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Concordia takes on global sustainability in the digital age

The LEADS program is funded by a $1.65-million Collaborative Research and Training Experience grant
May 13, 2021
Hands typing on a laptop
Damon Matthews: “We’re trying to mobilize the tools and innovations of the digital world toward furthering progress on global sustainability.”

With Concordia recently placing 62nd worldwide in the newly released 2021 Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings for its institutional commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the work of Damon Matthews’s team on the Leadership in Environmental and Digital Innovation for Sustainability (LEADS) program couldn’t be more timely.

Matthews is the Tier 1 Concordia University Research Chair in Climate Science and Sustainability and professor of geography, planning and environment in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

The LEADS program just finished the first year of its six-year, $1.65-million Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The grant emphasizes collaboration and aims to combine professional development with research. SynBioApps is another NSERC-CREATE–funded initiative currently underway at Concordia.

“We’re trying to provide students with the ability to interact with the digital world in a way that will further their own sustainability research goals and also connect that research more tangibly to societal challenges,” Matthews says.

“One of the big outcomes of the pandemic is that we’ve been forced to develop a facility with digital tools in a way that we hadn’t before.”

Partnerships with global research networks

The LEADS program is partnering with global sustainability networks Future Earth and Sustainability in the Digital Age, as well as other university partners.

Graduate students have been gaining skills, knowledge and experience in sustainability science and digital innovation, as they work to find dynamic solutions to real-world challenges like curbing biodiversity loss, climate mitigation and new ways of calculating environmental footprints.

They’ve also worked with a network of Climate Change AI researchers, training that will help students “be bilingual across different fields of study,” Matthews says, particularly sustainability science and artificial intelligence technology. And students have been introduced to the idea of collective leadership, working with diverse groups in order to apply a facilitated, collective expertise toward difficult challenges.

The program’s ultimate objective is to mobilize the transformative power of digital innovation toward meeting the world’s climate and other sustainability goals, and this combination of data, science and sustainability is one of the things PhD student Mitchell Dickau says attracted him to LEADS.

“Having an opportunity to collaborate and have access to researchers in a wide range of environmental disciplines, as well as in the computer science and machine learning worlds, is very exciting,” he says. “I’m optimistic about the opportunities that will come from this program.”

The first year saw the team work entirely online due to the pandemic, having to navigate how to provide students with a “training community,” despite only being able to interact with their peers through their computer screens, Matthews notes.

“Working digitally has been a challenge, but it’s been very compatible with the theme of our program as well,” he says. “The digital world has only risen in prominence over the last year, and what we’re trying to do with this program is to mobilize the tools and innovations of that world toward furthering progress on global sustainability goals.”

Learn more about Concordia’s
SynBioApps and LEADS programs.

Find out more about the Collaborative Research and Training Experience program grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.



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