In search of the magic bullet: Working to find leverage points for sustainability transformation

By Maraja Riechers

I am going to tell you a personal story – the story does not end in a clear moral of the story, and it won’t give you insights into the “how to be a good PostDoc”. It is more a reflection of the joy of challenges.

When I was 15/16 years old, my school ended and we all had to decide which path in life we wanted to take. It was a big celebration with fancy clothes and dinner, and it felt very significant. At the time, I forced myself to decide what I would like to do with my life. There were a few things I did know for sure: I love nature, and learning. Hence, I became one of those: Save the World! Change the system! kind-of kids. And ultimately, I decided that this will be the goal of my life. Saving the world. And as I anyway loved learning, I decided to go to high school to learn more on how I could fulfill my new found destiny.

That was about 15 years ago. And I admit I have not changed too much. The complexity of the system forced me to reconfigure my teenage pride and be more humble. I am now trying to find my small contribution to maybe set in motion a potential change in this world. But generally, the goal is still similar. And I still love learning. For a while now, I have been a PostDoc in a project called “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation”. As suggested by the title, the project aims to change “the system” by trying to find the best ways to combat the social and environmental crises we are currently in. The narrative of my research and that of my team, gives me the feeling that I am finally in the right place. And that I finally have the right tools at hand. A leverage points perspective gives me a vision of which I can be proud. It forces me to look at deeper causes for change and look above and beyond disciplinary boundaries. Further, we work in transdisciplinary projects – where achievements are not merely measured in papers, but in real-world impact. Maybe through co-production of knowledge, maybe by offering connections at the science-policy interface, maybe by giving the people a vision for a better world: Let’s find ways to change the system, shall we?

Boromors system change

And while I definitively get a high five from my 15-year-old me, I do have one issue. This work is personal. How do you maintain a proper work-life balance, when your work is your source of income, your hobby and ultimately one of the things by which you define yourself? I owe it to my 15-year-old self to use the chances I get, as well as I can. And I still love learning, so new research projects and new ideas intrigue me. The pressure to find a silver bullet solution is on… but yet, one does not simply change the system. One does not even simply understand a system. Neither can I do this on my own, nor together with my amazing colleagues (and we are 25 hardworking souls in the leverage points project). But I still want to change the system. And I do want to find leverage points that foster sustainability. In every project I am leading, in every paper, in all transdisciplinary interactions, I am looking for more meaning, for underlying causes, for actual significant change. And to be honest, this is exhausting. Because it is personal. Because I take it personal.

Being a PostDoc anyway comes with a different set of responsibilities: For example, I have Bachelor and Masters students for which I am primarily responsible. And apart from the usual task to teach them how to be a good scientist, I also want to infect them with my enthusiasm. Research is fun because it is useful! Further, PostDocs are responsible for maintaining good team spirit, integration, being a link between the professorial PIs and the PhD students, responsible for outcome, output and good process. Then a bit of teaching, proposal writing and, well… you know the drill.

This is a balancing act with tough prioritizations. The leverage points project 1) aims to change the system, 2) needs meaningful participatory processes with real-world improvements, 3) while it depends on active and responsible PostDocs, 4) while also being subject to the usual academic drill. And this makes me really, really happy. And really, really exhausted. I try to take failures not too personally (which is hard), and try to leave work at the office (which is even harder, because then I occasionally simply don’t leave the office).

There are two small conclusions to my personal story: One, if you want to change the system, try a leverage points lens. It may give you new hope and tools that we actually can change something in this world. You can use it as analytical tool, metaphorical lens and anything in between (and in alternation). And two, when your goal in life and at work become one and the same, it is immensely exhausting at times, but also immensely fulfilling. But we do not have to do this task all by ourselves.

Let’s change the system, shall we?

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