Posted on 8 May 2020 by Phil Justice Flores, Maria Takman and Alva Zalar.
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.
The Agenda 2030 Graduate School offers various platforms and avenues to explore, discuss, criticize and raise awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This spring semester, the graduate school offered a course that focused on Goal 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities. In the course, the participants were divided into groups, which were then assigned to discuss themes related to Goal 11 – life, society, and transition.
As a requirement, each group was tasked to interview experts from different fields and ask them how their studies are related to the SGDs, particularly to Goal 11, and the respective themes. All groups then had the opportunity to conduct three public panel discussions with 9 experts from the LTH (Faculty of Engineering), Faculty of Social Science, and Faculty of Medicine. Due to the ongoing pandemic, however, we were compelled to hold these discussions online via Zoom.
In this blog post, we, Alva, Maria, and Phil, enumerate our key learnings from the course and how we relate these learnings to our projects.
We take away several key lessons from the course. First, we realized the presence of synergies and conflicts between different interests when planning cities and communities. For example, how does energy efficiency of buildings affect rental prices? Or how do green areas affect biodiversity and health? These are only some questions that we have to face in order to build more sustainable cities and communities in the future. It is natural that tradeoffs and sacrifices have to be made. We just have to remember that we need to think of and plan for the future generations and not only for ourselves.
Second, we as a society need to transform as a whole and cooperation between societal actors is crucial to move towards sustainability. This theme of collaboration was touched upon in all three debates, perhaps because of its genuine relevance to sustainability. There is a need for all actors to work together as this correlates with policy and governance of public-private partnerships. We have to remember that sustainability is not only a responsibility of one member of the society, but instead it is the accountability of the government, the private sector, and individuals.
Third, we quote one of our invited speakers, Anna Oudin, “we need to fund flexible research since most of the world’s greatest discoveries was made by accident.” We would like to conduct our research in such an exploratory manner, i.e., we are not constrained to the goals we set at the beginning of projects, rather we are open to ideas and results that may bring more meaning to our research.
Finally, we learned through a consensus in one of the panel discussions that we are only constantly looking at the short-term perspective. We always want to have high returns with low investments, i.e. we invest in cheap projects that show quick results. However, these usually are not the optimal types of investments for cities and communities to become sustainable.
Relating key lessons to our projects
My own research project was, and still is, under formation while taking this course. For now, I would like to say that I am working on combining the (material) perspectives of economic degrowth and intersectional feminism, exploring marginalized socio-spatial practices of social reproduction. Such practices are often considered domestic and thus rendered invisible in public space. I was in great luck to have my group producing a panel debate on the theme of transitions, since degrowth is one of many ‘transition discourses’. Because of the research needed to understand the theme and how to discuss it with each other and our experts, I got to engage with other ‘transition discourses’ such as post-development theory. This context gave me a much stronger sense of why I am interested in degrowth, as well as further defining my particular understanding of it. The exploration of my positioning within degrowth discourse, as I am mostly interested in social perspectives of sustainability and a politicization of this fuzzy concept, was also strengthened through engaging on the topic with students and experts from other areas.
In the debate regarding Transition, there was a discussion about how context is important in the transition. I think this is very relatable to the Swedish water and wastewater sector. If a municipality or wastewater company will transform to new and potentially more sustainable systems probably depends on different contextual aspects. What first comes to my mind is the climate and the actual freshwater resources. If there is a severe lack of freshwater resources, this might definitely be a driver. However, also other aspects probably affect a transition, such as organization and trends, for example. I have just recently started thinking about including this perspective in my research, as a complement to the more technical parts. I also think the course gave good contacts in other fields that might be useful in the future.
I am looking at sustainability in the personal transport sector, which relates to the first target of Goal 11. However, I have never considered a holistic approach to my study. My focus was always on the study of consumer behavior and the ways research can influence this. This is definitely good, in the sense that I can concentrate and narrow my specialization. Nevertheless, it somehow narrowed my perspectives and I lost track of the bigger picture. With the insights I have gained from the discussions, I would like to look at my research from the various angles of the members of cities and communities. For instance, I can incorporate more the role of the government in the regulation and restriction of consumer behavior, especially because I am looking at shared transport, which is a novel area. Moreover, I can look at my research from the opposing points of view of different cities or even countries.
Overall, we would highly recommend the course to other PhD students, especially to our fellow Agenda 2030 colleagues. This would definitely open their eyes to more aspects of the Agenda 2030. Although we feel the burden placed on us, and we understand that the more knowledge we have, the more problematic the situation we see ourselves in, nonetheless, we strongly believe that through collaboration and openness we will certainly get to the goals of the Agenda 2030, maybe not in ten years, but hopefully soon after.