This programme provides funding for up to eight early career researchers (ECRs) to identify a programme of work that can develop a roadmap for environmental solutions through a whole system approach.

The aim

To build a capability here at Cranfield to address a clearly-defined environmental challenge or set of challenges. The programme is expected to create an intra-organisation, solutions-orientated community that is working towards a common goal. 

Defining your challenge

Projects should drive new research to address challenges that are key to a sustainable and resilient environment and society such as decarbonisation of energy, creation of a circular economy, reversing biodiversity decline, socially and environmentally sustainable supply chains, and cleaner air.

In line with this, here at Cranfield we will focus on environmental and societal resilience to bring together ECRs to explore how natural capital – one of the five capitals of resilience – can be better protected, supported and understood in a changing world, and how it can be linked to other capitals of resilience to solve societal challenges aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What activities can be supported?

We want to encourage our ECRs to think beyond the more common disciplinary alliances and to consider areas where the value of different, and less explored, insights can be understood and exploited.

Any of the following activities can be organised, with limited funding provided to underpin activities where required:

  • Embed researchers in themes outside of their own discipline area.
  • Share insights on priorities and search for synergies and new ideas that cut across theme boundaries. 
  • Organise meetings, seminars and workshops between departments and disciplines to share learning, understanding of key terms, concepts, language and tools to tackle problems.
  • Work with end users (e.g. businesses, policymakers, non-governmental organisations) to understand how their needs could be addressed through interdisciplinary approaches.

The challenges

Sustainable and resilient engineering system: a system approach

Co-investigator: Fanny Camelia

The changing world demands the development of more sustainable engineering systems that take sustainability and environmental considerations into account during early system development. However, the development of engineering systems, places less emphasis on sustainability and broader environmental factors. Some of the reasons for this are lack of awareness by stakeholders including systems engineers; and the limitations of methods and tools for considering sustainability during system development. Furthermore, in its lifecycle, engineered systems can experience disturbances, including those caused by climate change. It is important to understand the resilience of system to ensure that disruptions will not affect system performance. This project aims to explore the development of sustainable and resilient engineering systems using a systems approach, taking into account stakeholders, systems lifecycle and lifecycle costs.

Nature-based solutions in a changing world: performance, policy, and management

Co-investigator: Tao Lyu

Treatment wetlands (TWs), as a nature-based solution, have been widely used for wastewater treatment and deliver multiple benefits. Despite providing good water purification functions, TWs are a major source of greenhouse gases. However, more reliable evidence is needed to minimise the uncertainty and facilitate UK water utilities achieving the Net-Zero target by 2030. Moreover, further implementations of TWs are inhibited due to the lack of numerical quantification of multiple benefits. Current policies primarily focus on natural wetland conservation and restoration, while TWs are not mentioned explicitly in any of the formal climate change treaties. Therefore, to provide a better nature-based solution towards environmental sustainability, this project will summarise the evidence, identify knowledge gaps, propose solutions, and disseminate findings through interactions with researchers, policymakers, and stakeholders.

Connecting the systems of interventions and controls to build resilient and healthy environments

Co-investigator: Zaheer Nasar

This project aspires to catalyse the generation of new knowledge to create a holistic paradigm of air quality and public health relevant to the totality of exposures across the outdoor-indoor continuum. The drivers of exposure to air of poor quality are diverse and dynamic including factors such as social, economic, political, climate change, urbanisation and land use change. System thinking approaches are needed to understand and inform mitigation and control strategies to build healthy and resilient environments. The inherent barrier to progress has been the prevailing silos (disciplinary, regulatory, organisational) which lead to disconnects. Adopting a whole-system approach focusing on deciphering interdisciplinary knowledge and disrupting the existing knowledge and silos, a conceptual framework, key research needs and highlight topics will be developed.

Cultivating urban resilience from soil: propagating a route connecting natural, built, social, financial, and human capital

Co-investigator: Daniel Evans

We face an urban paradox. More land will be required over the coming decades to accommodate urbanisation, but this land, and its provision of soil, is essential for sustaining it. Soils are key for supporting the five capitals of connected resilience – natural, built, social, financial, and human – and are critical for healthy, sustainable, and resilient urban life. Recently, efforts have been made to implant soil in, on, and around existing built space, but these schemes have rarely been designed to integrate soil with other forms of capital. Therefore, a disconnect remains between soils and urban infrastructure, processes, flows, and behaviours. Resolving this requires a whole-system approach. This project will assemble an interdisciplinary and multisectoral consortium of stakeholders to co-design research and innovation to integrate soil into built, human, social, and financial capital in urban space.

Resilient plantation systems

Co-investigator: Nick Girkin

Nick Girkin Resilient plantation systems Large plantations and smallholder farms underpin the production of a range of commodities across the tropics, including tea, coffee, and cocoa. Global demand is increasing but current practices are resulting in environmental damage, for example resulting in soil carbon and nutrient losses, reducing overall soil health. Production is underpinned by high agrochemical inputs resulting in greenhouse gas emissions and eutrophication. Moreover, agroecosystems are highly vulnerable to climate change, resulting in declining yields. This can result in deforestation and biodiversity losses to maintain present production.

Addressing these challenges requires a transdisciplinary approach, which encompasses the entire value chain and engages multiple stakeholders, from smallholder farmers, to agribusinesses and non-governmental organisations. This project will identify opportunities for enhancing resilience across the sector, assessing potential knowledge gaps and opportunities for innovation in two key areas: (1) regenerative agriculture to improve ecosystem health; and (2) circular economic approaches, to reduce waste. This will be achieved by adopting a transdisciplinary approach, working with environmental and social scientists, bioeconomists, agronomists and representatives from the sector.

Challenges surrounding societal transformation to net zero

Co-investigator: Michelle Cain

Climate science is well established, however the pathway to achieving climate goals is not. Transformational societal change requires much more than just climate science – it requires a systems approach and involvement from all walks of society. It is also worth designing policies to tackle all environmental (and ideally social) problems at once, or at least not compromise other goals. The disciplinary knowledge to evidence successful policies is wide ranging, including business, finance, politics, law, psychology, sociology, engineering, health, and the full range of environmental sciences. To successfully achieve climate and other environmental goals (e.g. limiting global warming to well below 2C, biodiversity net gain, increased resilience to extreme events) is to constrain emergent properties of a system. Applying systems thinking to the problem is one way to develop effective policies. This project aims to map out key topics where hopping between disciplines will be beneficial, and take the first steps in developing new projects to do this.

High-performance sustainable composites for the next generation of infrastructure

Co-investigator: Haibao

On the way to a low-carbon future, a key action is to develop new infrastructure, which are more durable and sustainable. To achieve this, composites are expected to play a key role. Compared to conventional materials, e.g., metals and concretes, composites require less energy for transport and assembly, which can reduce emissions. Composite materials also have a strong capability to resist the corrosion from weathering and exposure to chemicals, which can considerably increase the resilience and lifespan of infrastructure. However, the wider adoption of such material has been hindered by the high manufacturing cost and the uncertain performance under extreme conditions, e.g., critical loading and heat or damp environment. Therefore, the development of high-performance sustainable composites, with lower costs, is urgently demanded.

Resilience dividend: does investment on sustainability through natural capital pay off in the long-term at micro and macro level?

Co-investigator: Ariel Sun

Through the past experiences of severe natural and man-made catastrophe events, organizations and nations must prepare for the future disruptions of their operations and the interconnectedness of the five capitals: natural, human, social, built and financial capital, and be ready for the challenges of the individual capitals’ respective and joint impacts on local and global economy and society at large. We aim to provide some answers to the questions: (1) what resilience mean at micro (project and organization) and macro (country and global economy) level? (2) Define/Refine the key measurements of such resilience factors at micro and macro levels (3) Assess the impact of investment (or negligent) on resilience at various levels through the five capitals (with a focus on natural capital) and their inter-connectedness.