Think big, start small, act now, fail fast, learn fast. Action Dialogue with John Holmberg

John Holmberg is a professor of physical resource theory and he also holds Sweden’s first UNESCO chair in education for sustainable development. His background is in physics and in his doctoral dissertation he developed principles for a sustainable future, which received international dissemination through the Natural Step Foundation. His current research focuses on sustainability transitions. John is one of the founders of Chalmers Initiative for Innovation and Sustainability Transitions.

Hilary: Hey John, thanks for taking the time to talk. I have a couple questions on my mind. I’m curious how you’re thinking about academia and its role in the societal shift toward sustainability. And what are you up to that makes a difference?

JohnHolmberg:  Big questions. Relevant questions with many dimensions. I’ll share a recent story from South Africa. At a recent conference I met a climate modeler. He said “the users don’t use (or even understand) these analytical climate models.” So he really wants to connect and work with them. He said that it was hard and frustrating, but very rewarding for the user and for his research. His new emphasis is a kind of transdisciplinary work. However there’s very little in the academic system that rewards that kind of effort, and that is a problem.

JohnHolmberg:  And then we have the university as an institution. They are the latest organization to really take sustainability seriously. So many other organizations in society did it so many years before. Such as business. The university really as an institution, has only lately begun to take it seriously. And now we are trying to figure out how.

The challenge is when it comes to system change no one single resource research group can handle it by themselves. Not even a group of researchers connected in interdisciplinary work can solve this issue. It has to be in relation to society, and the public/private sector, but also of course, to people.

JohnHolmberg:  We might ask what is the role of the university in creating the kinds of meeting places within the university and between university and society. And here we see very few examples of this. The meeting places we see in academia is often created from bottom up. The universities as institutions also have an important role to create organizational structures to help and support this kind of connection.
We have to realize that universities are complex. Today there are firms earning money simply for guiding people from outside the university to the right scientists who have work that is relevant for their problem. At Chalmers university we changed the structure and introduce crosscutting thematic areas for improving the collaboration within Chalmers and together with people outside Chalmers. They have been important to for taking on bigger Sustainability challenges. But there is still so much more to be done in this direction.

Hilary Universities tend to face inward with their doors and windows closed so to speak. Not outward, with open doors. Although they often have lovely campuses to sit on and picnic.

JohnHolmberg: We have another perspective that I find important. And that is students. Usually students are seen as something that you fill with knowledge when they are at university. They are not seen as change agents themselves and with that as important agents of change in society.

JohnHolmberg:  But when you look at the student as an agent of change then you take them seriously and understand that students can actually create a bridge between university and society. They can ask the questions that the scientist does not dare to address. A scientist cannot risk what might be diversions that are time consuming. Going into a new field to interact with the stakeholders in society is quite an undertaking. But a student can. They are the bridge between A supervisor in university and society. The student is in between. The student can also create trust which is key. Collaboration is built on trust, which in turn is built on listening and understanding. Since the students do not represent anyone but themselves, they do not threaten anyone and often people can connect with a student and open up.

JohnHolmberg: Without this bridge, and when there is a lack of trust collaboration does not work. And that means that several people do the same thing and the cost increases and the resources therefore decline, which often lead to internal competition and fear.

JohnHolmberg: People want to be friendly to students. And they can also be a little bit politically naive. They can ask what you shouldn’t. And that means that they can go deeper. Also students are eager to change. They can be a little brave.
We have a very old view of student teaching and learning now if its to fill students with knowledge, not see them as a very important person with knowledge and with skills and real potentials, all different dimension.

Hilary: It sounds like you’re beginning to experiment with one of the big leverage points for change in academia, which is inviting the students to be part of the challenge labs. Can you give us an example that you feel happy about today?

JohnHolmberg:  Chalmers is a University of Technology. So it’s mainly an engineering orientation. That means that we focus on how to work with the social technical system. In the Challenge Lab one example with two Masters students, has been around the future of transport here in Gothenburg. We have the biggest harbor in Scandinavia; we have Volvo. But the students found little ownership of the transformation system in its move from fossil driven transport systems to electric. So that was their focus, namely electro-mobility in Gothenburg.

JohnHolmberg:  They gathered stakeholders and asked “what should we aim at? What is the current situation? And where can we find the leverage points in this transformation for the desired electromobility. And in this some very, very rough idea of strategy could be aired. Everyone in the room seemed to like it very much. And these were from all sides of society. Turned out the City of Gothenburg hired my student to develop this further.

Hilary:  Sounds like a good outcome all round. I’m curious, what kind of skills do these students most need? Is it more technical skills or more interpersonal skills?

JohnHolmberg: Mainly interpersonal skills. They have a lot of technical skills with them in the training before they meet stakeholders. They come to the challenge lab and it’s very much about systems thinking. It’s about how to talk about the future in a systemic way. It’s about understanding your own values and listening. It’s about creating openness. It’s about dialogue techniques, how to facilitate, how to a balance a safe space with an exploring space. And it is about building on each other’s strengths. Our motto is “Think big. start small, act now, fail fast, learn fast.”

Hilary: What a marvelous motto for any action researcher.

JohnHolmberg:  So think big is important. We need to have some idea of what is really important. Our guiding principles need to be always present. Otherwise we can be trapped in the current system and make only minor changes.

Hilary:  What is your friendly advice for others who might be inspired by this model?

JohnHolmberg:  I would say be aware that there are two different logics. I use the metaphor of a cruise ship and expedition. One the cruise ship (the ongoing organization) it’s all about making it go better. You have a system for measurements that optimize. Your work is to make the journey safe and it’s comfortable. But then since we are now entering into unexplored water, we need also to send out some expeditions. And that is a totally different logic in which learning and exploration is key. That kind of work should never be evaluated with the same evaluation tools that you have in the cruise ship. In exploratory mode, it’s not about how much you did, it’s what you learned when you did it. Even a mistake is a good expedition if you learn and feed that back to the cruise ship.

JohnHolmberg:  If we measure too much the exploration, then people feel controlled. And on the exploratory small boats, we also do it wrong when we don’t have a process. We have to connects the expeditions with the needs of the cruise ships. We therefore inform back and we spend time enough at the start, combining a “think big” with a “small start.” The connection between the expedition and the cruise is important. It therefore makes sense to bring relevant people from the cruise on board the expedition.
JohnHolmberg: If it is a matter of my advice it is to take a step back and think about it all connects. That is what a challenge lab is about. And to know, in each of us we have this tension, with two forces. We want to have comfort and safety nets on one hand. But we also want to explore and be a full person. Today organizations make people focus on safety and avoiding making mistakes. People need a group around them to be brave enough. Very few people are brave enough to go on expedition by themself. Creating networks and connections between people so they can be a bit braver is a good thing.

Hilary:  In a way our Gathering, and more importantly its aftermath, is one way in which we can create safety for one another as we ask what is transformative learning, what does that look like., how must we do our work differently if we really want transformative outcomes?And we invite many different examples of it. We can learn from one another. I know I have learned from you. Thanks John. See you soon.

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