Bridging science and design for sustainability impact: Profile of Dr Ray Maher

Deputy Director of Engagement and Lecturer, School of Architecture, Design and Planning

Research Fellow – Sustainable Development Strategy, Centre for Policy Futures

Passion and Learning

My sustainability journey began as a kid, chasing mudskippers under the lush canopies of the Daintree rainforest, then growing up in the foothills of the Mt Warning caldera. For me, the sights and sounds of thriving nature were normal. Once I moved to Brisbane to study, I felt the severe absence of nature – every bare hillside or roadside embankment was a profound loss and an untapped opportunity for life to thrive.

Pursuing my passion for creativity and solving complex problems, I studied architecture at The University of Queensland. Here, I learned how the demands of our cities cause many global sustainability problems and offer many of their solutions. I also learned the power of design for unlocking new ways of thinking to overcome entrenched problems.

Applying this knowledge, I co-founded a sustainable building design business with my wife. This inspired a new passion of mine: working closely with clients to achieve their goals while also advancing sustainability outcomes. Keen to expand the scale of my work, I was invited by a great research mentor to co-author the Australian National Rail Station Design Guidelines – a critical tool for urban sustainability. These experiences inspired me to pursue a PhD alongside many CBCS colleagues. By combining design methods (from architecture) and systems thinking (from ecology and earth systems), my thesis designed new tools and approaches for creating initiatives that achieve multiple sustainability goals. Its ability to guide interdisciplinary research resonated with the Future Earth global research network, who invited me to present to international sustainability leaders at Resilience 2017 in Stockholm. A new perspective emerged.

The power of collaboration

While academia is an incredible place to generate knowledge, I recognised that the big decisions that shape our world are made beyond research institutions. Still in the final stages of my PhD (and starting a family, building our home, and teaching sustainable design!), I was recruited to UQ’s Centre for Policy Futures (CPF). There, I could directly engage with government and industry stakeholders to inform policies and strategies. Working at the intersection of academia and decision-making highlighted the importance of navigating power dynamics to effect change. At the same time, I experienced a shift in the drives of universities from sometimes inward-looking intellectual cultures to “creating change” and providing “knowledge leadership for a better world”. A great time for applied sustainability research!

Collaboration was the cornerstone of our work at CPF, forging partnerships across diverse academic disciplines, government departments and industry sectors. Experiencing the breadth of sustainability expertise from across UQ gave me the confidence to pursue large, impactful research partnerships, knowing that we could build a team to tackle anything.

Research impact for sustainability

On the strength of these collaborations, I had the privilege of contributing to major strategies and policies in Australia and the region (often with a steep learning curve). First, I worked with Queensland Government and industry stakeholders to develop an Adaptation Plan for the Energy, Mining, and Manufacturing Sectors, part of the Queensland Climate Adaptation Strategy.

Building on this, our research team developed the foundational project on climate change for the Cooperative Research Centre for Transformations in Mining Economies (TiME). More recently, I have worked with UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, The Pacific Community (SPC), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Fiji’s national government on Building disaster and climate resilience through Development Minerals.

In another body of research, I worked closely with SPC to co-develop their 10-year Strategic Plan using systems, design and foresight methods. This collaboration also informed UQ’s Pacific Engagement Strategy and the 2050 Regional Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, a long-term regional strategy endorsed by 18 member nations.

Following this, I was invited to a multi-institution collaboration to inform Queensland Health’s 10-year reform strategy.

Again, broad collaboration was critical,

so we used systems methods to integrate

knowledge from diverse stakeholders,

identify leverage points and create

long-lasting impact in an organisation

with 120,000 staff.

Last year, our team of 15 researchers from across UQ (including two brilliant CBCS researchers, Professor Rich Fuller and PhD candidate Nicola Sockhill) was engaged by one of the largest developers in south-east Asia to inform their ~$20B development of a new city. In this partnership, we created an Urban Sustainability Framework which provided research-informed guidance on urban biodiversity, efficient buildings, low-carbon transport, resilient water systems, renewable energy and sustainable materials. We are now seeking to guide its implementation and build new partnerships to apply this research in other major urban developments.

Most recently, I have embraced a new academic position in the rapidly growing School of Architecture, Design, and Planning. This is an exciting opportunity to drive sustainability outcomes alongside incredible researchers from CBCS and across UQ.

Looking back to go forward

While diverse, these experiences highlighted three core strategies for addressing complex sustainability challenges through applied research. First, by partnering with governance and industry organisations, we can ensure the best research is put to good use. I have found that, as in family life, to be good research partners we must listen to the needs of others. By listening, we can develop strategies which align sustainability and conservation goals with the commercial and governance objectives of our partners.

Second, I think that forging collaboration across diverse academic disciplines is the only way to shift our trajectory towards a more sustainable future. No-one has all the answers, and as soon as we think we do, we quickly find our work irrelevant or obsolete (aka “Why is no one listening to me?!”). Instead, by integrating knowledge from diverse experts, we can tackle complex sustainability challenges together.

Third, design and systems approaches are essential tools for leveraging these partnerships and collaborations to address sustainability challenges. We wouldn’t make financial decisions without applying mathematics, so why try to solve complex and contested problems without applying design methods? Design methods are uniquely suited for providing creative responses that achieve multiple contradictory goals simultaneously amid real-world complexity. If we want to create a thriving future for life on earth, integrating design methods with leading science holds the key.

So that’s where I’m heading: bridging design and science for sustainability impact. Let’s hope the next chapter is as much fun!


Image above: Celebrating the launch of our Urban Sustainability Framework to Pasay Government, the Philippines. Photo: Ray Maher

Project members

Dr Ray Maher

Director of Research
Centre for Policy Futures
School of Architecture, Design and Planning