Born on a farm in Switzerland, Jakob Nuesch was tormented by a question while studying agriculture at a vocational school — how is yogurt made?

The question led to observations, fascination and, eventually, a professorship in microbiology.

When Nuesch, 66, began wondering what scientists could do to help society conserve resources without sacrificing quality of life, he didn’t ask questions.

He started from one thing he knew about human nature — nobody likes to be told what to do. “A global and general idea, no matter how good, like sustainability, means nothing,” the former president of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich said. “You can’t just make a general statement, you have to combine it with local knowledge and experience.”

His idea grew into the Alliance for Global Sustainability, a research partnership formed in 1994 between the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Tokyo.

The three institutions work together on joint projects aimed at sustaining a high standard of living while protecting the environment, ranging from energy sources to city transportation to environmentally conscious product design.

Because each project requires collaboration among the three institutions, this forces participants to address cultural differences in their research, Nuesch said.

AGS has grown into a $5.5 million endeavor encompassing 37 interdisciplinary projects, and involving some 200 students and 115 faculty members in science, engineering and the social sciences at the three institutions — a development Nuesch does not find surprising. “It is scientifically much more interesting if you succeed in producing certain goods, let’s say plastic, in cycles so that you use very little nature, so you can recycle and re-create resources,” he said.

“The countries with the technical skills have to develop a means to sustain their own high-consumption quality of life,” Nuesch said. “It’s also a question of fairness, that before we go to the developing countries, we have to see what we can do among us.”

One project team, made up of urban, civil and chemical engineers from the three universities, believes carbon dioxide emissions, which have been linked to global warming, could be reduced in Tokyo by 40.2 percent without sacrificing residents’ quality of life.

By improving the efficiency of power generators, and by using solar cells and an “intelligent” transport system, which would use computers and communications technology to prevent traffic jams, the city could reduce the 32.6 million tons of carbon emissions recorded in 1990 to 19.5 million tons, the group said.

The group plans to map the technologies needed in different areas of the city, and to submit its policy proposal to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government by next year.

The AGS program’s success will be measured by how well proposals such as this one are received by politicians and leaders in industry, said Nuesch, who was in Tokyo last week.

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