertise; Māori knowledge and worldviews; incorporating traditional, practitioner and local knowledge; undertaking interdisciplinary research; incorporating new and emerging perspectives that support just transitions; developing transdisciplinary approaches; working at the nexus of different fields of study; and developing innovations in theory as well as practice.