The Future of Sustainability Professionals: report on a transdisciplinary workshop

Examples of job tasks and the key competencies which the participants linked them to (click to enlarge in a new tab)
In the waning weeks of 2016 a diverse and exemplary group of sustainability professionals gathered together in a classroom on the campus of Arizona State University to explore the question of whether the key competencies in sustainability are indeed the framework of what transformational future professionals in sustainability need. Our full report on the day’s event is available for download but we wanted to give you taste of it here.

A previous post summarized our approach from the key research questions to a methodological overview. Here we will briefly present what we learned about these questions.

What are examples of tasks carried out by Sustainability professionals and how can those be linked to the key competencies?

The participants of the workshop were highly knowledgeable about the key competencies in sustainability which made for insightful conversations. While it was agreed that these made a good framework there was a clear in-balance when job-tasks were linked to the specific competencies. As can be seen in the figure values and futures thinking lagged which was attributed by the participants to the fact these are less explicitly important
Count of key competencies linked to job tasks by participants
to specific tasks but are indeed foundationally important to virtually everything.

How did the participants attain their personal level of competence?

The general sentiment was that professional and other experiences outside of the classroom were the most important opportunities for improving one’s level of competence. It was widely agreed that the academic environment needs to change significantly if it is going to be equipping students with sufficient levels of competence in the key competencies for sustainability.

Is there a gap between current sustainability professionals and the requirement for future professionals?

There was a clear sentiment that our education system needs to change in order to yield a crop of professionals equipped to solve our problems for the future but not the specifics we hoped for. In large part this can be attributed to the fact that the use of the key competencies for sustainability as the qualifications for a sustainability professional is already a significant departure from the status quo. And while the participants saw this as a much needed step (for today); it being already a reach made it challenging to think even further beyond the key competencies when looking into the more distant future.

“I think futures thinking is a lot about questioning your values. That’s why people have such a hard time with it. Cause you start to question your values, then you have to question what you did in the past, and that’s a scary thing for people. It really is.”

Does having demonstrated development of the key competencies support the employability of an individual and in what ways?

There was a clear consensus on the importance of the key competencies in the success of a graduate as a change agent but there was little agreement that it would sufficiently support their employability. In large part this was attributed to the fact that universities do not give graduates credibility that they are able to actually do anything because success at a university is measured very differently from how an employer measures it. The key competencies could be the framework that brings this together but as yet it does not translate out in the field.

A Lot to Deal with on One Plate!

This post is part of an on going series examining and reflecting on how to work as an international team on a transdisciplinary research project.

When working on an international, transdisciplinary research project, even a simple meeting with your PhD committee members is not so simple. Finding a time slot that fits 3 people in two different time zones (8 hours difference) can seem an impossible challenge, when all the additional obligations your committee members (who are also the PIs)1)Principal Investigators have are added in (teaching, research, conferences,…). Ultimately, an acceptance of unconventional working hours is critical if you want transatlantic Skype meetings to happen.

Safe is good for sidewalks and swimming pools. Life requires risks if we are to get anywhere.

-Simon Sinek
One PI called me and we had a fruitful conversation. The second PI was supposed to join later, which he did. Or better to say he tried. Our Skype meeting in the 21st century ended up the two PIs skyping with each other and me on the landline phone connected to them. Not as planned – but it worked.

Research projects of a transdisciplinary character

Being part of a research project that spans over several countries is most of all exciting but undoubtedly also challenging. Communication is a critical but complex skill that can be improved but also be complicated by technical inventions. Without it though, projects like ours wouldn´t be possible.

We have already identified and shared some challenges specific to the EFCA project (see the previous Blog entry on the Statussymposium in Hannover). Apart from these, which we anticipated, there will certainly be more to come. What we definitely have had to deal with already is the difficulty to keep everybody on the same page, despite using the key competency framework as the universal foundation, as well as general house-keeping tasks like keeping minutes at meetings, etc. While we, the PhDs, concentrate almost exclusively on the EFCA project, the PIs have several projects going on at the same time which leads to time shortages to dedicate the desired time to each project. This creates risks of cutting into time which should be outside of work.2)Joern Fischer initiated a pertinent discussion of this issue at Leuphana.

Self-care was something we had already talked about during our first field visit at ASU in November. Knowing the theory is a start3)For example: Sinek, Simon (2016) Together is Better. A Little Book of Inspiration. Portfolio Penguin., applying it… well, the short scene at beginning might have demonstrated that there is often a knowledge-to-action-gap. Applying self-care must not fall too short though if we want to conduct this project successfully together. While everybody should take care of her-/his own needs, a transdisciplinary research group also has to look after each other. Meetings in a more informal frame which we often did in Arizona helped us to keep the spirit high, even with the end-of-the-semester-stress and focus-group-preparation.

To conclude, the transdisciplinary, international research path is full of challenges (though finishing the plate pictured above wasn´t one of them – keyword: teamwork). Consider the quote at the beginning: risks need to be taken and challenges seen as opportunities to grow. Because we want to go far indeed.

References   [ + ]

1. Principal Investigators
2. Joern Fischer initiated a pertinent discussion of this issue at Leuphana
3. For example: Sinek, Simon (2016) Together is Better. A Little Book of Inspiration. Portfolio Penguin.