Focal areas

The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory has identified fourteen unique Focal Areas in which ASU holds deep expertise in order to pursue research, education and the development of approaches and applications that address our global futures. These Focal Areas work fluidly beyond their disciplinary boundaries so that we may develop comprehensive solutions to the complex issues that are placing our planet under stress.

Each Focal Area is led by an expert scholar who is able to tap into the wealth of research and expertise that exists across the more than 600 Global Futures-affiliated scientists, scholars and fellows across ASU as well as throughout the laboratory’s diverse global networks and partnerships.

Circular illustration depicting the focal areas

Human sciences

Lead: Joni Adamson

n the tradition of what the French have called sciences humaines, the Germans Geisteswissenschaften, and Indigenous scholars Traditional Ecological Knowledges (TEK) or traditional scientific literacies, the Human Sciences focal area brings together humanists and social scientists who engage with the histories of our fields, including literary criticism, critical theory, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science, linguistics, art history, law and religion and the interactions between them.

In this focal area we draw on anticolonial, antiracist, feminist, and intersectional scholarship and diverse cultures and ontologies in order to provide a better picture of “humans” in all their global diversity, deep histories, and complex, often inequitable, interrelationships with each other and with the nonhuman. Together, we seek a future in which humans and nonhumans thrive in intergenerationally just and equitable relationships. This focal area contributes to the mission of the Global Futures Laboratory by offering conceptual clarification, theoretical analyses and critical explorations of who “humans” are, how they live, what motivates them, how they imagine and work for change, respond to risk, live in relationship to the nonhuman, and plan for the future.


Food systems

Lead: Kathleen Merrigan

Food Systems is centered on tackling one of the most daunting challenges of our time — the enormous tasks of mitigating environmental degradation while addressing global hunger and nutrition needs. 

In meeting this challenge, the Food Systems Focal Area work will seek to answer these questions: 

  • How do we produce food in a changing climate and do it in a way that is environmentally enhancing?
  • How do we radically alter policies at all levels of government to mandate and/or incent actions that drive food system sustainability?
  • How do we establish markets for ecosystem services, orient consumer demand, and facilitate progressive industry actions to support sustainability?
  • How do we ensure that all communities enjoy nutritious food produced from thriving, equitable, and environmentally sustainable food systems?
  • How do we continue to innovate and discover ways to improve food systems from seed to waste and bring those discoveries to fruition?
  • How do we best attract, train, and mentor the next generation of sustainability leaders?

Extremes

Lead: Osvaldo Sala

The importance and urgency of studying the effects of extreme events on social, ecological and technological systems have been part of the public narrative for more than 20 years. However, this topic has remained relatively understudied with most of the emphasis on changes in average conditions. For example, most global-change studies focused on increases in temperature, precipitation, and nitrogen deposition, but little effort has been devoted to changes in extreme drought or heat waves. Extreme events can originate from the atmosphere, the biosphere, the sociosphere or the technosphere. If extremes have been understudied, interactions among extremes have received even less attention.

The Extremes focal area will foster understanding of the effects of extreme events in social, ecological and technological systems and their interactions. Key here is the discovery of mechanisms and conditions that lead interactive systems to behave in synergistic or antagonistic fashion therefore amplifying or offsetting each other’s impacts. This focal area will facilitate dialogue with decision makers to include new knowledge about extremes into their toolbox as well as to shape research directions.


Systems of health

Lead: Christopher Wharton

The Health Solutions focal area works to drive forward rapidly applicable and scalable solutions to suboptimal and inequitable health outcomes in the US and throughout the world. As such, its mission is to develop new methodologies, technologies, designs, policy approaches, and systems solutions for use among individuals, households, organizations, municipalities, states, and countries.

It envisions a world where everyone, everywhere enjoys an equal opportunity to lead a healthy, productive life founded on sustainable diets, physical activity, and access to affordable, quality health care. The Systems of Health’s strategic foci fall under one umbrella: reducing the global burden of disease by optimizing health across the lifespan.


Biosystems

Leads: Nancy Grimm and Nico Franz

The mission of the Biosystems focal area is to develop and promote a socially embedded, agile, and globally decentralized approach and research (data) infrastructure for monitoring and forecasting biosystems dynamics, leading to co-produced designs and trustworthy decision cycles for managing biosystems services in diverse regions, including human-dominated environments. It seeks to do this by focusing on 5 grand challenge themes:

  1. Decentralized Modeling of Global Trustworthy Biodiversity Data;
  2. Co-Production of Biosystems Decision Making;
  3. Explaining and Evaluating Co-Production Outcomes;
  4. Non-Human Organisms Responding to and Driving Global Change;
  5. Designing Nature-Based Solutions for Resilience in the Anthropocene.

Its vision is a decentralized approach to monitoring and forecasting global biosystems promoting inclusive, co-produced designs and decisions that allow biodiversity and bioservices to thrive on a human-dominated planet.


New energy systems

Lead: Gary Dirks

The New Energy Systems focal area seeks through research, education, and network partnerships to support the extant energy transformation. We envision a transition and transformed energy system that are equitable, resilient and responsive to the rapidly changing global climate. The new energy system focal area recognizes planetary boundaries on extraction and emissions and supports ecosystems that in turn support thriving communities.


Indigenous knowledges

Lead: Melissa Nelson

The Indigenous Knowledges Focal Area is a Native-led space within the Global Futures Laboratory ecosystem dedicated to engagement and dialogue about Indigenous knowledge systems and their contributions to sustainability, resilience, place-making, and relationship to lands, waters, and Earth systems. This focal area will be a place to research and share Indigenous worldviews, kincentric practices, and effective models from the past as well as visions for a sustainable, just future.


Narratives

Lead: Steven Beschloss

The Narratives focal area seeks to increase a sense of urgency and empathy about the climate crisis, environmental degradation, and the social, cultural, political and economic conditions that constrain the necessary changes that can lead to a healthy, habitable planet now and for future generations. This requires influencing thinking, changing behavior, and mobilizing both individual and large-scale action.

Narratives is an incubator of ideas and producer of legible, compelling outcomes that can influence the public dialogue and decision-making. This includes creating a wide variety of media projects and storytelling for the widest possible audiences, as well as studying dominant and influential existing narratives and assessing the impact that new narratives can have in driving change.


Solutions

Lead: Gary Dirks

Working with partners within the university and around the world, we endeavor to make measurable impacts through the development of implementable tools and knowledge in order to develop customized, actionable and scalable applications for a stronger future.


Water

Leads: Sarah Porter and Dave White

Water is the essential ingredient for every known living organism. Water security – that is, sustainable clean water supplies – for humans and other species on Earth is essential to any efforts to improve global habitability and well-being. Access to water for sanitation, hydration and food production are the three most basic human needs and cornerstones of well-being. Our work focuses on securing sustainable safe drinking water and water sanitation services for all people and sustainable management and protection of freshwater resources throughout the planet.


Systems modeling

Lead: Michael Barton

The Systems Modeling focal area provides cross-cutting expertise in modeling and data science across the GFL. This expertise can improve our understanding of complex dynamics and feedbacks in coupled human and natural systems and generate scenarios for exploring alternative futures and the scalability of possible solutions to diverse challenges. An important benefit of formal modeling is that it provides transparent methods that can be validated against empirical data for representing past, present, and future human and Earth systems. Modeling is also critical to identifying workable and scalable solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals.


Human economics

Leads: Rimjhim Aggarwal and Nina Berman

The Human Economies focal area brings together a multidisciplinary group of faculty and students interested in putting people first in a discussion of the functioning and much needed transformation of our economies. This group recognizes that there is large diversity of economic activities, including not just formal enterprises, but also various kinds of informal economic enterprises that are critical to any discussion of sustainability and social justice.

As opposed to the mainstream highly abstract view of the economy which is divorced from how people actually live, this group is interested in understanding how the economies of various kinds are made and remade by people, and how we as a globally interconnected society can build more inclusive and sustainable economies. As such, this focal area sees itself intersecting with all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals.


Governance and decision-making

Lead: Shauna BurnSilver

Governance and decision-making processes observable in the real world – from the local to the global – both drive positive changes in human-environmental interactions and prevent transformational changes from occurring. The goal of the Governance and Decision-Making focal area is to understand the economic, social and political structures, mechanisms and dynamics that are foundational to processes of cross-level/cross-scale governance and decision-making and are therefore critical to transforming global futures in the age of the Anthropocene. From this understanding, we will innovate, apply and communicate governance and decision-making processes that can help us navigate toward the (equitable, just and sustainable) global futures we aspire to realize.


Future cities

Leads: Dave White and Diana Bowman

The Human Economies focal area brings together a multidisciplinary group of faculty and students interested in putting people first in a discussion of the functioning and much needed transformation of our economies. This group recognizes that there is large diversity of economic activities, including not just formal enterprises, but also various kinds of informal economic enterprises that are critical to any discussion of sustainability and social justice.

As opposed to the mainstream highly abstract view of the economy which is divorced from how people actually live, this group is interested in understanding how the economies of various kinds are made and remade by people, and how we as a globally interconnected society can build more inclusive and sustainable economies. As such, this focal area sees itself intersecting with all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals.