Where do we go from here? A blog post on crisis and leverage

This post is written by Julia Leventon, Ioana Duse, Felix Beyers, Tamara Schaal and Josefine Laudan. They work together as a research group at Leuphana University, headed by Julia. The projects they work on are primarily focused on systems change for sustainability, within the food and textiles systems. Julia is currently in the Czech Republic with her family (and therefore in week 2 of lock-down), the others are at home in Germany.

On day 5 of quarantine, I (Julia) walked to the top of the hill at the back of my house. I sat for a bit and listened to the bird song. And for the first time in days, I felt like there might be some hope. I am scared right now, for my family and friends, for my colleagues, and for people I have never met; for humanity. Covid-19 is challenging and removing the structures that we live our lives around. We don’t feel safe, and the systems we trusted to look after us are failing. But like many working in sustainability, I haven’t felt safe for a long time. There are injustices everywhere I look, and climate change related deaths are rocketing, hidden, but on an unimaginable scale.

So why do I have hope?

I have hope because once we have survived the coming months, we need to rebuild. This storm will pass and the choices we make now could change our lives forever. We don’t have to rebuild our systems to the way they were before. We have a chance to do things differently, and to align the world with the values that we are now seeing emerge. Those of altruism, collective action, community. Shown in instances of community organizing to deliver groceries to vulnerable people; or opening cultural and intellectual resources; or connecting with our neighbours in a shared goal; and recognizing the value of the workers who really keep the food on our tables, and help us fight disease.

These are values that have been hidden, buried or squashed by the world’s power structures – pushing us into profiteering for the individual as our end goal, and ignoring the common good. This goal is institutionalized within our current food system, driving down prices to consumers and the price paid to producers, and forcing the industrialization of our farming landscapes, with negative consequences to livelihoods, cultural heritage, and biodiversity. It is institutionalized in our textile industry, driving down prices to consumers and the price paid to workers, creating chemical pollution and unsafe working environments for poverty wages. In pursuing profit (for the few) as our end goal in such systems, we are destroying our world, and the people within it.

In our work, we are interested in processes of transformation – how we create more sustainable food and textile systems. We have been working with Donella Meadows’ framework of Leverage Points to intervene in a system in order to create fundamental change. In our case, we are looking at how we can intervene to create more sustainable systems. The basic framework is that we can engage with shallow leverage points, such as materials and resources within the system. While easy things to change (e.g. adjust subsidies to farmers), they don’t do much to change the sustainability of the system (as evidenced by the failure of CAP to really protect Europe’s biodiversity in agricultural landscapes). Alternatively, we can engage with deeper leverage points, such as goals and system intent. These are much harder to change, but will bring about more fundamental transformation, and will necessarily cause changes at all of the shallower leverage points too.


The Leverage Points framework (graphic by Dave Abson). More information on how we engage with the framework in research is here.

From our perspectives as sustainability governance researchers, these deep leverage points are hard to engage with because of path dependencies in the system. The structure reinforces the goals and values that are incorporated within it; it’s hard to change the individual goals while they have to work within a particular system, and even if you do, there is little they can do to act on it. This is the fundamental problem of e.g. asking individuals to act sustainably. We can all want to do the sustainable thing, but we also all have to survive within the economic and political world that we live in. We know that there are many agricultural producers who want to produce food in sustainable ways, and would like to sustain cultural practices that are good for biodiversity, but can’t because it will force them out of business (forthcoming in Tamara Schaal’s PhD publications). Similarly, we know that changing the structures of the system without changing the values and goals of people within it will likely lead to a rejection of those structures, and some failed initiatives. For example, my own PhD research (and other pieces of research from other scholars, for example here and here) showed that downloading of the pre-existing EU governance system into the newer member states was problematic, and lead to instances of failed policy implementation, because the people and organisations that were supposed to be implementing it rejected the goals, norms and assumptions that it incorporated.

But we have also been working on identifying those moments at which we have an opportunity to adjust the goals of the system. We were inspired by Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory, which shows that policy systems remain in equilibrium, without fundamental change, until there is a big shock in the system. A punctuation to the equilibrium. They use examples of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and its impact on nuclear policy in the US. It has since been applied to how Fukishima created a punctuation in Germany’s nuclear policy. Recently, we have been looking at how similar punctuations occur in a policy-change process in the Romanian food system; we have noticed how events and interruptions in the negotiation process have created windows of opportunity for actors to influence the goals that are being incorporated into the policy (Forthcoming in Ioana Duse’s PhD publications).

Covid-19 is a punctuation in our equilibrium, a ‘breakout’ from our established routines There are many calls to start the conversation about shifting our food systems (e.g. here and here). In particular, there are calls to reflect on what we have learned about our food system as the inequities and vulnerabilities that are built within it become so visible in our empty supermarket shelves, and unavailable home-delivery slots for vulnerable people.

Our contribution to this debate is to say that we should take this challenging punctuation point, and use it to engage with the deepest of Leverage Points. This is not to say we welcome this opportunity; indeed proponents of degrowth argue for equitable transformations, that provide wellbeing and satisfy needs (which is very much NOT the situation we are currently experiencing). However, once this “window is closed” the chance to take the opportunity is no longer possible. Therefore, once the dust settles, we should be looking to rebuild our systems towards different goals. Goals that more closely align with the values we now see coming to the fore. It remains to be seen if we build on this opportunity and adopt the path of altruism, collective action and community or we choose to treat everything under politics-as-usual and prolong the crises, which will probably result in even more catastrophic outcomes and a failed system transformation. Unfortunately, there is precendent for doing the latter – carbon emissions rose sharply after the 2008 financial crisis, where we responded with fiscal stimuli to return to business as usual. With this crisis, we need to choose a different path.

So how do we choose a different path?

This is the critical question. As sustainability scientists, this is where we have a role to play. We can draw on what we know about transformation and change, and start to put the pieces of our knowledge together. At the same time, we need to be careful not to over-stretch what we know, and not to leap in, treating COVID-19 as the latest buzzword in our academic publishing game (I’m looking at you publishers and the explosion of special issues). Therefore, we close by asking the question – what can we learn from other punctuations to change the trajectory we are on? What do we know from systems change to inform how we pick ourselves up from here? Perhaps future blog posts follow…

Transdisziplinarität – Was steckt hinter dem Modewort?

Von Theresa Hofmann

This blogpost is part of a transdisciplinary student project in the region of Oldenburg taught by Moritz Engbers, Prof. Ulli Vilsmaier, and Dr. Maraja Riechers.

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

Das gesellschaftliche Leben ist geprägt von Modewörtern. Ein inflationärer Gebrauch dieser Wörter hat schnell zur Folge, dass man ihnen mit einer gewissen Skepsis gegenübertritt. Auch die Wissenschaft bleibt davon nicht verschont. Jedoch steckt hinter diesem Modewort ein wichtiger Sachverhalt. Das Transdisziplinarität durchaus seine Berechtigung in der Wissenschaft hat und in bestimmten Fällen auch notwendig ist, soll im Folgenden deutlich gemacht werden. Dieser Beitrag hat das Ziel, ein grundlegendes Verständnis von Transdisziplinarität und transdisziplinären Prozessen zu vermitteln.

Definition Transdisziplinarität

Transdisziplinarität bedeutet sich über die eigenen wissenschaftlichen Forschungsgrenzen hinaus mit Fragestellungen auseinander zu setzen.

Die transdisziplinäre Forschung charakterisiert sich dadurch, dass Wissenschaftler mit Praxisakteuren aus der Gesellschaft zusammenarbeiten. Praxisakteure sind dabei Menschen oder auch Institutionen außerhalb des Wissenschaftssystems, die indirekt oder direkt von der zu bearbeitenden Problematik betroffen sind oder Erfahrungen und Wissen aus der Praxis in den Forschungsprozess einbringen können. Transdisziplinäre Forschung behandelt komplexe Problemstellungen, die in den verschiedensten wissenschaftlichen Disziplinen zu finden sind. In den Nachhaltigkeitswissenschaften sind solche Problemstellungen beispielsweise der Klimawandel, Globalisierung und Umweltbelastungen. Über den Ausgangspunkt dieser Probleme sowie die Ziele und den Weg dorthin ist meist nur wenig bekannt. Die Komplexität und die Tatsache, dass bei dieser Art von Problemen sowohl soziales Handeln als auch ökologische Effekte eine Rolle spielen, machen es nötig, dass Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft gemeinsam an einer Lösung arbeiten. Wichtig dabei ist, dass die Akteure aus der Praxis nicht nur als Gegenstand der Forschung betrachtet werden, sondern aktiv in den Forschungsprozess mit eingebunden werden, da neben dem Theoriewissen aus der Wissenschaft auch Erfahrungswissen aus der Praxis nötig ist um die Problemstellungen zu bearbeiten.

Herausforderungen Transdisziplinarität

Durch die Komplexität der Problematik und die enge Kooperation zwischen Akteuren aus der Wissenschaft und Praxisakteuren wird die transdisziplinäre Forschung immer wieder vor Herausforderungen gestellt. Beispiele sind zum einen, dass durch eine steigende Anzahl von Akteuren auch die Zielkonflikte ansteigen, da mehr wissenschaftliche Ziele und gesellschaftliche Interessen vereint werden müssen. Zum anderen muss zu Beginn eine einheitliche Ebene in Bezug auf Sprache und Methodik geschaffen werden, denn Akteure aus Wissenschaft, Politik, Unternehmen etc. haben unterschiedliche Vorgehensweisen und Fachbegriffe mit denen sie eine Problematik angehen. Eine weitere Herausforderung innerhalb der transdisziplinären Forschung ist im Vergleich zu anderen Forschungsprozessen meist der höhere finanzielle Aufwand, da die Beteiligung vieler Akteure mehr Koordination und Kommunikation erfordert.

Phasen des transdisziplinären Prozesses

Der Prozess eines transdisziplinären Projekts ist komplex, kann jedoch in die folgenden drei Phasen eingeteilt werden:

1) Problemidentifikation und- Strukturierung

Die erste Phase umfasst alle Aktivitäten, die dazu dienen eine bestimmte Problematik zu definieren und Forschungsfragen zu entwickeln. Dies mag zunächst banal klingen, ist aber aufgrund der komplexen Probleme oft eine schwierige Herausforderung. Ein essentieller Teil dieser Phase ist es, die passenden Akteure für den Forschungsprozess zu finden und mit einzubeziehen. Dazu gehört auch, die unterschiedlichen Rollen und Aufgaben der einzelnen Akteure innerhalb des Prozesses zu erkennen und zu akzeptieren.

2) Gemeinsames Generieren von lösungsorientiertem und anschlussfähigem Wissen

In dieser Phase wird die Forschungsfrage untersucht und auf eine Lösung hingearbeitet. Die Schwierigkeit besteht darin, das auf unterschiedlichen Ebenen generierte Wissen zusammen zu führen. Zum Beispiel müssen Erkenntnisse aus der Wissenschaft mit Wissen aus der Lebenspraxis miteinander vereint werden.

3) Re- Integration und Anwendung des generierten Wissens

Die letzte Phase zielt darauf ab, das gewonnene Wissen sowohl in die wissenschaftliche, als auch die gesellschaftliche Praxis zu integrieren. Das kann bedeuten, dass die Forschung konkrete Lösungsansätze bietet oder durch Ergebnisse gesellschaftliche Entwicklungen beeinflusst. Im Vordergrund sollte dabei die Nutzbarkeit der Ergebnisse für die Gesellschaft im Vordergrund stehen.

Generell ist zu sagen, dass diese Einteilung des Prozesses in Phasen dazu dient, die Forschung zu organisieren. Jedoch muss man sich bewusst sein, dass es aufgrund der Komplexität des Forschungsprozesses immer wieder zu einer Unterbrechung dieser Phasen kommen kann. Nicht selten müssen bereits abgeschlossene Prozesse durch neue Erkenntnisse wieder aufgerollt werden. Diese Unterbrechungen sind Teil des Prozesses und dienen dazu, die Arbeit erneut zu reflektieren.

Transdisziplinarität am Beispiel unseres Projekts im Landkreis Oldenburg

Unser Forschungsprojekt im Landkreis Oldenburg steht unter der ursprünglichen Leitfrage: „Wie kann ein (Bio-)Diversitätskorridor im Landkreis Oldenburg ein nachhaltiges und zukunftsfähiges Leben nähren, fördern und antreiben?“. Hier wird bereits ein transdisziplinärer Prozess deutlich. Diese Fragestellung wurde mit Akteuren aus der Wissenschaft und Praxisakteuren aus dem Landkreis Oldenburg entwickelt und hat sich bereits weiterentwickelt.

Auf wissenschaftlicher Seite werden sich Wissenschaftler aus dem Leverage Points -Projekt zusammen mit unserer studentischen Projektgruppe tiefergehend mit der Problematik auseinander setzen. Die Vielfalt der potenziell zu involvierenden Praxisakteure ist groß. Zu den wichtigsten Praxisakteuren zählen unter anderem Vertreter des Naturparks, Vertreter des Künstlernetzwerks „artecology_network“ (www.artecology.eu), aber auch Bürger, Gemeinden und Städte der Region.

Die Auswahl der Akteure ist derzeit noch nicht abgeschlossen. Es bedarf eines umsichtigen Auswahl , eine gute Kenntnis der Region und mehrere Gespräche, um relevante Akteure zu finden. Es soll vermieden werden, wichtige Akteure zu vergessen. Da dieser Prozess nicht abgeschlossen ist, befindet sich dieses transdisziplinäre Projekt noch in der ersten der drei beschriebenen Phasen.

Der Prozess des Erfassens der Problematik und der Erstellung der Forschungsfrage ist zum größten Teil abgeschlossen, bedarf aber noch einer Absprache mit den Praxisakteuren. Hier wird deutlich, dass ein aktiver Austausch zwischen den Akteuren essentiell ist, um Missverständnisse und Fehler im Prozess zu verhindern. Die Tatsache, dass sich die Phase eins dieses Projekts bereits über vier Monate erstreckt, verdeutlicht die Komplexität der Erfassung des Problems und der Strukturierung des Prozesses. Ein rein wissenschaftlich ausgerichteter Prozess könnte schnellere Ergebnisse liefern, ist an dieser Stelle jedoch nicht empfehlenswert, da zur Erfassung des Problems das Wissen und die Erfahrungen der Praxisakteure aus dem Landkreis unabdingbar sind.

Modewort hin oder her: Die Ausführungen machen deutlich, dass transdisziplinäre Forschung in Bezug auf gesellschaftlich relevante Problematiken eine essentielle Vorgehensweise darstellt, um das Problem in seiner Ganzheit und Komplexität erfassen zu können und lösungsorientiertes Wissen für die Gesellschaft entwickeln zu können.


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  • Jahn, Thomas (2008): Transdisziplinarität in der Forschungspraxis. In: Matthias Bergmann/Engelbert Schramm (Hg.): Transdisziplinäre Forschung. Integrative Forschungsprozesse verstehen und bewerten. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, S.21–37.
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Fieldweeks of Leuphana University and artecology_network in the Oldenburg district

By Moritz Engbers

During two ‘field weeks’, various events took place between 12 and 21 June 2017 in the course of a cooperation between the artecology_network with its project ‘(Bio) diversity corridor’, the project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation’ of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, and actors from the Oldenburg district. The aim of the two weeks was on the one hand to deepen the existing cooperation and on the other the joint work on relevant topics for the region. The cooperation is based on the guiding question: (Bio) diversity corridor: How can we build alliances to collectively shape an emergent and viable future for the Oldenburg region? The opening of the (bio) diversity corridor on 20th of June was a highlight. Its goal is to bring together various actors, activities and communities in the Oldenburg district. The events took place within the framework of a transdisciplinary case study in the Oldenburg district, in which the Leverage Points project is involved.

Contact for questions about the transdisciplinary case study: Moritz Engbers


Leuphana Universität und artecology_network forschen zusammen mit Landkreis Oldenburg

Im Rahmen zweier ‚Feldwochen‘ fanden vom 12. bis 21. Juni 2017 verschiedene Veranstaltungen im Rahmen einer Kooperation zwischen dem artecology_network im Projekt ‚(Bio) Diversitätskorridor‘, dem Projekt ‚Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation‘ der Leuphana Universität Lüneburg und Akteuren aus dem Landkreis Oldenburg statt. Ziel der beiden Wochen war zum einen das Vertiefen der bestehenden Kooperation und zum anderen die gemeinsame Arbeit an relevanten Themen für die Region. Die Kooperation orientiert sich dabei an der Leitfrage: (Bio) Diversitätskorridor: Wie können Allianzen gebildet werden, um die Region Oldenburg zukunftsfähig zu gestalten? Die Eröffnung des (Bio)Diversitätskorridors am 20.06.2017 bildete dabei einen Höhepunkt. Darin sollen verschiedene Akteure, Aktivitäten und Gemeinden des Landkreises Oldenburg zusammengebracht werden. Die Veranstaltungen fanden im Rahmen der transdisziplinären Fallstudie im Landkreis Oldenburg statt, an der das Leverage Points Projekt beteiligt ist.

Kontakt für Fragen zur transdisziplinären Fallstudie: Moritz Engbers


Photo: Insa Winkler (artecology_network) at the opening of the (Bio) Diversity corridor

Foto: Insa Winkler (artecology_network) bei der Eröffnung des (Bio) Diversitätskorridors

Leverage Points and ArtEcology Network at Climate Day, Wildeshausen

On 7th May 2017, Leverage Points and ArtEcology Network were jointly present at Climate Day in Wildeshausen.  Both parties were presenting their work: Leverage Points for their transdisciplinary research in the area, and ArtEcology network around their project (Bio) diversitycorridor.

Within this joint presentation, Jaana Prüss released the Kitchenmobile.  The climate-friendly kitchenmobile is inspiring for self-sufficiency from local resources. It stimulates self-organization and responsibility and focuses on regional food. Joint cooking with wild herbs, vegetables and fruits from own cultivation makes your own food supply a new experience and the effects of the ingredients will play a role. The “kitchen mobile” is an environmentally friendly e-load-bike with an integrated kitchen module, which draws attention to the edible of the landscape, the wilderness and the vegetable gardens.Short distances for regional food are climate-friendly – they conserve the valuable nutrients in the food without long storage times and transportation routes and give the citizens a bit of self-organization and responsibility.In exchange and discussion with residents, schoolchildren, politicians, farmers, new neighbors and people with refugee background etc. the general and own food supply is to be experienced by joint cooking with wild herbs and accompanying vegetables and fruit from self-cultivation. Workshops will jointly test how self-sufficiency from local resources could work.


Kitchenmobile by Jaana Prüss and Olsen Kunstbauten; E-bike supported by Gemeinde Hatten. Credit: Peer Holthuizen, Hanayo Prüss

Moritz Engbers (LP) and Insa Winkler (Projectmanager (Bio) diversitycorridor, ArtEcology Network) with Manuela Schöne (Klimabeauftragte des Landkreis Oldenburg) Credit: Hanayo Prüss

Transdisciplinary Research with the ArtEcology Network in Oldenburg

The Leverage Points project centres around two transdisciplinary case studies – one in Transylvania, Romania, and one in the Oldenburg region of Germany.  In Oldenburg, Leverage Points researchers have been collaborating with artists from the ArtEcology network, around a (Bio) diversity corridor.

During the project (Bio) Diversitycorridor in Oldenburg County, fifteen cultural scientists and artists examine the connections between agriculture and cultural landscape, biological and cultural diversity, together with local actors and institutions as well as the municipal authorities of the Oldenburg county Participation in practices of sustainability.

The concept (Bio) Diversitycorridor in the district of Oldenburg is to be understood in the transcendent sense: as an imaginary, virtual space, which opens up various possibilities of perception and association. “Corridor” symbolizes a membrane, a space in the transition, a sluice or a room without a clear boundary. The emphasis is on the openings that result from it – into various adjoining landscaped areas; In cultural spaces with all their diversity of ways of life and economics.

The (Bio) Diversitycorridor, with artistic action and artistic means, takes on climate protection and the diversity of nature as a common task, i.e. its positive and also problematic effects as a theme.

With a variety of formats and participatory workshops, topics such as biodiversity, neophytes, self – sufficiency, renewable energies, climate change, scenic cultural heritage, ecological economic factors, agriculture, nutrition, environmental protection and their holistic contexts with the involvement of citizens are worked on Diverse stakeholders in the entire Oldenburg district.

The aim of artecology_network is to convey environmental issues through “environmental art”, to use professional and innovative artistic participation methods and to involve a broad public on the urging questions in workshops. In the project, questions of the region are to be answered in a practical manner and solutions are developed, which are practically experienced and tested within workshops with those concerned and can be pursued beyond the workshop.

The focus is explicitly on the transdisciplinary examination of other fields of professional and knowledge dealing with the diversity of culture and biodiversity and make valuable work in education for sustainable development

Transylvanian Transdisciplinarity: Before the Beginning

On Friday 8th January, Andra, Daniel and I headed out to Transylvania for a week of ‘scoping’ fieldwork. Our aim was to come up with some practical options for the transdisciplinary case study in Romania. More information on the case studies and their role in the project is here. In this blog post, I will just give and overview of the highlights of the trip, and a few key emerging discussions.

Highlight 1: The richness of opportunity

Prior to the trip, Andra had invested a lot of time into locating organisations and projects with potential for collaboration. She drew a lot on her experience from her PhD work in Joern Fischer’s sustainable landscapes project, and with assistance from Tibi Hartel. We therefore met with a range of organisations and were able to present the Leverage Points project and ourselves, and hear about an extensive range of exciting initiatives. We learned about emerging cultural centres, ecotourism ventures, farming associations, and projects to conserve and promote traditional meadows and tree pastures. All were presented by dedicated people who were passionate about what they were doing, and obviously had deep understanding of the systems they were working in. To be surrounded by such enthusiasm and skill was a very positive experience for me, and left me (even more) excited about the work we will do in Romania.

Highlight 2: Links to the empirical (‘traditional science’) work

For all of the possibilities we saw, I could see clear links to the empirical elements of Leverage Points. The TD case could learn from the empirical work and vice versa. For example, in the case of a cultural centre, the reconnect workpackage could help to inform design in terms of understanding how to connect people to their environment. But the same workpackage could also use the case as an observation or study opportunity to test ideas. Such opportunity to fit between the different components of our project help to confirm the relevance of our study design.

Highlight 3: Opportunities for team discussion

During travel time and meals, we had plenty of time as a team for discussion. We talked about the TD case studies. This included weighing up the pros and cons and practicalities of cases we had seen; or thinking about what the tangible case would be if we worked with a particular organization. Such conversations are essential for case selection and development. And gave us space to develop a shared understanding on what was important, and what we are aiming for. Additionally, we talked a lot about the overall project, how we thought it was going, tensions we are experiencing, etc. None of these conversations were representative of the overall project – we were just three people. But I certainly find it helpful to hear about individual experiences so that I can consider them when thinking about how we manage and develop the project.

Next steps

Now that we are back, I think we all need to catch up on sleep and emails. Andra is currently collating her notes on the TD case, and I am doing the same for my thoughts on the fit to the empirical work packages. We have had a debrief to discuss our favourite cases, and what the tangible case actually is (place, people, topic, actions, etc.). We are now putting together all our thoughts to come up with a short list of 2 or 3 cases, and to ‘map’ how the empirical work could fit to it. These will then be presented at the project retreat in February, with the intention that we select our case then.