Interview: Angelo Riccaboni, Chair of SDSN Mediterranean
Angelo Riccaboni is Rector of the University of Siena, one of the oldest European universities, founded in 1240, where he is also the professor of Business Governance and Management Control Systems. His research focuses on the implementation of sustainability strategies within organizations. His strong interest in sustainability in the Mediterranean region is motivated by the fact that Mediterranean represents one of the most vulnerable areas in the world in terms of environmental and social sustainability. His work supports the cooperation and joint research initiatives among Mediterranean countries, universities and businesses, and the adoption of practical solutions for the future of the region.
As Chair of SDSN Mediterranean he promotes networking among research centers, the adaptation of SDSN.edu education tools to the Mediterranean context, and Euro-Mediterranean joint programming in the context of EU planning activities.
What is the value of a network for sustainable development solutions?
I do believe that the Mediterranean area is a very vulnerable area in terms of consequences of climate change, water scarcity, and social dynamics. It is an area where the sea is our major threat because of the changes in climate change and the loss of biodiversity. In the Mediterranean there are huge challenges that cannot be dealt with by researchers in single countries. You need a huge effort by all countries in order to deal with present and future challenges. What is good about being a network is that you can put together experience, information, solutions, and if you work together can deal with or and tackle these challenges. If you go by individual challenges, it is very difficult, because these challenges do not recognize the borders of a single country. For this reason, I think it is not an easy task, but working together as a network is very important.
Can you give some examples of solutions, initiatives or activities out of the Mediterranean network that have really benefitted from the collaborative nature of the network?
To give you an example, a flagship initiative of our network is Plastic Busters. Plastic Busters deals with issues of microplastics in the Mediterranean. In order to even monitor it, to know more about these plastics, and to start doing something, you need to come together, because you might have plastics in front of your beach that come from very far away. In order to both monitor and to tackle this problem you need to work together. The project Plastic Busters started out of researchers from the University of Sienna, but after a short while it became a network project, and now it is benefiting a lot from the help, push and support that we are able to give to these researchers in order to find funds, linkages, information, and competencies coming out of being part of a very large network.
What has experience been like to bring in the regional institutions into the Mediterranean network, and any activities or projects that they are particularly interested and excited about?
In terms of initiatives, we have a major conference once every two years. At the beginning of March, we had our conference with 290 researchers coming from the Mediterranean to deal with sustainable agri-food. To create the network through these regular meetings is very important. Another strong initiative is our newsletter which is an important way of communication. What is even more important is the fact that we are dealing with other issues, putting together the same researchers to able to support each others research.
To give you an example, I am coordinating a major program on food and water safety and security. This program is overlapping with the SDSN Mediterranean program, which benefits from putting together researchers and initiatives from two different programs. SDSN Mediterranean is an opportunity for researchers to be involved in larger and other projects. Through our participation with European projects some researchers are dealing with seismic risk with the Mediterranean, and they are doing it from the EU funded program, but it comes out of SDSN Mediterranean initiatives. There are strong linkages between SDSN Mediterranean and other initiatives, and this is very important.
You’ve spoken a lot about the value of the network in the creation of knowledge and research linkages. What is the role of a regional center such as SDSN Mediterranean in promoting the science-policy interface, and particularly for the Sustainable Development Goals?
In my opinion, what is important in one of the missions of SDSN Mediterranean, and SDSN in general, is to promote the value of so called science diplomacy. Science diplomacy means that science can be an important tool in to support dialogue and partnerships among countries. If you are able to promote that science can be useful in order to make communities, enterprises, and people a part of a more sustainable, happier, and healthier society, this would be a great benefit for SDSN in general and SDSN Mediterranean in particular.
As for the linkages with the SDGs, in Europe up to now the debate is not institutional. It is not very wide. Unfortunately, we can’t take advantage of the value that SDSN will have in reference to the implementation of SDGs. I think we need to be ready for the moment when in society, there will be more attention to SDGs. Up to now, the awareness of SDGs is not very high. I think that this will be the task of the next year, and we need to be prepared for that task because when SDGs become more and more relevant in terms of public opinion, we need to be ready. Then at that point, research centers and universities can play an important role in showing that research centers can be important in supporting the implementation of the SDGs.
In your opinion, what is it going to take to elevate Europe’s awareness of the SDGs?
Politics in general is not concerned with SDGs yet. I think that the attention that the media will give to SDGs after the summer will help. But the normal people and standard politicians are not really keen on it, so its difficult to promote there. I’m sure that after the summer, there will be more and more attention, and it will be our task to be ready. Even in the class, SDGs are considered too far away from students. They don’t feel the topic yet. I think that in general there is not an awareness yet. I think that the media attention will be helpful to push the SDGs. We need events, and we need to promote the MOOC by Jeffrey Sachs, which is an important tool. For this reason, we are working on the promotion of MOOCs based on the SDSN MOOC but with a local framework. You need to give these MOOCs a Mediterranean flavor, otherwise its not easily accepted. I think that the operation we’re doing with SDSN.edu to work on SDSN MOOCs but translating them into a mediterranean framework will be useful, because as you know, when you deal with sustainability, you deal with social sustainability, so you need to also make reference to local issues which are more typical of the Mediterranean. I think that MOOCs can be very useful to promote awareness of the SDGs.
As the rector of the University of Siena, the host university of the Network, how has the experience been thus far?
I think it is a very demanding experience, a very interesting experience, but it was worth doing, and I’m very proud of it. Getting back to the beginning of the interview, I do believe that if we want to deal with the sustainability issues, if we want to tackle present or future challenges, you need to work as a Mediterranean community, not just with an Italian perspective. Jeffrey Sach’s work has been very good in promoting this regional perspective. Compared to where we started with this initiative, this has now become even more relevant. As you can read on the press, the new challenges are coming from the Southern Mediterranean countries, and all these new issues can be faced only with more economic development that needs to be sustainable. Compared to where we started with it, now its even more important to think in a regional perspective.
Looking ahead, what’s the way forward and what’s coming up next for the Mediterranean network?
I think that the two issues, one is the MOOC, because I said before, you need to give partners resources to participate in this network. You need to create something which is able to make everybody feel part of the community. I think that sharing with partners initiatives is fine, but sharing with partners a very powerful tool such as a something like a MOOC on sustainable development, or agri-food sustainability, or other issues, can be a very powerful tool. What we see ahead is working hard on the promotion of a Mediterranean MOOC or more MOOCs.
The idea of regional networks is a wonderful one and now what we have in the European Union planning, the idea of what they call joint programming is relevant. Joint programming means to work together, countries should plan together future research initiatives. In line with that, the University of Siena is leading a major future Euro-Mediterranean project, which is a Europ-Med program on water and food safety and security. This is a good example of major initiatives which will be run according to the regional perspective that Jeffrey has highlighted as important. This is something they would like to add. The fact that joint programming has become a must for European countries. One of the first examples will be this program on food and water security that Italy is leading. Just in line with that debate associated with the World Expo, that we start in May in Milan. The subject of the World Expo is food, feeding the planet and energy for life. We will be taking advantage of the stronger attention which will be given in the next few months to sustainable development. We are given a slot in the expo to present SDSN. We can invite all SDSN friends, from all over the world, to come attend our session in Milan.