Designing a Sustainable Future – An Interview with Max Bergman

Prof. Dr. Max Bergman seeks answers to key questions on the challenges set out by the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). He is one of the Chairs of the 8th World Sustainability Forum (WSF) that will take place 14–19 September 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland. The WSF is an event that “encourages participants to go beyond disciplinary boundaries by bringing together academics from different disciplines with policy makers and the business community”, Prof. Bergman says.

The WSF is coordinated by the MDPI Sustainability Foundation, under the patronage of the University of Basel, the University of Geneva, and  the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN SDSN). Prof. Bergman states that events like this are “needed as part of a larger national and political effort to increase awareness, to discuss solutions, and to inspire individuals and organizations to do more and participate actively in designing a sustainable future”. Additionally, he observes that “the most exciting aspect about WSF 2020 is the good will and collaboration between organizations and networks that habitually have their own audiences, networks, and outputs”.

Prof. Bergman’s research is mainly focused on sustainability in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Global Compact: specifically how sustainability intersects business and society in a globalized world. Currently, his group is working on a new research approach entitled Social Transitions Research (STR), which is dedicated to “work closely with the ‘future makers’ and their realm in order to find sustainable solutions to contemporary and future challenges”.

Today’s ‘future makers’ are those working in politics, technology, business, and religion. Therefore, instead of starting with a research question, “STR starts with listening to stakeholders associated with a research area, which includes empathizing and collaborating with them; identifying a focus, research question, or problem based on the previous elements; attempting to solve the problem that was identified; and returning to listening to assess whether the efforts have contributed to a solution of the problem”.

Recently, sustainability has gained considerable ground and many institutions, governments, and companies have aligned their agendas with the sustainability goals, so I wanted to know from Prof. Bergman whether some goals are more important than others. For him, “they are all equally important because they form a system”. In this regard, he points out that “some goals and their respective targets are complementary and not a single goal can be eliminated without creating systemic problems for others”.

For example, as Prof. Bergman explains, “reducing gender inequality will reduce poverty and hunger, and it will improve health, well-being, and education”. However, in practice, “for some researchers, policy makers or businesses, it is the goal that is closest to their competence area that is more important”.

In his opinion, it is impossible for organizations, regions, and nations to make significant contributions to all goals. Thus, for economic, political, or cultural reasons, regions may focus on a subset of goals that will bring the greatest positive impact toward sustainability in line with a specific contextual and cultural landscape.

Next year will mark the 5th anniversary of the SDGs and Prof. Bergman is happy with how much support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement received from the outset. However, he is “frustrated by the backlash we are currently experiencing, especially in the developed economies, often motivated by an attempt to return to a more profitable, comfortable, and selfish space and time”, but at the same time he feels “excited about the (partial) uptake by regional and national programmes, NGOs and NPOs, the business sector, political agendas, so-called developing economies, and, especially, by young people who are leading by example and political commitment”.

Questioned about whether we are on track to achieve the SDGs, Prof. Bergman considers that universities and researchers must do a lot more to fulfil what he considers a fundamental part of their mission: “We, who are older, wealthier, and more privileged need to adapt quickly to new realities and opportunities”.

According to Prof. Bergman, the main reason we are not on track is that we all have difficulties in translating good thoughts and intentions into systematic behavior and habits, and because we are expecting someone else to do their bit. “If they don’t, why should we?”, or “in comparison to X, my or our efforts would be negligible” are typical excuses in this regard, he states.

In challenging economic times, can we even afford to do something about sustainability? Or is it not too late already? He states: “Think about a lifelong smoker. Is it too late to quit? No, the smoker can still benefit from quitting, even if he has lost one lung to cancer and his right foot to gangrene. But it would have been better if he would have quit earlier. In 2030, we will have had sustainability successes but, looking back, we will recognize that we should have started earlier and done more”.

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