Yippee! We are now really, seriously, switching from dirty energy production to renewables. Today it is cheaper and more profitable to build a solar farm than a coal-fired power station. And many apartment blocks in Sweden are being built using smart and efficient energy solutions. We are pursuing environmental sustainability, and research is also a very strong contributor to this. Yippee! Again!

But – there’s a fly in the ointment. It turns out that new energy solutions and policy decisions concerning our transition to environmental sustainability can come at the cost of social sustainability for example. Just look at what happened in France in 2018. People got mad because those who already felt themselves to be economically vulnerable also felt that they were the ones who were having to pay the price of transitioning to environmental sustainability. They were so angry that they even donned high-visibility yellow vests – to be noticed and also to unify their movement. The same could happen in Sweden. Many new climate-smart houses and apartments are not exactly cheap to buy. Higher taxes on fuel are seen as an insult to citizens who live far from densely populated urban areas. So there is a risk that what we gain in terms of environmental sustainability, we could lose in terms of social sustainability.

So it’s just fantastic that our University is so broad in its research! Let us take a holistic view of the phenomenon. We have science and technology, humanities and social sciences, and medicine and pharmacy. Together we can perceive needs, risks and opportunities from our different and complementary perspectives. We can combine excellent and relevant research from our different disciplinary domains and carry out research that brings together these complementary perspectives in a holistic way – research that contributes to societal development. But how good are we at really utilising this breadth? Sometimes I look at Uppsala University and it actually looks more like three different universities with a small common platform to stand on.

Couldn’t we do more to help each other out, to create new and better conditions that will make it easier to exploit the potential of our University’s broad expertise? At Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives (UUSI), we have been supporting the development of interdisciplinary research collaborations since 2018. But during that time what we have very often seen in these research collaborations is barriers to interdisciplinarity in particular. Barriers within both the University and our external partners and funding bodies. Barriers based on outmoded structures and systems that were created for a less complex and fast-moving world.

A bit depressing then, one might think. But banish that thought and be happy! See it instead as what an enormous potential we have! Each of us can step up and think about how we are contributing to better conditions for agility, flexibility and innovation in demand-driven interdisciplinary research collaborations. Ranked as one of the leading research universities in the world , we can then confront tomorrow’s complex and to some extent chaotic challenges with our breadth, cooperation and innovative research.

Klas Palm

Researcher in innovation management at the Department of Civil and Industrial Engineering and project coordinator at Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives.