ZEF: Interview with Jakob Rhyner – Scientific Director of the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research / Innovation Campus Bonn

The Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research was founded in November 2017. It brings together six local institutions: BICC (Bonn International Center for Conversion), the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), the Hoschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg, University of Applied Sciences (H-BRS) , the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University (UNU-EHS) and the University of Bonn including the Center for Development Research (ZEF). Jakob Rhyner, former Director of the UNU-EHS, is the new Scientific Director of the Bonn Alliance / ICB.

How was the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research initiated?

Jakob Rhyner: It began a few years ago when I was still at the United Nations University (UNU), with a bilateral conversation with Michael Hoch, who had just been elected as the new Rector of the University of Bonn. We discussed the cooperation between our institutions and with other partners in Bonn, and agreed that it was very fruitful, but we both had the feeling that there was space for further development. While the Rector wanted to cooperate more closely with the UN, I thought that the diverse institutions in Bonn’s sustainability landscape were doing a great job in their respective domains, but that a couple of overarching research questions were being given little or no priority. Then the Rector proposed that we should look for a format that would link our agendas. Rather than simply a new institute, it should be an opportunity for the existing institutes to get together and for the university to cooperate with the UN. We presented a rough framework to the International Council of the City of Bonn (“Beirat Internationales Bonn”) which was received very well, and we were asked to work out more details. A representative from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) was attending the meeting in Bonn and he invited us to present our ideas in Düsseldorf.

What are the Alliance’s goals and target groups?

Jakob Rhyner: The goal of the Bonn Alliance is to improve and intensify cooperation on cross-cutting issues related to sustainability research. The major project is the establishment of the Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB). The Bonn Alliance is the supporting structure; and new partners can join the ICB on a project-wise basis. We want the ICB to be a very dynamic, vivid organization. The most important thing is that people and institutions feel invited to engage in joint projects on sustainability. We are already in contact with several partners beyond the Bonn Alliance partner institutes.

Alliance, ICB – who is who?

Jakob Rhyner: The Bonn Alliance with its six partner institutions is the carrier or umbrella organization for the ICB. While this “core” Alliance will probably be a rather stable group – with perhaps occasionally a new member – the ICB should be very flexible to allow other partners to easily join projects. If we grow and can eventually acquire the funding to move into the former children’s hospital [of the University of Bonn, editor’s note], as the Bonner General Anzeiger has already mentioned, the ICB will even have a “home”. But the ICB does not intend to encapsulate itself in those four walls; it remains a camp with its doors wide open. The essence is the campus idea. People and organizations should feel invited even if they don’t belong to the Bonn Alliance group.

There are already many networks and overarching projects such as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), etc. How does the Bonn Alliance differ from these?

Jakob Rhyner: Yes, there is an almost infinite number of networks and we have also thought about this. The Bonn Alliance is, as its name says, an Alliance between research institutions in Bonn. This does not exclude, of course, cooperation on other levels and goes hand in hand with international outreach, because the Bonn Alliance partners are all very well-positioned internationally.

You were the head of UNU-EHS in Bonn for eight years. Why is this new task interesting to you? What do you look forward to and where do you see challenges?

Jakob Rhyner: It’s interesting to me because within Bonn we have an environment with great research, education and policy consultation institutions – consisting of the six Bonn Alliance partners and various other international institutions all engaging in sustainable development work. My impression was that many cross-sectional projects are not really aligned with the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] agenda. The Bonn Alliance and the ICB offer the opportunity to bring in this focus. The second important driver for me was the current dynamism and enthusiasm at the University of Bonn. I have changed positions several times in my professional life, but most of the time I have transferred to a running organization. Here I have the opportunity to build something from scratch, and I’m looking forward to that challenge.

What does sustainability mean in the context of this Alliance?

Jakob Rhyner: A good question. Probably the most comprehensive description of the current understanding of sustainability is the Agenda 2030, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, underpinned by 169 targets and more than 200 indicators. The SDGs are a great achievement – it is almost a miracle that they exist at all. For me, they play a role similar to that of the human rights convention, meaning that they represent a great consensus among different stakeholders. Even if they are never totally fulfilled, they still exert political pressure. As such, the SDGs are incredibly valuable to me. Having said this, as a scientist I maintain a friendly critical distance from them. The notion of sustainability has changed with time, and there is no reason to assume that it will not continue to do so. Moreover, there are good reasons to be critical of the SDGs, as are my Alliance colleagues at BICC. So, there is a lot of interesting food for thought and material for research. For example, what could, and should an Agenda 2050 look like?

The Bonn Alliance partners strive for synergy effects in the three overarching thematic areas mobility/migration, bioeconomy and digitalization/artificial intelligence. What will this cooperation look like?

Jakob Rhyner: To answer this question, I’ll give an example of how our cooperation looks like within our first joint project which is called “Digitainable”. It aims at investigating the impact of digitalization on sustainable development. This will be tricky, because digitalization as such does not directly appear in the Agenda 2030. Digitalization simply had no advocate when the SDGs were being negotiated. However, there are indirect links. For example, one of the indicators in the Agenda 2030 is people’s access to mobile telephony. Coming back to your previous question, this shows the dynamic nature of the notions of sustainability: this indicator could not have been on the agenda 40 years ago, since there was no mobile telephony. And I believe that if we write an Agenda 2050 in 20 years, there will also be something like a human right of access to robotic services. Considerations like this will be a core theme of this research project: what hypotheses can be put forward about how a sustainability agenda could look like in 30 years or so. We are jointly approaching such future-oriented questions to strengthen the role of science in the discourse on sustainable development. We are currently looking for two post-docs for this project, but the two post-docs alone will not have all the knowledge, experience and expertise needed to work on the project. The important thing is that we need the help of all Alliance partners. In practice, we have to make sure that researchers, for example at ZEF, who are asked for input are certain that they’re not just providing expertise, but will also get the credit for being part of the project, e.g. in the form of (joint) publications. The input which partners provide should lead to opportunities for joint papers from the outset, because research papers are the currency of science.

What would you expect from ZEF?

Jakob Rhyner: We have already gotten a lot! I already have two office rooms here and the physical presence and daily interaction are, of course, important. What I particularly hope for from our cooperation with ZEF is its contribution to the bioeconomy research priority. This is a genuine ZEF topic – but of course also a topic of the University’s Faculty of Agriculture where I am anchored with my professorship. I would like to sit down with my colleagues at the directorial level and see how we can work on the subject of bioeconomy in a constellation of mutual gain. We should not do something that ZEF could have done on its own anyway. Rather we should tackle certain new issues where cooperation with the UNU, with the DIE, etc. will bear fruit. Bio-economy comprises one third of the Alliance’s or ICB’s agenda and is very much connected to the issue of digitalization. The opportunity for collaboration between the PhenoRob [robotics and phenotyping for sustainable crop production] excellence cluster of the University’s Agricultural Faculty, ZEF and the Bonn Alliance would facilitate exploration of research dimensions beyond the technical aspects.

A final say?

Jakob Rhyner: I’m very much looking forward to the coming months and years. My colleagues and I really want to try hard to ensure that the Bonn Alliance/ICB is considered as an additional opportunity. We want to offer a platform for synergies and cooperation, and for projects the Bonn Alliance and other partners would not be able to carry out on their own.

The interview was conducted by Alma van der Veen and Andreas Haller, both from ZEF.

For more information look at the Bonn Alliance Website: www.bonn-alliance.uni-bonn.de

Source: Notification Center for Development Research (ZEF), March 2019