Three New Research Institutes at UTSC
Irena Creed, Vice-Principal Research and Innovation at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) is clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead for the global community. But she is confident that with the launch of iRISE (Institutes for Resilient and Inclusive Societies and Ecosystems), UTSC is rising to meet those challenges: “Through outstanding research in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences, UTSC will offer trusted knowledge that will create new narratives of the future and implement transitions towards that future that is socially-just and equitable.”
iRISE, which is both an organizing framework and an administrative home for its three constituent and interrelated institutes, is the product of the extensive community consultations and evidence-based review of the campus’ scholarly record during the development of UTSC’s current Strategic Plan, Inspiring Inclusive Excellence. “The Research and Scholarly Excellence Working Group, representing faculty, staff, and students across our diverse disciplines heard clearly from the UTSC community and external partners that we had areas of established and emerging research strength that we should build on,” recalls Wisdom Tettey, Principal of UTSC. “There was strong support for undertaking research and creative activity in synergistic and interdisciplinary ways that uniquely position the campus for global prominence. We also heard an equally vigorous commitment to scholarship that addresses complex, interrelated global issues and positively impacts our community.”
The working group recommended the establishment of three founding research institutes, which have evolved into the Institute for Environment, Conservation and Sustainability; the Institute for Inclusive Economies and Sustainable Livelihoods; and the Institute for Inclusive Health and Well-Being. “There is world-recognized scholarly strength at UTSC in relation to the environment, health and wellbeing, and sustainable economies and livelihoods,” says Creed. “These are areas crucial to our shared future in Scarborough, in Canada and globally. iRISE will conduct convergent research in these areas to solve the complex problems we face today, connecting them to complementary research being done elsewhere.”
Early on, a connection was made between these constituent institutes and the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Ratified by the 193 member states of the United Nations, the 17 UN SDGs provide a global framework for action aimed at people, the planet, prosperity, and peace. Together, the three institutes will address all 17 goals.
After international searches, three Directors for the new institutes have been selected. The Inaugural Director of one institute has already assumed duty, while the other two are currently led by Interim Directors who are helping to develop their respective mission and programming until the Inaugural Directors begin in July. Upcoming months will offer multiple opportunities for engagement with the UTSC community about iRISE and its institutes: “We’re asking the community to participate in further shaping these institutes,” Creed emphasizes. “One way is through monthly fora, beginning in January, followed by a town hall this spring.”
Creed looks forward to new research successes through iRISE. “Our faculty and students are global leaders who constructively disrupt the status quo to advance transformative change. iRISE and these new institutes will help realize UTSC’s strategic vision of global prominence in these areas of scholarship.”
The Institute for Environment, Conservation, and Sustainability (IECS) will support research to develop evidence-based solutions to address the challenges of a rapidly changing environment due to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, loss of biosphere integrity, and loss of biodiversity. UTSC’s strategic plan identifies research on the environment, conservation, and sustainability as an established strength, and the Institute will create conditions for interdisciplinary and historically grounded conversations about the relationships between people and the natural world.
Inaugural Director Imre Szeman emphasizes that the Institute will not be limited to science-based research but will also encompass the humanities and social sciences. “It’s essential we ask the Big Questions surrounding climate change. Scientific research on climate change is crucial, but we won’t keep warming below two degrees Celsius without significant changes to our global social systems and practices.”
Szeman is newly appointed as a professor of Human Geography at UTSC, and teaches and conducts research in energy humanities, environmental studies, and social and political philosophy. A member of the International Panel on Behavior Change, he is also co-founder of the Petrocultures Research Group and author of the book On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture and Energy.
With climate change already in process, Szeman says the global community needs to address the many challenges it will bring. He points to the question of those displaced by climate catastrophes. “We can anticipate millions of climate refugees. Is migration to developed countries the answer? Or are there ways to assist them in the communities where they have made their lives? In each and every instance of climate crisis, we need to make sure to address its causes and not just deal with its symptoms.”
Szeman is currently meeting new colleagues at UTSC and consulting on future directions for the Institute. He is also preparing to host information sessions at all three campuses and developing programming to be in place for the fall. His initial focus is on developing programs that offer original ways to conduct interdisciplinary research and expand research networks. Research Residencies for faculty and graduate students would bring together a small number of UTSC researchers with globally based researchers to work intensively on specific themes and experiment with interdisciplinary research while developing strong relationships with other participants. “These will operate almost like mini-COPs,” he says, referring to the recent negotiations on biodiversity in Montreal, “bringing together different perspectives to focus on single issues.”
He is also thinking of ways to give high school students in the Eastern GTA an opportunity to learn about and participate in university research, including the development of summer schools on climate change. He also looks forward to hosting speakers who excite the community.
Regarding his vision for the institute, he says, “I hope the Institute for Environment, Conservation, and Sustainability will help researchers across disciplines to work together to address the causes and consequences of climate change. I hope the Institute will become a leader in Canada and internationally by asking the essential questions we need answered, and by mobilizing knowledge to publics and policymakers as well as to others in the global research community.”
Environmental disruptions, technological innovations, demographic shifts, and globalization are catapulting the world into a period of increasing precarity, disruption and loss of livelihood. The Institute for Inclusive Economies and Sustainable Livelihoods will provide an intellectual environment that enables the exploration, development, and sharing of diverse economic solutions, while facilitating partnerships with community organizations. Its vision is imagining sustainable and just economic futures in an age of degrowth.
Interim Director Caroline Shenaz Hossein defines degrowth as moving away from commercialized and capitalistic forms of growth to people-centric models. “Its focus is not on accumulating more,” she says, “but on sharing the abundance we already have.”
The institute will build on the research strength UTSC has already demonstrated in inclusive economies, including Hossein’s own work, which she describes as “pushing against mainstream commercialized financial systems, and asking how we can do business in new ways that incorporate diverse forms of local economies that already exist, especially more cooperative forms.”
Hossein is a Canada Research Chair for Africana Development & Feminist Political Economy and an Associate Professor of Global Development at the UTSC cross-appointed to the graduate program of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Politicized Microfinance and editor of The Black Social Economy. She began her career working for global non-profits, and consulting for the World Bank Group, UNDP, CIDA and others.
Her role as Interim Director of the Institute for Inclusive Economies and Sustainable Livelihoods will continue until summer when the Inaugural Director begins. In the meantime, Hossein has gathered a council around her of 18 experts in inclusive economies at the three University of Toronto campuses. “They work in political studies, economics, development and sustainable livelihoods, are feminist in orientation, and are thinking of business in exciting ways, through transportation, education, human rights, and more.”
While she works with her council to think through what the philosophy and mission of the institute will look like, she is also preparing the Africana Feminist Economics Symposium to be held in May, which will feature three black feminist academics: Talia Esnard of the University of West Indies, Trinidad, Sherice Nelson of Southern University in Louisiana, and Hossein herself. The symposium will be presented in association with the DISE Collective, of which Hossein is a founder.
Foundational to the institute will be the importance of learning from the pluriverse, knowledges and voices too often excluded from academic inquiries: “When we look across geographies and beyond timelines, we can see that there are diverse economic systems on this planet, and there are many ways that people have always been ‘commoning’ - sharing with others and their own household,” Hossein reflects. These systems have been marginalized in our current systems of extreme capitalism but can reveal the resilient strategies needed to generate a socially just and equitable future.
Looking to the future, Hossein is optimistic: “I hope the institute is going to make itself into an applied space, and we’re not doing community-engaged research in a typical academic sense; instead, it’s where community leaders can do research, and activists can be visiting scholars. I hope it will create a platform for people who are disrupting the models of economics, which are too often taken as monolithic and inevitable.”
The Institute for Inclusive Health and Well-Being is set to produce inclusive and integrative health research programs, focusing on the health challenges that arise from living in the Anthropocene. It will generate spaces for interdisciplinary dialogues about planetary health, what is needed for inclusive health and well-being, and research on health assessments and healthcare delivery for equity-deserving groups.
Interim Director Charles Trick is an oceanographer and environmental public health professional, which gives him a unique perspective on the effects of climate change on human health. Newly appointed at UTSC as a Professor of Health and Society, he is currently engaged in a community-based participatory research program focused on the impact of climate change and globalization on the health of communities that used to make a living from the sea. “Those resources are no longer available to them, and invasive species can have widespread effects on health.” He is currently conducting research in three communities, in Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Cook Islands. Before arriving at UTSC, he was a Professor in Biology and the Interfaculty Program in Public Health at Western University.
Trick sees UTSC as the natural site for the Institute. “There are many colleagues whose work is focused on climate change, both oceanographic and terrestrial, and UTSC has a lot of researchers very interested in health.” In addition, he points to two departments that he anticipates will be major collaborators in the Institute: the Department of Health and Society, and the Department of Environmental and Physical Sciences. “Elsewhere, there is often little overlap between those two departments. But at UTSC, our foundation will be a path the future of the planet requires – a broad interaction of changes in our social, humanistic, and environmental actions – all blending to create societies based on health and well-being.”
Trick is involved in bringing concepts of planetary health to the Institute. “Many schools or governments are looking at the health of humans, some at the health of animals. The planetary health model looks at what the earth can offer us to have healthy lives, and what we can do to protect the earth. It’s a less reactionary model. We’ve used resources to their ends. How can we recreate the earth for the health of all?”
The potential research themes of the Institute include fundamental science explorations of ageing; policy and program pathways to eliminate health inequities; arts-based storytelling approaches to health communication; and holistic conceptualizations of the role of where we live, work and play on health and well-being; and translating knowledge of the relationship between environment factors and well-being into practice and policy.
The incoming Inaugural Director, Allison Crawford, is a psychiatrist who also holds a PhD in English. She will join the Institute in July from her current position at CAMH (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). Crawford is a leader in community-based suicide prevention, and the Chief Medical Officer for Talk Suicide Canada and 9-8-8. She is also Associate Professor at the University of Toronto in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. One of the Founding Editors of Ars Medica, a literary journal exploring the arts and healing, Crawford is also the Founding Director of the HeART (Health equity, Art, Research, Technology) Lab, which builds collaborative research partnerships between healthcare providers, researchers, artists, and community members. Trick notes, “Allison has a passion for storytelling, broadly understood, and as a mechanism for communicating at a high level. She gets full credit for the desire to have a creative storytelling pathway as part of the Institute.”
Both Interim and Inaugural Directors communicate frequently, and Trick sees some of his work as guiding the early stages of the Institute so Crawford can progress with it on her arrival. They will both be members of the planning committee for an innovative conference for Fall 2023, Building Communities Through Inclusive Health, which UTSC will plan and host in partnership with the Scarborough Health Network. The unique vision for the conference is to bring together clinical experience, community perspectives and cutting-edge research in natural and health sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, while addressing key health challenges. This conference will lay the groundwork for the Scarborough Academy of Medicine and Integrated Health (SAMIH).
Trick looks forward to connecting with colleagues in upcoming weeks and months to discuss plans for the Institute, and “to get input on whether they see more novel ways of doing things, and what they could offer. We’re hoping that this Institute will catalyze, leading to innovation and creativity that wouldn’t otherwise occur.”
Szeman, Hossein, and Trick will be developing the Institutes and look forward to meeting with their colleagues in the upcoming semester through one-on-one meetings, monthly fora, town halls, and information sessions. The first virtual forum will take place January 30.