Breaking free from the silo: Regional network focuses on all parts of the sustainability puzzle

A new Colorado State University research proposal aims to break down the silos that researchers typically work in, taking transdisciplinary research to a whole new level by creating a regional sustainability network that spans the state. 

“For a long time, the National Science Foundation has funded sustainability networks,” said project leader Jeni Cross, who is a professor in CSU’s Department of Sociology and director of the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences. “Many of those in the past have really been focused on the technological solutions – on engineering or on computer science. This one is really exciting because it’s focused on regional science and how we can think about sustainability from a regional perspective.” 

Funded by an NSF planning grant, the collaboration between IRISS, the Regional Economic Development Institute and the Institute for the Built Environment features a multi-disciplinary, multi-college and multi-university team. The project includes researchers from the colleges of Liberal Arts, Natural Sciences and Health and Human Sciences, along with the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at CSU-Pueblo.  

But the goal is to approach sustainability not only from the perspective of scientists and researchers but also from community partners on the ground, including government officials, environmental groups and nonprofit organizations, Cross said. 

“We’re all kind of hamstrung to meet our climate goals if we’re only planning and working in the little units that we have control over,” she said. 

From economics to ecology

To get past those barriers requires utilizing disciplines ranging from sociology to civil engineering in order to get at the broader challenges related to sustainability, including drought, affordable housing and climate change. 

“We’re talking about ecology, economics, engineering, biology and sociology,” said team member and Professor of Economics and Co-Director of REDI Stephan Weiler. “It’s an unusually broad effort to get a handle on what all that means for a sustainable Colorado. It’s hard work but it’s exciting because it’s making us all think in a much larger sense about what we can do about a place that we all love.” 

Weiler said he also sees the project as an opportunity to address some of the more complex issues impacting the state, such as the rural/urban divide. 

“Colorado has a pretty significant divide, given how strong the economy is on the Front Range and how lagging some of the struggling rural regions are,” he said. “This is also an opportunity to think holistically about the entire state as opposed to the Front Range versus the ‘rest of Colorado.’” 

From a scientific perspective, studying sustainability this way just makes sense.  

“Sustainability is the whole of human interactions with the environment, bringing together people from a wide diversity of experiences, abilities and interests to try to address issues,” said Joe von Fischer, team member and professor in the Department of Biology. 

A big part of that will require the network itself to be “self-aware,” said von Fischer, whose research focuses primarily on greenhouse gas composition. 

“That is, the network should know about itself, be able to initiate and manage its growth, and then know that as a consequence of the network the various parts of it would be able to work in a more coordinated fashion and a more effective way,” he said.

Getting to work(shop)

Beginning April 22, participants will take part in five online and in-person network development workshops held along the Front Range. 

The workshops are intended to overcome some of the problems faced when doing truly transdisciplinary and community engaged work, said Elicia Ratajczyk, IBE project manager and researcher. It’s a chance to discuss, explore and build shared language, frameworks and ways of working at the intersection of research and society. 

“We’re trying to come to communities in a much more humble way than maybe research has come to them in the past,” Ratajczyk said. “We’re not just trying to come in as the experts and drop our brilliant bombs of wisdom upon you and tell you exactly what you need to do to make your community successful, resilient and sustainable. Instead, we’re saying, ‘We want to be of service to our communities and to utilize our skills in research so that you can tell us what questions you need answered. What are the needs that you have in your community?’” 

Ratajczyk likened it to a diagram. While an interdisciplinary look would show how each of the different circles had parts that overlapped each other, this transdisciplinary model basically stacks each circle on top of one another. 

“We’re generating new insights and new methodologies and new questions by working together, not just seeing how (each group) touches each other,” she said. 

The project will also include a survey of what efforts are already being utilized. This data will help researchers map out current efforts to better understand the connections between collaborators and projects across the state. 

A sense of place

While the project is just at the beginning stages, Cross said next they’ll hope to apply for a larger NSF grant to allow them to take what they learn from this process and fully develop the Sustainable Regional Systems Research Network. 

Many agencies on the ground want more strategically informed decisions, she said. But they either don’t have the data, or they don’t have the data processed in a way that lets them see how disparate issues are connected to each other or know what’s the most strategic move. 

“Our ultimate goal is to figure out what kinds of support and resources help people do that work better,” Cross said. “That will help them get connected more easily, that will help them build the kind of partnerships that let them organize data, answer questions and create novel solutions.” 

And while there are many parts that will be involved in the sustainability puzzle, Cross believes that it will ultimately hinge on one thing. 

“Really it all comes down to ‘place,’” she said. “What is a sustainable and thriving place? A sustainable and thriving place has its local ecology intact and hasn’t been irreparably damaged so that the local ecology is thriving and supported. But it also has an economy that is thriving, and it also has human beings and their social connections. The pandemic has really raised our awareness of what happens when we change our social structures and our social patterns. We have seen how much changes in our interactions impact our individual well-being and the well-being of whole communities.”