16 April 2019
Laxenburg to London: the path to planetary health
by Jose Siri
The other day, I returned from Makassar, Indonesia, where a research project called RISE (Revitalizing Informal Settlements and their Environments) is taking a bold new integrated approach to community-level water management. If it works, it could revolutionize the way informal settlements worldwide approach water, sanitation and flood risks and help deliver SDG 6: clean water and sanitation for all.
As Senior Science Lead for Cities, Urbanization and Health for the Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet Our Health (OPOH) programme, part of my job is to engage with our funded projects, from ambitious randomized controlled studies like RISE to continent-spanning analytic frameworks like SALURBAL (Salud Urbana en América Latina, or Urban Health in Latin America). Solutions-oriented research is a central part of our work, but OPOH also has a higher goal: to foster the growth and widespread adoption of planetary health—as a framework for understanding, as a field of scientific inquiry, as a movement for transformative change.
A central tool in that effort is systems thinking. Just as the nations of the world have embraced an increasingly integrated view of sustainable development in the shift from the MDGs to the SDGs and the broader set of agreements that constitute the 2030 Development Agenda, the global science and policy communities increasingly recognize that systems approaches are the key to effective action—at OPOH, we see them as critical to the success of our projects and the programme as a whole. Of course, IIASA, from its very origins, played an important role in the emergence of systems thinking, and continues to expand the horizons of knowledge and possibilities through its established programmes today.
IIASA’s role in my own career was just as significant. When I look back, I can’t help but laugh at the randomness of the pathway that led me to Austria. But, thanks to Landis MacKellar, then head of the Health and Global Change (HGC) project (now chief editor of Population and Development Review), I joined the IIASA community as a post-doc, and it changed my life. Apart from the joys of Laxenburg—the heurigen and vernissages and runs in the Schlosspark and tennis matches and gelatos and doner kebabs and oh, so many YSSP parties—IIASA exposed me to world-class minds and science, networks and friendships that still matter today, and a new way of looking at the world. Working with the HGC team—and with researchers across the Institute—I learned to view problems through a systems lens, and that has colored my career ever since.
From IIASA, I moved to the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I led a focus on systems thinking for urban health for five years. UNU is a think tank for the UN system and its member states, and our work encompassed research on better decision-making around complex challenges, inter- and transdisciplinarity, knowledge translation, and a range of topics in urban health. We contributed to the development of the SDGs and the Habitat III process that led to the New Urban Agenda, convened the global urban health community at events like the 9th World Urban Forum, and supported the emergence of new local and regional efforts for health and sustainability. I stayed in touch with my IIASA contacts, and we continue to find opportunities to collaborate–for example, on a recent effort by the International Science Council to define a framework for assessing interactions among SDG targets.
As of just last month, I find myself at Wellcome, one of the largest global funders of health research. In this new, exciting role, I hope to bring my UN experience to bear on developing the strategy and partnerships we need to advance planetary health as a paradigm for a healthier world. In this work, the systems lens I discovered at IIASA will continue to guide my thought and action. And in the meantime, London is just close enough to maybe show up at the Schloss for a YSSP party or two.
Last edited: 17 April 2019
International Council for Science (2017). A Guide to SDG Interactions: from Science to Implementation. International Council for Science, Paris. DOI:10.24948/2017.01.
Rafaj P, Amann M, Siri J, & Wuester H (2015). Changes in European greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions 1960.2010: decomposition of determining factors. In: Uncertainties in Greenhouse Gas Perspectives. Expanding Our Perspectives. Eds. Jonas,, J.P. Ometto, R. Bun, M. & Nahorski, Z., Cham: Springer International. ISBN 978-3-319-15900-310.1007/978-3-319-15901-0_3.
Rafaj P, Amann M, & Siri JG (2014). Factorization of air pollutant emissions: Projections versus observed trends in Europe. Science of the Total Environment 494-95: 272-282. DOI:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.07.013.
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313