Using synergies within ISIE for solving grand environmental challenges

Stefanie Hellweg

It was a great pleasure to start my ISIE presidency term last month. When I ran for this post two years ago, I stated “It is my aim to reinforce the links between the various “sections” within ISIE and make use of the synergies between them. ….One of the actions that I plan as ISIE president is to identify crosscutting thematic areas (and maybe working groups) to foster the collaboration within our community.” In this forum post, I would like to share first ideas about a strategy to enhance collaboration and leverage the practical impact of ISIE. My hope is that this will become the start of a lively discussion on this topic.

ISIE is in the best position to address the current and future global environmental challenges, as these demand systems thinking and a powerful toolset for sustainability assessment and implementation – topics we as Industrial Ecologists are experts in. However, given the very large research breadth within ISIE, it is sometimes difficult to maintain the overview and opportunities for synergies are often missed. The organization of most our sections is mostly method driven, as displayed by the blue boxes in the below graph. Of course collaboration and communication between our method-driven sections exist, but I believe that we can still leverage our impact by collaborating more strongly. The reason is that for solving the main global environmental challenges we need the competences of the entire ISIE, and not of single sections alone.

The discussion on “The ISIE and the circular economy: a discussion on branding changes” on this forum shows that we as a community are often “under-recognized” or underestimated in our capabilities of providing the science for global challenges (like setting up a sustainable circular economy). Better communication can certainly help to make our activities more visible. In addition, joint activities on grand challenges can serve as unifying themes to exploit our synergies, catalyze collaboration within our community and leverage our visibility and ultimately policy impact.

We have already started a couple of crosscutting sections within ISIE, shown in the green boxes in the graph: The sections on sustainable urban systems, islands and students work with all Industrial Ecology (IE) methods. This is a very good start, but we have the potential to jointly address more global environmental challenges than these.

Below I will give five examples of grand environmental challenges and themes for potential crosscutting activities (shown as orange boxes in the graph). Note that this selection of challenges is not set in stone. I would appreciate a wider discussion on these themes and potential other challenges that we should tackle. So please understand this post as a thought trigger – all challenges presented below are up to discussion.  

Grand Challenge 1: Reaching the SDGs with IE solutions

This topic was inspired by the Gordon Research Conference 2018 where we have already seen a great collection of IE contributions on this topic. As noted in the GRC 2018 program description, natural resource use and environmental impacts are directly or indirectly related to all SDGs, making the field of Industrial Ecology a core discipline for achieving the SDGs. With concepts and methods prioritizing sustainable actions in resource management, technological development, and policy-making, Industrial Ecology is uniquely positioned to quantify and resolve trade-offs between the various SDGs.

Grand Challenge 2: Sustainable circular economy

Setting up a sustainable circular economy is obviously a grand challenge ISIE can contribute to. All methodological sections already have the circular economy on their agenda, but to make a significant contribution to solving this challenge, we need to combine all IE methods. For example, we need to understand overall material flows, symbiosis potentials and how different scenarios perform with regard to various environmental impacts to come up with circular economy solutions that are sustainable. Looking only at one of these aspects in isolation may help to resolve some aspects of the circular economy, but only the joint contemplation can provide overall optimal outcomes. A common activity on this topic would also increase our visibility and the perception of policy makers and industry that the ISIE provides the science for setting up a sustainable circular economy (see also

Grand Challenge 3: Transition towards sustainable energy systems

All our sections deal with this topic. For instance, we are able to understand which human activities are related to which energy demands and we assess the various impacts. This is in contrast to other communities that only focus on one aspect, e.g. climate change. This puts us into a unique position to come up with sustainable systems solutions: we do not just shift problems, but we have a comprehensive view and strive for overall sustainable solutions.

Grand Challenge 4: Sustainable supply of infrastructure, food, water, and energy for a growing population

A forward-looking activity on this grand challenge could address how to satisfy human needs and create human wellbeing for future generations without compromising the environment. As IE provides methods to model and understand both economic and environmental processes, we are in the best position to tackle this challenge.

Grand Challenge 5: Green PostCovid Recovery

The IE-Day program includes a session on this topic. As a society, we could address such up-to-date challenges, as our methods and tools help to come up and assess recovery scenarios, which would be extremely helpful in informing policy.

Another idea to secure outreach is a joint activity on educational material. This could encompass really all sections - method-oriented and crosscutting challenge-oriented ones. Educational material also came up in the past membership survey as one priority service that ISIE members expect from us. Many of us could profit from a well-done comprehensive set of educational material for various target audiences, disseminating IE methods as well as application to the grand challenges widely. This could include videos, presentation slides, online courses and more.

To summarize, the blue and green boxes in the graph above already exist as sections in ISIE. The orange and grey boxes here are placeholder themes, on which I hope we can collaborate in this or in a different form in the future.

Of course it is not enough to determine priority themes for the ISIE, but we then also need to take the next steps in implementing joint crosscutting activities. This could be done by creating some new thematic sections that collaborate with all the method-driven sections. Another possibility is to have leaner, temporary activities, like working groups that are e.g. targeted at publishing a state-of-the-art document on what IE can offer and contribute to a particular grand challenge. Such publications would certainly have larger acceptance and impact than smaller papers of individual members. The leanest form would be to organize thematic workshops or conferences, as we have already done in the past and also on the coming IE Day. These options are not mutually exclusive – maybe we start with conferences, then create workgroups and finally sections.

I hope that many will get active in shaping society activities and in helping to tackle the big environmental challenges we are facing – be it as a member of a future crosscutting activity or even as a “champion” that coordinates one of these activities. As a first step I hope that many of you will participate in the discussion of the challenges that we want to tackle as a scientific community. Please provide feedback and describe your views on this forum.

Stefanie Hellweg, with input from Tim Baynes, Paul Hoekman and Valerie Thomas



Valerie Thomas

Thank you Stefanie! Picking up on one of your ideas: Educational materials: Yes, we need industrial ecology educational materials! And yes there is capability among our members to create these materials! Some members have already created educational materials, others are working on it (me, for example), and others would like to use the educational materials that our members have created (me, again). As a next step, perhaps we can add educational resources to our ISIE web page, and develop at least an informal group to support access to these resources and to grow the collection. - Valerie Thomas 

Stefan Pauliuk

Thank you Stefanie for sharing your vision for our community, and all the best for your presidency! It will be exciting to see what activities will emerge over the coming years, now that a lot of the infrastructure that the society can provide is in place.

On the teaching side of things, I would like to point out the industrial ecology open online course (IEooc), which has grown to a quite broad scope over the last three years. Most of the material there is freely available and the about 40 exercises can be used and modified to fit own purposes:

This website also contains a list of all other IE-related teaching resources that I am aware of.

Simron Singh

Great ideas Stefanie, and my best wishes for your presidency! The Islands section would certainly be glad to collaborate and facilitate connections to Island states and universities to pilot some of these grand challenges as "hubs of innovation". Bringing IE education and research to island-based universities could trigger synergies across ISIE, given the urgency islands face. There is an increasing appetite for systemic approaches, as well as the collaborative potential for seeking real-world solutions.


Yuan Yao

Stefanie, thanks for sharing your great vision! I appreciate you mentioning the strong need for bridging SDGs and IE communities as the first grand challenge. The LCSA section is running a special issue on Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment for SDGs in JIE: ( We will need more case studies, framework development, and real-world applications to demonstrate the powerful contributions and unique aspects that IE tools and solutions can bring to the journey of achieving SDGs at various temporal and geospatial scales. 




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