Working together with nature

Professor Jessica Davies smiles to the camera inside Lancaster Environment Centre. The Centre for Global Eco-Innovation logo is shown to her left.

Business and scientists working together can help create a more sustainable and just world as we emerge from C19, says the new director of the Centre for Global Eco-innovation.

Professor Jessica Davies believes that finding new practices, services and products that work with nature is vital as we rebuild our economy following the Coronavirus pandemic.

Jess took over as director of the award-winning Centre for Gobal Eco-Innovation (CGE), based at Lancaster University, just as the pandemic took hold. The Centre brings together academic researchers with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the North West, to help them develop new products and services that have environmental benefits – whether by cutting carbon emissions, increasing biodiversity or reducing environmental harm.

‘We are at a fork in the road: there is a real danger of reinvesting in the same things that got us into the environmental crisis,’ said Jess.

“We need a green recovery where every innovation is an eco-innovation,’ said Jess.

Jess is cautiously encouraged by the increasing commitment of politicians, organisations, business and the public to tackle the climate emergency.

‘The scale of ambition has stepped up but now we need the mechanisms to deliver on those ambitions: to do that we need the science to come together with business and practice and that is what CGE can make happen.”

‘To deliver change as a researcher, you have to work with people on the ground, with their knowledge and experience, and you have to work across disciplines.’

Jess has spent her career working across disciplines, at the interface of environmental science, business and engineering, always focussing on how to work with nature rather than against it.

She began her career specialising in engineering working on safety critical systems, before making the move to Lancaster to undertake research in environmental sciences.

‘In my PhD I helped develop new technologies to enhance aircraft and transport resilience and safety. I really enjoyed working on these complex systems and trying to predict and adapt to disruptions. But I was keen to take what I had learnt and work on the ultimate critical system: our Earth system.

‘We urgently need to understand climate and environmental risks and innovate on our practices to create resilient societies and economies that work with nature.’

Jess joined Lancaster University 10 years ago, where she began using her engineering and modelling skills to develop environmental models that help to predict water flows, soil erosion, plant growth, and carbon and nutrient cycles.

In 2015, she became a founder member of the Pentland Centre for Sustainable Business.

‘I joined the Pentland Centre as I saw a huge opportunity to work with global businesses to help them understand how soils underpin business, and how businesses can invest in soil sustainability – working with nature to tackle climate change, enhance the resilience of the food system, and protect biodiversity’.

‘My five years at the Pentland Centre have been a transformational experience: moving from a very science focussed role to working on science in the boardroom, collaborating with businesses on the global sustainability agenda, learning how to work in partnership and how to mobilise change.’

Supported by an EPSRC Living With Environmental Change Early Career Fellowship, she was seconded to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to help create the business case for investing in soil health.

She now leads a number of projects beyond soils that explore how we can work with nature to achieve sustainability. For example, she leads the Global Food Security programme funded Rurban Revolution project which explores the potential of urban horticulture as an intervention that can increase our health and well-being, along with the resilience and sustainability of our food supplies.

“Pentland works at global scale, helping to set science-based targets for sustainability. CGE is about delivering those at a local level. The Centre has fantastic experience of doing that, having worked with 700 SMEs in the region since 2012, to help develop more than 120 products and services.” 

She points out that the pandemic has already led to a lot of innovation and sees this as an opportunity for the future.

“The pandemic has changed how we do things and what we value. It’s changed how we work, how we use data and how we access food. There’s been a huge amount of digital innovation. The crisis has made us re-evaluate the value of local food systems, and of nature and open spaces. It has shown how small businesses are able to adapt quickly and innovate, and we need to mobilise that innovative spirit as we try to tackle these huge, urgent environmental challenges too.’

While based within the Lancaster Environment Centre, CGE has worked with other faculties within the university and beyond, including engineering, the management school, chemistry and physics. Jess wants to expand collaborations to include data science, health innovation, design and more.

“I’d like it to be a catalyst for moving towards a system where people, economies and ecosystems are thriving together. CGE is a place where we can come together to develop environmentally sustainable ways forward – only by working together in innovative cross-sector, cross-disciplinary partnerships can we make a real difference. Our doors are open – if you’re interested in getting involved please get in touch.

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