UNESCO Chair on Global Understanding for Sustainability


UNESCO honours geography with the creation of a Chair on Global Understanding for Sustainability. It will be part of a worldwide network of over 700 UNESCO chairs to support the teaching and research goals of the world cultural organization. The social geographer Professor Benno Werlen will hold the Chair at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany).

Sustainable development requires research

“We live in the most interconnected world in history. Yet at the same time that world is riven by conflicts, dislocations and uncertainties – an unsettling and disturbing mixture of huge opportunities and existential risks. Finding a positive balance will demand fundamental intellectual rethinking and new forms of collaboration of the sort the Chairs programme offers”, says Anthony Giddens, Member of the House of Lords and former Director of the London School of Economics.

Understanding one’s own life in the global context is an existential obligation of our times. It is time for bottom-up movements and local-level initiatives to tackle global problems, such as climate change. Yet in a world where narrowly conceived national interests and isolation are on the rise, understanding the links between the global and the local is crucially important to move forward on such important issues as climate change. This is where the UNESCO Chair on GUfS can help make a difference.

Getting social sciences and humanities, and societies, more involved in sustainability research

Over the next four years, the new Chair will primarily support greater involvement of social sciences and humanities in sustainability research. Chair holder Benno Werlen has experience in this area. As initiator and director of the International Year of Global Understanding (IYGU) in 2016, he led an international campaign for greater engagement of social and human sciences (SHS) and societies with the global challenges of our times.

“Under the umbrella of IYGU thousands of initiatives were launched worldwide, many of which continue to this day. The IYGU’s programme to help better understand globalized living conditions with the help of science will therefore be carried on and consolidated”, explains Benno Werlen.

In the meantime, an impressive network of approximately 40 regional centres was established, with a broad range of locally driven activities. They provide a wide variety of information on sustainable lifestyles and consequently promote them. The UNESCO Chair enables the IYGU secretariat in Jena to continue and develop this work.

“Globalization has posed many fundamental problems, which also have to be solved at local level. To do so, we also need to consider the respective contextual social and cultural conditions and backgrounds. Only in this way can the idea of sustainability be incorporated into the routines of every individual, and only in this way can sustainable lifestyles be established,” explains the social geographer from Jena. “The new UNESCO Chair offers a unique opportunity to strengthen precisely this interface between science and everyday life at which the regional centres operate.”

Sustainability as a fundamental criterion for political decisions

Werlen views the growing interactions between research and society as a huge opportunity to establish sustainability as a fundamental criterion for political decisions – and to align it  with the respective culture all over the world. Therefore, as Chair holder, he wants to support and implement research projects as well as educational campaigns in the respective regions, thereby also aiming to intensify intercultural cooperation between individual centres. All this will be done in cooperation with the IGU commission “Global Understanding”, established at the 33rd International Geographical Congress 2016 in Beijing.

In cooperation with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Delhi, the École Normale Supérieure Lyon and the Paulo Freire Institute of UCLA in Los Angeles, Werlen also focuses on integrating an understanding of globalized living conditions into the education of young leaders. In this way, sustainability concepts can be developed into a global perspective that incorporates the particularities of different cultures, and passed on to the decision-makers of tomorrow.

Download the full press release.