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Letters From ~ 16 

Letter from Australia

Partnerships towards socio-ecological innovation

Bruce Wilson

Dear Chris 


One of your wonderful qualities is a raw optimism that enables you to view any circumstance through constructive eyes: no matter how bad things might be at present; we’re bound to find a way through. 


The world, not least our own patch here in the Antipodes, faces global crises with a complacency that can only be understood through the lens of distance. In Australia, this applies to the Ukrainian war, to financial crises, and even now, to climate risks, notwithstanding fire and floods at home. At the heart of the complacency, is a deep preoccupation with fossil fuels as our key energy source. That there is even a debate about opening new coal mines in a country like Australia is simply bizarre. And you might say, even more so, when coal is seen to be a resource for generating hydrogen, which is apparently part of our solution to the reliance on fossil fuel. 


The struggle for so many of us is to understand that ‘business as usual’ cannot deliver the kinds of changes that we need to order to manage the impending climate risk, let alone address the broader agenda that is represented by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Notwithstanding that more than 190 national governments signed up to the SDGs, the reality of the implications for existing structures, interests, has not sunk in, even almost a decade after they were endorsed.


Indeed, there was an assumption that science and technology would do the work for us, that this would not only sort out climate adaptation but also deliver a ‘levelling up’ necessary for many other SDGs. An assumption that cities would become more habitable even as temperatures keep rising.


As the 2030 targets recede further and further away, the imperative to rethink our existing modes of habitation, of production, of engagement has become irresistible. There are signs of this rethinking commencing, at a whole range of levels. The European Union Green Deal demonstrates immense ambition to address the challenges even if the capability to deliver on the ambition might be lacking.


Our work in the EU Centre at RMIT, with a broad range of partners is demonstrating that there can be promising initiatives pointing towards socio-ecological innovation. Central to our work is the consistent reaffirmation of the importance and power of adult learning, and a growing understanding of the necessity of partnership to deliver on its potential. This means partnership that spans government to village, policy makers and citizens, researchers and business. Increasingly it points to a democratisation of innovation, delivering the opportunity and responsibility of new ways of working from the citadels of power to ordinary people who take redesigning of their own circumstances into their own hands.


The wonderful thing about this kind of innovation, Chris, is that contrary to many daily headlines, it reinforces the optimism that has driven so much of your work. This, together with the passion, the intellect and the extraordinary capacity to bring people together that you have brought to so many activities and places, confirms the extraordinary contribution you have given. Liz, of course, has been a critical partner in this, bringing her own sharp agenda, organisational capacity and values to enhance even more the things that matter.


Is this evolution of learning and democratic innovation going to be sufficient to address global challenges? Well, that’s up to all of us. In the meantime, as I’ve seen you say more than once, ‘Keep purposeful and happy’!


Bruce Wilson 

Professor Bruce Wilson is Director, EU Centre of Excellence Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University. 

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