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Leverage Points and Transformational Leadership: impressions from Lüneburg

by Gunnar Dreßler

In early February, I embarked on a trip to the north of Germany where I spent one week in the beautiful town of Lüneburg, attending a conference and a workshop. Lüneburg is known primarily as a Hanseatic city, which owes its wealth to the rich salt deposits in the ground beneath the city. However, Lüneburg is also home to Leuphana University, a young and innovative university which is committed so sustainability in all areas. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Leuphana University hosted the first Leverage Points Conference on sustainability research and transformation. Already the setting was quite fitting: the conference took place in the new main building of the Leuphana University Lüneburg, designed by the famous architect Daniel Libeskind. With its sharp angles and often twisted geometry, the building virtually forces the visitor to adopt new perspectives.

The concept of leverage points – “places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything” – has originally been developed by Donella Meadows in the 1990s. For us as systems scientists and modelers, identifying such points in a system and understanding how and where interventions might have the biggest impact is of course one of the biggest challenges. Therefore, I was eager to exchange with and learn from the conference participants – both scientists from a variety of different disciplines, as well as practitioners and policy makers. I had the opportunity to present work on vicious circles of land use competition and rangeland fragmentation in a session on socio-ecological transformations on the first day of the conference.

Following the conference, I attended the second seminar of the Postdoc Academy for Transformational Leadership, a program funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation for young postdocs, and jointly organized together with the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT) in Rotterdam.

As in the first seminar, the program was very intense and challenging – but also rewarding! In a mixture of lectures, small workshop, an excursion and discussion rounds, we explored the topic of transdisciplinary research environments and transdisciplinary learning. We learned about different research, learning and teaching methodologies and how we can integrate them into our own work, explored our own career pathways, and met sustainability pioneers from academia – as well as the local food economy: in an excursion that took us about 70 km away from Lüneburg to the Wendland, we visited Voelkel – the oldest organic juice producer in Germany – as well as the biosphere reserve ‘Niedersächsische Elbtalaue’.

Besides the core seminar program, we also had deep discussions on how we as a group want to move forward, thinking about first ideas for joint publications, as well as our group vision of transformative transdisciplinary research. Although that sounds quite philosophical, we also had lots of fun moments throughout the days – from enjoying an early morning coffee at the local farmers market, to late evening discussions about the appropriateness of going to the sauna with your boss.

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