SPD Spotlight: Sunway Centre for Planetary Health

In this blog series, we’ll be sharing the work of some of the signatories of the São Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health around the world. There are all kinds of organizations doing fantastic work within Planetary Health — if you are looking for ways to get involved in the movement, to strengthen the Planetary Health perspective of your own work, or to find inspiration and practical advice, be sure to follow this blog series and take a look at the work of these wonderful organizations.

What is the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health?

The Sunway Centre for Planetary Health (SCPH) is a ‘think-and-do tank’ located at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It works to mainstream planetary health within higher education in Southeast Asia, promoting a Planetary Health framework to the forefront of all aspects of education, research, and policy development. As well as producing and facilitating expert scholarship on pressing Planetary Health issues, SCPH collaborates with a wide range of stakeholders (including local and national governments, NGOs, international bodies, and communities) to integrate a Planetary Health approach across multiple sectors.

Sunway University houses the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health.

How did the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health begin?

In late 2019, just before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, former Under Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross, and Dr. Renzo Guinto, a recent Harvard doctoral graduate specializing in climate and health, conceptualized a centre for Planetary Health in Asia. Although the pandemic presented some significant challenges in getting the Centre up and running, it also emphasized the urgent necessity of bringing the Planetary Health movement to Southeast Asia. Jemilah, Renzo and their colleagues, Oliver Lacey-Hall and Maisarah Faiesall, used their diverse expertise to develop and present the concept to the Sunway Group, a Malaysian business conglomerate with a strong track record for practicing and advocating sustainable development. They were successful in obtaining funding to develop the Centre within Sunway University, an entity within the Sunway Group and one of the fastest-growing universities in Southeast Asia, and the Centre officially opened in August 2021.

Where does the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health work?

The SCPH is hosted by Sunway University, located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It platforms and aims to tackle key issues in the Asia-Pacific region. The team works with a variety of stakeholders within Sunway University and in the wider community to develop influential research and promote engagement with pressing Planetary Health challenges in the region.

A key part of SCPH’s work is engaging with local youth populations. Through its youth engagement strategy, SPCH has brought together young people in Malaysia to learn about, discuss, and to begin developing solutions for pressing Planetary Health issues. Image shared with permission from SPCH.

How does the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health work?

The SCPH identified five key priority themes for its inaugural phase, based on the most pressing Planetary Health challenges in Asia and the Pacific. These are: preventing the next pandemic; tackling the climate emergency; creating healthy cities; achieving sustainable food systems; and promoting fairer economies.

The team also identified two key strategic work-streams through which to deliver their work. These are: Knowledge and Learning (K&L); and Engagement and Influence (E&I). The K&L work focuses on research, education, and the ongoing knowledge generation of academic products (such as publications, outreach, and other educational materials). The E&I work aims to ensure that the knowledge generated by SCPH is translated into meaningful policy and practice — this includes work with the Malaysian government, the United Nations, civil society, and local communities; in particular, empowering local young people to learn about Planetary Health and develop solutions.

SCPH also acts as a ‘match-maker’ for researchers, academics and Planetary Health professionals. The team uses their existing professional networks to connect people seeking to collaborate on projects relating to Planetary Health. The Centre is also starting to develop resources that communicate key insights adapted to local cultural contexts in Southeast Asia, such as ‘Planet Saving Meals’, featuring Planetary Health-oriented dishes that utilize local ingredients from the region.

Undergraduate students of Sunway University who took the inaugural course “Community Service for Planetary Health” reciting the “Sunway Planetary Health Pledge,” based on the Planetary Health Pledge, published in The Lancet in 2020.

SCPH places great importance on making academic output practically useful for the communities most impacted by pressing Planetary Health issues. The team advises governments on practical steps that can be taken to strengthen Planetary Health in local and regional contexts, such as Malaysia’s commitment to be a net-zero carbon country by 2050. Sunway also delivers practical learning experiences for students at the University. For example, a pilot course, ‘Community Service for Planetary Health’, was offered to communications students of Sunway University early this year. Students were matched with host organizations to address key Planetary Health topics, developing practical solutions for issues ranging from urban pollution, to sustainable farming, to healthcare waste management.

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health. Image shared with permission from Sunway Centre for Planetary Health.

What are the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health’s future goals?

By 2024, SCPH and Sunway University are aiming for the Planetary Health core module to be a mandatory course for all 3,000+ students, regardless of their discipline. SCPH also hopes to contribute to the University’s larger goal to become the first Planetary Health-oriented academic institution. SCPH hopes to be a model for other academic institutions who wish to develop capacity for Planetary Health education, research, and advocacy.

Beyond academia, the Centre aims to provide policy support to governments and sub-national administrations, as well as non-governmental stakeholders — especially the public across the region. It aims to use its forward-leaning research to help countries and communities to rethink their relationships with the planet, in line with the key principles of Planetary Health.

Dr. Renzo Guinto, Chief Scientist and Co-Founder of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health. Image shared with permission from the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health.

Advice from the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health:

‘This pandemic has made us realize how vital effective communication is to steer lasting behavioral and systemic change.’ says Dr. Renzo Guinto. Communicating translational research findings beyond university campuses, in ways that are accessible and culturally appropriate, is absolutely key to changing mindsets and growing the Planetary Health movement

Renzo also notes a growing commitment to Planetary Health from European and North American universities, and hopes that others in the Global South will follow the example of Sunway University and mainstream a Planetary Health approach across their curricula. Adopting a Planetary Health approach also requires transdisciplinary collaboration. Building a network of like-minded academic institutions across the globe, which prioritize translational research and innovation, will significantly strengthen the development of solutions to global and regional challenges, which are increasingly urgent.

To learn more about the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health and get in contact with their team, please visit their website here. Profound thanks to SCPH for their enthusiasm and collaboration on this blog post, and their ongoing work as part of the PHA.

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