Complexity, Interdisciplinarity and Sustainable Prosperity shine at Food-Energy-Water-Environment Nexus Conference 2015

BIG-NexusCont-PostEvent-NEWThe Nexus Network’s second annual conference, titled ‘Scales, Levels and Spaces of the Nexus’, was held on 19 November 2015 in London.

The Nexus Network fosters debate, innovative research and practical collaborations across the linked ‘nexus’ domains of food, energy, water and the environment, bringing together researchers, policy makers, business leaders and civil society to develop collaborative projects and improve decision making in these areas. This network, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is a collaboration between the University of Sussex, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

The conference, framed around the themes of scales, levels and spaces, comprised:
• Plenary 1: Introduction (Chair Professor James Wilsdon)
• Keynote: Flourishing within Limits – towards a social science for sustainable prosperity (Professor Tim Jackson)
• Knowledge sessions (parallel sessions)
• Workshop sessions (parallel sessions)
• Plenary 2: Nexus2020 – selecting the most important questions for business (Dr Bhaskar Vira)
• Plenary 3. Keynote: Systems approaches to managing the nexus: can we really do it? (Professor Tim Benton)


Nexus research | Interdisciplinarity, innovation and politics

BIG-Plenary1In Plenary 1 on Introduction, Chair Professor James Wilsdon (Director, The Nexus Network/ University of Sussex) emphasised the need for cross cutting research that transcends traditional disciplinary research and also announced the Partnership Grants call worth £300,000 (deadline 31 January 2016).

His introduction was followed by brief talks by the four panel members, stimulating the participants into thinking about various aspects of the nexus.

Professor Alice Bows-Larkin (EPSRC-funded Stepping Up project/ University of Manchester) talked about her work on the Stepping Up project, which aims to understand what makes innovations have low-impact at the Water-Energy-Food nexus and then, based on this understanding, amplifying and multiplying good practice.

Andy Gibbs (Head of Economic Performance and Environment, ESRC) spoke about the development of the Nexus Network from a concept to a funded activity. He highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary research as the way forward for nexus research. He said that, in nexus research, one should be innovative and entrepreneurial and should look for opportunities not for disciplinary badges.

Professor Ian Bateman (Nexus Network Co-Investigator from the University of Exeter) highlighted that, because food, water and energy draw upon the natural capital base, trade-offs would be unavoidable. He observed that, today, big research contributions in response to global challenges cannot not discipline-bounded. He also talked about links between nexus researchers and policy makers.

Professor Lyla Mehta (Nexus Network Co-Investigator from the Institute of Development Studies) talked on the politics of working on the nexus at different scales, especially in the global South. She revealed that, although knowledge silos are prevalent at global, regional and national levels, at a village level, people have always known that food, water and energy are interconnected.


Sustainable prosperity as an art of living well within planetary limits | Can we live better with less stuff? – Prof Jackson

BIG-ProfTJ-FullProfessor Tim Jackson (Lead of the ESRC Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity/ University of Surrey) delivered his keynote titled ‘Flourishing within Limits – towards a social science for sustainable prosperity’.

He asked a couple of thought-provoking questions: Are there any limits to growth? Does nature impose limits to growth? Or has human innovation got the capacity to overcome such limits?

He observed that, although modern society’s heroic vision proclaims that there are no limits to growth, the food-water-energy-environment nexus indicates some kind of limit to growth. There is a deficit in our understanding of the concept of limits, he said.

Can we do better, live better and have more fun with less stuff? he asked, highlighting that, although the basic need for subsistence is met through materials, prosperity transcends material concerns. He emphasised the need for redefining the direction of development and the essence of human prosperity and framed sustainable prosperity as an art of living well – within the limits of a finite planet. Slow living, he said, is a way forward for sustainable prosperity.

He also talked about the ESRC-funded Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP). Its guiding vision for sustainable prosperity is one in which people everywhere have the capability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet and its aim is to explore the dimensions of sustainable prosperity and to develop clear, pragmatic steps that could be taken in pursuit of it.


Nexus Network knowledge sessions

For knowledge sessions, the conference split into five parallel sessions, structured as interactive thematic discussions.

Nexus Interactions at the household level.
Matt Watson and Peter Jackson (University of Sheffield) and Alison Browne (University of Manchester) | Chair: Saurabh Arora
The session explored the interdependencies of the nexus at the household level. The speakers from the Domestic Nexus team emphasised the importance of understanding the dynamics of household practices and their relations to provision of water, energy and food to an holistic understanding of the nexus.

Nexus shocks: informing decision making in response to shocks.
Candice Howarth (Anglia Ruskin University) and Geoff Darch (Atkins) | Chair: Ian Bateman.
In this session the Nexus Shocks Network focused on Nexus Shocks – i.e. low probability, high impact events that span energy, water and food systems. They affect multiple stakeholders, scales and disciplines, making them complex to understand and uncertain to address. The session outlined findings from five workshops held earlier in 2015 to explore strategies for effective decision-making on Nexus Shocks.

Levels of decision-making and their mismatches.
David Demeritt (King’s College London) and Frieda Metternich (Green Alliance) | Chair: Ruth Welters.
This session explored the following question: How do policy decisions on nexus issues currently work, and how can the capacity for policy deliberation, at different levels, on complex environmental and social interdependencies of the nexus be improved?

International development, innovation and scale.
Euan Phimister (University of Aberdeen) and Peter Cruddas (Cranfield University) | Chair: Gemma Cranston.
The session asked what the synergies are between the Nexus agenda in developed and developing contexts and more broadly how developed and developing countries can work together through the nexus to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Nexus struggles: agricultural scales, policy spaces and nexus interactions.
Steffen Böhm and Zareen Bharucha (University of Essex), Tom Wakeford (Coventry University) and Antonio Ioris (University of Edinburgh) | Chair: Cian O’Donovan.
The speakers pointed to the limits, insufficiencies and shortcomings of the current dominant understanding of the nexus as a hegemonic concern for security, resources and technologies. Instead, they problematized the nexus as a historical struggle between corporate, state and social movement actors, illustrating this concept by engaging with the struggles in the global and UK food system.


Nexus Network workshop sessions

For the workshop sessions as well, the conference split into five parallel sessions, offering facilitated spaces to discuss current issues and opportunities.

Focal scales, knowing spaces and methods of the nexus.
Facilitator: Saurabh Arora.
This session explored how the choice of focal scale at which nexus interactions are examined affects choices of methodology and examined the implications of these choices. It continued discussions started at a previous Nexus workshop on transdisciplinary methods.

The funding landscape for nexus research.
Facilitators: Hannah Collins and James Wilsdon.
In this uncertain period for research funding, cross-disciplinary, challenge-focused research such as Nexus research is likely to increase in significance and emphasis. This session scanned the funding horizons and explored some shifts that might occur over the next five years.

Policy engagement on the nexus.
Facilitator: Anna Krzywoszynska
This session jointly examined the challenges to effective academia-policy engagement while extending the discussion beyond impact to knowledge exchange and knowledge co-creation. It asked if focussing on nexus areas could improve the responsibilities for attending to the long-term while remaining agile in responding to immediate events.

The politics of ‘scaling up’ (technologies, discourses, policies, etc).
Facilitator: Lyla Mehta
Among the issues this session addressed is that a global focus on nexus security risk obscures local political inequalities or complexities. The session also explored the politics of considering nexus questions at different scales. This session will contribute to the agenda of the forthcoming Nexus workshop on resource conflicts.

Building a research career in interdisciplinarity.
Facilitator: Cian O’Donovan
This session explored the challenges of inter- and transdisciplinary work faced by early career researchers and policy experts working specifically on nexus-related areas. It discussed how these might be overcome through training, support and other mechanisms.


Dr Vira on Nexus2020 | What are the key questions for research to improve business management of the nexus?

BIG-DrV-Prestn-FullIn Plenary 2 Dr Bhaskar Vira (CISL/ Cambridge University) introduced the results of the Nexus2020 project. Focusing on the idea that businesses should prepare to address nexus issues without undermining other users and corporate goals, this projects asks the question: Can this be better achieved by bringing in the research community?

Framing Nexus2020 as a two-way dialogue between research and business, he stated that the aim of this project is to determine the top questions for business around the food-energy-water-environment nexus with a view of making business practice more sustainable.

He outlined the work so far to find these top questions that research should answer in order to improve business management of the nexus. In response to an open call for questions from March to July 2015, over 230 participants from business, policy, academia and civil society submitted in excess of 700 questions. Then, at a two-day workshop at Cambridge University, a select group of senior business practitioners and researchers identified the top 40 questions, which are to be revealed in a forthcoming journal article.

He hoped that, in the future, multi-disciplinary panels of researchers and business practitioners will devise projects to deliver the solutions to these pressing nexus issues.


Food for thought from Prof Tim Benton | Embrace complexity, adopt systems thinking and work together

BIG-ProfB-Prestn-FullIn Plenary 3, Professor Tim Benton (UK Champion for Global Food Security/ University of Leeds) delivered his keynote titled ‘Systems approaches to managing the nexus: can we really do it?’

He described how nexus issues are not just an abstract academic concept, but are at the heart of the current conflicts across the world.

Observing that thinking about food itself is a nexus problem, he outlined the huge impact of the agri-food sector on climate change. Food is crucial in confronting global challenges, he said, emphasising that changing diet is more important than changing car use when it comes to climate change mitigation. He also reminded that, when we import food, we are importing embedded water and energy as well.

He proposed that, when it comes to food, instead of always focusing on increasing the supply, we should also focus on addressing the demand issues in order to ensure a sustainable supply as well as health and wellbeing. Intervention in demand side will be difficult but not impossible, he said.

He also emphasised the need for systems thinking and continued collaboration between initiatives.


The event came to a close with closing remarks by Professor Wilsdon. An informal networking session driven by a drinks reception followed.

Note: Photographs by Asitha Jayawardena; logos in the graphics are from respective websites; other graphics are from the title pages of the keynote speakers’ presentations and the Nexus2020 brochure.



The Nexus Conference 2015 | Scales, Levels & Spaces of the Nexus of Food, Energy, Water & the Environment

Scales, levels and spaces of the nexus. Conference 19 Nov 2015 in London

Nexus Network partnership grants – £300,000 available

PDFs of Keynotes:
• Professor Tim Jackson | Flourishing within Limits: towards a social science for sustainable prosperity
• Professor Tim Benton | Systems approaches towards managing the nexus: can we really do it?

The Nexus Network | @uk_nexus

• Nexus Network website
• CISL website

Forthcoming Nexus events:
• The nexus, resource conflicts and social justice workshop | 29 February 2016
• Nexuses of the urban: interactions between water, energy and food provision for sustainable cities | 12–13 May 2016

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) | @esrc

Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU), University of Sussex | @SPRU

Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS), University of Sussex | @stepscentre

The Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE)

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership | @cisl_cambridge

Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) | @CUSP_uk

Global Food Security programme | @FoodSecurityUK


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