Today our planet sustains more human life at a given time than ever before. In the last 200 years, our population has grown from 1 billion to 7.6 billion and by 2050 the global population is estimated to reach new staggering heights, just short of 10 billion. Our society will need to change and adapt to accommodate increased urbanization and a growing middle class, an aging population and a rising demand for food, water and energy.

To address this growth, in January 2016, the United Nations announced a new effort, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is an appeal to all nations to tackle this global grand challenge. The SDGs are “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity” by meeting various targets and indicators by 2030.

Of the 17 goals laid out by the UN, eight are closely tied to water, food and land. It is at this nexus that the heart of this grand challenge lies and our strategic theme on global sustainability is focused on. Today, many countries struggle with reliable access to clean water. Our aging infrastructure and energy grid are not optimized to allow for the coming population boom. Increased demands for energy, water and land resources are further straining the global food production system.

Can the future demands for food, fuel, clean water, biodiversity, climate change mitigation and poverty reduction be reconciled?

This is precisely the question that one of our Big Idea Challenge winning teams seeks to answer. Tom Hertel and his team have set their sights on tackling the food, energy, water, and environment nexus in their proposal, Managing the Global Commons: Sustainable Agriculture and Use of the World’s Land and Water Resources in the 21st Century. Hertel and his team posit that the sustainable development challenge is a particularly wicked problem, as sustainability is fundamentally a local concept, yet is driven by global forces. Pursuit of the SDGs will also have global consequences and analysis of these complex issues requires a holistic approach.

Hertel’s team aims to develop an interdisciplinary applied research consortium, which will analyze impact scenarios and explore policy alternatives that promote responsible public and private investment; sustainable management of critical, shared natural resources; and collective action toward meeting the SDGs. The framework Hertel’s team proposes is seamless, transparent, flexible and replicable. The on-campus resources and members of Hertel’s team are just part of why Purdue is situated to be a leader in open-source, global assessment of the SDGs related to food, land and water. Our unique combination of strengths in agriculture, computer science, engineering, hydrology, climate and global economic analysis position Purdue at the forefront of taking on these grand challenges.

Sustainable development and use of any nation’s land and water resources requires an understanding of the complex environmental, social and economic drivers that must be harnessed to maintain the availability of future food, water and energy resources with minimal negative effects. With its core strengths in STEM, advanced instrumentation, social and behavioral sciences, under its global sustainability strategic theme, Discovery Park is making connections abroad to help solve these pressing sustainability issues.

This spring, Discovery Park signed an MOU with the Universidad Nacional de San Agustin (UNSA) in Arequipa, Peru. A team of Purdue representatives visited the university to discuss how they could collaboratively tackle the biggest land, water, food, infrastructure and technological challenges facing Peru and Latin America today. The team met with UNSA leadership, faculty and students over the course of four days and exchanged information, experiences and conducted a needs assessment, which will serve as the foundation for a collaborative institutional partnership between Purdue and UNSA.

The Purdue team is working with UNSA to become a point of reference in Latin America for interdisciplinary research. The UNSA Nexus Institute will focus on four intersecting strategic themes: watershed management, environment, agriculture and soil quality. The new research hub will enable the sustainable use of Arequipa’s water, soil, plant and animal resources through the construction of state-of-the-art instrumentation monitoring and experimentation stations, the use of simulation modeling and collaboration with Purdue researchers.

Several Purdue faculty and Discovery Park researchers on the Purdue Team including: Tim Filley, director of the Center for the Environment; Indrajeet Chauby, department head of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; and Daniel Leon-Salas, associate professor in the School of Engineering Technology in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, have been a critical part of the UNSA partnership and developing the projects that will drive the Nexus Institute. The joint goal of Purdue and UNSA faculty is to ensure long-lasting positive impact on our communities across all socio-economic levels and mutual knowledge exchange and collaboration.

The response from our faculty and their collaborators to get involved with and contribute to the UNSA partnership and Big Idea Challenge to address these grand challenges has been humbling. Though perhaps more importantly, the efforts of our researchers to tackle the biggest sustainability challenges facing our world today transcends these projects and are part of a much broader, integrated vision, to work across disciplinary boundaries which makes up Discovery Park’s global sustainability strategic theme.

Through the work of a number of our centers—the Center for the Environment, Purdue Climate Change Research Center and Center for Global Food Security, to name a few—our faculty are creating solutions to the problems at the heart of the global sustainability challenge. Their work is critical to Discovery Park’s vision to advance energy and resource innovation, deepen our understanding of the science of climate and resilience and develop new methods and practices to alleviate uncertainty regarding food supply and malnutrition.

The solutions to the SDGs are undoubtedly complex and will require not only understanding of these intricacies of the global sustainability nexus, but innovation as well. At Purdue, we are proud of the strides our researchers are making, which boldly confront these complex and evolving global challenges.