On 6 November 2023, Nora Wilhelm (Aarau, 1993) will give a lecture at Maastricht University about human- and climate-conscious systems change. How can we address the root causes, and not just the symptoms, of the challenges we now face?
Wilhelm studied International Affairs at the University of St. Gallen and Social Innovation at the University of Cambridge. In addition, she has completed a number of specialised courses, such as the Presencing Institute’s Ecosystem Leadership Program. She was a leader within the European Youth Parliament and has been recognised for her work by institutions such as UNESCO, Forbes 30 under 30 and the UN Environment Programme. In Switzerland, she founded collaboratio helvetica, a facilitator of social innovation and system change, and the well, a so-called change atelier. She recently also became part of the Dalai Lama Fellowship for young social innovators. In anticipation of her visit to Maastricht, Studio Europa Maastricht spoke with her.
According to Wilhelm, our current democratic system is insufficiently able to respond to the complex challenges we face. ‘Young people are asking the generations who came before to do something about climate change, but too little is happening. The developments in social media and artificial intelligence are also happening much faster than regulators can keep up with. Additionally, too many business interests still find their way into politics. Right-wing parties often have financial ties to industries that contribute to the destruction of our planet. In Switzerland, they are not even obliged to make this transparent.’
‘Young people are asking the generations who came before to do something about climate change, but too little is happening.’
Wilhelm sees a solution in more direct citizen involvement. ‘Democracy is an illusion without active citizenship. Citizens must be given the opportunity to get involved and serve the collective interest. In Switzerland, everyone has the opportunity to propose changes to laws and collect signatures for them. That is amazing. For example, our parliament was far too slow to take action on climate change, so concerned citizens took to the streets, collected signatures and were able to push for important changes in the law in this area. Unfortunately, this option does not yet exist at European level.’
Wilhelm sees the European Union as ‘an ambitious, daring, fantastic and at the same time difficult project. We must continue to explore its full potential because international governance structures and improved coordination are very important for tackling global challenges. In the context of the United Nations, it is increasingly visible how the EU acts as a united front and is often a progressive voice for issues such as sustainability. I wish Switzerland was part of it too; not because the EU is perfect as it is, but we are affected directly anyways, so we might as well be a part of the design and decision-making process.’
‘I was born into a typical middle-class family in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. My mother was the first in her family to go to university, and on my father’s side I am the first. When I was six, we moved to Geneva. There I found myself in a completely different environment, culture and language. I learned French with a boy who fled from Turkey and became my best friend. That experience opened my eyes to wanting to understand others and be understood myself.
‘Another turning point was when I was 16 years old on a high school exchange in Canada and first heard about the genocide in Rwanda. Elizabeth Dallaire, at that time the wife of Roméo Dallaire, gave a lecture and talked about how her husband, as head of the UN blue helmets in Rwanda, had no mandate to intervene in the genocide that took place before his eyes. This shocked me enormously. At the same time, I also learned more about deforestation in the Amazon region and conditions in slaughterhouses. All these things burst the bubble I was living in and since then I have been trying to contribute to a better future for all. In the beginning, I mainly went to demonstrations and volunteered with NGOs in the fields of poverty, international development and sustainability. Later I became increasingly involved in engaging other young people to be active for those causes.’
Her participation in the European Youth Parliament was also very formative for Wilhelm. ‘You not only learn to form an opinion and come up with solutions for social and political issues, but also how to debate, deal with the media and high-level stakeholders, fundraise and manage events and projects. The fact that you are doing this with young people from so many different countries and backgrounds is very transformative. I owe much of who I’ve become to the EYP.’
‘Democracy is an illusion without active citizenship. Citizens must be given the opportunity to get involved and serve the collective interest.’
Wilhelm has been committed to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for years. She is less hopeful now about achieving the goals than she was in the beginning. ‘With COVID, the urgency of the 2030 Agenda has disappeared from political agendas, and the war in Ukraine has not made it any easier. Grocery and energy prices have risen while salaries have barely increased. That makes it easy for the political right to play on people’s immediate fears, while we really need to think about the long term right now. But when your identity and your money are invested in the way things are now, it’s really hard to hear that maybe it’s harmful, that maybe there’s a better way.
‘We are all trained to be ego-centred. It takes practice to become focused on the entire ecosystem and think about others, even people you will never meet, and the long term of life on this planet. At the level of real power decision-making, I’m not sure we’ll reach that critical tipping point early enough; where enough people are willing to make different choices and accept that they need to change things. However, we must absolutely try, otherwise all optimism is, of course, lost.
‘The Dalai Lama Fellowship which I started this summer, gives me new hope in that regard. It is so powerful to come together from a place of mutual curiosity and appreciation. That strengthens my confidence because I know that there are many people around the world who all have their own gifts and want to co-create a better future.’
Wilhelm emphasises that we need to think more systemically: how can we use our power and influence to change the systems? ‘Every day we can do a lot, in all our choices: what do I eat, how do I travel, what do I buy, where do I buy, who do I buy from and should I buy anything at all? But also: how do I treat my loved ones? Every act, every choice, is important.
‘Realise that you cannot change everything. We live in broken systems. For example, it is not my choice that certain products used to be packaged in glass and reusable packaging and now come in single-use plastic. It is also completely impossible to be perfect on all fronts. If you want that, people won’t even begin. It’s better to just get started and, with a sense of responsibility and compassion, see step by step where you can make progress. So, it’s both realising we have tremendous power, can work on systems change if we choose to do so, and at the same time do not have everything within our current sphere of influence. Rather than letting this depress us, we need to find what can be done today and tomorrow and keep moving forward.
‘It is important, according to the concept of systems thinker Peter Senge, that we remain in the creative tension between reality and vision. Senge says, “If you are only connected to how things are right now, you are depressed and cynical; and if you are only concerned with vision, you are irrelevant because you don’t get anything off the ground. It is precisely from that creative tension that we must take on the challenges and do our best”.’
For the past seven years, Wilhelm has mainly worked with collaboratio helvetica, the organisation she founded. ‘We have been highlighting the concept of systems change work and social innovation labs in Switzerland. We have spoken at countless conferences across many sectors, trained hundreds of people in systems change methodologies, guided projects and initiated new conversations. The difficult thing about systems change is of course that you never get to a point where you can say, “Done!”. But we have opened many doors, planted seeds of change and fertilised the soil for people who want to do this work in the future.’ Although she remains involved, Wilhelm has now transferred operational responsibility for the organisation. ‘I am now exploring the idea of doing a PhD in the field of systems change.’
During the conference in Maastricht, Wilhelm will provide two components: a lecture and an evening programme. ‘The lecture will discuss both the theory and practice of systems change and systems thinking. In the evening, we make it more personal with questions such as: what does it mean to be a human being in all this complexity and with all these challenges? What does it mean to be a leader? How do I develop into a leader who is really trying to contribute to change?
‘Students are about to make big choices about who they want to become. I hope to open the door of inspiration and show that students can chart their own path. You don’t have to rely on what your parents say or what society forces on you, including any distorted concept of what success is. When you know your values, you can just be yourself and chart your own path. If I can give the students a little confidence so they dare to do something unconventional or a bit risky, even if that means they must set up their own organisation or earn less money, then it is worth it.’
Nora Wilhelm is a social innovator, entrepreneur and researcher dedicated to a world where people and planet can thrive. A changemaker since her teens, she has a background in youth engagement and active citizenship.
She presided the European Youth Parliament Switzerland from 2014-2016. In 2017, she co-founded collaboratio helvetica, an initiative that catalyses systemic change towards the Agenda 2030 in Switzerland by cultivating a cross-sectoral innovation ecosystem, building the needed capacity, open knowledge sharing, and empowering systems change leaders.
In 2023, she co-founded the well • change atelier to make art-based processes and tools to cultivate connection, creativity, and well-being available to more people.
What should universities do to prepare their students for the complex social and climate challenges?
‘I think it is very important that universities prepare students to think critically about the different sectors they enter and the challenges humanity is facing. Students need to be confronted with the question of why things are the way they are now and how they could be different. They must learn to think in terms of multiplicity, alternatives and nuance. For example, if they study economics, they should be presented with different economic theories and not just be exposed to neoliberal evangelism. I think this applies to all disciplines. In addition, it is important to integrate recent developments, such as the gender perspective and less biased historiography, into the curricula.
‘I also think that universities should invite students to make suggestions and sometimes to take the lead and responsibility in their implementation. To treat them as the creative and intelligent adults they are, learning (as we all are!) but with a lot to offer. I always found it very stimulating when I had a course at university that gave me the opportunity to work on a project that was close to my heart and not just write papers that no one else ever reads. You can set up lesson blocks in which students connect with a local community or, for example, support an NGO and then write about it. I think it’s good to get out of the ivory tower of academia a little more and allow students to do real world things.
‘In the ideal scenario, universities are at the forefront of every development and prepare students to take on active leadership and forge new paths to a viable future. If you really want to prepare young people to enter their fields and make the necessary changes, it requires both a lot of knowledge and the humility to say that they will teach us, too. They will walk new paths that we have not yet walked.
‘At the same time, I think it is important that a university looks critically at the more practical choices it makes as an institution. For example, what is the ecological footprint of the food served in the canteen? How sustainable is the purchasing of materials? Just like in your personal life, you can make a difference with all these decisions.’
A tip to students for the upcoming elections?
“Vote! the right to vote is a luxury not to be taken for granted. And you get to shape the future of the EU and what it will stand for internationally. Take advantage of that opportunity. And secondly, vote for who you think has the future’s best interest at heart and who you think will ensure that the diversity of society is sufficiently represented in the European Parliament.’
Nora Wilhelm: Strategies for Change – New Pathways from Knowing to Doing is organised in cooperation with Sustainable UM2030, Studium Generale and The InnBetween.