Skilful conversations for integration

Community member post by Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke

Interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems is challenging! In particular, interdisciplinary communication can be very difficult – how do we bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension when we are working with people who think and talk so very differently from us? What skills are required when mutual incomprehension escalates into conflict, or thwarts decision making on important issues?

It is often at this point that collaborations lose momentum. In the absence of constructive or productive exchange, working relationships stagnate and people retreat to the places where they feel safest: their own disciplines, their offices, or the colleagues who are on their ‘side’. As a consequence, prospects for meaningful collaboration and integration dwindle.

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New paper: Leverage points for improving gender equality and human well-being in a smallholder farming context

Ideas for Sustainability

By Aisa Manlosa

How can factors that create and entrench gender inequality change? Approaches range from targeting visible gender gaps, changing formal institutions, and focusing on deeply entrenched social norms. In a recently published paper, we unpack gender-related changes in southwest Ethiopia and emphasize the importance of interactions between domains of changes (Fig. 1). We highlight the utility of a leverage points perspective for systems-oriented gender research.

leverage points and gender Conceptual framework of leverage points for improving gender equality and household well-being

In the agricultural development sector where gender has been found to influence access and control of resources, participation in livelihood activities, and benefits from livelihoods, researchers who apply the gender transformative approach have called for greater focus on the factors that underlie gender inequality including formal and informal structures such as gender norms, and power relations. Gender equality is a highly pertinent issue in southwest Ethiopia. In many areas, social…

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Making new connections for transformations: An early-career transdisciplinary research networking day

Pre-conference workshop – Tuesday, 5th February 2019


We are a small group of PhD and early-career researchers involved in transdisciplinary research who have come together to share reflections, insights and strategies for the challenges we experience in our research. We will be hosting an informal networking day (5 February 2019, starting at 9AM) for PhD and early-career researchers involved in transdisciplinary (TD) research as a pre-conference event associated with the Leverage Points Conference to be held at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany (6-8 February 2019).

We recognise that many young scholars are already involved in numerous other networks, and do not intend this day to be the beginning of yet another formalised, structured network. We would rather just create a generative and enjoyable space for people to build interpersonal relationships and share their TD experiences with one another in a creative and meaningful way. We further see the value of pre-conference engagement in that it speaks directly to a core theme of the conference, namely transformative research practices. The intention of this workshop is to connect with researchers about this theme in a way that provides the basis for enhanced engagement on the topic during the course of the formal conference programme.

The purpose of spending a day together would be to:

Build relationships and get to know each other in an informal, fun, yet focused manner, ahead of more formal conference engagements
Share, through practice, methods for engaging stakeholders and co-producing knowledge
Explore ideas and energy for a network of early-career researchers involved in transdisciplinary research
Provide a space to reflect on transdisciplinary approaches and methods with others
Below is the proposed schedule for the day. We encourage participants to co-create the programme with us, and we will all share our ‘learning intentions’ during the introductory session to facilitate this. We also plan to do some of these activities outdoors and to spend some time in the forest:

09:00 Introduction, welcome and mapping who we are (co-initiating) (1 hour)

Appreciative Inquiry Activity (co-sensing) (1h30 mins)

Dialogue Walks (co-reflecting, presencing) (1h30 mins)

13:00 Light lunch and warm drinksto warm up after outdoor activities (1 hour)

Thinking Council activity (co-reflecting, presencing) (1 hour)

Visual-creative prototyping activity (co-creating) (2 hours)

17:30 Cooking, eating and drinking together (co-evolving) (3-5 hours)

Guiding thematic question: The following overarching question will be used to guide interactions on the day, and we will link this to our formal session in the conference programme where we will discuss this question in more detail: Practicing transdisciplinary research in a complex world: How can we as early-career TD researchers navigate the triple jump challenge of scientific rigour and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care?

We encourage people interested in participating in this networking day to read our blog seriesin which we introduce and reflect on this ‘triple jump challenge’ experienced by TD scholars.

Process design: We propose using ‘Theory U’ as a process design tool (one of the methods we can share through practice in the day) to hold the activities of the day together, and also as some of the specific tools and activities (there is a suite of associated facilitation tools available on the Theory U website). We will also draw on other methods, and aim to make this a multi-sensory experience for participants. In this way we hope to create an experience where we not only reflect intellectually on our work, but also spend time re-connecting in and with nature, open our hearts, and let our creativity come to the fore! The methods we use are ones which participants could also use in stakeholder engagement and knowledge co-production processes in their own TD work.

Participants: We will already be approximately 12 participants and would like to invite up to 18 additional early-careers scholars from the Leverage Points Conference to join us for the day. We will be capping the numbers at 30 participants to enable meaningful interactions and keep logistics manageable. We plan to circulate an open invite through our networks to join us for selected sessions via webinars.

If you would like to join us in “making new connections for transformations” on this networking day, please send a brief biography and letter of motivation (maximum of 300 words) to David Lam by the 30th September 2018 ( Participation in the workshop is free for early-career researchers attending the Leverage Points 2019 conference (excluding drinks, food, lunch, dinner, transport). If you wish to attend the workshop, but not the conference, please note this in your motivational letter.

Facilitation: The day’s activities will be facilitated by our small group of international TD researchers the ‘TD PhD Journeys’ team, in partnership with PhDs and ECRs involved in TD research at Leuphana University.

‘TD PhD Journeys’ team: David Lam1, My Sellberg2, Jessica Cockburn3, Petra Holden4, and Megan Davies5

1Institute for Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research, Leuphana University, Lüneburg; 2Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden; 3Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University, South Africa; 4Plant Conservation Unit and the African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town, South Africa; 5Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

Leverage Points 2019 Conference: Transforming Research into Transformative Research

By Ulli Vilsmaier.

One stream of the Leverage Points 2019 Conference addresses the transformation of research towards transformative research. Under the label of transformative research, various forms of research are currently being tested that pursue both epistemic and transformative goals. Such research should not only produce knowledge that can be applied—following the traditional knowledge transfer logic of academia—but also trigger or even induce transformation.

Many scientists report from exciting experiences when engaging with the situation they research, but face difficulties, for example, when it comes to legitimizing interventions (“this is not your responsibility”); in publishing research results that have been created via action (“this is not a valid analysis”) and when stepping back and asking oneself: “What makes my professional identity? How to deal with my feelings of responsibility, and passion as a scientist? What does this do to my academic practice?” These dilemmas are not new. The question of whether homo politicushas to wait outside the door when entering academia is as old as modern scientific institutions. For sustainability science as a normative science, it is a crucial one to clarify.

The fact that transformative research is on the rise opens up profound questions about roles, tasks, and last but not least, power relations in the social fabric (“Who can speak out loudly? Whose voice is heard, whose knowledge is accepted?” (Spivak 2007)). In doing so, the praxis of research is brought into view and methodological questions appear in a different light. As a consequence, the established legitimation mechanisms and quality criteria of knowledge generation are  challenged, and negotiations of roles and tasks associated with transformative research become increasingly important.

It is obvious that this does not happen without contradictions. Therefore, we should advance both, varied, unconventional and bold experiments that unbound the concept of research in approaching unsustainable situations, and thorough reflection to contribute to the theoretical consolidation of transformative research. It seems promising to do both at once.

The Leverage Points 2019 Conference wants to create a space where encounters between more action oriented and more conceptual minded persons can take place. Where academic researchers, artistic researchers, every-day-life-researchers; spectators, interveners, administrators and inhabitants create dialogue and where dialogue becomes a lever to gain more profound understanding on how to realize transformative research, and ultimately, to transform the world into a more sustainable place. Because “[…] dialogue is the encounter in which the united reflection and action of the dialoguers are addressed to the world which is to be transformed […] (Paulo Freire, 1996 [1970]).


Abstract submission for this conference closes on 30 June — soon! Submit your Abstract here.

For more information please visit:

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact:

What does it take to be a transdisciplinary scholar? Exploring competencies for the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’

Social-ecological systems Scholars

This is the third post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is Jessica Cockburn. I recently completed my PhD in Environmental Science at Rhodes University (Grahamstown, South Africa). I am now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Environmental Learning Research Centre. My PhD research was a transdisciplinary enquiry on stewardship and collaboration in multifunctional landscapes. Taking a transdisciplinary (TD) research approach in my PhD was a means for me to legitimise a personal commitment to conducting research that is relevant and of value to practitioners working on environmental stewardship in South Africa. It was a way for me to do ‘science with society’1.

The first post in this blog series presented the challenge of the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’, where PhD students have to simultaneously pay attention to scientific rigor and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care. In this post, I…

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(Not) just another conference? Or what excites me to be part of #leverage2019

By Daniel J. Lang

Looking at my mailbox crowded with invitations to conferences, workshops and symposia that pile up every day, it is hard to escape the notion that we drown in distractions. Hence, it is worth asking how we can focus our time and resources to bring us closer to our goal of urgently needed fundamental sustainability transformations? Is another conference the right way to do so?

We see seemingly little change to many unsustainable trajectories in human-environment systems, despite a multitude of research and policy activities addressing these challenges. For many sustainability focused researchers and practitioners this can be  deeply frustrating. To counter this frustration, about four years ago some colleagues and I re-discovered the metaphor of “Leverage Points to intervene in systems” by Donella Meadows (Meadows, 1999). Inspired by this work we have embarked on a research journey to investigate these “places in complex systems where a small shift may lead to fundamental changes in the system as a whole“ (Abson et al, 2017). Learning from many ups and downs during this journey, our initial sense has solidified that the notion of “Leverage Points” can serve as a boundary concept to help connect often disconnected scientific as well real world endeavors implicitly or explicitly aiming to contribute to sustainability transformations. Such an approach focuses on more fundamental, but often neglected, intervention points and system interventions; and in so doing enables research, discourse and action that have the potential to make a real difference.

This inspiration and experience has motivated us to launch a conference that seeks to create new spaces to explore together, with a broad community of scholars from different backgrounds how the Leverage Points metaphor can help to “transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions and our societies for a better future”. In doing so, we want to offer and connect different formats, including presentations; discussions; interactive plenary sessions; case based mutual learning sessions and joint activities to explore leverage points, sustainability and transformational change.  The conference will focus on five main themes (i.e. re-structuring institutions, re-connecting people, re-thinking knowledge, systems thinking, and transformative research practice). Each of these themes has its own community and in this conference, we will seek inspiration by drawing connections between these diverse communities. Similarly, the  notion of leverage points itself can function as a metaphor, a research approach, a mindset or a concrete research object here to we seek inspiration from multiple perspectives (including from our inspirational key note speakers) in order to enrich and encourage science and practice that helps facilitate the transformative change we wish to see in the world.

With this wide yet focused spirit I am convinced that #leverage2019 ( will not be just another conference but a vibrant, inspiring and meaningful experience that will trigger new lines of thinking and change in science and society, as well as the interaction between these two.


I hope very much to see you 6-8 February 2109 in Lüneburg, Germany.

Daniel Lang


The Call for Abstracts is open until 30 June 2018.

You can register for the conference here.

For more information please visit:

If you have any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact:

Feel free to distribute the conference flyer, available as a PDF here.



Abson, D.J., Fischer, J., Leventon, J., Newig, J., Schomerus, T., Vilsmaier, U., von Wehrden, H., Abernethy, P., Ives, C.D., Jager, N.W. and Lang, D.J., 2017. Leverage points for sustainability transformation. Ambio, 46(1), pp.30-39.

Meadows, D., 1999. Leverage points. Places to Intervene in a System.


Meeting People on the Climate Fair in Wildeshausen

By Moritz Engbers

The climate fair is part of a festival in Wildeshausen that takes place in spring. Initiatives, non-governmental organizations or companies present their work. As last year, we from the Leverage Points project and the artecology_network had a stand together. From the artecology_network three projects were present: Anja Schöller offered food that was made of neophytes (recently introduced non-native plants) in order to “eat them up instead of destroying them with pesticides”. Michael and Brigitte presented their project “Restleben” in which they motivated passengers to reflect on their everyday practices of doing and not-doing. Jaana Prüss and her daughter presented the kitchen mobile, an e-bike with a kitchen that makes it possible to ride around and cook regional plants with people in the district. I presented a poster on “Wie geht Veränderung?” (How can change happen?)  (Poster) on which some of our activities and research results in the Oldenburg region were described. Furthermore, I built an interactive model of the leverage points concept by Donella Meadows in order to make the concept more understandable for a broader audience.


Also thanks to the weather the climate fair went very well. There were three things that especially stood out for me that weekend: First, it is really helpful to have a model people can interact with. Often kids were attracted to play with the model so that I could discuss with their parents later on. Second, over the weekend I met a lot of elderly people (80+) that were strongly concerned about the future, especially when they talked about their observations of nature like a strong decrease in bees and other insects. Their stories left an impression on me. Third, a lot of discussions went around the gap between knowing about worldwide problems and sustainability issues and acting accordingly. For me, this issue is strongly related to cultural and social dimensions of change and sustainability. At least it helps me to understand that changing thinking and acting is especially hard because it is based on many matters of course that we implicitly identify with and on which our (individual and collective) visions for the future are based. It made me especially think about how the deep leverage points are related with each other.

In May and June there will be several events in the (bio) diversity corridor that you can find on this flyer (Flyer ).


Regional Identification and Sustainable Tourism in the Nature Park Wildeshauser Geest (Lower Saxony, Germany)

By Moritz Engbers

The dissemination of results is a fundamental aspect of transdisciplinary research. That also holds true for the transdisciplinary projects of the master of sustainability science at Leuphana. Two groups of the transdisciplinary master project “Case Study Oldenburg” presented their results on 11 and 12 April in Hatten and Bassum in the Nature Park Wildeshauser Geest (NPWG). Both presentations were part of a meeting by representatives of the administration of the NPWG as well as mayors and tourism representatives of the municipalities. The administration of the NPWG is working on a plan for the development of the nature park in the comming 10 years. The aim of the student’s presentation was to discuss the results of the transdisciplinary research and possible recommendations for the development of the NPWG.

The first presentation was focusing on the self-understanding of the association of the NPWG. The municipalities as members of the nature park association have quite different understandings about the purpose and goals of the nature park. They are ranging from tourism to nature protection as a major task. A challenge for the future will be to develop a joint understanding of the tasks and goals of the NPWG. The second presentation was about the role of sustainable tourism for a sustainable regional development within the NPWG. The results show that there is no shared understanding of tourism in the nature park. By developing a joint understanding of sustainable tourism and by strengthening the knowledge exchange and collaboration between the administration of the NPWG, the municipalities and tourism providers can contribute to a more sustainable regional development. Afterwards, two representatives from the administration of the NPWG highlighted the recent status of the NPWG with regard to the federal guidelines and explained the further process of the development of an updated plan for the nature park. The transdisciplinary master project was able to provide valuable studies for the further process and important impulses for the discussions. Especially the perspective of the students as “outsiders” was highly appreciated.

The transdisciplinary master projects are running for two semesters. The overall aim is to experience a transdisciplinary process from the definition of a research question and the development of relationships with cooperation partners to the presentation of results. The mentioned transdisciplinary master students project is following up on the guiding question of how nature parks can be potential leverage points for a sustainability transformation in the region of Oldenburg. The results show that nature parks can contribute to a sustainable regional development with regard to sustainable tourism and the identification of actors with the nature park. However, they are based on a quite broad definition in the Nature Conservation Act in Lower Saxony. Furthermore, they are implemented in very different ways in Germany. Nature parks can play an important role as facilitators and organizers within regions that can bring interests and actors together.

The next event within the transdisciplinary case study in the district of Oldenburg will be the Climate Fair in Wildeshausen on the 29 April. The Leverage Points project will be present with a stand together with the artecology_network. The Climate Fair is part of the Spargelfest in Wildeshausen as an important regional event in the capital city of the Oldenburg district.

What we learn by being [PhDs] together

By Katie Klaniecki

Finding your place as a PhD student can be challenging. Navigating academic publishing for the first time is confusing, funding is always at the top of your mind, and it is easy to question the significance of your contribution to your field of research. I find a certain degree solace in reading The Thesis Whisperer and laughing at PhD Comics, but the greatest support comes from being connected to other PhDs who understand the journey.

That’s why I’ve found it essential to seek out and attend workshops and conferences for PhD students. At these events, you find yourself surrounded by peers who are both (a) passionate about sustainability research and (b) understand the wild PhD roller coaster ride. I attended such an event last week in Utrecht, Netherlands: the 3rd NEST Conference, titled ‘New Frontiers in Sustainability Transitions.’ The conference is organized by a team of PhD volunteers, which makes it a conference organized by peers and for peers. The conference aims to “discuss and exchange work in progress, leading to fruitful debates and feedback.” After two days of thought-provoking presentations and inspired coffee-break chats, I walked away from the conference feeling motivated to dig in deeper to my research, inspired by the breadth and depth of sustainability research conducted by PhD, and reflecting on what we gain when we discuss our work with our peers. So in that vein, I thought I would quickly discuss three ‘takeaway’ messages that I’ve been reflecting on for the past few weeks:

  1. Removing the hierarchy: This conference featured two keynotes by outstanding professors (Anna Wieczorek and Marko Hekkert), but otherwise the conference was entirely made up of PhD presentations and discussions. During parallel sessions, we learned about the work of our peers and received thoughtful comments and feedback on our work. I quickly realized that without the academic hierarchy in place, attendees were more likely to participate in the conversation, provide critical feedback, and suggest helpful next steps. While this isn’t true for all PhD students, I certainly found that I was more likely to speak up when I wasn’t competing with more accomplished academics for limited time or feeling nervous about giving feedback that might be critiqued by more knowledgeable members of the audience.


  1. Seeing the forest and the trees: I presented early-stage results from a paper looking at the relationship between place attachment and energy consumption behaviors in Transylvania, Romania. This work is part of the RECONNECT work package that aims to quantify reconnecting people to nature as a potentially deep leverage point for sustainability transformation. After my presentation I was asked in which ways this research informs our understanding of sustainability transformation. I truthfully answered that it probably doesn’t tell us much. This piece of research (aka a tree) plays the tiniest of roles in advancing the field of researching and providing insights on human-nature relationships. However, each piece of work we complete contributes to a more meaningful and complete understanding of our field and the potential for sustainability transformation (aka the forest). When as PhD it is discouraging to think about our small drop in the bucket, I think it is important to constantly flip between the tree and the forest-perspective to position yourself and gain appreciation for your contribution.


  1. Celebrating the abundance: As early-stage researchers in the field of sustainability science, it is all too easy to envision a dismal future where change is incremental and our unsustainable trajectory continues. That’s why it is crucial to attend events with other sustainability-minded PhD. I walked away from the NEST Conference blown away by the research that my peers have carried out and the potential contribution to our understanding of sustainability transitions and transformations. There are smart, bright, motivated students doing good work at universities across the EU (and world). Networks like NEST help connect us to other PhDs, which will hopefully lead to greater collaboration, idea sharing, and joining of forces for meaningful sustainability change.

While feedback from our research teams, PhD supervisors, and scholars from larger conferences is essential, there is something special that happens when the academic hierarchy is leveled and you talk peer-to-peer. The NEST Conference was a great reminder of this and has made me reflect on how I can further encourage these types of events with greater regularity. If you’d like to read more about other perspectives on the event, you should visit the NEST blog.