Lectures by high-profile scientists

Lecture Series "Innovation Pathways to Sustainability"

The lecture series is a forum for high profile and internationally visible scientists who are active in academia or at the science-policy interface. The lectures address an interdisciplinary audience of experts from natural, social, and engineering sciences as well as representatives from international and implementation-oriented organizations. 


Here you can register for TRA 6's Distinguished Lecturers Series on "Innovation Pathways to Sustainability"

The next lectures are:

  • June 29, 2021, 17 h CEST, Prof. Sabine Schlacke, Institute of Environmental and Planning Law, University of Münster: „Managing land use as key challenge of the transformation to sustainability“
  • August 26, 2021, 14 h CEST, Prof. Julia Steinberger, Professor of Societal Challenges of Climate Change, University of Lausanne
  • October 6, 2021, 14 h CEST, Prof. Pete Smith, Professor of Soils & Global Change, University of Aberdeen

Past lectures

(Download PowerPoint Presentation22)


Climate change is provoking ever-more extreme events, from forest fires to heatwaves, droughts, and floods. The risk of such events changes as our climate warms, and these risks interact with each other across many environmental and social systems: a heatwave can spark forest fires, which lead to air pollution, impacting public health; drought affects crop harvests, leading to price volatility; the gap between the rich and poor can widen, increasing the risk of social unrest. Yet, the rising systemic risks posed by extreme climate events are hardly considered in most countries’ strategies for working towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The key challenge of risks emerging from climate extremes is that they emerge from the continuously changing boundary conditions of global warming, such as rising global temperatures or modified circulation and rainfall patterns. Thus, models that are commonly used to assess the risks posed by discrete hazards unrelated to climate are not necessarily valid in the future, neither for directly climate-driven extreme events nor for other hazards if they interact with additional stresses posed by changing climates (e.g. sea-level rise). This presentation will elucidate this challenge and ask the question, if and which modelling approaches can be helpful for a better understanding of systemic risks. While combining system modelling with artificial intelligence into hybrid modelling approaches offers a lot of potential, there are many challenges to be addressed by future research.

About the speaker

Markus Reichstein is Director of the Biogeochemical Integration Department at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry. His main research interests revolve around the response and feedback of ecosystems (vegetation and soils) to climatic variability with a Earth system perspective, considering coupled carbon, water and nutrient cycles. Of specific interest is the interplay of climate extremes with ecosystem and societal resilience. These topics are adressed via a model-data integration approach, combining data-driven machine learning with systems modelling of experimental, ground- and satellite-based observations. Since 2013 Markus Reichstein is Professor for Global Geoecology at the FSU Jena, and founding Director at the Michael-Stifel-Center Jena for Data-driven and Simulation Science. He has been serving as lead author of the IPCC special report on Climate Extremes (SREX), as member of the German Commitee Future Earth on Sustainability Research, and the Thuringian Panel on Climate. Recent awards include the Piers J. Sellers Mid-Career Award by the American Geophysical Union (2018), an ERC Synergy Grant (2019) and the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Preis (2020).

(Download PowerPoint Presentation)


Reliable and up-to-date data on how many people have moved from an origin country to a particular destination country remains scarce. This not only holds during refugee crises, or in countries with limited statistical capacity, it also holds in Europe. As an example, in 2019 the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) downgraded the quality label assigned to their estimates of Long-Term International Migration (LTIM) as they realized they had undercounted migrants from Eastern Europe. Due to such limitations, there is growing interest in using new and natively digital data sources for monitoring migration. A key appeal of tapping into “big data” obtained from social media, satellite imagery, or Google Trends is data recency. However, big data also enables the analysis of qualitatively different and new aspects. These include migration clusters, where people move between a set of countries, or dynamically studying the impact of changes in definitions, such as the residency period before somebody is classified as a migrant. Cross- national comparisons are also facilitated by the fact that companies such as Facebook apply a single, global method for classifying users. At the same time, the use of data collected by private companies creates challenges around opaque data generation processes, as well as questions around user privacy. In this talk, I will give an overview of how non-traditional digital data sources can be used to monitor and model international migration, complementing traditional data sources. References for published work can be found at https://ingmarweber.de/publications/22.

About the Speaker

Ingmar Weber is the Research Director for Social Computing at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI). His interdisciplinary research looks at what online user-generated data can tell us about the offline world and society at large. He works with sociologists, political scientists, demographers and medical professionals as well as with UN agencies and NGOs in the Data for Development space. Prior to joining QCRI, Dr Weber was a researcher at Yahoo Research Barcelona. As an undergraduate he studied mathematics at the University of Cambridge before pursuing a PhD at the Max-Planck Institute for Computer Science. He is an ACM, IEEE and AAAI Senior Member and serves as an ACM Distinguished Speaker.

(Download PowerPoint Presentation4322)


Performance-based financing (PBF) is an innovative approach to improve the low utilization and poor quality of health care services that has been adopted by many low and middle-income countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Based on the idea that “you get what you pay for,” PBF provides explicit incentives for health care providers to increase the quantity and quality of services. While the evidence on PBF is mixed and the approach remains controversial, nearly two decades of experience with these programs allow for constructive reflection on PBF in health care and other policy areas.

This talk will take stock of recent findings on the impact and challenges of PBF for maternal and child health care services, with a view toward policy lessons and opportunities for applied research. PBF continues to struggle with conceptual and practical obstacles, including sustainability and bottlenecks in the broader health system. However, PBF can be impactful, has contributed to an important new focus on health systems performance and quality of care, and provides large amounts of valuable routine data. The talk will review insights from current research on these issues and highlight opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.

About the speaker

Sebastian Bauhoff is an Assistant Professor of Global Health and Economics at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. He received a PhD in Health Policy/Economics from Harvard University and previously held a position as Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development. Sebastian’s research focuses on innovations in health care financing and service delivery that can increase access, efficiency and quality of care in low and middle-income countries. He is particularly interested in interdisciplinary research that applies rigorous empirical methods to secondary and administrative data. Sebastian enjoys tackling policy-relevant questions and collaborating with decision- makers at all levels.  

(Download PowerPoint Presentation543)


In the last year, the covid pandemic and historic fires have exposed humanity's inabilities to effectively manage shocks. Innovations that make society more resilient to shock is a key aspect of sustainability. Nature has persisted through unpredictable disease, asteroids, and extinctions and survived for billions of years. These strategies and their lessons for human societies, highlighted in the recently published book "What Would Nature Do?", include: investments in diversity; rebundancy in civilization's transport and trade networks; bottom-up decisions rather than top-down impositions from authorities; and self-regulating feedbacks that stem cascading failures. These strategies run counter to the efficiency paradigm that dominates development decisions, but they could help prepare society for an uncertain world. The talk will provide two examples of these strategies based on the author's reseach: diversity of cereals in India for climate resilience and the benefits and perils for feeding humanity through the global trade network.

About the speaker

Ruth DeFries is a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University in New York. Her research uses images from satellites and field surveys to examine how the world's demands for food and other ressources are changing land use throughout the tropics and the effects on climate, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, and human well-being. DeFries is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, receivad a MacArthur "genius" award, and is the recipient of many other honors for her scientific research. In addition to over 100 scientific papers, books for popular audiences include "The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis" and "What Would Nature Do?: A Guide for Our Uncertain Times"

(Download Powerpoint Presentation54


By 2050, the global population is projected to reach almost 10 billion. To meet basic nutritional requirements, food production will need to increase between 50-90%. Agriculture already accounts for nearly 70% of total human freshwater withdrawals, while contributing to around one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. As such, our farms of the future will need to not only increase output, but do so in a world where climate change and water scarcity will make sustainable production and yield stability even more challenging. A data-driven approach to agriculture has the potential to enhance and secure our food production systems. Remote sensing has an obvious role in advancing this objective, but it has been limited by spatial and temporal constraints, as well as the latency with which data (i.e. information) can be obtained. Emerging observation platforms, particularly those related to CubeSats and UAVs, together with other sensing technologies, are helping to realize this potential through the delivery of timely and actionable intelligence. Yet while we are awash with rich geospatial datasets, turning this “information” into useful and useable products remains an ongoing challenge. Machine learning, along with the rise of cloud computing and the data-cube, have enabled a dramatic shift in how information can be obtained, interrogated and disseminated. These new digital resources provide opportunities to advance not just agriculture, but also offer the tools and information needed to address a range of food and water challenges. In this talk, Prof. McCabe will present an overview of some recent efforts to develop informative products from emerging Earth observing platforms, along with the application of novel machine learning approaches that are enabling the production of scalable, field-level, agricultural informatics. In combination, these technologies are delivering an exciting new era of computational agriculture.

About the speaker

Matthew McCabe is a Professor of Remote Sensing and Water Security at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. He received his PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Newcastle in Australia, and held post-doctoral positions at Princeton University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Matthew was an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia before moving to KAUST in 2012. McCabe’s research explores a range of multi-disciplinary issues around water and food security, climate change impacts, precision agriculture, and water resources monitoring and modeling. He has particular interest in the use of novel technologies for enhanced Earth observation and data-model integration for improved system understanding. Prof McCabe has published more than 170 research papers and been recognized as a Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher. Matthew has been involved in a number of international research and coordination activities (G20, GCOS, GEWEX), and is the inaugural Specialty Chief Editor for Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence.

(Download the PowerPoint Presentation65)


Geoinformation derived from Earth observation satellite data is indispensable for tackling grand societal challenges. Among them energy, urbanization, climate change, ecology, food security and environment are crucial for shaping a sustainable future. Furthermore, Earth observation has irreversibly arrived in the Big Data era, e.g. with ESA’s Sentinel satellites and with the blooming of NewSpace companies. This requires not only new technological approaches to manage and process large amounts of data, but also new analysis methods. Here, methods of data science and artificial intelligence (AI), such as machine learning, become indispensable.

In this talk, explorative signal processing and machine learning algorithms, such as compressive sensing and deep learning, will be shown to significantly improve information retrieval from remote sensing data, and consequently lead to breakthroughs in geoscientific and environmental research. In particular, by the fusion of petabytes of EO data from satellite to social media, fermented with tailored and sophisticated data science algorithms, it is now possible to tackle unprecedented, large- scale, influential challenges, such as the mapping of global urbanization — one of the most important megatrends of global changes.

About the Speaker

Xiaoxiang Zhu is the Professor for Signal Processing in Earth Observation at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and heads the department “Earth Observation Data Science” at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). She also serves as the Director of the international AI future Lab “AI4EO”, the co-spokeswoman of the Munich Data Science Research School, the head of the Helmholtz Artificial Intelligence – Research Field "Aeronautics, Space and Transport", as well as in the board of directors of the Munich Data Science Institute of TUM.

The research of Xiaoxiang focuses on artificial intelligence and data science in Earth observation. She develops innovative machine learning methods and big data analytics solutions to extract highly accurate large scale geo-information from big Earth observation data. Her team aims at tackling societal grand challenges, e.g. Global Urbanization, UN’s SDGs and Climate Change, thus, works on solutions that can scale up for global applications. For her research work, Xiaoxiang has received several scientific awards, e.g., Leopoldina Early Career Award (2018) and two ERC grants (2016, 2020).

(Download the PowerPoint Presentation776)


Earth Observation continuously measures and monitors the types, magnitude and rates of land surface dynamics. Recent advancement in big data analytics applied to large satellite time series archives, new terrestrial and drone-based sensing technologies, and the use of computer vision and artificial intelligence opens new avenues to enhance a world-wide “sensor system for sustainability”. This allows for better tracking of anthropogenic activities, environmental changes, impacts and reactions by society to add more self-awareness to Earths self-regulation that is increasingly influenced by human actions. The presentation will give an overview of recent Earth Observation trends for a monitoring framework that supports policy development and implementation by providing improved data and transparency in setting priorities and tracking collective progress towards sustainability and climate-change mitigation goals in the land use sector with both local detail and global consistency.

About the Speaker

Prof. Dr. Martin Herold is the chair for geoinformation science and remote sensing at Wageningen University. He holds a PhD from the University of California-Santa Barbara (2004) and completed a habilitation (2009) on a topic on operational global land cover observation and assessments (FSU Jena). Martin is an expert in the development and implementation of land change monitoring systems using novel technologies and approaches, and in application contexts of the UNFCCC and the Sustainable Development Goals. He has published more than 200 scientific papers, enjoys supervising PhD students and supporting capacity development initiatives for moving innovative satellite and ground-based approaches into sustainable and climate-smart land use practice.

(Download PowerPoint Presentation8)


Hunger and other forms of malnutrition remain widespread problems globally, with huge negative health implications. Agriculture and people’s diets and nutrition are closely linked. Hence the question how agricultural production needs to change in order to contribute more effectively to improved diets and nutrition is of key policy relevance. This lecture will provide an overview of relevant agriculture-nutrition links. A short historical review reveals how important agricultural developments – especially productivity growth in cereal grains – were for hunger reduction over the last several decades. However, food security is not only about grains and calories but also about micronutrients and broader dietary quality and diversity. Related technological, institutional, and policy challenges to shape future agricultural developments will be discussed.

After a brief global overview, micro-level evidence from various developing countries will be presented. As smallholder farmers in developing countries make up a large proportion of the world’s undernourished people, the question how smallholder farming can be made more nutrition-sensitive is particularly relevant. One common hypothesis is that further diversifying small-farm production by introducing additional crop or livestock species is an effective strategy to improve diets and nutrition. This hypothesis is tested with empirical data. Beyond the role of farm diversification, effects of other strategies to improve diets and nutrition will be analyzed, including commercialization of the small farm sector, cash cropping, adoption of new technologies, and participation in emerging value chains. The
underlying mechanisms of nutritional impacts – such as changes in household income and intra-household gender roles – will also be explored.

About the Speaker

Matin Qaim is Professor of International Food Economics at the University of Göttingen. Before, he had research and teaching positions at the Universities of Hohenheim, Bonn, Kiel, and California at Berkeley. He holds a doctoral degree in agricultural economics from the University of Bonn. His main research areas include food security, sustainable food systems, and smallholder agriculture. He has research experience in Europe, the USA, and numerous countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Qaim has over 200 academic publications, mostly in top disciplinary and interdisciplinary journals. He is member of the German National Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina) and was recently recognized as Fellow of the American Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA). He has served on different high-level expert committees, including for the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Africa Harvest, and the German Federal Ministry of Nutrition and Agriculture. 

(Download PowerPoint Presentation9)


Informing and evaluating sustainability transitions requires better knowledge about how people interact with their environments as well as with technologies and institutions. Human interactions with mercury pollution provide a millennial-scale history of empirical material through which to examine complex systems relevant to sustainability. Mercury is a global-scale environmental pollutant, and the subject of a new global environmental treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which entered into force in 2017. This element travels through the atmosphere regionally and globally to pose risks both nearby and far away from its emission sources, which include coal burning and artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Noelle E. Selin will present new interdisciplinary approaches to trace pathways by which different policies influence mercury emissions, atmospheric transport, and human exposure and health impacts. The presentation will also discuss ways in which Selin has incorporated interactions with stakeholders and policy-makers in her work, including ongoing efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of the Minamata Convention, and address how research can both be more robust and impactful through such engagement. The presentation draws upon a forthcoming book about human interactions with mercury and their lessons for sustainability (MIT Press, October 2020).

About the Speaker

Noelle Eckley Selin is Associate Professor in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Director of MIT's Technology and Policy Program. Her research uses modeling and analysis to inform sustainability decision-making, focusing on issues involving air pollution, climate change and hazardous substances such as mercury. She received her PhD and M.A. (Earth and Planetary Sciences) and B.A. (Environmental Science and Public Policy) from Harvard University. Her work has focused on atmospheric chemistry, air pollution, as well as interactions between science and policy in international environmental negotiations. Her articles were selected as the best environmental policy papers in 2015 and 2016 by the journal Environmental Science & Technology. She is the recipient of a U.S. National Science Foundation CAREER award (2011), a Leopold Leadership fellow (2013-2014), Kavli fellow (2015), a member of the Global Young Academy (2014-2018), an American Association for the Advancement of Science Leshner Leadership Institute Fellow (2016-2017), and a Hans Fischer Senior Fellow at the Technical University of Munich Institute for Advanced Study (2018-2021).

(Download PowerPoint Presentation10)


In the last five years, we have seen many exhortations for food systems to provide not only nutritious foods, but to ensure those systems are sustainable from economic, environmental and social justice perspectives. With climate disruption, worsening food insecurity and malnutrition, systemic inequities, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic, the question remains: Can the world expect so much from food systems?

Future modeling and some scenarios show that we should call on food systems to do much more – that is, promote optimal human health, ensure future sustainable planetary health, and provide equitable and fair livelihoods of food system actors. However, this will depend on political will, science, technology, and behaviors and decisions of the unpredictable variable in the equation - humans.

This seminar will present some of the latest data on how food systems are coping in the context of the Anthropocene and the COVID-19 pandemic, and demonstrate how research and science, technological innovation and government action are imperative to ensure food systems are resilient.

At a time when facts and evidence are under ever greater scrutiny, and even openly disregarded as suspect by some political and business leaders, the rigors of science and evidence must be maintained. Research has a vital role in charting a positive and sustainable direction for global food security, nutrition, and health. Research can and does bring about wholesale changes in attitudes, political thought, and action. There has never been a time in history as there is now when progress can be made towards a better world in the context of communication, technologies, innovation, big data and global cooperation. Yet no technical recommendations to fix food systems will stand on two legs with the current fractured and sclerotic global political enabling environment. In order for food systems to function effectively, equitably and sufficiently during the pandemic and long after, the political environment must be one that embraces global cooperation and inclusion and minimizes
political polarization and geopolitical competition. Behavior change incentives and nudges of various food system actors and consumers must complement the research and politics.

Inevitably, there will be trade-offs. The question is, how to deal with those trade-offs while doing the least amount of damage. The seminar will conclude with potential food system pathways to resiliency, equity and sustainability for better diets, better human and planetary health, and a better world.

About the Speaker

Jessica Fanzo, PhD is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Global Food Policy and Ethics at the Berman Institute of Bioethics, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the Johns Hopkins University in the USA. She also serves as the Director of Hopkins’ Global Food Policy and Ethics Program, and as Director of Food & Nutrition Security at the JHU Alliance for a Healthier World. She is the Editor-in-Chief for the Global Food Security Journal and leads on the development, in collaboration with GAIN, of the Food Systems Dashboard.

From 2017 to 2019, Jessica served as the Co-Chair of the Global Nutrition Report, the UN High Level Panel of Experts on Food Systems and Nutrition, and the EAT Lancet Commission. Before coming to Hopkins, she has also held positions at Columbia University, the Earth Institute, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Food Programme, Bioversity International, and the Millennium Development Goal Centre at the World Agroforestry Center in Kenya. Jessica has a PhD in nutrition from the University of Arizona.

University of Düsseldorf, Speaker of the CEPLAS Cluster of Excellence on Plant Science

Global Green Growth Institute

Maastricht University / UNU-MERIT

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