Around 200 guests attended the event at the Schinkelhalle in Potsdam’s Schiffbauergasse entertainment district, where the staff of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V. celebrated their anniversary. The event was previously cancelled in 2020 due to concerns about the pandemic, but the “10+2” ceremony more than made up for this delay. The IASS had plenty to celebrate, including its successful evaluation by the German Council of Science and Humanities and integration into the Helmholtz Association, including being embedded in the Helmholtz-Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. From 1 January 2023, the IASS will operate under a new name as the “Research Institute for Sustainability – Helmholtz Centre Potsdam”.
IASS Scientific Director Mark Lawrence welcomed the guests, which included representatives from municipalities, public administration, civil society, politics, and science from both Germany and abroad. Mark Lawrence remarked that the success of the IASS was evident in the recruitment of numerous former employees to a range of positions, including in universities and the federal government – or even the recent involvement of one in starting up an ecovillage in Spain. The founding director of the IASS, Klaus Töpfer, also lauded the Institute’s success, noting “that IASS employees are in high demand.”
Preserve freedom of thought
Karin Lochte, the chair of the IASS General Assembly, joined the ceremony by video-link and praised the unique spirit and enthusiasm of the Institute’s staff: “The institute has a viable future and a mission that is unique in Germany.” Lochte likened the IASS, now in its twelfth year, to a teenager who will “hopefully fall in love with its new partner and make many more good friends.” She hoped that IASS researchers would preserve their “freedom of thought and the opportunity that this affords them to develop difficult ideas that are not awarded with a guarantee of success, because this is an asset for everyone – and especially the Helmholtz Association.”
In his welcoming remarks, Ernst Rietschel looked back on the years from the Institute’s inception to its actual foundation. He noted that the Potsdam Memorandum “Global Sustainability - A Nobel Cause”, held fifteen years ago, provided an important impetus for the founding of the IASS. Since then, Rietschel said, the IASS has worked hard to “develop its unique profile and compete at the international level.” Such an attractive partner is likely to be coveted, he said, but the Institute’s independence and unique character should be preserved at all costs. State Secretary Tobias Dünow, who attended the anniversary on behalf of Brandenburg’s Minister for Science, Research and Culture, Manja Schüle, took a similar view: It is not the role of scientists, he argued, to serve society by generating acceptance. Instead, their mission should be “...to consider how to bring other perspectives into the picture; to uncover new ways of thinking rather than confirming existing ideas.”
Messner: “A flagship in the sustainability landscape”
In his keynote speech, Dirk Messner of the German Environmental Agency praised the Institute: “The IASS has succeeded in becoming a flagship in the German sustainability landscape in just ten to fifteen years.” As with the preceding speakers, he emphasized the Institute’s unique approach to transdisciplinary research and commitment to acknowledging the imperatives of the Anthropocene. “The great challenges can only be mastered through a transformation that unfolds within a democratic framework,” said the president of the German Environment Agency – and that is what the IASS stands for. Messner identified four major ‘headaches’ that humanity will have to tackle in a matter of years: global urbanization, the risk of China and India becoming entrapped in unsustainable path dependencies, negative emissions, and a lack of commitment by the industrialized countries to the Global South.
Sustainability research - a privilege
The anniversary festivities included a farewell to the Institute’s long-serving scientific director, Ortwin Renn, who will retire at the end of the year and was instrumental in ensuring the Institute’s successful evaluation by the German Council of Science and Humanities. Renn confessed that he was reassured that the IASS, after braving stormy seas, was now entering calmer waters. “But you can’t sail a ship without a crew,” Renn said, “and none of this would have been possible without our dedicated crew.” In closing, he addressed the IASS crew: “We are privileged to live in a country where we can afford to think about and study sustainability – which makes doing so an obligation.” He pointed to his granddaughter: “And everything that you do here will benefit her.”
What is the Research Institute for Sustainability?
The Institute aims to identify and promote development pathways for a global transformation towards sustainable societies. It received around nine million euros in funding from the federal and state governments this year. The Institute pursues a transdisciplinary, dialogue-oriented approach to develop solutions in cooperation with partners from politics, business and society. Its central research topics include the energy transition, climate change, air pollution and socio-technical transformations as well as governance and participation. After two terms of project funding, the IASS will continue to pursue its transformative research activities on a permanent basis from 2023 as the “Research Institute for Sustainability – Helmholtz-Centre Potsdam”, as part of the Helmholtz Association and integrated into the structures of the Helmholtz-Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences.