Coming to terms with the past in Transylvania

Conducting a transdisciplinary case study in a long-term research setting is a privilege. Leuphana University has been present in Southern Transylvania since 2011 when it started the research project Sustainable landscapes in Central Romania. Until 2015 the project contributed to an increased understanding of the social-ecological system of Southern Transylvania, and it helped articulate four normative development scenarios. One of these scenarios, Balance Brings Beauty, benefited from an unprecedented audience and echo in the region and was subsequently selected as a shared vision by our partners, event which only increased the responsibility weighing on our scholarly shoulders. These previous science-civil society interactions and years of practice in trying to understand each other secured an increased sense of recognition, trust, and right timing for capitalising on the growing momentum. With the project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation” came the wicked question of the ‘how’. How to get there?  How to co-create the desired future for Southern Transylvania?

Where to start from? Back in 2015 we knew the region has these numerous and vibrant sustainability initiatives that are locally relevant and shape the pathway to transformation according to the agreed upon vision. To us it seemed logical that the agenda of transformation needed to be kept in the hands of those agents that were already fostering change towards sustainability on the ground. We identified this group to have a core of approximate 30 organizations, which we are very grateful to be working with. The research questions that co-evolved in our workshops were how to support and enable the local efforts of these practitioners of change and how to capitalise on and recognise what’s already there. The discussions soon became a matter of scaling and connecting through what we called amplifying approaches. My colleague, David Lam, is currently working on a taxonomy of amplifications processes. Because amplifying approaches might refer not only to sustainability initiatives in Transylvania, but also to various other ‘islands of sanity’, e.g. seeds of a good Anthropocene, it may be that this theoretical lens will prove useful also for linking global sustainability to place-based research.

One of our hypotheses is that the relationships between these local leaders of transformation play a role in the journey to Balance Brings Beauty. In order to understand these, but also to respond to expressed aspirations for a collaborative management of the area, we designed a social network analysis that maps relationships according to the twelve leverage points. [We take this opportunity to warmly thank our 30 partners who diligently filled our online survey and credited us with their time and energy. Please stay tuned!].

Relationships operate differently across scales and in nested systems. Apart from the macro-level of relationships between sustainability initiatives, it is also relevant to look at relationships and networks at smaller spatial and social scales, e.g. within local communities, or within our partner organizations themselves.

For example, we are closely working together with the Agro-Eco Viscri-Weisskirch farming association in partnership with Mihai Eminescu Trust, and my colleague Cristina Apetrei is also analysing the relationships between members of the management team and how these foster knowledge and information acquisition and use. The association was formed in 2015 as a response to a sustainability deficit that is generalised to many other regions of rural Transylvania, i.e. the disconnection of the community from the common land. In this context, subsistence farming and peasants were disadvantaged and even disappearing in some villages. Our previous studies on this problematique showed how access to the communal pasture changed over the years from a state where it was guaranteed by the social order and law, to one of restrictions that the community needed to find a way around. But the land access issues, we learned, were not only due to contextual, extrinsic challenges, such as new institutional settings, or politics. They were also mirroring breaches in the social capital, and in relationships between institutions in the broader sense (a la Ostrom), between different agency domains (business, policy and civil society), as well as between individuals.

As part of our transdisciplinary sub-case around the Viscri farmers’ associations, we identified not only challenges that were outside the control of the association members (such as agricultural policies), but also some that were within their control (such as the understanding of the common good, rights and responsibilities). Throughout 2016 and 2017 we organised meetings and workshops to advance the tackling of these issues. In June 2017 we focused on creating a space for dialogue, personal and collective reflection for learning together about the decision-making process towards the common good. It was during this meeting that participants felt the format of the workshop would be worth repeating, but together with representatives of other stakeholder groups, particularly local decision- and policy-makers. This became our aim for the next meeting in January 2018. There were many resources, diplomatic skills and ultimately faith deployed and sustained in the process. There were no guarantees and we were not sure we’d be successful, because we were implicitly trying to mend broken relationships. Up until the last moment we were not sure our invitees would show up. They did. People who hadn’t talked to each other for several years shook hands and played along a Common Fund Investment Simulation Game. And so, the first step in coming to terms with the past was done.

Did our team have a role in this? Hard to tell. Could this be framed as moderating, interfacing or real-world impact, or simply implementing the transdisciplinary agenda? Literature recently acknowledges extended and alternative roles for researchers in sustainability transitions (Wittmayer and Schäpke 2014). How many of these essentials for action-oriented research (Fazey et al. 2018) or stakeholder engagement (Reed et al. 2017) were exercised? What is sure, albeit not so easily expressed, is the satisfaction of contributing to concord. It was a small step, but an important one both for the Viscri farming association and community, as well as for our efforts to bring to light the transformative potential of transdisciplinarity. Will this be reflected in any academic output? To some extent. But what can’t be captured in our research articles, nor here, is the worth and meaningfulness of doing something that is not necessarily rewarded at the more immediate and proximate, but shallow, level of leverage points: standing for conciliation, bringing people together.



Leaving the ivory tower: Leuphana students meet actors in the study field

– by Lara Schönweiss –

Dieser Blogpost ist Teil des Studentenprojektes Transdisziplinäres Projekt: Landkreis Oldenburg im Master Nachhaltigkeit. Lehrende: Moritz Engerbers, Prof. Ulli Vilsmeier, Dr. Maraja Riechers

Four months ago, the transdisciplinary project in the region of Oldenburg has been expanded even more!

Now a group of 22 students from the master program Sustainability Science at Leuphana University Lüneburg affiliated their own transdisciplinary project with the Leverage Points project.

picture by Laurin Berger

Picture by Laurin Berger

What is this all about? Our research project up to now

As transdisciplinary research is considered a key aspect of Sustainability Science3, the curriculum of this master program involves a project lasting for two semesters. During this time students learn how to do research independently, but embedded in a comprehensive scientific context and guided by lecturers.

Within the question of the Leverage Points project “In how far can nature parks be levers for sustainability transformation?”, we decided to focus on two broader research fields concerning the Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest, namely “nourish” and “drive”. These two topics were adapted from the first leading question developed at a workshop by Leverage Points project: “How can a (bio)diversity corridor nourish, promote and drive a viable and sustainable life in the Oldenburg region?”.

After more than two months of developing and organizing our groups and getting theoretically involved in transdisciplinary research and the study field, we finally had our first excursion to the Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest from June 13 to 15.

In Sustainability Science, we deal with complex real-world problems and produce socially robust knowledge which prospectively leads to potential social impact.5 Thus, one major part is to include local people as soon as possible in the research process.

At the moment, our research group is dealing with “Phase A – problem framing”3, so that it has been a perfect time to experience the nature park, meeting local people, press, mayors, people from the artecology_network and the association Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest.

“Why is this so important?”, people might ask.

Sustainability researchers deal with complex systems, but cannot craft usable knowledge on their own. Therefore, it is essential that we get to know practitioners and start collaborating with these local experts.1

Sustainability research should be based on mutual learning between scientists of different disciplines and key actors from society. This way it is possible to apply knowledge and values from practice in science and utilize science knowledge in practice.5 With the help of local people’s systems knowledge and joint reflections concerning the research topic, scientists’ understanding of knowledge-related problems is expected to increase.2,4 Thus, various kinds of knowledge can be integrated within the transdisciplinary process – namely modes of thought, disciplines, cultures, systems and perspectives.5

PRACTICE: First meeting with actors

The Oldenburg region was green, the sun was shining and our first impression was: What an idyllic countryside!

After arriving in Kirchhatten, we prepared dinner and started our excursion with a get-together, including researchers from Leverage Points project, artists from artecology_network and us, nine students of our project. This dinner was taking place at the spot where the collaboration of Leverage Points project and artecology_network is tangible: at the (Bio) Diversitycorridor. This container informs local citizens about the project and is extended with wooden art. Hence, we got a concrete idea of the project and a feeling for the place. All people were very open, friendly and curious about our group. Besides, everyone was excited about the press conference on the following day and preparing for it.

The press conference helped to get a detailed and clear insight into the project (Bio) Diversitycorridor and the connection between artecology artists and scientists of Leuphana University. Furthermore, we had the possibility to observe the collaboration with local people, with politicians  and with the responsible partner of the Niedersächsische Bingo-Umweltstiftung which funded the project.

Moreover, we met the representative managers of the association Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest. Due to a friendly and productive conversation, we received a great overview of the responsibilities and projects of the association. We also already exchanged specific views on how we could collaborate and which issues would offer a connection to our research. In the end, we promised to keep in touch and work together regarding the direction of our research project.

Experiencing two projects of the artecology_network (“GeLIEBter NEOphyt” by Anja Schoeller,, and “Civil Wilderness” by Dr. Helene von Oldenburg and Claudia Reiche, we also learned a lot about their approach of reconnecting with nature and dealing with human-nature relationships. Within “GeLIEBter NEOphyt”, for example, we dealt with “foreignness” and enjoyed an evening searching for unfamiliar plants getting to know their effects.

Finally, we reflected our impressions of Kirchhatten with our lecturers and explored the nature park by foot, walking along the river Hunte and through forest.

Clash of science and practice

Because of our excursion to the region of Oldenburg our group of students received a comprehensive picture of the nature park and towns located within. Additionally, we gained detailed knowledge about the network of people living there and working in administrative, political and artistic fields.

The great diversity of possible actors implements a high potential of identifying relevant topics for sustainable transformation within a transdisciplinary project. This is very important as the group’s composition of researchers and actors has a substantial influence on the outcome of a research project.4

Due to the openness and friendliness of all local actors who we met so far, I am very confident to set up an interesting and diverse group of actors to identify sustainability problems within the nature park and to develop strategies for transforming the issues. Thus, in the end hopefully our results will serve as an orientation for the actors to adapt to and utilize it within their decision-making processes towards a sustainability transformation in the region.5


1 Clark, W. C. et al. (2016): Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. PNAS 113 (17): 4570-4578.

2 Felt, U. et al. (2016): Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research in Practice: Between Imaginaries of Collective Experimentation and Entrenched Academic Value Orders. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 41 (4): 732-761.

3 Lang, D. J. et al. (2012): Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science 7: 25-43.

4 Schneider, F.; Rist, S. (2014): Envisioning sustainable water futures in a transdisciplinary learning process: combining normative, explorative, and participatory scenario approaches. Sustainability Science 9: 463-481.

5 Scholz, R. W.; Steiner, G. (2015): The real type and ideal type of transdisciplinary processes: part I – theoretical foundations. Sustainability Science 10: 527-544.

Masterkurs„Transdisziplinäres Projekt: Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest

By Maraja Riechers and Moritz Engbers

Wir im Projekt „Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation“ an der Leuphana Universität arbeiten an transdisziplinäre Fallstudien in Siebenbürgen (Rumänien) und im Landkreis Oldenburg. Alles mit dem Hintergrund, deep leverage points (Meadows 2009) für Nachhaltigkeitstransformationen zu identifizieren. Im Landkreis Oldenburg arbeiten wir zusammen mit dem ArtEcology_network und verschiedenen Akteuren an der Leitfrage:

(Bio) Diversitätskorridor: Wie können Allianzen gebildet werden, um die Region Oldenburg zukunftsfähig zu gestalten?

Nun beschäftigen sich auch 22 Studierende der Leuphana Universität gemeinsam mit uns an dieser Leitfrage. Die Studierenden sind Teilnehmer des Masterstudiengangs „Nachhaltigkeitswissenschaft“ an der Leuphana Universität Lüneburg. Ziel ist es, den gesamten Bogen eines transdisziplinären Forschungsprojektes von der Formulierung der Forschungsfrage bis zur Unterstützung der Implementierung von Forschungsergebnissen zu durchlaufen.
Das Projekt der Studierenden konzentriert sich auf den Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest. Unter der übergeordneten Frage, inwiefern Naturparke Ansatzpunkte für eine Nachhaltigkeitstransformation sein können, werden die Themen „Was die Region antreibt“ und „Was die Region nährt“ vertieft.
In den kommenden Monaten werden sich daher die Studierenden hier auf dem Blog mit den Themen von Transdisziplinarität, dem Landkreis, dem Naturpark und Leverage Points auseinander setzen. Wir freuen uns darauf!

Das Projekt wird durch die Lehrenden Maraja Riechers, Moritz Engbers und Ulli Vilsmaier aus dem Team des Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation Projektes betreut.
Für Fragen zur transdisziplinären Fallstudie im Landkreis Oldenburg: Moritz Engbers (, 04131-677-4014)

Now published: Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Ideas for Sustainability

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…

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If at first you don’t succeed.. Institutional Failure in the Public Sector


A review of Public Policy and Administration’s special issue on policy failure

By Pim Derwort

In many ways, failure is an inevitable part of life. In many cases, it is also something we would rather not be reminded of and may be hard to accept. Some of the most inspirational movies and stories teach us how to accept or ‘let go’ and ‘move on’ from failure, or to learn from our mistakes on a personal level and generally become better persons for it. But what happens when failure occurs in the public sector?

In the public sector, ‘getting it wrong’ can have significant (and damaging) consequences for those affected. It can significantly damage the public’s trust in the political system, damage individual’s careers and, in extreme cases, may even lead to injury or loss of life. While failure may be just as inevitable, it is all the more important to…

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Student-driven literature reviews (part 2)

Sustainability Logbook

By: Henrik von Wehrden

This blog entry is a follow-up to Chris’s perspective (Part 1) on our joined review efforts. But let me back up first, and explain how I got into reviews to begin with. My first review started out of the frustration of an inadequate understanding of the literature, and contained a few thousand papers that I reviewed all alone. I greatly enjoyed the process despite all the suffering, yet this was back during my PhD, when I somehow had more time. When I entered my assistant professorship it dawned pretty quickly on me that from now on I cannot shoulder such a workload alone. Also, would other people not gain experience by reviewing papers as well? This was the point when I perceived the general idea of a student driven review.

What was now the most crucial point being the fact that I was in the perfect…

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Student-driven literature reviews or a 5-year long journey in academia

Sustainability Logbook

Little did I know when I enrolled in my bachelor that a single student project could influence one’s scientific development for years. In fact, because of one extracurricular project, I published three peer-reviewed articles, initiated an international university collaboration and developed an educational approach to merge teaching and research in sustainability science. Well, to cut a long story short I did none of this on my own but had the fortune to collaborate with extremely thoughtful and ingenious people. Together, we opened the restrictive doors of academia to young researchers eager to engage in science. We broke down hierarchical structures empowering students to leave the theory-rich bubble of their classroom to experience first-hand the often so mysterious world of science and the politics of publishing. But most importantly, we collaboratively started a project that was nothing but fun and an inspiring adventure that will probably in one way or the…

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Is connection with nature an oxymoron?

Ideas for Sustainability

Reflections by Chris Ives, Katie Klaniecki, Christian Dorninger and Joern Fischer

In his recent paper, Robert Fletcher criticises the idea of re-connecting people with nature (and with it, the perspective of “connection with nature”). His main argument is that through the very terminology being used, people and nature are treated as separate entities — suggesting that a true unity of them therefore is going to remain elusive. A people-nature dichotomy, or nature-culture divide, thus is entrenched in the terminology being used, rather than dissolved. As an alternative, Fletcher suggests a political ecology framework: According to this, with industrialisation, a “metabolic rift” occurred, and this alienated people from the environment both materially and philosophically. Such a framework would encourage a broader perspective, which perhaps would do a better job at getting at the root causes of un-sustainability.

We agree with Fletcher that there is a great need for critical reflection…

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Our first leverage points annual retreat: thinking like a project

At the beginning of February we had our first Leverage Points annual retreat with the 21 of us. This is the fourth important milestone since the start of this project in April 2015. After laying down the conceptual foundations in early November, having kick-off meetings together with the post-docs and PhDs in September and November, this retreat got us thinking at what makes Leverage Points as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Our motivation was to bring individual aims together and ‘think like a project’. We spent three intense days exchanging ideas, gaining fresh outlooks, and making decisions on key research questions, cross cutting themes, and the transformative case studies. And here is an overview of our struggle.


Day 1 was dedicated to sharing the progress made within our main WorkPackages and creating a common background. ReStructure (WP2), ReConnect (WP3), ReThink (WP4), and the Formative Accompanying Researcher(s) (WP 7) gave their updates, clarified their conceptual underpinnings and research aims. WP5 (the transformative case studies) presented the current state of the case study selection, described the potential cases, introduced some of the case partners, and highlighted opportunities and challenges.
Most importantly, as a foundation for the work done within Integration and Synthesis (WP6) we tried to see how these pieces fit together. We scoped for synergies and ways to align to the project rationale: understanding systems’ transformations towards sustainability by going beyond descriptive analytical research towards transformational sustainability research, and by using and advancing ‘leverage points’ (Meadows 1999) as a key concept.

On Day 2 we continued looking into the relations between the work packages with an emphasis on the transformative case studies where we strive to link conceptual and empirical insights into place-based studies dealing with actionable knowledge. We mapped our research outlines (using VUE) to the potential case studies, in an exercise. This also facilitated the selection of the transformative case studies within the two study regions of Leverage Points: Transylvania and Lower Saxony.
During Day 2 we also heard and discussed about the interests and concerns of the PhD students, in particular in relation to the transformative case studies.

On Day 3 we focused on discussing and planning fieldtrips to Lower Saxony and Transylvania, as well as tasks and actions of the team members until the end of this year. Day 3 also included a passionate intermezzo from our administrative staff.


The retreat in pics

Now three outcomes and highlights of this vibrant experience:

1. We saw how the individual research pieces fit together, the overlapping points, and what is the resulting big picture. By zooming in and out individual thesis, work packages, and thematic fields (food and energy), we began to solve the Leverage Points puzzle. After many of us worked in disciplinary silos during the past months, the retreat was the signal for coming together in a more consolidated academic research team.

Bonding and nurturing by dialogue: Gradually, during the three days, we tuned into each other’s epistemic living spaces (Felt 2009), calibrated our academic ‘realities’, adjusted our epistemological and ontological expectations, bridged worldviews and knowledge systems, negotiated our values, and checked our normative assumptions. There is still a lot of work to be done especially regarding timing, communication, and coordination, but this little ‘dance’ brought us a closer.

2. Despite some initial confusion, which, as somebody put it, is an intrinsic feature of such a complex setting, we decided on two transformative case studies. Following up field scoping in search of spots of societal need and interest in Lower Saxony and Romania, we selected among two potential case studies in Germany and three potential cases in Romania.

3. Finally, this retreat led us not only to thinking like a research project, but ultimately to ‘feeling’ as a team of people. After some energizing rounds of ‘research speed dating’ we gained a fresh non-academic outlook on our project and decided we are happy to be working together.


The retreat in pics

Although we are going to use this blog more intensively or at least on a regular basis, you can also check other blogs and media channels connected to some of us. Please feel free to let us know what you would be interested in finding on this ‘updates’ page of our blog.

Sustainability Governance
Ideas for Sustainability
Ecology Statistics Sustainability Conservation Happiness
Sustainability Logbook


Felt, Ulrike. “Knowing and living in academic research.” Convergence and heterogeneity in research cultures in the European context (2009): 242.

Meadows, Donella H. Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system. Hartland, VT: Sustainability Institute, 1999.