See Inspirational sessions

Frontrunners in Sustainable Development


On Monday 1 April, we held the inspirational session Frontrunners in sustainable development. Our guest this afternoon was Jan Rotmans.


Summary in text

We live in revolutionary times: “we do not live in an era of change but in a change of eras” There are strong indications that we live in a revolutionary time period. Last time was the industrial revolution, nowadays it is a digital and sustainable revolution. The new oil is data. Basically what you see in revolutionary periods is that quite a lot of people get afraid. There is an increase in populism. In every great shift, you see a greater inequality between the different social groups. Jan explains that fear is a bad guide. Those who are really scared usually are getting worse of in such a period. Those who try to dive into the new are usually doing better.

What we see is a financial-economic crisis, because the economy we are part of is devastating in terms of how we use resources and people. We spend money that isn’t there. The globalization also leads to a higher inequality. Jan shows a graph that visualises this last statement. The elite profits most from the globalization.

Secondly, there is an exponential growth of debts all over the world. Jan states that this is a recipe for failure and that we are making the same mistakes as in the last financial-economic crisis.

Because we have a wasteful economy, it leads to persistent problems. What you see is that we produce at the cost of the earth, we borrow resources but we don’t pay back. It is the same as what we do with the financial-economic crisis. If you would express it in financial terms, you would see that it will go up until 35%. That is the ecological deficit that will be reached.

Climate change is a symptom of what we call Anthropocene, the era in which humans fundamentally change the earth. Jan touches briefly upon two symptoms.

We need to adjust our own lifestyles. We can rely on politics and technology, but deep down it comes back down to our own behaviour. A part of us is egoistic and greedy. In the Netherlands you see that very clearly now, we want to reach the climate goals but we still want to extend our main airport. This does not go hand in hand, which is an example of this problem.

For Jan, crises are a blessing in disguise. Crises are good at letting people know the way it is done now is a dead end. We need to fundamentally change in thinking, acting and organizing. The biggest barriers in a transition is between our ears, in our mindsets. Thinking is the hardest to change.

Jan’s statement is that the system transitions require a personal transition and actually also require a transition at the university.

Jan says he promised to say something about the sustainable development goals (SDG’s). They stated 8 goals for the millennium change. No matter how soft they were, we reached at least three of those goals. Five were not achieved. Then they made the step to the SDG’s, which are broader than the previous goals but they are from quite ambitious to very vague and abstract. For instance ‘life below water’. It is formulated in a way that it was stated ‘we need to take action’, but there are no quantitative goals. They are necessary, but they are not really driving us to a more sustainable world.

Jan compares the millennium goals with the SDG’s; the SDG’s are more broad and more universal. But as a scientist, he also needs to be sceptical in the most positive sense. From this perspective, Jan explains that the SDG’s are not useful in order to guide the transition. They are abstract, ambiguous, not quantitative and not compulsory.

If you use them at the global level, it is what Jan calls ‘polderen’. This is not what we need in this phase of the transition.

Jan does think they are useful, because it serves as a guiding compass, and you might be able to develop policies based on them but it is just not easy. If you would formulate policies based on these SDGs, no country would succeed in meeting these SDGs. Even if we meet them, it won’t be enough.

Jan thinks they are more useful as a kind of moral compass, instead of strictly being used for making policies. We need to transform the SDGs in more concrete goals.

We need much more leadership. It’s a new kind of leadership that might be more in ourselves, not in the politics or CEO’s. Jan hopes the new leaders can be found in the universities, because it is about a personal transition.

Jan thinks that universities play a key role in these transitions. Jan explains that 8 students from a small college in the US started the sustainable movement. You can make a difference. He mentions Boyan Slat, the boy who started the Ocean Cleanup. He explains that these are the new leaders we’re looking for. People with ideas that others call crazy, but at least they are taking action.

The moderator asks Jan what he proposes this University does to play such a key role as he mentioned.

Jan: first of all my hope was that Arjan Hoekstra will go more into depth. What I see at my own university is that the students now oppose because sustainable development is not a part of the curriculum and they think that is a problem. Two years ago, within the honours program, they said okay we’re going to do something about this. They formed a network and started talking with the dean and the board of directors. They say to the teachers, some of you have old fashioned or outdated study material. If the protest comes from the students, that is taken more seriously than if it comes from the teachers for example. Secondly, you can do something on your own campus in terms of food and mobility for example. At my university, 80% of the people still drive a gasoline car and we have more parking space for cars than for students.

UT professor Arjen Hoekstra talks about what could be the implications of the story Jan told for the University of Twente. He starts with a message. The first is ‘let’s go beyond the nice words’. In the Netherlands we are good at having vision, but we are not very good yet at translating vision to action. But what does it look like?

We should also be ambitious about it, says Arjen, because then you inspire people. If we embrace sustainability as a topic then we should also be ambitious in it and formulate smart targets.

We need to translate these targets not only in our educations or our research or our operations. We should consider these three systems in relation to each other. It doesn’t work if you teach something but then the students also need to see it in the research and on the campus.

We should be honest about where we stand and what our targets are, be transparent.

Click here to view photos from the inspirational session with Jan Rotmans.