The growing Network of Early Career Researchers in Sustainable Transitions: A delegate’s view of the 3rd NEST conference

Author: Julia Beyersdorf, Fraunhofer-ISI

About a week after the 3rd NEST conference in Utrecht (NL), I’m back to my daily work life in South Germany and, at the same time, I am not. I’ve experienced enriching two conference days and three evening events. Naturally, I learned more about the Sustainable Transition frameworks, their different foci and limitations. We were also able to meet and discuss with Anna J. Wieczorek and Marko Hekkert, two veterans of the field. Most notable to me, however, was the opportunity to meet a range of brilliant fellow scholars in the field.

As visible from almost doubled application numbers compared to the year before, the interest of early career researchers in Sustainable Transitions in mutual exchange is growing (116 versus approx. 60 applications in 2017). And, thanks to our organizers and support from veteran transitions scholar Marko Hekkert (he paid our drinks), we had plenty of opportunities for social mingling. Starting with an informal bar meeting for the 20ish early arrivals, we went to coffee and lunch breaks, complemented by the obligatory conference dinner and goodbye drinks on Friday. 2018_3rd NEST coffee for the people

Once even pushing a fully stocked coffee tray over a street and the grass verge in between, the organizers proved very dedicated to facilitate network growth.

Over hot drinks and vegetarian food, I could meet many PhD and quite a few post-doctoral scholars. They came from inside and outside Europe, from developing research centres as well as from renowned policy and innovation hubs such as SPRU, DRIFT, and naturally the hosting Copernicus Institute. It was as inspiring to hear about their research ambitions and findings as it was funny to discuss delicious food while eating (according to our Italy-based delegates, this is typical Italian behavior).

Since Sustainable Transition frameworks are applicable to a broad range of environmental, social, and economic challenges, the topics and approaches that my fellow researchers employ and address are diverse. It was a challenge in itself to decide which of the parallel presentations to listen to. Contributions concerned architecture and urban planning, bioeconomy, diffusion of renewable energy technologies, alternative ways of economizing, participatory and bottom-up approaches, and other. Despite the differences in approaches and issues, I could recognize a shared vision of contributing to the shaping of a better tomorrow (yes, it is as cheesy as that).

I also felt a sense of support and openness. Constructive feedback followed each presentation and, sometimes, vivid discussions. An especially vivid discussion about the limitations of the Technological Innovation System (TIS) framework even took over a whole workshop on Transition frameworks for mission-oriented innovation policy (facilitated by assistant professor Joeri Wesseling). Discussion contributions reflected the attendants’ diverse educational backgrounds in design theory, social sciences, ethics, and other. I thoroughly enjoyed that interdisciplinary exchange, however, not everybody might have done so. In two parallel workshops, my fellow scholars had the opportunity to either train discussing their research findings with a journalist or work on the Resilience of transitions. Tim van Haan and Ingrid Hersche from the Utrecht Communications office facilitated the former, while end-phase PhD scholar Susan Mühlemeier was in charge of the latter.

Vivid discussions also ensued the keynotes of Anna J. Wieczorek and Marko Hekkert. Suited to her audience, Anna introduced us to relevant literature and presented the most recent vision of the sustainable transitions researcher network, of which she is a co-founder (see also the STRN website and their updated research agenda). She further let us benefit from her research insights to governance in developing countries, explaining how their alleged messiness enables them to adapt flexibly to societal and environmental issues and is not necessarily a shortcoming (read more). Dedicated to the cause of transitioning to a more sustainable tomorrow, she advocated to focus on contents and the issue at hand first, then on theoretical contribution.

Adding to Anna’s appeal, Marko provided us early career researchers with hands-on advice on how to engage policy makers. Coming from a background of more than a decade-long experience as researcher and political consultant, he suggested that researchers should keep it simple and translate their findings in a relatable manner. One way of doing so is using metaphors to illustrate an issue, as everybody has a notion of an innovation engine that is stalling. But how to get policy makers to listen to you in the first place, when you are merely in the beginning of your career? Apparently, becoming a twitter queen/king can create legitimacy and thus an entry card 😉

Overall, I am glad to have met so many brilliant and dedicated minds in one place. Not only am I looking forward to meeting them on next year’s #4thNEST conference and hear about their progress, I believe their efforts will contribute in various ways to a more sustainable tomorrow. Certainly, their suggestions and feedback have contributed to my PhD research considerations already.

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