Research environments big and small

By Joern Fischer

The Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana has been an exciting place – a dozen or so new professors were hired over the last few years, and the Faculty landed a number of sizeable grants. In a way, we’ve successfully taken the first few steps from “nothing” to becoming an increasingly interesting institution. But what’s next?

This question is not unique to Leuphana. Many places go through phases of growth, and such phases are typically quite exciting – you can do stuff in a growing institution and help to actively shape it. But once the institution gets increasingly big, the challenges change.

Once institutions get bigger, talk tends to increase about becoming part of this network or that one; and of raising this mega-grant or that one. Initiatives are created and branded – but increasingly, there’s nothing behind it but size. Think of some of the really successful labs you know of: when was a good time to be part of that lab? Mostly, the exciting times happen on the way to being “big”. Once a place is big, it’s kind of unsinkable, but it also lacks the excitement of a growing institution.

To me, this has important implications for institutions such as Leuphana. Our aim, I think, should not be to grow big, but rather, to stay innovative. If that is successful, a bigger size may come as a by-product, but growing for the sake of growing is going to be counter-productive from an innovation perspective.

And hence, when it comes to “key” networks and “important” mega-grants, I remain skeptical. As you enter the big networks, and go for the mega-grants, politics takes over from innovation. You find yourself in meetings about strategizing how to raise which money, rather than in meetings about cool ideas. Being aware of such patterns, and steering against them, seems to be essential to keep institutions interesting and innovative for more than the first few years of growth.

Romania – where there’s a will, (I think) there’s a way to achieve sustainability

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Ioana Alexandra Dușe

I begin this blog post by saying that Romania is truly amazing, with valuable agricultural landscapes and breath-taking views.  Some might say that I am biased, but of course I am; I was born, raised and, for a big part of my life, educated there. However, I see a lot of problems in Romania, in terms of politics (institutional transparency, corruption at the highest level), education, rural to urban migration, environment and sustainability issues. So, the question is why should we pay attention to all of these problems? Well, first it is relevant for us in terms of research, there is a lot of potential for good research to be done in the area. Second, we have to understand the underlying causes of the problems and the symptoms in order to understand how to tackle these issues, and third, because there is no such place like…

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What is the role of place-based ecology in conservation biology?

At the Sustainable Landscapes Group we want to improve our understanding of the importance of place-based ecological research in conservation biology. Place-based research in natural and social science is concerned with understanding processes and systems, usually at the ‘local’ scale, sometimes referred to as the ‘landscape’. Many place-based studies are defined by geographic, biophysical, or human constructed boundaries such as administrative units (e.g. local government areas, counties) and many – if not all – are particularly concerned with issues specific to the defined area. However, place-based research can also inform general theory and applications of local knowledge to problems outside the focal place.

We would like to know what type of ecological research ecologists engage in; whether they engage in place-based research; where they do that research, and where they publish their work relative to their careers. We have designed a survey to collect data on this subject and we ask that you help us by clicking here and completing the survey. The survey needs about 10-20 minutes of your time. Please spread the word to all the ecologists you know! We will keep you updated with progress and the results.

Two New Post Doctoral Postions in Leverage Points

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Leuphana University Lüneburg (foundation under public law), Faculty of Sustainability invites applications for 2 new post doc positions within the  transdisciplinary project funded by the State of Lower Saxony and Volkswagen Foundation entitled: Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation: Institutions, People and Knowledge

The first position (PD3a) “transdisciplinary case studies” contributes to the consolidation of the epistemological and methodological foundations of transdisciplinary case studies.  The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE).

The second position (PD3b) “Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use” focuses on consolidating conceptual foundations related to the role of knowledge including (new) forms of knowledge production and use to foster sustainability transformation.

both positions are for  50% post doctoral research associates– Wissenschaftliche/r Mitarbeiter/in, salary group E 13 TV-L. Starting ideally September 2016, up until 31st March 2019.

Successful candidates will join an interdisciplinary team of eight principal investigators, five…

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Now published: Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Joern Fischer

Finally, the first paper is out from our Leverage Points project. It’s led by Dave Abson, and lays out a conceptual framework and research agenda, all around the notion of “deep leverage points”. Please share it through your networks.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.31.56.pngThe paper draws on Donella Meadows’ notion of “deep leverage points” – places to intervene in a system where adjustments can make a big difference to the overall outcomes. Arguably, sustainability science desperately needs such leverage points. Despite years of rhetoric on sustainability science bringing about “transformation”, the big picture is still pretty dull: globally at least, there is no indication that we’re starting to turn around the patterns of exponential growth that characterize our era. A potential reason is that much of sustainability science has focused on parameters and feedbacks, rather than system design or “intent” (see above) — when actually, it’s changing a system’s design and intent that is most likely to bring about major changes in outcomes.

If the goal is to bend the curves, we need to know where to start. To this end, we identified three realms of leverage that can be taken as starting points – reconnecting people with nature, restructuring institutions, and rethinking how different types of knowledge should be brought to bear for the pursuit of sustainability. These three realms of leverage are starting points. If others come up with additional or different realms of leverage that need to be investigated, this would be equally valid. To really find out what’s a good leverage point, we suggest applying a mixture of conceptual, empirical, and transdisciplinary approaches.

Finally, we hope that the notion of “leverage points” can provide a boundary object – a common denominator – that appeals to a broad range of audiences. On the one hand, because the idea of leverage points originates from complex systems thinking, technically oriented scientists should be able to engage with the concept. On the other hand, the notion of deep leverage points can also be used as a simple (but powerful) metaphor, signaling that “we need to look deeper” than we have done.

Ultimately, digging deeper is what the idea of deep leverage points is all about: sustainability science needs an agenda to confront all those issues that are perhaps difficult to deal with – but desperately need to be dealt with because that’s where potential for real change lies.

The full paper is available here.

Aspirational science

By Joern Fischer

Throughout our scientific training, we learn that we need to find better answers to the complex questions facing the world. Here, I argue that this is only half of the story: the more important part is that we need to find better questions.

Both Dave Abson and I have rambled on (and on, and on …) about the importance of framing in the research we do (e.g. here and here). Today, a slightly different angle on this familiar theme occurred to me.

If reality is a poorly lit space that is out there, but perhaps can’t ever be fully lit up (i.e. understood), then science that aspires to genuinely expand our understanding is not just about getting it “right”. In this metaphor of dark and light, the question amounts to that part of reality that we choose to shine a light onto. The quality of the answer, in this metaphor, is the degree to which we succeed in lighting up this area – is it brightly lit, or barely visible?

Most approaches we work within – and I would argue, for many scientists, entire careers – focus on the same general area, over and over again. And so there are spots that are super-brightly lit by now, and many individuals who are brilliant at seeing their little bits extremely clearly. But if reality is a vast, poorly lit space, then anyone who wants to understand the world, and not just a tiny fraction of it, needs to challenge oneself to look beyond the patch already somewhat lit up, again, and again, and again.

Such a process, to my mind, amounts to “aspirational science” in that it actually aims to generate insight about “everything”. From an individual perspective, this process amounts to lifelong learning, but more importantly, to a lifelong expansion of how to see the world. This is not so much about “connecting dots”, but about recognizing that our ways of even seeing where the dots are deeply depend on whether we’re willing and able to change and re-change our perspective on how to look at reality.

In short: make a habit of challenging yourself to try to see things differently, taking on different perspectives. Not so much that it paralyses you, but enough so that you can keep expanding your understanding of the universe (instead of only focusing it). Aspirational science implies broadening the questions we ask, and not just refining the answers.

Transformations 2017: Dundee, Scotland

The following conference announcement is likely to be of interest to readers of this blog. Our work on Leverage Points, most likely, will be presented at this conference.


Call for abstracts for Transformations 2017 conference

3rd Biennial International Conference on Transformations to sustainability

Where? Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience, University of Dundee, Scotland, UK

When? 30-31st August and 1st September 2017

Main theme: ‘Sustainability transformations in practice’.

Sub themes:

  • Conceptualising sustainability transformations
  • Designing transformation and transformative forms of design
  • Conditions and practices for transformation
  • Research for transformation
  • Creativity and innovation for enhancing thinking and practice of transformation
  • Linking practice with policy

Submissions invited for:

  • Presentations of papers
  • Practice sessions
  • Transformation Labs (workshops)

Article recommendation: heterarchies

By Joern Fischer

I warmly recommend the following article, which just appeared in Trends in Ecology & Evolution:

Cumming, G.S. (2016). Heterarchies: Reconciling Networks and Hierarchies. Trends Ecol Evol. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2016.04.009

This paper proposes that the concept of “heterarchies” be used more widely in ecology, and in social-ecological systems research. The key point is that systems can behave in complex ways (e.g. self-organisation) for at least two reasons: being organised through (i) a networked system architecture versus (ii) a hierarchical system architecture. The idea of heterarchy suggests that these two types of system structure are not mutually exclusive. Rather, ecologists may gain from considering both aspects of hierarchical organisation, and aspects of networked organisation — and, importantly, their interaction.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 12.02.50

This relatively simple conceptual framework, in my opinion, offers a fresh perspective to thinking about complex systems. Cumming demonstrates that this perspective can be applied to many different contexts. What kind of architecture characterises a particular system of interest (How networked is it? How hierarchical is it?) — and how this architecture may result in certain types of system behaviour — can be meaningfully studied in many different contexts. This, in turn, means that a comparative study of the heterarchy of different systems could be helpful to generate new, generalisable insights on the behaviour of complex (human-environment) systems.

As Cumming acknowledges, the concept of heterarchies is not new. However, it will be new to many ecologists, and is likely to stimulate a wide range of interesting new research.

The eternal challenge: walking the talk

By Joern Fischer

Having recently come back from a short, long-distance trip halfway around the world in the name of sustainability science – and having blasted a vast amount of carbon into the air in the process – I couldn’t help to think, yet again, about the perpetual challenge of “walking the talk” in sustainability science. But how does one “walk the talk”? The following are some suggestions for how to think through this.

  1. If it’s work-related travel, carefully weigh the sustainability costs and sustainability benefits. Frankly, a lot of work-related travel is not needed. We have a culture of workshops and meetings, and a culture of attending lots of these even if they are far away. Travel is cheap, workshop papers (i.e. discussion blabla papers) sell well, and have become a business in their own right. Personally, I believe in (i) prioritizing fieldwork related air travel over workshop air travel, (ii) prioritizing close travel for workshops/conferences over far trips, and (iii) thinking through how much travel you are willing to do in a given year.
  2. With respect to work travel, question the difference between what is necessary versus expected versus something you simply feel like. It’s too easy to say “I was invited and so I went”. In a culture where we all travel around without a second thought on whether that is good or necessary, just travelling a lot because everyone else is doing it is a very poor argument. So, as a minimum, be honest with yourself about (i) what is necessary, (ii) what is expected of you, and by whom, and (iii) what is simply your personal preference. Things you classify as necessary, well, I guess they can’t be changed easily. For things you classify as expected you can think about whose expectations these are, and whether you need to meet these expectations. And regarding third, frankly, that might be a fine reason at times, but from a sustainability perspective you should be aware that a preference for personal gluttony is also what’s destroying the planet. So probably best to remain a bit critical with oneself on this last point!
  3. Is there a way to get there without flying? Air travel is fast, and cheap (because it does not account for externalities). But it’s not the only way to get around. For example, many trips within Europe are possible by train if you think about it a little bit in advance. Night trains exist to some places, too.
  4. Once you decide to fly somewhere, consider offsetting your carbon impact. Most likely, your workplace – even if it’s a sustainability department – won’t have an offsetting scheme (do any?? I’d be interested!). Still, you can consider offsetting your personal and work-related carbon emissions. People who fly a lot also tend to earn a lot, making this not as big a deal as it may sound. Obviously, in science, your ability to offset depends on your salary and/or career level.
  5. Beyond travel, differentiate between big-ticket items versus little things in your life. Little actions can be good because you can do many little things. But changing a few big things in meaningful ways may achieve even more in terms of sustainability. Big changes are, for example, to live somewhere where you can ride a bike to work, rather than drive every day. Or to cut down the amount of animal protein in your diet, or obtain your food more locally. Little things like turning off light bulbs are fine … But just leaving your car at home one day (when you normally drive) is like a lot, a lot of lightbulbs!
  6. Recognise that you’re part of a “system”, and work on personal change as well as systemic change. While some sustainability scientists do too little (in my, in this case, not-so-humble opinion) to walk the talk, others beat themselves up for not being perfect footprint-free creatures. I think it’s important we recognize that it’s both a personal and systemic issue. If you live in North America or Australia, it’s nearly impossible to have a lifestyle that is fully sustainable. Most likely, most things from the food you eat to the transportation systems you use, to the infrastructure you support through your taxes are unsustainable. That is why it’s worthwhile to think about what you can do, and do that – while at the same time working on systemic changes so that living more sustainably becomes mainstream. That is, the institutional and socio-cultural context we live in will ultimately need to change, but that won’t happen overnight.

Comments on how you think about “walking the talk” are, as always, most welcome!

Sustainability, urban ecology and landscape ecology

By Joern Fischer

I’m currently attending the 4th International Forum on Landscape Sustainability Science, held in Beijing and co-organised by Jingle Wu. For many years, Jingle has been an influential figure shaping landscape ecology. In 2013, he published an ambitious paper laying out an agenda for “landscape sustainability science”. Given his background, influence to date, and vision for the future, I was particularly excited to see Jingle talk.

Jingle chose to talk about the confluence of urban ecology and landscape ecology under the theme of sustainability. The reason for looking at this, he argued, was quite simple: humanity has become an increasingly urban species, so cities must not be ignored. Starting in about 2010, both in China and around the world, the proportion of people living in cities first overtook that living in rural areas – indeed, for better or worse, most humans now live in cities, not in rural areas. Cities, Jingle argued, have many problems associated with them (such as slums, crime, poverty, and pollution), but they are also centres of creativity and social and cultural development.

Over the last two decades, urbanisation has sparked a lot of interest among ecologists, largely because cities – unless carefully managed – can cause a large amount of ecological damage. Arguably, urban ecology has now evolved into a coherent discipline. With that, Jingle gave a review of key books on the topic of urban ecology – praising, in particular, Richard Forman’s book “Urban Ecology” from 2014. This book, incidentally, has now been translated into Chinese, driven by Richard’s belief that making China’s cities sustainable was a key challenge of our times.

Jingle then tracked the history of urban sustainability (published in his 2014 paper in Landscape and Urban Planning). It started off in the USA in the 1920s, primarily as a sociological approach. Shortly after that, in the 1940s, the “Berlin school” of ecology in cities emerged – this, by contrast was largely focused on ecology. And third, a systems approach emerged in 1960s, and this was starting to bridge ecological and social issues. The field then developed quite rapidly, with a landscape approach being applied to cities from the late 1980s onwards. (To get a proper summary of all this, read Jingle’s paper!)

With landscape ecology entering into urban ecology, from the 1990s onwards, issues of patterns and spatial heterogeneity became increasingly important, and more recently, the concept of ecosystem services has been an important addition to the field. Today, according to Jingle, there are three types of urban ecology: the ecology “in” cities (which species live in cities?), the ecology “of” cities (including ecosystem processes and services), and third, the “sustainability” of cities (with a stronger focus on human well-being, also drawing on the social sciences).

Given this history, where do we go? In Jingle’s view, cities should be viewed as human-environment systems, and at the same time as spatially structured landscapes, which are under constant human impact – with subsequent consequences for biodiversity, ecological processes and ecosystem services. Thus, it is possible to think about different patterns of cities, different impacts of cities, and different sustainability outcomes of cities. Patterns and impacts are studied intensively, and are increasingly well understood. Urban sustainability, by contrast, is less obvious … Jingle asked: “How do we generate actionable knowledge regarding urban sustainability?”

Relating human well-being directly to urban design, and to urban patterns, is something that Jingle implied to be a key research frontier. At the same time, Jingle argued there was a need to move beyond aesthetics and efficiency, and more carefully consider ecological processes.

“All cities are landscapes” and “all landscapes are heterogeneous”, Jingle told us – but also, landscapes are not just biophysical entities but are equally about people. Sustainability thus should play an increasingly important role in modern landscape ecology. When it comes to urban areas, Jingle emphasized that they cannot be separated from rural areas. A key challenge, therefore, will be to study the interrelationship between cities and rural areas.

Jingle left us with the slogan: Think globally, plan regionally, act locally.

Overall, I found Jingle’s talk to be an authoritative overview of key developments in urban ecology, landscape ecology and sustainability science. Thanks Jingle, for an inspiring talk!