Think tank's challenge: improve area by 2040

Is it possible for us to enhance human well-being while protecting ecological health in southwestern British Columbia by 2040? A group of researchers at UBC, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria think so.

The Sustainable Development Research Institute (SDRI), a UBC think-tank, has recently been awarded $2.5 million in funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for a five-year research program to address this challenge.

The Georgia Basin Futures Project will focus on the region encompassing the Lower Mainland and southeastern Vancouver Island including Victoria.

The project, led by SDRI's director John Robinson, involves almost two dozen researchers from a wide variety of disciplines including planning, public policy, economics, sociology, health care, resource and environmental management, zoology and global environmental change.

According to Robinson the basis of the study is a framework developed by SDRI that considers the world as made up of three prime systems -- the biosphere, human society and the economy. Each system has its critical goal, he says.

"The ecological goal is to remain within the earth's carrying capacity, the social goal is to create and maintain societies that satisfy individual and community aspirations, and the economic goal is to ensure adequate material standards of living," says Robinson. "All three goals are linked and must be satisfied simultaneously if we are to achieve sustainability."

Researchers believe that the three goals can be reconciled and will determine how this can be done over the next 40 years.

They hope that a balance can be achieved using two strategies.

The first is dematerialization -- maintaining or increasing goods or services while reducing their material and energy content. The second, resocialization, would increase human well-being per dollar of economic activity.

Robinson says the project will begin by generating hundreds of scenarios for a sustainable Georgia Basin in 2040. The scenarios will combine the expert knowledge of the research team and the values and preferences of the interested public.

To conduct these analyses, the research team will use a new version of QUEST, a user-friendly computer modelling system previously developed for the Lower Fraser Basin by SDRI and Envision Sustainability Tools, Inc.

The Georgia Basin version will use information provided by the researchers on how ecological, social and economic systems interact. Citizens will then make decisions about populations, transportation, land use, social health and a wide range of other areas.

The public consultation process will also involve a wide range of government planners, community leaders and decision-makers and non-government organizations.

Through a series of workshops, focus groups, interactive Web tools and school programs, individuals will be able to see the consequences and trade-offs associated with their choices. They will be able to determine their desirability in light of their technical, ecological, social, economic and policy implications.

Partners to date include Environment Canada, BC Hydro, the David Suzuki Foundation, Envision Sustainability Tools Inc., the Fraser Basin Council and the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Other partners are the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs, the B.C. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, the National Research Council, the Open Learning Agency, Science World, Tellus Inc. and The Vancouver Sun.

The project will also collaborate with similar case studies of rapidly urbanizing regions. These include the American side of the Georgia Basin, Mexico, China, India, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, says Caroline Van Bers, SDRI's research manager.

"The results of the project will be a series of detailed scenarios for a sustainable Georgia Basin in 2040 and a clearer idea of the policies needed to get us there," says Robinson.

"The project will also foster new forms of public involvement enabling citizens to understand and ultimately control their futures."