Report on the guest lecture by Nora Wilhelm
In 2015, all United Nations (UN) countries adopted the sustainable development goals (SDGs). To date, the Netherlands has achieved one sustainable development goal and ranks 161 out of 166 in the so-called spillover rankings. This means that our way of doing business has a relatively large negative impact on other countries’ achievement of the SDGs. For instance, due to our country’s export of dangerous pesticides. The facts are there; yet, politics, large corporations and ordinary citizens struggle with initiating structural change. Why is it so clear, yet collectively we seem to achieve nothing?
Nora Wilhelm, a 30-year-old social innovator, systems entrepreneur and researcher from Switzerland, discussed the issue in her lecture ‘New Pathways from Knowing to Doing’ on 6 November 2023. She explored ways to tackle the social and ecological challenges of our time, focusing on systems change. The lecture discussed how values, belief systems and paradigms influence our behaviour; and how we, as European citizens, can have an impact and implement systems change in practice.
Impact as a European citizen
Current global problems and issues such as human rights violations, global warming and wars do not invite optimism; but as a change-maker, Wilhelm finds it important to keep an eye on positive change and opportunities. What can EU citizens contribute to addressing the challenges of our time?
According to Wilhelm, systems change offers a way for individual citizens to make a difference. In systems change, direct service (i.e., changing behaviour, decisions or outcomes) is less important. Instead, systems change focuses on structural change, personal transformation and changing prevailing paradigms, such as transitioning to a circular economy.
‘There is no such thing as a ready-made answer.’
Reasons for the lack of structural change
Nora Wilhelm identified several reasons why necessary changes are not happening:
1. People mainly focus on treating symptoms. Technological developments to clean up sea waste are great, but they don’t solve the waste problem. Helping people in poverty by giving money alleviates poverty, but doesn’t solve it. According to Wilhelm, this doesn’t mean we should stop these initiatives, but it is important to look deeper than this so-called direct service.
2. Linear thinking is prevalent, but solutions to global problems are complex and involve trial and error. Overly simplistic solutions are proposed which then create other problems. Wilhelm: ‘There is no such thing as a ready-made answer; it’s much more complex, and the solution often consists of various partial solutions’.
3. Top-down approaches. Decisions are often made without consulting those affected by these decisions.
4. The ego is prioritised over the ecosystem. Wilhelm explained that there is a tendency in modern society to constantly want to improve. We want to earn more money, build a career, buy nicer clothes; but in doing so, we lose sight of the greater good. She believes we forget that we’re on the same team; ultimately, we all want to leave the planet in good condition.
5. Lack of vision. Wilhelm asked the audience if they have an idea of what a better world would look like? The room remains silent. She then highlighted that, ‘without vision, there is little to work towards’.
In practice, systems change first means moving away from the idea that we are separate from the rest of the world; that we are not connected to people on the other side of the world or nature. Wilhelm believes it’s important not to isolate yourself from societal systems because without connection, it’s harder to bring about change in those systems. Therefore, change as a systems thinker ultimately starts small and with yourself.
‘Without vision, there is little to work towards.’
A good strategy to start with, according to Wilhelm, is a social innovation lab. This invites people who think completely differently about a problem to discuss it together. This strategy is not without success. For example, following discussions with parents, Coca-Cola decided to pull out of Brazilian primary schools to create a healthier environment for children. ‘People meet as people and become allies in solving the problem, instead of looking for an answer to the question: Who is to blame?’ Wilhelm concluded at the end of her lecture.
The lecture was made possible by the Innbetween, Studium Generale, UM Sustainable 2030 and Studio Europa.
Watch the livestream of Nora Wilhelm’s lecture here.