Imagine the best tomorrow

One that comes about as a result of our collective efforts – in science, business, humanities, health, technology and education. One that entwines humanity with technology, the environment with wellbeing. One that makes justice and equity a priority.

Think for a moment about that future. What does our best tomorrow look like?

Converting plastic into recycled fire retardant

It’s 2050.

An electric research vessel bobs in the shallow crystal blue water, its solar-panelled skin glinting in the sunlight. The day is warm and ocean still as scuba divers ready themselves to dive. The scientist dips a probe into the water and grunts with satisfaction. There hasn’t been a mass bleaching event for the past five years and the reef is starting to thrive, a wild array of creatures crawl, swim and slide over a brilliantly coloured, biodiverse underwater garden. A second vessel cruises up silently and docks. The citizen-scientists wave, cameras already fitted to their diving head caps. They’ve paid their weight in Ethereum to be here but are glad to do it. Their recordings will be sent in real time to a data bank on the mainland where geomaps are tracking progress as the reef reforms. The scientist smiles, thinking of the projections the reef is returning to where it was 100 years ago. And it all started with something so small.

Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison is one of the world’s leading science communicators and marine ecologists.

He first observed coral spawning 40 years ago and has pioneered one of one of the most innovative techniques in modern reef science: engineering and seeding coral ‘babies’ to restore degraded reefs. Many Southern Cross students have had the privilege of working with him in the field, describing the experience as life-changing and career-shaping.

Not surprisingly, his vision of the future is far-sighted. “We’re going to see more and more technology integrated with this science. It’s quite feasible we’ll have robots scanning the reef, frequently evaluating what’s going on at a micro through to larger reef-scape levels. Looking towards the future, we all dream of cleaner oceans and healthier reefs but what counts is what we are doing today regarding climate change. We’ve just seen another mass bleaching event occur and these will only get more frequent unless we do something to drastically reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change,” he said.

The work of Southern Cross researchers is contributing to significant global understanding of the carbon cycle. Research into ‘blue’ or stored carbon by Professors Damien Maher, Dirk Erler and Bradley Eyre (who is also a member of the Australian Research Council College of Experts) and Dr Rachel Murray supported the United Nations’ most recent and influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Dr Luke Jeffrey, whose work was also cited by the IPCC, leads ground-breaking research on the role trees play in methane emissions; while Professor Andrew Rose and Professor Dirk Erler are developing models for true circular economies in manufacturing, agriculture and food production as part of the Recirculator project.

It’s not only scientists working to combat climate change. The University is home to a lively community of Education researchers who work on projects like Climate Change + Me. The platform is an opportunity for children to act as co-researchers, expressing their ideas about climate change and climate action and – who knows – honing their skills as climate activists of the future.

It’s 2050.

Sunrise. A farmer stands at the river’s edge and enters the monthly measurements of her mangrove forest into an ipad, connecting in real-time to COfarm, the carbon farming app that calculates the amount of carbon storage she has accumulated and the amount of credit she is due. She looks at the rows of dhunbarr heads swaying in the early morning breeze, and thinks of the encounter all those years ago that inspired her to plant native millet here. She had paid such careful attention to the soil but who would have thought they could get these yields?

The future of agriculture has already begun, says Southern Cross regenerative agriculture expert Dr Hanabeth Luke.

“Time in agriculture is measured more in decades than years. The decisions we are making today will affect agriculture for a long time to come. Reinforcing our strong community connections is key to our shared understanding of food production and how that plays out economically for farmers. In the future it’s likely we will see an increase in local food systems like farmers markets and like our hypothetical future farmer, I can see us working more with Aboriginal farmers to plant the right crops in the right places.

“Precision farming with drones is already happening but we may see this diversify even further and integrate with carbon farming on a large scale. They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago - the hardwood trees we are planting today will provide the plantations of tomorrow that we will need.”

Introduced just two years ago, the University’s suite of regenerative agriculture degrees is exposing students to cutting-edge agricultural practice. It draws on the considerable expertise of scientists like Professor Terry Rose, who specialises in sustainable cropping systems and investigates ways to extract phosphorus – an essential ingredient in fertiliser – from waste products.

It also draws on the significant collective expertise of Southern Cross plant scientists, who have contributed decades of research and knowledge to developing more resilient, more productive and more sustainable plants for agriculture, forestry and industrial products. Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar, for example, is investigating better ways to grow high-value crops like black rice in subtropical and northern Australia. Other critical projects like integrated pest management for macadamia farms, tea-tree innovation and expertise in soil testing and soil fertility have attracted multi-million-dollar research grants. Faced with mounting climate challenges, this research is building a brighter, more resilient tomorrow for our future farmers and for our critical agricultural industries.

It’s 2050.

The man swings his legs out of bed and wiggles his toes on the polished floorboards. Today is going to be a good day. Twenty years ago he would have been having coffee with a dozen different pills. Today it’s a different story. Food is a medicine now. He has his six-monthly appointment this afternoon with his MUST, or, as they are more formally known, the multidisciplinary healthcare support team. The phone app and his body sensors help the team tailor prescriptions when he needs them. There are a lot less these days, now he's one of the two million Australians who managed to turn their diabetes around and go into remission. The depression he suffered all those years ago is a distant memory. He feels confident and happy, almost looking forward to their check-in. First though, it’s his daughter’s thirtieth birthday today and he feels grateful they can celebrate it together with her children. It’s been so good to help out with the kids and feel part of their lives. He knows it’s also contributing to his health. Who would have thought he’d make it this far and feel so great?

The COVID pandemic threw into sharp relief the fragility of our healthcare systems. Significant healthcare research at the University aims to bolster general population health in the future and make our hospitals and health clinics more resilient and functional.

Professor Jon Wardle is leading research at the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine and says placing the patient at the centre of healthcare is key. "The philosophy of naturopathic medicine is about supporting the body’s own ability to heal itself, and empowering patients to be an active part of their healthcare journey. It also offers potential solutions for addressing major healthcare problems now and in the future, through practices that integrate self-management and self-care.

"We have a powerful opportunity to change the dialogue around health care and the role it can play in achieving better outcomes for people’s health. Naturopathic medicine will be part of that, but there are so many opportunities to improve healthcare across the board. We could feasibly see a future where decreased levels of chronic disease mean hospitals are not constantly stretched and nurses burnt out too soon. Where people are more empowered to take charge of their own health. Perhaps even where the role of healthcare workers is flipped towards doing more preventive monitoring and maintenance to enhance wellness rather than responsive acute care. We can shift the focus to building better health and wellness, rather than rather than just trying to fix problems when they become too serious to ignore."

Person-centred healthcare research has seen extraordinary results at the University. Associate Professor Gail Moloney’s ground-breaking team is using psychology smarts to increase organ donor registrations. Dr Kirstine Shrubsole’s research has seen drastic improvements in the treatment for aphasia (inability to communicate with speech) following a stroke. Associate Professor Christian Swann has contributed his expertise on mind and body to global sport through a collaborative mental health program for teenage athletes delivered at the Rugby League World Cup. Transformative research for the health landscape of the future.

It’s 2050.

The evening has produced a magnificent sunset and the crickets erupt in a chorus. The designer takes a quick 3R with her audicam. It’ll make a good addition to the sound that the car plays when it’s about to turn on the headlights. She loves designing audio for cars. Since petrol vehicles were banned ten years ago, the streets are so quiet. So quiet in fact she needs to keep coming up with noise to make humans aware of danger or movement associated with all the driverless EVs on the road. It’s so interesting how different brains interpret sound differently, she thinks. But some sounds are universal. Funny it was a musician and poet who worked that out and collaborated on the first car soundscapes they produced all those years ago. Although not so funny really; artists have always been observing and recording the human condition, they were the ones who first understood the nuances of the technology. The psychologists also took it to another level.

Art, science and technology have always been intrinsically linked says Associate Professor Grayson Cooke, and our best future sees them working together seamlessly.

“If we look forward 30 years into the future of this relationship, what do we see? Our future audio artist (in the paragraph above), using acoustic recordings to design soundscapes for EVs, lays out the ground rules; that art and technology must work together in the service of new and sustainable energy systems, that we exist as part of complex ecosystems, and that there is always more to learn from the more-than-human world.

Professor Cooke pushes the boundaries of science and art. His work has combined NASA Landsat and Japanese Himawari satellite data to map Australia’s cloud layer and the elemental forces that shape the earth over time. “The combination of art and technology means we have a constantly growing set of possibilities for sensing the world. Developments in machine learning, big data and sensing and camera technologies already expand our knowledge and capacities in the commercial and public sectors, and give us amazing new artistic expressions. But the crucial question for the future is balancing these forces – my hope as always is that creative enquiry can mediate, moderate and influence for the better how we choose to live our lives.”

An interdisciplinary approach to technology can take innovation to the next level. Take the game-changing marine surveys and habitat mapping using drones by Professor Brendan Kelaher or the AI software to identify potentially dangerous shark species being refined by alumnus Dr Andrew Colefax. Or the marine scientists and chemists collaborating on the Shruder, a portable marine plastics debris recycling plant invented by Adjunct Fellow Louise Hardman that shreds and extrudes plastic into a material like composite building materials and 3D printer filament. Southern Cross students, our digital creators of the future, are active participants in innovation, bringing concepts to life such as a VR job orientation app for people with disability.