How can we communicate towards a more sustainable society?

One component of successful environmental communication is the creation of knowledge together with organisational networks – and this is central to Neil Powell and Eva Friman’s work. Photo:Mikael Wallerstedt

The fact that we need to change our behaviour in order to create a more sustainable society is nothing new. Researchers from Uppsala University have now joined the Mistra Environmental Communication Project, led by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. The project focuses on environmental communication with the purpose of creating knowledge, rather than simply spreading it.

Eva Friman, Researcher at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health together with colleague, Senior Lecturer Neil Powell, are two of Uppsala University’s programme participants. They have both researched the creation of learning processes for in-depth environmental communication. Eva Friman is one of two directors of the research programme and Neil Powell is responsible for one of the programme’s five focus areas, ‘science and knowledge co-production’.

‘The program is about what we need to do to succeed with environmental communication. We aim to reach beyond an instrumental understanding of environmental communication, towards mutual meaning making,’ explains Eva Friman.

Knowledge is vital for our future

One component of successful environmental communication is the creation of knowledge together with organisational networks – and this is central to Eva Friman and Neil Powell’s work. As part of the ‘science and knowledge co-production’ focus area, they want to investigate how environmental communication can be renewed through the co-production of knowledge, and how new knowledge is created with the help of collaborations between researchers and other organisational networks.

‘This knowledge is crucial for our entire future. We want this programme to contribute to society’s transformation, and supply knowledge for research domains within the social sciences’.

‘We want to rock the boat a little’

Many of society’s organisations and stakeholders are used to receiving the final results from researchers. Using the science and knowledge co-production focus area, Eva Friman and Neil Powell hope to ‘rock the boat a little’ – something which is essential in our current situation.

‘We talk about university as a place where knowledge is born, but when we talk about collaboration, it needs to be about creating knowledge together. Knowledge can be found outside of academia’, says Neil Powell.

There are various ways in which collaborations between researchers and other organisations are taking place within the programme. One example is think/do tanks, where stakeholders present ideas about what needs to be done, and they are then supported by researchers participating in the programme.

Projects in Honduras and Australia

As a result of the think/do tanks, Neil Powell has recently spent time in Honduras where he worked with an initiative for supporting sustainable provision on location.

‘We distributed cameras among the local population so they could take pictures of things that are important to them. This was a way for us to initiate dialogues with the local population and various organisations in the area’, Neil Powell explains.

The focus area also includes work with projects on carbon storage in Sweden and Australia, forest fires in Sweden and Australia, and co-creation labs. The latter is an education platform for exploring and experimenting with different methods and questions that have arisen in the other projects.

Lack of time leads to frustration

There have been a number of obstacles throughout the course of the project. For example, not all members of the research community are on board with the way this new type of collaboration works.

‘Many feel that their position has become less significant, and their role as a researcher has gone. This is absolutely not the case, so we need to explain why this way of working is something positive’, says Eva Friman.

Neil Powell and Eva Friman outside blåsenhus.

Neil Powell and Eva Friman hope that the project will result in better collaborations between various organisations that have knowledge perspectives to share. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Furthermore, sometimes the collaborations with various organisations have been difficult – often due to prioritisations and a lack of time. Some partners have disappeared, but others have joined.

‘Of course people sometimes get frustrated, everyone is so busy, and they have many other meetings. I have started to wonder whether we need to reconsider who we collaborate with, and think outside the box more. The stakes are not high enough for many of our partners, perhaps we need others who are hungrier and will have something to gain from working with us’, says Neil Powell.

Want to leave a lasting impression

Eva Friman and Neil Powell hope that the project will result in better collaborations between various organisations that have knowledge perspectives to share. They are necessary to ensure excellent research that can lead to society’s sustainability transition.

‘I hope we can contribute to changing the research domain of environmental communication, perhaps into sustainability communication instead’, says Eva Friman.

They hope that the project will be extended beyond 2023, and Eva Friman is optimistic that it will continue for a further four years. They have already met all the requirements and expectations included in the project and beyond. Discussions about continuing after 2027 are also ongoing with the financier, Mistra.

‘I hope we will be able to pass on our knowledge and leave a lasting impression beyond these eight years’, Neil Powell concludes.

Agnes Loman

Mistra Environmental Communication

  • A four-year research project that aims to renew and develop environmental communication. Its purpose is to promote the transition to a more sustainable society.
  • It is an interdisciplinary study involving researchers and various stakeholders and organisations.
  • The programme’s research is split into five different focus areas, government-led dialogue, consumption, science and knowledge co-production, organisational networks in market contexts, and the arts and media.

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