Imagined futures and real change: an interview with Joost Vervoort

The transformation to sustainable and just societies needs contributions from everyone – from activists demanding change, visionaries experimenting with new solutions and historians learning from the past, to scientists creating new insights, entrepreneurs creating new business models, and dedicated civil servants working to steer governments towards sustainable decisions. But how do these moving parts come together for change to actually happen?

Photo of Joost Vervoort with his paintings
Joost Vervoort mobilizes his imagination in his free time as well, painting album covers for metal bands. Photo: Julia Hinteregger

Sustainable Development is a two-year Utrecht University Master’s programme for students who want to contribute to this transformation, understand how change happens in the real world and learn how they can contribute in a way that helps them to flourish, be inspired and happy.

We sit down with Joost Vervoort, Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development and lecturer on the programme to get to know him and his teaching philosophy.

Can you tell us about what you focus on in your work?

I'm broadly interested in thinking about how different imagined futures impact real societal change and asking how that change comes about. What does it look like? What are the politics behind different futures, and how do they impact lived action in the present?  

Tell us about the new course you are developing: or the Sustainable Development Master’s Programme: Theories of Change in Action.

Theories of Change in Action explores how different societal groups and organizations think about how change happens. Students will go out into the world and engage with different organizations to get a deep sense of their unacknowledged assumptions about how and why the world has changed, and what their role may be in that change.

How do people think that change and action come about?

It's super diverse, which is the point of Theories of Change in Action! Take climate court cases, for example. They’re partly a symbolic way to talk about justice in the issue of climate change in society and that’s the most powerful thing about them. And what about people who do not feel a sense of responsibility to change their perspective? This sort of change happens one person at a time; you influence your friends, your circle, your family and cultural shifts happen gradually.

I'm broadly interested in thinking about how different imagined futures impact real societal change and asking how that change comes about.

An example that has impacted me a lot was connected to Fossielvrij (Fossil Free), a group that campaigned for one of the biggest pension funds in the world to divest from fossil fuels. Over the years there was lots of pressure from activists and the idea started to be taken more seriously. People with more perceived authority got involved, like mayors and senior academics. The threat of a court case drove more attention to the cause. But things also needed to happen internally among the ABP board — an internal awareness around the severity of climate change and the impact of funding and investing in fossil fuels.

Which other courses are you teaching right now?

I teach in both Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes at the Faculty of Geosciences, where I try to integrate engagement with societal challenges, focusing on active transformation towards more sustainable futures. I want to give students a sense of empowerment but also remain honest that it is super difficult to bring about meaningful change. Next to Theories of Change in Action I coordinate two BSc courses. Global Transformation Project is a second-year BSc Global Sustainability Science course where teams work together with national experts from around the world on transformation pathways towards a better future. The Sustainability Game is a collaboration with Utrecht University of the Arts (HKU) where students build games engaging with sustainable futures for clients like Utrecht Municipality.

What is your academic background? What did you study that brought you along this path?

I studied biology at Utrecht University and almost became a neuroscientist. Realising I was interested in a more systemic approach, I ultimately focused on ecology and did a master's in Natural Resources Management here at UU. I then went on to do a PhD at Wageningen University, which explored how we can help people think about what the future might bring, both by sharing their own perspectives on social and ecological complexity and by getting to know the perspectives of others.

What we are trying to do with the program is to help students explore how change actually works and deeply understand the challenges of different kinds of change. What change pathways connect and resonate most with you as a person with your own skills, interests, and concerns?

After my PhD I jumped in the deep end, leading a project at Oxford University that used scenarios to guide national policies in seven global regions, focusing on climate change, agriculture and food security. The aim was to help governments reconsider their strategies in light of all kinds of uncertain future scenarios. And because we were able to involve representatives from different groups and vulnerable communities it also helped make those policies and strategies more democratic. However, what you can achieve in policy processes is framed and limited by the broader politics of the context that you're working in. For this reason I decided to shift my focus to the politics that shape and are shaped by societal imagination and debates, which slowly moved my interest towards the media and to creative practices.

Is your interest in game design also rooted in this approach? Can you elaborate a bit on why you find this important?

My interest in shared imagined futures is part of why much of my current research is on game design. One project I’m particularly excited about explores how we can transform the European game industry, both its carbon footprint and - the part that I'm the most interested in - how games can help imagine the future. So many stories and worlds within gaming are focused on the future, and compared to other media like film or music so much more possible in terms of what games can do to help us imagine different futures. 

At the moment I’m playing a big role in the development of a game called All Rise, which is directly inspired by climate court cases and climate activism. Climate court cases are very dynamic, vivid realities that lend themselves to making exciting, fun, weird, political, subversive, funny and absurd games. The All Rise team involves some of the best people from the commercial gaming industry who are all dedicated to making games to help change something for the better.

How do you help students along their journeys? And what are some highlights of your work with students?

The Master’s students I supervise are doing research on a variety of subjects, including popular video games, climate activism and psychedelic experiences. I really try to encourage adventurous and novel projects. One story that comes to mind is of a student who originally wanted to do her thesis on something technocratic like AI and or blockchain. We discussed it in detail and I suggested climate court cases as an alternative, as they are both politically transformative and challenging the status quo in unique ways. In the end, the student wrote a wonderful thesis that really engaged the politics and ethics around climate change. She became involved in climate activism as well, which opened a whole new path for her. 

What would be your message to students considering our Master’s in Sustainable Development?

What we are trying to do with the program is to help students explore how change actually works and deeply understand the challenges of different kinds of change. What change pathways connect and resonate most with you as a person with your own skills, interests, and concerns? Where can you contribute in a way that helps you flourish, inspires you, makes you happy, and helps create a better future? It's very much about who you are and what your capacities, interests and inspirations are in the process of trying to create a better world.

Interested in applying to our Master’s in Sustainable Development? Find out more, entry requirements and application deadlines on the programme website.