In defining the "Future We Want" - the outcome document from the Rio+20 conference of the United Nations - heads of states and governments acknowledged "the need to further mainstream sustainable development at all levels, integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognising their inter-linkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions".
One of the most important steps in achieving this vision would be to sensitise the existing work force, across all streams of life, to think multi-dimensionally and to produce a fresh work force that would be equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to bring about sustainable development. However, a more daunting challenge would be: how do we achieve this when the existing teachers and researchers are emerging from systems that are disciplinary silos and are recognised for their knowledge contributions through publications in highly discipline-focussed journals and publications? When science councils have not evolved to value and evaluate inter-disciplinary work? When employers have not thought through an organisational structure to ensure sustainable functioning?
The Rio+20 outcome document recognising this challenge highlighted the "importance of supporting educational institutions, especially higher education institutions in developing countries, to carry out research and innovation for sustainable development, including in the field of education, and to develop quality and innovative programmes... geared to bridging skills gaps for advancing national sustainable development objectives." For this kind of support to yield results in the accelerated time frame in which we would like to transit to sustainable societies, the pooling of knowledge resources globally becomes an essential pre-condition. Innovative and incentivised mechanisms for the transfer/spread of state-of-art knowledge and for removing educational gaps in global classrooms would need to be devised in real time.
India provides a classic example of an apparently highly technically evolved huge potential workforce that still is categorised to be of low employability. The low and poor quality enrollment in PhD programmes, due to the highly attractive economic opportunities for the "best and the brightest" in industry, has already threatened the quality of future faculty (even with disciplinary biases). So, how do we help the millions that are yet to enter the workforce meet their aspirations through quality and relevant education? How do we use educational opportunities to stem the concentration of populations in a few urban areas and the migration of population from rural to urban areas? The faculty shortage last year in India in the higher education space was estimated to be about 4,00,000.
Bridging knowledge and geographical distance through information technology is one of several solutions to this challenge that can yield quick results. However, its potential is restricted due to inadequate regulatory development and commitment. Two other critical challenges, especially in developing countries which need urgent attention and investment, are the removal of any digital divides and access to energy. Unfortunately, as is the case in most countries across the world - especially developing countries, planning and programme delivery is uncoordinated and not geared to be outcome-based. The transition to sustainable development through a new knowledge economy would need a totally new mission-based approach.
The writer is executive director at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)