E-Learning Course //Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems: The Nexus between Water, Energy and Food

In this course you will become familiar with the ideas of the water-energy-food nexus and transdisciplinary thinking. You will learn to see your community or country as a complex social-ecological system and to describe its water, energy and food metabolism in the form of a pattern, as well as to map the categories of social actors. We will provide you with the tools to measure the nexus elements and to analyze them in a coherent way across scales and dimensions of analysis.

In this way, your quantitative analysis will become useful for informed decision-making. You will be able to detect and quantify dependence on non-renewable resources and externalization of environmental problems to other societies and ecosystems (a popular ‘solution’ in the western world). Practical case studies, from both developed and developing countries, will help you evaluate the state-of-play of a given community or country and to evaluate possible solutions. Last but not least, you will learn to see pressing social-ecological issues, such as energy poverty, water scarcity and inequity, from a radically different perspective, and to question everything you’ve been told so far.

  • Level: Intermediate
  • Commitment: 4-6 hours/week
  • Language of Instruction: English
  • Pass all graded assignments to complete the course

Enrollment and Dates

The course is offered at 8-weekly intervals. To enroll, please visit the Coursera website. 

Upcoming start dates:

  • 10 February 2020 (enrollment closing 15 February)
  • 6 April 2020 (enrollment closing 11 April)
  • 1 June 2020 (enrollment closing 6 June)
  • 27 July 2020 (enrollment closing 1 August 2020)

Intended participants

The course is directed toward upper-division undergraduate and graduate students from a wide variety of disciplines (environmental sciences, engineering, agricultural sciences, social sciences) as well as professionals (NGOs, think tanks) and policy makers concerned with sustainable development in both developed and developing countries.


Mario Giampietro, ICREA Research Professor
Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA)

Andrea Saltelli, Guest researcher
Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA)

Tarik Serrano, Post-Doc Researcher
Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA)


Module 1: Introducing the basic concepts 
In this first week we will look at the nexus from a different perspective: What is the nexus? Why is it getting all this attention right now? Is it just a buzzword, or something more? We will start by explaining what the nexus means in terms of complexity and propose the basic concepts needed for a metabolic analysis of the nexus. It might take a while to get your head around these concepts, but they are essential to understand what comes next. Finally, we will give examples of “elephants in the room” in the sustainability discourse – to show you that mainstream narratives are not always right.

Module 2: Acknowledging the poor quality of existing quantitative analyses
This week is all about narratives, framing and complexity. You will see how different narratives affect quantitative assessments, and why numbers aren’t always right. We will delve deeper into the theoretical basis of complex systems, and propose alternative ways of doing sustainability analysis, through the use of grammars.

Module 3: The challenge of food accounting
Having introduced the basis of metabolic analysis and complex systems, we will now focus on the different elements of the nexus, starting with food. We will start by answering some seemingly basic questions: what do we mean by food, and how can it be accounted? Which qualities of food can and cannot be accounted for in terms of numbers? Practical examples will guide you along the way, and by the end of the week you will see why the current agricultural system is unsustainable to its core.

Module 4: The challenge of energy accounting
This week we will look at energy. As we did for food, we will start by looking at the problems of energy accounting, and setting a framework to allow us to carry out energy analyses across levels and scales. You will see why energy accounting is one of the most problematic aspects of sustainability, and through the example of the Energiewende we will explore how this affects policy.

Module 5: The challenge of water accounting
This week is all about water. By now you should be familiar with the concept of grammar, and we will see how building one for water can help in dealing with its many dimensions. Through the example of an analysis of the Mauritius Islands, you will become familiar with the many aspects of water accounting, and by the end of the week you will understand the importance of water in nexus analysis, especially when it comes to policymaking.

Module 6: The metabolic pattern of social-ecological systems across multiple scales and dimensions
We talked about scales and dimensions a lot, and this week we will explore and understand these concepts better. You will learn to account for human activity, an essential fund that is often left out from quantitative analysis, and how GIS tools can be incorporated with the methods you have learnt so far. This week is heavy on theory, to prepare you for week 7 which is all about applications.

Module 7: Applications of MuSIASEM 2.0
How can the theoretical concepts explained so far be applied to practical examples? After introducing the basic building blocks of relational analysis needed for our applications, we will look at two real case examples: a nexus analysis of vegetable production in Almeria, and of a wind-powered desalination plant in the Canary Islands. By the end of this week you should be able to build processors and set up nexus analyses.

Module 8: Time for "something completely different": from the Cartesian dream to quantitative story-telling via evidence based policy
We are ending the course with something a bit different (thanks to our guest lecturer Andrea Saltelli). This week we leave quantitative assessments behind, and take some time to reflect upon why it is important to do analyses in a different way. We will introduce the concepts of post-normal science and quantitative story-telling – this will allow you to think deeply about how you frame your analyses in the future.

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The Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) is a public university located in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. International in its outlook, it is fully consolidated within its local surroundings, and offers quality education in close association with research activity, the transfer of scientific, technological, cultural and educational knowledge, the promotion of its human potential and the responsible management of available resources. The UAB currently offers 81 degrees, 130 official Master Programmes and 183 UAB-specific Masters Degrees. In addition, it offers 174 lifelong learning programmes and 65 PhD Programmes, 27 of which have been distinguished through Quality Awards. The UAB has a total of over 3,500 teaching and research staff, over 2,000 administrative staff and over 40,000 students.

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