Some Early Morning Thoughts on CASCADE

Some Early Morning Thoughts on CASCADE

Larry P. Walker,
Ph.D. Co-Director
Center for Achieving Sustainable Climate Action, Development, and Engagement(CASCADE)
Somaiya Institute for Research and Consultancy
Somaiya Vidyavihar University
Mumbai, India

My Co-Director, Dr. Parvathi J. R., asked me to share some of my thoughts on why I agreed
to play a leadership role in CASCADE. In many respects, my engagement with CASCADE is a
natural evolution of a mission that I have been on for most of my adult life. As an undergraduate
student at Michigan State University (MSU), I began to understand and appreciate how my
education would allow me to explore challenging natural resources, environmental, and community development problems. Initially I was not sure how to best integrate my passion for science and technology to do some good in the world. However, I was fortunate to have some very good mentors at MSU that got me thinking about different possibilities for me to be engaged in the sustainable human development mission. One of these mentors, Professor F. W. Bakker-Arkema, suggested that agricultural engineering was one way that I could leverage my passions. Professor Bakker-Arkema was passionate about engineering and its role in addressing food safety and resource issues. He was also a passionate reader of books on history and current events – a passion that we both shared. He became my graduate adviser, got me going down this path of engaging sustainable human development challenges, and we started a beautiful friendship! This is one of the reasons that I champion mentoring as part of our CASCADE mission.

During my time as a Cornell Professor of Biological and Environmental Engineering, I
continue to leverage my passion for science and technology in a number of energy, environmental, and industrial areas. In particular, I was very interested in leveraging the systems science and engineering education that I acquired during my graduate studies at MSU. Whereas my physics education focused on drilling down to understanding phenomena at the molecular or process level as path to discovery and problem solving – a reductionist approach –, my systems engineering education gave me the ability to understand phenomena through integrating across the scale of molecules, organisms, and communities – a holistic approach. This interest in understanding complex systems at the mechanistic and systems levels was core to much of my research and education activities during my thirty-five years on the Cornell faculty. Thus, it should be of no surprise that systems science and engineering thinking is core to CASCADE’s mission. I strongly believe that we cannot address sustainable human development challenges without leveraging systems thinking in how we intervene and innovate for diverse communities.

One of the questions that I get from my friends and colleagues is “why is an American working on sustainability challenges in India?” I have multiple responses to this question. For this blog, I chose two responses. First, my MSU and Cornell activities have led me to believe that we need to think globally and act collectively to regenerate our one world.

We can’t move to Mars any time soon. Thus, we must take care of planet

Taking care of the planet requires that we hear multiple voices and tap multiple sources of
brain power to understand the complexity of the biosphere and develop intervention strategies that are successful in addressing food, water, energy, and climate challenges at the local and regional levels. Also, innovation is not just about science and technology: policy, economics, and culture are also factors that influence what and how we intervene and innovate. Thus, by working in India, I get to a different understanding and appreciation of how these factors influence innovation. I am also fortunate that my charming wife, Nadine, shares this commitment to working with my Indian colleagues on sustainable human development activities. She is particularly passionate about activities that are focused on our youngest members of our global communities.

My second response is that visionary leadership brought me to India. Yes, in these times of
social networks and emphasis of co-design – designing with multiple stakeholders – we still need to have visionary leadership to bring people together, mobilize resources, and track and assess the progress that is being made. In my case, this leadership was exhibited by Shri Samir Somaiya! I met Shri Somaiya 15 years ago during one of his trips back to Cornell University where he teaches an undergraduate course on agriculturally based biorefineries. At this time, I was leading Cornell’s Biofuels Research Laboratory and also championing the development of agriculturally based industries. Thus, we shared a common vision on how agriculture and industry could come together in many synergistic ways. However, as we got to know each other better, we began to appreciate that we shared similar interests in sustainable human development and the role of education in driving sustainable development. I also discovered very quickly that Shri Somaiya business, agricultural, education, and health care enterprises actually represented a unique human ecology for exploring sustainable development challenges and opportunities – my CASCADE colleagues and I refer to this human ecology as the Somaiya Ecosystems. It was also apparent that Shri Somaiya occupies a unique vantage point for assessing and leading sustainable intervention and innovation in this ecosystem. This unique vantage point makes him appreciate the needs to hear and integrate multiple voices in his effort to lead sustainable development interventions and innovations. This need to hear and integrate multiple voices is also essential for CASCADE’s mission!

Another question that one might ask of me is “what would you like to see CASCADE become?” From my earliest engagement with Shri Somaiya, it was clear that he wanted to make Somaiya Vidyavihar University a globally institution for addressing sustainable human development challenges, and to use the Somaiya Ecosystems as a vehicle for demonstrating what can be accomplished through effective research, education, and outreach. For me, his vision for SVU and
its role in the Somaiya Ecosystem is similar to that of an American land-grant university. Land-grant universities have a mandate to provide higher education for a broad spectrum of American and to drive knowledge discovery and application for the good of its citizens, and to carryout extensive educational outreach to diverse communities. This is a noble mission to assume, and I very much believe in it. I also believe that SVU, in partnership with other organizations in the Somaiya Ecosystem, can be a leader in demonstrating how to nucleate teams of multi disciplinary and multi-institutional players to identify and address needs of the diverse communities that are part of the Somaiya Ecosystem. Thus, one of the key functions of CASCADE is to help create these teams and enable them to go about their noble work!

In closing, I have chosen to be part of this grand endeavor because it is consistent with a mission that I identified for myself more than 50 years ago. This endeavor allows me to leverage my passion for science and technology to address sustainable human development, and this is done with some remarkable people that understand that addressing sustainable human development challenges is more than science and technology. It is about integrating humanity into our intervention and innovation activities, and it is about bringing a holistic or systems mindset to the challenges that we face – the whole is more than the sum of the parts. I believe that leadership development and expanding the pool of mentors in the Somaiya Ecosystems will help SVU and other organizations in the Somaiya Ecosystem to reach their full potential. It is also an important part of CASCADE’s mission: enabling noble people to engage noble causes!

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