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Q&A with David Purkey on the launch of SEI Latin America

Starting on 20 March 2018, SEI will have a permanent presence in Latin America based in Bogotá, Colombia. Here, Helen Saarniit chats with SEI Latin America’s newly appointed director, David Purkey, about the aspirations of the centre and highlights of the upcoming launch event.

Published on 19 March 2018
David Purkey

Centre Director

SEI Latin America

HS: First of all, congratulations on becoming the director of SEI’s newest centre! Since SEI already has centres in six countries around the world, why was there a need to open another one? And why were you keen on being part of the process?

DP: Thank you. I am both honoured and excited to have been asked to serve as the first centre director here in Latin America. The decision to open an office in Colombia came about when our Board of Directors asked us to look into formalizing our presence in this dynamic region of the world. The challenges facing Latin America in terms of sustainable development are real, but the solutions emerging in response are exciting. As I have been working in Latin America for over eight years, I was very excited about the possibility of strengthening my own research, and helping my SEI colleagues to do the same, by relocating to Bogotá.

Bogotá has seen some astonishing urban developments and sustainability projects, for example led by the former mayor Antanas Mockus. Why was Bogotá chosen as the location for a new SEI centre?

We looked at a number of promising options for locating a new Latin America centre. Colombia is a country endowed with very accomplished universities, with proactive government institutions, and with an active civil society. All of these have been energized to embark on sustainable development pathways during the post-conflict transition. The enthusiastic support of the Colombian government, particularly through its embassy in Sweden, was also a major contributing factor. We look forward to engaging in sustainable development research and policy engagement across Latin America from this very strategic base in Bogotá.

What areas of work will the new centre concentrate on?

We have decided to launch two lines of research in 2018. The first is water resources planning and decision support, in close collaboration with the SEI US Water Group. This is the group I led before coming to Colombia.

The second, which is strongly connected to colleagues in SEI Stockholm, will be implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Colombia was a very important player in the articulation of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda, and has been a leader in implementation. Still, in Colombia as elsewhere there is an opportunity to view SDG implementation through a much more integrated lens. We are developing techniques within SEI that we feel can promote a more integrated approach that we would like to deploy in Colombia and Latin America.

Can you tell us a little bit about the launch event for the new centre? Who are the speakers and what will be the highlights?

First of all, we hope it will be fun and interesting. The keynote speaker will be one of the most authoritative voices on the sustainable development in Colombia, the director of the newspaper Semana Sostenible, Carolina Urrutia. She will touch on the public narrative regarding sustainability in the Colombian political landscape and also discuss what Latin America needs in terms of information gaps and knowledge for a more integrated and sustainable track.

SEI’s deep experience in deploying innovative technologies in support of sustainable development research will be highlighted in three TED-style talks given by SEI colleagues. A panel including leading experts from around the region and moderated by the General Manager of E3, a Colombian company advising organisations on ecological, economic and ethical topics, will then respond.

After the formal event, an extended cocktail reception will give people a chance to relax and network.

What’s in store for the rest of this year and beyond? What major projects and collaborations do you plan for SEI Latin America to embark on?

My hope is that by the end of 2018 we will have a team of two or three researchers in place working on the two research lines. I also hope that we can launch a third research line later this year. There are several interesting options under consideration. One is to engage with SEI’s impressive work in the area of supply chain transparency for forest-risk commodities under the Trase initiative. A presentation of this work will be included in the launch event. Other options are related to transitions to post-fossil fuel economies, combating urban air pollution, and sustainable sanitation. The choice will be driven by the demand we sense from partners in the region. By the end of 2019, my hope is to have 15–20 SEI colleagues based in Bogotá working on four research lines that are contributing important insights to the region’s decision-makers.

View of a city with shorter houses in the front and tall buildings behind, and much taller mountains in the background.

View from the office at SEI Latin America. Photo: SEI.

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SEI Latin America

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