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Wednesday 22 September 2021 9:10am


Newly appointed Centre for Sustainability Director Associate Professor Caroline Orchiston wants to bring her “passion for applied research that makes a difference to our society” to the role.

Associate Professor Orchiston's background is in both earth and social sciences, and her research has involved aspects of tourism disaster resilience and recovery, community and business resilience, and scenario planning for impacts to critical infrastructure and emergency management during earthquake disasters.

Her PhD, gained in 2010, and postdoctoral research investigated tourism in areas of high seismic risk (in the Southern Alps), focussing on pre-disaster planning and preparedness (around the Alpine Fault zone) and post-disaster impacts and recovery amongst tourism enterprises and stakeholders.

Associate Professor Orchiston joined the Centre in March 2016 as a Research Fellow involved in Resilience to Nature's Challenges.

Jessica Palmer 2020 image
Humanities PVC Professor Jessica Palmer

Humanities Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Jessica Palmer says Associate Professor Orchiston's appointment will ensure the Centre's important and wide-ranging research will “go from strength to strength”.

“I'm delighted Associate Professor Orchiston has agreed to lead the Centre, which will benefit greatly from her abilities as a researcher and organisational skills as it continues important, and truly interdisciplinary, investigations into a range of pressing issues of sustainability.”

What was it about the Directorship that interested you?

The Centre is a very dynamic and stimulating place to work. Our staff are interdisciplinary and are actively working on many varied projects related to sustainability, including energy, indigenous perspectives, food, transitions, resilience to natural hazards and agriculture. This really appealed to me, because we need research that draws together different views from different disciplines to tackle local, national and global sustainability challenges.

What are some of the Centre's strengths?

Our strength is in our collaborative, inclusive and supportive workplace culture, which means we look after each other, work hard and celebrate our successes. We have 30 doctoral students who are the lifeblood of our Centre, and we have a strong team of senior researchers doing amazing mahi. We get together each day for morning tea and a kōrero, and we regularly socialise with shared lunches and other activities. Our team comes from all over the world and across Aotearoa, which means we normally do well in the geography questions for the daily ODT quiz!

What are some areas of research or engagement events you'd like to promote as Director?

Indigenous perspectives are hugely influential and important in any consideration of sustainability, and we will continue to work closely with our iwi partners, and with local and national agencies to apply our research to make positive change. We have co-developed a Sustainability Network of research centres across campus, and this has stimulated a lot of thinking and engagement across disciplines which has been excited. We would like to facilitate collaboration and engagement across this network, for example by hosting a second Postgraduate Sustainability forum (the inaugural event was in February 2021), and potentially co-host a cross-campus Sustainability symposium in future. We would also like to encourage a more coordinated approach to undergraduate teaching in sustainability at the University to reflect the increasing demand from students to engage with sustainability thinking.

How or why did you get into research on aspects of “tourism disaster resilience and recovery, community and business resilience, and scenario planning for impacts to critical infrastructure and emergency management during earthquake disasters.”

My research on resilience to natural hazards dovetails with sustainability by considering how major disruptions to our day to day lives, such as floods or earthquakes, can challenge the sustainability of society; our people, communities, social networks and infrastructure. Incremental climate-related hazards, such as sea level rise, are equally challenging as our low-lying coastal communities begin to feel the impacts. By working collectively we can respond better to disruptions, and this will help improve societal outcomes.

What are some of the pressing issues for research, and why is it more important than ever that Otago have a presence in this space?

From a sustainability perspective, there is overwhelming evidence of human impacts on the health of our planet, and growing uncertainty about the future. However, there is also much to be optimistic about, with rapid innovation and political will shifting towards enabling more efficient, clean technologies and cheaper sustainable solutions. At the heart of these global challenges are people, and our research at the Centre for Sustainability is especially important in understanding the social and cultural dimensions of sustainability and uncertainty. We all need to be part of that conversation, and we would like to be at the forefront of leading and enabling our team, and others across campus, to apply their academic skills to tackle sustainability issues.

What are some research projects you're involved with?

My research projects focus on building societal resilience to natural hazards, particularly earthquake and climate-related impacts. For the last six years I've been the Science Lead for AF8 [Alpine Fault magnitude 8], which is a multi-agency collaboration to improve response planning and community readiness for the next major Alpine Fault earthquake. I'm an Associate Director for QuakeCoRE (NZ Centre for Earthquake Resilience), and Co-leader of the Cultural and Social Factors shaping Resilience programme. I co-lead of the Rural Theme for Resilience to Nature's Challenges, which focusses on resilience in rural communities from the perspective of tourism and agribusiness. I'm also interested in the communication of complex science, and the importance of effective tools and methods for creating a dialogue with communities, practitioners and policy-makers so we can collaborative to improve outcomes.

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