Making Change Happen - the Story

How can fundamental change of the magnitude needed to avoid climate breakdown be realized? Can it be achieved within the existing systems? Are they fit for this purpose or does it require a paradigm shift? We will have to zoom out to regain perspective and to slow down to take a turn and adapt. 

This conference brought together the voices, experiences, ambitions and concerns from a wide range of actors. Reflecting on what it takes to make change happen. The talks highlighted that we should each recognize the limitations of our own perspective. None of us has the full picture. So allow yourself the discomfort of true rethinking and appreciate the crossovers. Welcome to our Conference Story!

Making Change Happen, the theme of this year's conference, was introduced by Maarten Hajer, Scientific Director of Pathways to Sustainability. "At the university we teach how existing systems work, whether it is in the domain of law, governance or physical systems. But the question is, in particular to the socio-cultural systems, whether they are fit for purpose. That is something we need to address in order to have a meaningful dialogue between the different branches of the University. So that is why we are here today."

Economist Mariana Mazzucato joined us online from Rome, where she attended the G7 panel. Her message was quite clear: We need to stop fixing. The real big radical change that is required is moving away from a fixing approach towards one that is about co-creating and co-shaping, and actually designing a system that is more inclusive and sustainable right from the start. What is the role of universities in this? Often it’s the fuzzy places in the middle, where random conversations happen, where change happens. Universities should be more explicit in creating those places were serendipity can happen.

We need to stop fixing and design a system that is more inclusive and sustainable right from the start

Mariana Mazzucato

UU honorary doctor, climate scientist and IPCC co-chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte gave us a climate scientist perspective of Making Change Happen. It is obvious that climate change is affecting every region, and not only the remote places, as we believed in the past. Many changes are irreversible for centuries or millennia. But the magnitude and the rate of these changes strongly depend on what we choose to do regarding emissions in the coming decades.

Future climate extremes are like the pandemic, it’s not unexpected, but we are not prepared and are running behind

Valérie Masson-Delmotte

How would you see a role for the IPCC in the public debate? Empower scientists to have their voice heard. Write not only a summary for policymakers, but also for citizens. There is a growing curiosity from citizens across the world. People want to understand and have ownership on climate information and transparency on climate policy. The knowledge of the public domain has to be based on facts, not just opinions. How does she keep hope? "Hope is critical, personally cycling helps a lot for my mental health. Working in a team, thinking of the mental health of young people who receive climate information. And making sure scientific knowledge is shared."

Edgar Pieterse, founding director of the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, let us feel uncomfortable and made us face the facts. Only 14 per cent of the world’s population live in the Global North, yet, it represents 73 per cent of the world’s income. While the end of the COVID pandemic is in sight for the Global North, less than 1 per cent of the COVID-19 vaccins have been delivered to low-income countries. Colonization lives on, in institutionalized racism, in discrimination.

Colonial reverberations can only be understood through an inhabitation of pain. Inhabitation matters.

Edgar Pieterse

We need to build autonomous institutions around the developmental and spiritual needs of the most trampled upon. Our sustainability discourses remain far too elitous, far too formal, far too top-down and far too paternalistic. We need to repurpose and remake the education systems for all: mainstreaming the business of un-learning and learning to live differently.

Writer and theatre maker Marjolijn van Heemstra took us on a night walk. "I will talk about darkness and about urgency. Urgency is a beautiful word, and it makes people leap into action. As a society we respond to climate change by setting the clock to 5 to 12. But this unleashes restless haste that gets us into trouble, chasing life, a rush that makes it impossible for us to start living differently. It keeps us trapped in bad habits and gives us tunnel vision. You can only adopt a new position if you slow down. If you take a turn at lightning speed, you will crash. We have to do a lot, and undo a lot. Learn and unlearn. How to move in such a paradoxical world? The answer: go dark, roll into the night. We need more darkness."

I wish you darkness and silence and undoing

Marjolijn van Heemstra

"We should welcome darkness, but instead we banish it. The constant light has an impact on our own biorhythm, and there is a huge impact on our ecosystem. Insects and birds circle artificial light until they are completely exhausted. Nighttime is essential for change. Darkness in our culture is danger, but there are a lot of cultures where darkness is a time for healing and transformation. By losing the night we lost an important tool of transformation. It is not too late, there is still darkness and we can still get it back. I wish you darkness and silence and undoing."

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A Just Transition - No Time to Waste

Waste is one of the biggest challenges of this time. Ernst Worrell, Heba Allah Khalil and Aàdesokan took us on a journey from the scientific perspective of waste and circular economy, via Cairo's transition to circularity, to living on waste in the slums in Nigeria and the metaphor of waste for migration and displacement. As Ernst Worrell said "There are no easy solutions, the second law of thermodynamics tells us it is impossible to go to zero waste, because that law ‘likes’ waste and corrosion. We need to recycle materials but even more we need to use products longer, products based on recycled materials. A circular society serves everybody, serves the planet. And that is where science comes in. We can develop the visions of such a society, develop the pathways towards those shared visions and develop the technologies. And shape and build a better sustainable tomorrow."

Heba Allah Khalil reflected on how we can calculate resource flows in megacities while tackling data scarcity and informal urbanism. Consuming less does not mean that you are more green. Maybe you are just poorer. Research in Caïro reveals that informal systems make the city circular, given the high level of reusing in informal areas.

If I was trash, I could move freely. Throw something in the ocean and it goes anywhere. But as a Nigerian I can't move freely.


Nigerian artist and engineer Aàdesokan wants to make us think. Think of spaces that are very present but that for some reason we consciously ignore. "Displaced migrants come from the West-African countryside to waste disposal sites in the megacities. They survive on waste and show us how you can always adapt. They have no other choice but to adapt. As humanity we could come to the same position."

So there is No Time to Waste!

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Making Change Happen - in all sorts of variations

What can you do yourself or what should we do as citizens or scholars. In the afternoon there was a variety of small activities and breakout sessions to discuss Making Change yourself. Doing Scholar-Activism: Tension and PossibilitiesIn therapy ... with Breukers and GodrieMaking collaborative projects for radical innovation workMission-driven innovation: the case of green chemistry, Are you Waterproof?!Green MediaHow Open is your Science?KlimaatHelpdeskUULABS

  • Interactive therapy with Breukers and Godrie. Credit: Robert Oosterbroek
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Making Change Happen during the Week

Utrecht University aims for students across all disciplines to be acquainted with sustainability and to be able to contribute to a sustainable society after their graduation. How can we achieve this goal and which knowledge, skills and attitudes should students acquire/have? Interdisciplinarity, system thinking, co-learning and gaming are goals and means that were discussed and experienced in Graduate Attributes for Sustainability and the challenge-based game Utrecht2040.

How can researchers, governments and citizens improve collaboration to guide for example Urban Sustainability Transformations or the Energy Transition. Over the past four years, the Sustainable Industry Lab brought the awareness to the university that getting your hands dirty with the 'big hairy issues of society' is not something to be looked down upon.

The climate is changing and flood risk is increasing. We have to adapt, but how? Participants of the Enabling Ecosystem-based Adaptation for Climate Adaptation workshop agreed that ecosystem-based adaptation is a sustainable solution to tackle climate change and societal issues. During the workshop Enabling Transition in Flood Risk Management it became apparent that citizens need to take a more active role in flood risk management.

The project gallery of the Future Food Hub provided a colourful and diverse overview of research projects. From encouraging people to make sustainable choices - if we know that familiar people are making sustainable food choices, we appear to be more inclined to make similar choices ourselves - to labour implications of genome editing - new jobs may be created, existing jobs may be transformed or become obsolete. From the world of milk and domesticated lettuce to Africa and Southeast Asia to discuss the consequences for food and nutrition security of major natural and socioeconomic changes.

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Full conference video