Working together for sustainable development – but how?

To help researchers to connect with one another, in October UUSI (Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives) held an interdisciplinary conference at Uppsala University.

Photograph: Mikael Wallerstedt

International climate summits come and go, with hopes of reaching agreement on climate undertakings. But how is collaboration around social challenges faring among our higher education institutions? New research interdisciplinary initiatives on sustainable development are being developed here at Uppsala University.

“Sustainability issues are so huge that our approaches must also be much broader than they have been in the past,” says Klas Palm of Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives (UUSI).

A little more than two years has passed since UUSI was started up on the initiative of Vice-Chancellor Eva Åkesson. This five-year project aims to provide better conditions for research that contributes to a sustainable future and also to develop interdisciplinary research projects. Four thematic areas are in focus: climate leadership, sustainable urban development, water and the circular economy.

These thematic areas were identified at in a series of meetings with senior researchers from all three disciplinary domains: Humanities and Social Sciences, Medicine and Pharmacy, and Science and Technology. According to the project coordinator Klas Palm, these four thematic areas were chosen because of a number of factors. On the one hand, from the international perspective they are important for sustainable development and on the other hand, Uppsala University is conducting successful research in these areas. In addition, none of these areas currently has any significant research funding.

“That is why it’s important now to chisel out the perspectives and pose concrete research questions in order to write research funding applications to secure funds for continuing that research,” says Klas Palm. “This is where UUSI can help by taking the initiative and coordinating a string of processes such as forming groups and helping them to write research funding applications.”

University-wide conference

To help researchers to connect with one another, in October UUSI held an interdisciplinary conference called Mash Up for a Sustainable Future at Uppsala University. 40 researchers from all three disciplinary domains met to exchange ideas and identify opportunities for collaboration in the area of sustainable development. The participants brainstormed phenomena that they wanted to know more about and then worked on those that were deemed the most interesting. These included food consumption and behaviour, risk and prevention, and nature-based solutions and material recovery.

Mats Målqvist. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

One of the researchers attending the conference was Mats Målqvist, professor in Global Health at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health. He hoped that Mash Up would contribute a context in which the global health perspective could become more visible.

“There is a lot of talk about the climate and the impact on the environment and the impacts on health deriving from this. But there is no overall approach, and there is too little focus on social sustainability. That’s what I’m really looking for in the broader perspective, but also in my own research.

“Another problem is the time it takes to go from having acquired a body of knowledge to its practical application. We are in a position where we don’t need to give more consideration to what the problem is – we need to act on what we already know,” says Mats Målqvist. “Because we do have knowledge.

“We don’t need new studies on the benefits of breastfeeding or about antibiotics. What we need is action-oriented research on how we can quickly implement what we know works. Unfortunately policy initiatives and attempts at action often go in precisely the opposite direction to what the evidence says.”

Besides political will and political decisions, dynamic structures are also often lacking. He has also seen a lack of the latter at Uppsala University.

“Instead of everyone trying to shoehorn in what is already being done, we need bigger investments and innovative thinking on services and centres of expertise. Fundamentally, it’s a leadership issue.”

At the conference 40 researchers from different domains met to exchange ideas and identify opportunities for collaboration in the area of sustainable development. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

New angles

Sabine Gebert Persson, lecturer at the Department of Economic History was also a participant at Mash Up. She is currently part of an interdisciplinary project entitled Sustainable visits – from the map to the visitor experience along with researchers from both Science and Technology and Humanities and Social Sciences. Mash Up has given her new angles to explore in her research and potential new partners for collaborations.

“I am very interested in interorganisational collaboration. If we are going to get anywhere, we need to get different organisations to talk to each other and start collaborating in some way. But the research shows quite clearly that this is terribly difficult because we have such incredibly different ideas about how things ought to be done,” says Sabine Gebert Persson. She adds:

“That’s why it’s just so exciting to have this kind of interdisciplinary conference here at the University. In our group at Mash Up, we had an ecologist who was studying rainforests. It was really interesting to hear his perspective and views on corporations and government agencies.”

Do you have any examples of how to make partnerships successful even when they have very different approaches to things?

“Of course it’s different for different industries, but one of the things that research has seen is the importance of creating a common vision. Even if the goal is the same, the vision and the steps to get there must also be brought together. But there can be conflicts, for example where the individual’s aims differ from their own organisation’s aims. In cases like that, it’s important to emphasise the benefits for each actor so that both parties can have their needs satisfied,” says Sabine Gebert Persson.

Need for a broad perspective on energy

Raphael Waters. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

In addition, many different angles can provide an overall picture that can facilitate finding better solutions. For Rafael Waters, professor in Electricity, this was an important reason for participating in Mash Up. Another was to explore questions that complement his own research. Electricity and energy questions are not just about technical solutions but ultimately about human social behaviour and needs.

“And then I’m suddenly out of my depth and can’t do it myself, I don’t have the background. This is an example of when it’s important to be able to collaborate,” says Rafael Waters.

In a new interdisciplinary project, he and his research colleagues are using a newly constructed parking garage as a test bed for sustainable mobility solutions. One of the challenges is the huge drain on the grid that occurs when hundreds of electric cars are being charged at the same location, particularly in the coldest times of the year.

“But an almost bigger challenge lies in controlling behaviours and getting people to accept a vehicle charging to just 90 or 80 per cent,” says Rafael Waters.

“Then we have to collaborate with groups like Cajsa Bartusch’s group at the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management who have been working more with industries, consumer behaviours and pricing models.”

Collaborations can grow

According to Rafael Waters, allowing researchers to mix freely at interdisciplinary conferences without any particular expectations is a great idea, because that way collaborations can grow and develop naturally. “The idea with Mash Up was also that the researchers themselves would take responsibility for keeping any project ideas alive,” says Klas Palm. Nevertheless, notes from the conference were collected and compiled. A proposal for improvements in the re-use of materials has been included in UUSI’s circular economy thematic area. Researchers are continuing to work on another idea about nutrition within sustainable urban development.

“We need a sustainable city that can handle food production, distribution and quality in a good way to minimise transport, of course. Might we even be able to set up livestock farming close by? Could we create an environment where we can farm and eat insects? Can we establish underground cultivation fields and grow various kinds of vegetables with artificial light all year round, here at our latitudes?,” says Klas Palm and continues:

“The aim is that we ourselves will work in an interdisciplinary way with all of the initiatives we are running, but we must also work with external parties. Other universities of course, but also businesses, municipalities, regional government, national government agencies and civil society, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Amnesty International, the Scout movement, the Church of Sweden… you name it!”

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