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SEI Science Forum: A healthy planet for all

The topics at this year’s Science Forum in September revolved around the limits of growth as an economic paradigm, climate, environment and development policy. The UN climate change negotiations, Stockholm+50, Agenda 2030 and an outlook towards 2022 were also discussed.

The forum comprised a total of 20 sessions and engaged the SEI Science Advisory Council and 280 employees from all SEI centres around the globe.

Inès Bakhtaoui, Ylva Rylander / Published on 8 October 2021
Transparent globe reflecting sky and earth

A sustainable future for all. Photo: Marc Schulte / Unsplash.

Key takeaways and topics

This was the first-ever online-only SEI Science Forum. The opening session included a statement by SEI Executive Director Måns Nilsson, representatives from SEI and a keynote speech delivered by Professor Miriam Lang on “What are the impacts of a shift away from the traditional growth economic model on environmental and development policy research?”

In this Q&A, Inès Bakhtaoui, Research Fellow at SEI Oxford and Ylva Rylander, Communications Officer at SEI Headquarters, elaborate on key takeaways and topics discussed during this year’s forum. The forum is an annual sharing and learning event showcasing the variety of SEI research, including science-policy-practice partnerships and engagement.

How do you look at future challenges on climate change governance?

Bakhtaoui: My interest is in the unavoidable impacts of climate change on human settlements. International governance is currently failing at providing the financial, technical and logistical support required to adequately adapt to climate change and address losses and damages caused by climate change when they occur. My research provides the evidence needed to progress on this issue.

Did your research expertise on how to use digital technologies in climate governance come handy when organizing the SEI Science Forum online?

Bakhtaoui: It did! The pandemic forced us to work from home and my team examined if and how intergovernmental climate governance can make progress online. Our main conclusions are:

  • Over the last year-and-a-half, people have become accustomed with online interactions and the use of digital tools. This is a very positive trend from an environmental impact perspective.
  • Online meetings have the potential to increase attendance but can hinder the inclusivity and trust of participants.
  • The pandemic has also catalyzed a quick and positive development of new tools that emulate face-to-face interactions.
  • These innovations increased acceptance of online meetings as a temporary option, but long-term adoption will require creative thinking and strong leadership.
  • Many of our findings were transferable to the Science Forum. Read more: Building climate diplomacy back better: imagining the UNFCCC meetings of tomorrow

What topics were discussed during the forum?

Rylander: We created a daily newsletter published on SEI’s knowledge sharing platform summarizing the 20 sessions. The newsletter is available to all SEI employees on our intranet. Most of the topics are visualized in the word cloud above and the following quotes will give you a flavour of highlighted topics and dialogues held during the forum.

“How can we change the system of social and economic organization we have built around growth and profit, to sustain life, all kinds of life, on this planet and how can we do this in a peaceful, democratic and just way?” asked Professor Miriam Lang from Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Ecuador, the keynote speaker at the opening session.

​​​​​​​”Migration and climate change represent some of the most powerful symbols of global inequalities,” said Sara Vigil, Research Fellow at SEI Asia.

“Hope. Disruption. Recovery. Chaos. These were some of the words that came to mind when SEI was asked to scan the horizon of 2022,” ​​​​​​​said Robert Watt, SEI Communications Director and Head of Strategic Policy Engagement, at the Outlook 2022 session.

”It’s fantastic that SEI and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water will provide the scientific basis for Stockholm+50. I am glad we had this opportunity at the science forum to engage with colleagues from all SEI centres sharing their ideas,” said Nina Weitz, SEI Research Fellow at Headquarters.

“Climate change only worsens existing poverty and development challenges in poor countries, increasing borrowing and aid dependence even beyond climate finance,” said Elvine Kwamboka, Research Associate at SEI Africa.

SEI Science Forum topics


Word cloud of the SEI Science Forum topics. Graphic: Ylva Rylander / SEI.

Before joining SEI, you sailed across the Atlantic for the cause of the environment. What is your most prominent memory?

Bakhtaoui: My research aims to rethink climate diplomacy to address the realities imposed by the pandemic. I sailed from Europe to Chile in South America to attend the UN climate change negotiations but ended up at the wrong continent as COP25 got moved to Europe.

This experience taught me about the struggle of holding decision makers accountable when you don’t have the possibility to confront them face to face. When attending the summit online, it revealed the disruptive potential of digital technologies in shifting power balances. These specific experiences informed the organization of our digital Science Forum.

What is the most exciting research you learned about at the SEI Science Forum?

Bakhtaoui: I found presentations on water management especially interesting since this is a new and fascinating topic to me. For instance, SEI Associate Scientist Doug Chalmers presented the results of a project led by SEI US using a functional flows approach to minimize the trade-offs between human water needs and impacts on local biodiversity.

All 20 sessions were recorded and are available for our employees on SEI’s intranet. Unfortunately, my role as the organizer of the Science Forum meant that I had very little time to engage in sessions. However, thanks to SEI’s intranet and our knowledge sharing platform, I was able to watch the recordings of some sessions.

What role can digital technologies play in making high-level events and the SEI Science Forum more transparent, fun and inclusive?

Bakhtaoui: Employees at SEI value informal interactions with colleagues at the Science Forum almost more than the sessions. The online format contributed to that anyone was able to attend sessions, although time zones and conflicting workloads were limiting factors. We also pushed for the use of automatic captions in sessions to better accommodate our hearing-impaired colleagues. We knew that the success of the Forum would rely on our effort to improve accessibility and enable networking.

We used a digital coffee room platform ( that participants could join after each research session to engage in conversations. The platform is built for spontaneous and informal conversations in an intuitive way. This was a success and some employees raised the idea of using it for more informal SEI-wide gatherings in the future.

Online coffee break at the SEI Forum

Coffee break at the Science Forum. Photo: SEI.

How do you think the SEI Science Forum will be organized next year?

Bakhtaoui: I think there is no going back to a strictly in-person format. This year’s edition allowed all participants to attend the Science Forum, rewatch sessions on-demand and minimize our travel carbon footprint. Still, the Science Forum is traditionally one of the rare occasions when colleagues across centres can meet. My speculation is that SEI will adopt a hybrid format, allowing some employees to travel, but everyone to join the forum online.

SEI Science Forum

SEI marks 32 years of bridging science and policy in October 2021. The SEI Science Forum celebrates SEI’s most important functions as a research and policy organization: to deliver independent and high-quality science as a basis for policy and decision-making. This year’s Forum took place 20–24 September 2021 and engaged all SEI centres around the globe: SEI Africa, SEI Asia, SEI Headquarters, SEI Latin America, SEI Oxford, SEI Tallinn, SEI US and SEI York.

Written by

Ylva Rylander
Ylva Rylander

Communications and Impact Officer


SEI Headquarters

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