Linda Carton FM Focus
Linda Carton FM Focus

‘Universities need to connect with practitioners more’

Both are concerned with sustainability. One from science, the other from practice. What problems do they encounter? What common ground is there? And how can science and practice reinforce each other? ‘As a university, we need to go that extra mile.’

Making cities and regions more sustainable is the common theme in Assistant Professor Linda Carton’s research. ‘I provide methodical support for planning processes. I do this using intervention methods and dialogues, such as simulation games and citizen science. You can visualise and simplify issues using games like these. Take our Carbon Game as an example: players have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming below two degrees. This kind of simulation makes it easier for players to understand different positions and responsibilities, and then negotiate with each other. In citizen science, for example, citizens measure air quality. Local measurements can help finetune scientific models. This means you learn which aspects of sustainability you can influence.’

Jody de Graaf

Jody de Graaf completed her Bachelor’s in Geography, Spatial Planning and Environment (GPM), where she had lectures from Carton and others. After completing a Master’s in Sustainable Cities in Copenhagen, she now works at the municipality of Rotterdam as programme manager on making owners associations (VvEs) and housing associations more sustainable. ‘We’re looking for a range of instruments to help us with the sustainability challenges Rotterdam faces. This often requires tailoring solutions. If you introduce a subsidy scheme, for example, you want it to reach the right people. And in a big city, with a huge pile of tasks, aligning goals and activities and combining them where possible is quite a challenge. I also have to consider political and administrative interests, such as those of aldermen and the municipal council.’

Clarity and support

Although the two are not currently working together, De Graaf can imagine that Carton’s expertise could be of added value in Rotterdam. ‘For neighbourhood councils, for example. These are elected representatives, and each council has to draw up a plan of action for the neighbourhood. Ideally, they would like the municipality to fulfil their wishes first, but we can’t work everywhere at once. A simulation game about the question of ‘where we are doing what and when’ could create clarity and generate support.’

Carton recognises the situation. ‘We conducted a citizen science project with residents in Nijmegen. We established a citizen sensor network with small, low-cost sensors that could take environmental measurements, where citizens could monitor air quality and noise. People saw how complex things were in that project, but they also saw that their streets were not nearly as dirty as some others. During evening workshops, researchers, graduates, student assistants, citizens, experts from the municipality and participating companies came together to share insights. In the dialogues that took place during these workshops, participants gained a better understanding of why the municipality prioritised tackling pollution in some places over others. Furthermore, people felt more included in the decision-making process than if the approach had only been discussed at a council meeting.’

Linda Carton

Practice shows the way

On the other side, Carton values practical experience. ‘Practice really shows the way. We mainly see problems in the built environment when implementing climate policies. Industry is relatively easy to change because it is a professional environment. However, residential areas are much more diverse and complex. Practice can provide us with people’s lived dilemmas and questions: what makes people willing or unwilling, or able or unable to make their homes and consumption habits more sustainable? We can learn a lot from that as scientists. At the same time, I also sometimes think: why does practice do so little with our research?’

Frankly, we get very little exposure to the insights from this kind of research,’ De Graaf responds. ‘The question is then, how can we find each other better? For example, I would benefit from research into the question of what dilemmas VvEs face and how can they be overcome?’ Carton: ‘As scientists, we exchange knowledge regularly at conferences. It might be an idea to organise planning conferences for practitioners together with the VNG [Association of Netherlands Municipalities, ed.] Then we could show municipalities what research we are doing.’ ‘What a good idea!’, De Graaf immediately responds. ‘I would definitely be interested in that.’ Carton: ‘I think that we, as a university, should go the extra mile: seek greater connection and work more intensively with practitioners. I’m convinced there’s a lot of potential there to learn from each other.’

Nijmegen School of Management will celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2023. An interdisciplinary view and a different perspective are very important for the faculty. The anniversary theme is thus: ‘Through another lens’. Can Linda Carton and Jody de Graaf recognise themselves in this?

Linda Carton: ‘I remember an article from the journal Nature Climate Change, which visualised the remaining carbon budget. That’s the amount of CO2 we can still emit in the future if we want to meet climate targets. It provides a very different view of the damage we are causing. If you look at things from that perspective, what we need to do and the sacrifices we have to make to do so become much clearer. Using a scientifically sound representation of the carbon budget means we can make better decisions.’

Jody de Graaf: ‘I knew nothing about VvEs when I came to work in Rotterdam. Now I know: making ground-floor houses more sustainable is complex, but many VvEs are already starting on the back foot. They often have overdue upkeep costs and do not save enough. This means VvEs have to play catch-up to get to the same level as other dwellings. The backlog was a real eye-opener for me. I remember looking at something ‘from a different perspective’ from my studies too. I took the ‘Klimaatverandering: wetenschap en beleid’ (climate change: science and policy) course, in which students from a variety of disciplines participated. A picture of the Zandmotor [an artificial sandbank off the North Sea coast, shaped like a peninsula, ed.] was shown during a presentation. The lecturer asked who knew what it was? I thought: surely everyone knows that? After all, you were bombarded with them while studying GPM. However, a fellow student asked: ‘Is it a work of art?’ That has always stuck with me: what makes sense to me may not make sense to others. That’s important if you want to get that other person on board - in terms of sustainability, for example.’

Text: Machiel van Zanten

Photo: Duncan de Fey & pk-photography