iSEE Critical Conversations

A Forum for Identifying Solutions to Grand Challenges in Sustainability

Wicked problems demand new approaches.

A wicked problem — one that is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize — is the very definition of a sustainability challenge. Feeding a planet of 11 billion people, decarbonizing our energy systems, managing agriculture’s nitrogen problem, securing access to clean water — these challenges are not owned by individual stakeholders, nor can they be solved alone. They have social, political, legal, economic, and technical dimensions.

Our Institute’s Critical Conversations facilitate inclusive discourse leading to solutions.

Grand challenges in sustainability have many facets, and their solutions will depend on engagement and dialogue among stakeholders who rarely find themselves at the same table. The ideas and strategies stemming from such Critical Conversations among engineers, social and physical scientists, politicians, lawyers, industry leaders, and nongovernmental organizations can move us toward solutions. A Critical Conversation is an intellectual forum for discovering solutions. It will be a “safe space” for those with very different points of view to explore commonalities. The forum will be coupled at the outset with advanced communications strategies, engaging social and traditional media to get the word out.

Critical Conversations are supported by a generous gift from the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund, iSEE’s founding benefactor, administered by Joel Friedman and Loretta Namovic.


Ensuring impact, relevance, and centrality …

Through the Critical Conversation, iSEE will ensure that the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign remains at the center of sustainability scholarship and outreach, nationally. The university’s reputation for finding solutions will be enhanced by bringing together the best thinkers and doers, regardless of political persuasion or professional background. The Critical Conversation will provide the financial and logistical support to intellectually and practically discuss and identify solutions for grand challenges, and then to communicate their solutions to stakeholders who have their hands on the levers of change.


What will a Critical Conversation look like?

For each Critical Conversation, iSEE will identify specific topics and bring together a diverse group of global thought leaders from all sides of a sustainability challenge for a highly focused and facilitated discussion, to circumscribe the challenge and identify a path toward solutions. To facilitate open and honest discourse, participants will be free to use the information received, but opinions expressed will not be publicly attributed to any individual or organization. To increase national visibility for Illinois among scholars, decision makers, the media, and philanthropists, Critical Conversations will be convened in downtown Chicago.

Each forum will generate two products: 1) a scholarly article (example from 2018 Conversation) outlining the consensus solution or key next steps in pursuing a solution; and 2) an op-ed piece submitted to a prominent national media outlet for public dissemination (example from 2018). Outcomes from the Critical Conversation also will be shared via social media to spark further awareness and dialogue.

Fall 2023 — Climate-Smart Agricultural Practices

For its fifth Critical Conversation, iSEE brought together diverse stakeholders for a two-day forum to discuss climate-smart commodities and agricultural practices, and their potential role in enhancing resilience in the Midwest.

Representatives from across the agricultural supply chain, such as farmers, intermediate producers, food distributors, and consumers, as well as academics, industry, government, and nongovernment experts, provided perspectives on the potential opportunities and existing barriers to climate-smart commodities.

Visit the event page for more >>>

Fall 2022 — Critical Conversation on Great Lakes

For its fourth Critical Conversation in Fall 2022, iSEE brought together academics, nonprofit organizations, businesses, indigenous group representatives, and policy makers to discuss critical climate (in)securities affecting the Great Lakes megaregion, particularly its vulnerable communities.

In the hopes of developing a cohesive understanding of the issues and providing a safe, unattributed discussion forum, iSEE invited participants’ perspectives on issues related to physical, social, economic, and environmental (in)securities in the context of a changing climate in the region.

Visit the event page for more details >>>


Spring 2021 — Critical Conversation on Nuclear Power

For its third Critical Conversation in Spring 2021, iSEE brought together academics, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and regulators to discuss ways nuclear power might be a solution in mitigating global climate change.

In the hopes of developing a cohesive understanding of the issues and providing a safe, unattributed discussion forum, iSEE is inviting experts from around the wide range of fields.

Read a Nuclear News article on a proposed experimental reactor for the U of I campus >>>

Visit the event page for more details >>>

Spring 2019 — Critical Conversation on Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

In May 2019, iSEE brought together experts to discuss biological advances and challenges in implementation and regulation of genetically-modified mosquitoes for disease control — an emerging environmental, human health, and regulatory concern.

Organizers and participants published an op-ed piece on GM mosquitoes in The Conversation on June 3, 2020. Read the summary >>>

See the full article in The Conversation >>> 

Visit the event page >>>

Spring 2018 — Critical Conversation on the Nitrogen Reduction Challenge

Nitrogen runoff from agricultural sources are a dominant contributor to poor water quality in the Gulf of Mexico.

iSEE organized its first Critical Conversation to engage researchers and external stakeholders to develop a research agenda geared toward finding actionable solutions and identifying strategic opportunities for collaboration.

iSEE directors and affiliates published a commentary on nitrogen reduction in Nature Sustainability on Sept. 23, 2019. Read the summary >>> See the full article in Nature Sustainability >>> 

See the op-ed in The News-Gazette >>>

Visit the event page >>>