and Future Earth develop Collaborative Research Agenda for the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

The Innovation for Sustainable Development Network ( has held its second Symposium event, in co-operation with Future Earth on 17-18 November 2016 at the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia. The event explored how eco-innovation can support the three complementary axes of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, with the ultimate aim of devising a new Collaborative Research Agenda.

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Water, Energy and Food are inextricably linked factors which need to be considered together for improving human well-being, reducing poverty and supporting sustainability.

Water is essential for human wellbeing, food production, and in some regions, for energy generation, whilst energy is required for distributing water and food. Correspondingly, food production through agriculture is responsible for 70% of global water usage, and food value chains are responsible for 30% of global energy usage. Where crops are grown for bioenergy, food security can be put at risk. When crop irrigation systems are used, they can limit natural water flows and hydropower potentials.

Balancing trade-offs is therefore essential for ensuring water, energy and food security. However, challenges are often addressed individually, leading to suboptimal use of resources and disjointed responsibilities and incentives, as well as inconsistent laws and frameworks. For security to be achieved across the nexus, stakeholders will need to consider cross-sectoral impacts through dialogue, co-ordination and collaboration.

Towards a Collaborative Research Agenda

The inno4sd-Future Earth Symposium attracted over 50 attendees from Europe, the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, and as far as India, Canada and South Africa, representing international institutions, universities, networks, consultancies and companies, amongst others. In order to advance understanding of the nexus, the Symposium aimed to collect input from these participants and develop future research questions. Following an open online process for collecting questions, five themes were defined for further exploration.

A World Café session was then held in order to collectively define a research agenda for advancing understanding of sustainability in the Water-Energy-Food nexus. Following the session, the outcomes of the session were presented and will form the basis of a research agenda, which will be published shortly after the symposium via the website. Discussions covered:

  • Policy Appraisal Tools and Analytic Frameworks – Whilst many countries have policies in place for supporting sustainability in the separate strands of the nexus, there is limited monitoring and evaluation of their impact, meaning that adverse effects caused by competition across sectors are not recognised. Additionally, there are underdeveloped analytical frameworks, methodologies and indicator systems for the nexus as a whole, leading to silo thinking. Proposed action points include mapping actors to understand their perspectives and incentives, introducing nexus concepts to national and international evaluation guidelines, engaging policy-makers in the development of analytical tools, introducing the nexus into Corporate Social Responsibility and voluntary schemes, and supporting learning and exchange across sectors and disciplines.
  • Governance and Institutions – Within governance structures, silo thinking is persistent, with responsibilities divided between departments and institutions. This compartmentalised system hinders co-ordinated governance, and whilst nexus concepts are gaining ground at different governance levels, it is not yet explicit in policy-making or research agendas. In some cases, the term is used as a buzzword to describe previous research, although it is not truly taking a nexus approach. For this topic, future research could focus on exploring current experiences of integrating the nexus into policy practices, and understanding the intersections between sectoral policies. Greater effort will be needed to engage with policy-makers and to re-shape institutions to adapt to nexus thinking.
  • Cities – At the city level, nexus ideas have not yet filtered through to concrete action and concepts. Although interactions between strands have been addressed in some cities, the full nexus approach remains underexplored. As a first step, there is a need for intelligence and knowledge gathering, as well as new criteria for city planning and assessments so that studies focusing on individual cities can be compared and transferred. New narratives on the nexus will be needed to engage citizens and policy-makers in cities and create political incentives to act. Transformation can be secured only with the involvement of the private sector, as well as the knowledge of a wide number of academic, industrial and social communities.
  • Nexus Impacts on Sustainable Development Goals – Whilst almost every  one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is nexus related in some way, there is so far a lack of nexus indicators to help in navigating trade-offs and synergies. Whilst the link between nexus management and sustainable development are well recognised at the international level, at national level recognition is low. Future research should focus on defining new indicators and models to quantify trade-offs and synergies, and targets should be defined related to the nexus.
  • Innovation and Technology Transfer – Technology transfer – transferring innovative technologies between markets and global regions – is generally considered based on northern notions of efficiency and innovation, so we often do not think about north-south, south-north or south-south transfers. Innovation and technology transfer will require greater diffusion of knowledge and focus on different forms of innovation, including open innovation which is driven by social capital and interactions with suppliers and customers rather than top-down innovation generation. It will be necessary to consider how education systems can complement research and innovation, as well as aiming to better understand the role of incubators as knowledge accelerators, and engage NGOs, educational and local-level actors.

The Innovation for Sustainable Development Network ( is a research-based network which aims to accelerate the transition towards green growth. inno4sd is designed to address challenges, ranging from the conceptualisation of the green economy, to the harmonisation of approaches for coherently assessing performance, and identifying gaps (successes and failures) for the effective adoption of technologies that can create win-win results.

The network has been initiated by the project (‘European Global Transition Network on Eco-Innovation, Green Economy and Sustainable Development’), funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The project consortium is made up of twelve partners from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, Belgium and South Africa.

For information about the inno4sd network, contact Simon Hunkin or visit