Recent years have seen a seemingly endless array of environmental problems coming to the surface in developing countries, including frequent natural disasters, economic disparities and poverty, worsening air quality as a result of economic development, deterioration of both urban residential environments and the natural environment, and exploitation of local resources. The Asian region is no exception and its diverse environmental problems are complexly and complicatedly intertwined as they arise across the region. Against this backdrop, Future Earth (FE) has been promoted as an international platform for macroscopic research on the global environment. As part of its “transdisciplinary” studies, it is proposed that experts and stakeholders collaborate to design research activities (co-design) and produce research findings (co-production) in pursuit of the emerging discipline of “global environmental studies,” which, through foresight and academic depth, is aimed at offering solutions to environmental issues. Meanwhile, it has become a matter of urgency for people from different walks of life to develop a comprehensive understanding of specific issues and to jointly implement knowledge and solutions gained from practical research in society, thereby forming a new current throughout the world in the field of global environmental studies.

Since its establishment in 2002, the Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies (GSGES) has been a pioneer in interdisciplinary educational and research programs that go beyond the conventional framework of academic disciplines, and it has accumulated a wealth of research findings that can help to address global environmental problems. Over the same period, the GSGES has demonstrated its primary focus on international collaboration in Asia by opening overseas educational/research offices in the regional hub country of Vietnam — at Hanoi University of Science and Technology, Hue University (College of Agriculture and Forestry, College of Sciences), and The University of Da Nang — to accumulate a track record in the areas of investigative research, human resources development, and practical activities. These vigorous educational/research programs have recently borne fruit in Vietnam and neighboring countries. In Vietnam, the scope of academic collaboration has been extended beyond the three aforementioned institutions to include other Vietnamese universities such as Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, National University of Civil Engineering (formerly Ha Noi University of Civil Engineering), and Can Tho University. Outside of Vietnam, collaborative work is underway with a number of dynamic, leading universities in Asia, including Champasak University (Laos), Royal University of Agriculture (Cambodia), Mahidol University (Thailand), University of Malaya (Malaysia), Bogor Agricultural University (Indonesia), and University of the Philippines (Philippines). Viewed from the perspectives of interdisciplinary approach, inter-university collaboration, and social implementation of research findings, which are all essential for resolving global environmental issues, it is an unfortunate fact that collaboration among universities is still tenuous and fraught with challenges, partly because a number of universities in Asia were founded with a focus on socioeconomic development. Thus, it is extremely important and absolutely necessary to create a platform for sharing knowledge, technology and experience that can contribute to resolution of environmental issues, and to ensure collaboration among institutions of higher education from a wide range of countries and regions in addressing environmental issues that arise across an extensive region.

This three-year project was launched in April 2016 with a view to achieving further spatial expansion and enhancement of the current collaborative activities and partnerships based on solid cooperative ties with frequent partner universities in the Indochina region, and constructing in the Asian region an academic research foundation for global environmental studies in Asia, which encompasses a platform for sharing information on education, research, and practice, interdisciplinary and international exchanges of people, and social implementation of joint research and its outcomes that are related to global environmental studies. More specifically, we aim to realize our objectives through three steps: 1) development of an Asia platform (for education and research) on which to carry out interdisciplinary and practical research, 2) formation of a joint research team comprising researchers from hub institutions in Japan and overseas hub institutions/universities to set and practice research schemes themed on environmental issues and implement their outcomes in society, and, 3) creation of an academic research foundation for hosting collaborative work in Asia that transcends academic disciplines and national boundaries.

Practical approaches for global environmental studies using the Asia platform (co-design and co-production of joint research)

To date, the GSGES has mainly established local bases in Vietnam and then expanded their scope to the neighboring countries of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia with the primary aim of pursuing educational and research activities in the Indochina region. In particular, under the initiative of the Formulation of the cooperation hub for global environmental studies in the Indochina region (FY2013-FY2015) Core-to-Core Program of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), which was the precursor of the current program, an international symposium was held each year in Vietnam to discuss environmental issues affecting the Indochina region with various stakeholders, including experts from the countries concerned, to identify issues, and to implement design (co-design) and research (co-production) for solution schemes, thereby creating a substantial network. The successor program is geared toward engaging in more practical activities through expanding its geographical coverage, since the scope of collaborative work has now spread beyond the Indochina region to universities in other countries in which these universities highly rated the GSGESs activities  and making a strong request for the program to be implemented there, as well. However, reflecting on global environmental studies as an academic discipline, it is clear that little progress has since been made in inter-university networking and inter-state joint research, which have been hampered by over-emphasis on economic development and the bureaucratic systems at the hub universities in each country. If the GSGES can successfully play a “bonding” role in bringing the leading universities in Southeast Asia together to work on solutions to environmental issues, and can create an academic research foundation for global environmental studies in Asia under the framework of this program, it should be possible to establish a transdisciplinary system that is capable of implementing in society the outcomes of research aimed at resolving environmental issues in Asia.

In more concrete terms, the aim of this program is to design research for resolution of environmental issues (co-design) by simultaneously conducting the three core agendas of 1) providing opportunities for sharing research, 2) linking and developing human resources, and 3) sharing field research. On the research side (co-production), the program is an effort to implement the outcomes of joint research among universities (including stakeholders) in a social context. This should allow spatial expansion and enhancement of the robust network that has been built in the Indochina region, which, in turn, will help to develop a foundation for broad-area cooperation across the entire Asian region.