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Reflections on the Transformations Conference 2023

The Transformations Conference 2023 was an interesting experience. I had the chance to gain many impressions and I won’t be able to reflect on all of them here. The conference was split up into four conference venues. The main conference, which I attended, was in Sydney. There were two more physical conference venues, one in Europe (Prague) and one in the USA (Portland). Additionally, the conference was online, offering full online and hybrid sessions.

I try to implement sustainability as much as possible in my personal and work life. And there is no way I can rose-color a trip to Australia, so I won’t. I used some online tools to get an idea of my footprint. I created about 5 tons of CO2. I have a yearly CO2 budget of about 2 tons, which means that this travel used up more than 2 years of my CO2 budget. The sad thing is, if I can trust the online tools, despite trying to reduce my footprint, I do not manage to stay within my yearly budget. Thus, I cannot counterbalance the CO2 I have emitted now in the next years. That is a problem and I do not know what to do about it. Without wanting to rose-color it, I am sure I won’t travel that far soon again. 20 hours of flight time was draining. Complaining about a long flight is a privileged people problem…. And I felt very privileged. This trip allowed me to see and experience many things. Thus, I appreciate it!

I was scared of encountering big or dangerous spiders, but I did not. So Australia’s wildlife presented itself from its best side. I learned a bit about Australian culture and enjoyed some beautiful Australian nature. When I saw a Koala, I was so touched that I almost started to cry. But then I did not because the Australian man next to me started to tell me a story about a family member getting attacked by a Kola and severely injured. Although I was scared of doing it, I went snorkeling and it was breathtakingly beautiful. I wandered through the rainforest and appreciated a stunning view through the window of a historic train. I took a swim in a volcanic lake, which is inhabited by a sweet water crocodile. I was assured that they are shy. I guess I went native and did what the Australians do I took a swim. Due to my diet, I could not really enjoy Australian cuisine. No crocodile steak for me. Though, I had a burger! Something I haven’t had in years. A vegan and gluten-free burger. I have heard of beyond meat on YouTube, but I do not have access to it, so I could not try it so far. I am not a big fan of fake meat and fake cheese, but it was a delicious treat I have to admit! In Sydney, the conference consumed my time, so I did not really do much sightseeing. Though I had a brief glance at the harbor bridge and the opera house. Exhausted from the flight, I sat down in a park and figured it was Hyde Park. The conference reception was in the Town Hall and the One Central Park building is opposite the University of Technology Sydney, which was the conference venue. And I visited two boulder gyms, but I suppose that is not classic sightseeing.

The conference topic was transformative partnerships. Thus, the main question discussed was how to build partnerships, how partnerships can help to scale up change, how partnerships can help to create agency, and how we can profit from knowledge diversity in partnerships. My contribution was about organizing processes in an agile manner and what is needed apart from the process to create a work environment that fosters learning in collaborative research projects. Some of the topics that I mentioned in my talk popped up throughout the conference; trust and time.

Creating and maintaining partnerships (or any kind of collaboration) needs trust. That is highlighted in the literature about Agile as well. If you want people to apply a trial-and-error process, you need to make sure that people feel safe enough to fail. We all know that we only open up in partnerships if we really trust the other person. The same is true for work-related partnerships. I think that trust or the lack thereof quite significantly influences the flow of information. I might not be open to receiving information or scrutinizing it more than necessary if I do not trust the other person. Likewise, I might not share information or filter it a lot if I do not trust the other person.

Building trust takes time. And time is what we do not have. Though it was made clear in one session that we do have time. The question is what we do with the time and where we set priorities. When we start a project, we meet project partners and just want to get things going. But we often do not take the time to build a good basis for the collaboration. That might not only be the fault of researchers who do not integrate trust-building activities. Stakeholders also often do not have the time to do this. Agile literature discusses time issues as well. For example, it is suggested that researchers work full-time on one project. That is highly unrealistic in research. People are overworked and meetings have to be planned months in advance. Team building activities are understood as a burden. It consumes time that could be used to be productive.

Through a conversation, I was also made aware of a downside of Agile. In Agile literature, one finds the suggestion to, by default, set meetings to 15 minutes. We all know about the endless meetings that are not useful. In response to this, the suggestion is to keep meetings short. Though, one person (without referring to Agile) stated how difficult it is to really have a conversation with a manager because that person only has 15 minutes slots. This reminded me of the irony of applying processes and technologies that are meant to give us more time but end up taking time. I assume if we cut meetings to 15 minutes, we do not simply have shorter meetings. We have shorter AND more meetings. Thus, stress increases. This is similar to technology which is said to give us time. Though in the end we just crunch more stuff into a day which makes us have less time and more stress. Imagine a review process would not work electronically but via letters. Imagine, there were no e-mails but only letters. The speed of conversations would slow down significantly. With life speeding up, we are expected to do so much more, to be hyper-productive. In the end, all we do is hustle, from one meeting to the next. Maintaining quality in such a setting is difficult. Building trusting relationships becomes a struggle.

Another point that stood out to me was the way we collaborate. I listened up when one person stated: “How about waiting with this activity to give the introverts time to process?” We talk a lot about diversity. What is yet not really discussed is neurodiversity. That is remarkable, since in research the number of neurodiverse people is higher than in other sectors. That is because some neurodiverse people, such as autistic people, like knowledge, tend to hyperfocus, seek a work environment where they can self-organize, have limited contact with other people, etc. Autistic people are highly creative and out-of-the-box thinkers, which also makes them perfectly fit into research. About 80% of the world population are extroverts and the world is built in their way. Introverts have no other possibility than adapt (to their detriment). That means that collaborations follow the preferences of extroverts. It means that partnerships follow the preferences of extroverts.

Collaborations and partnerships seem to be an important topic in movements that suggest alternative futures. That can be observed in ecovillages or in the degrowth movement. Following movements such as degrowth I happened to find that although they try to be inclusive, through the emphasis of collaboration, they are actually excluding people. I was once at a degrowth festival, and the first activity was staring other people (strangers) in the eyes and getting touched by these people. People enjoyed it, apart from me. The solution was, that those who do not like this ice-breaker activity can go to the side and wait until the activity is over. That is excluding people. At the conference, we had a workshop where we had to make a story out of random objects. From what ai know many autistic people will struggle with this. There might be people who reject such an activity. In the final plenary perfumed sheets of paper were handed out. I am hyper-sensitive to smells. Going into a perfumery is torture (and going in one to buy a gift is a sign of love). I had to leave the room because the whole plenary room was filled with this sent. That is how one can create exclusion without intending it. My point is that when we bring partnerships and collaboration to the center, we have to think about inclusion. That also applies to the workspace. If you have a neurodivergent person on the team, you have to make adjustments. Just as you would if you had a blind person on the team. Though, this is hardly happening and there is still a lot of discrimination. I myself have to earn much more about this topic.

Finally, I want to mention the focus on worldviews, paradigms, and inner transformations. Many sessions discussed this topic. One session I particularly enjoyed connected the interpretations of sustainability (weak and strong) with the leverage points of Donella Meadows. We first had to reflect on the meaning of weak and strong sustainability. Then, in small groups or pairs, we had to analyze a problem using leverage points. It was so interesting because the discussion we ended up having exactly reflected different worldviews. In another session, a presenter talked about the connection between intentional actions and identity and how those two influence each other. That is a topic I was very much interested some time ago.

I liked the format of the conference. It was not just one talk after the other. Talks were rather short, and the focus was on discussion. That for example allowed me to geek out and ask follow-up questions in a small group setting. Due to the focus on active participation, many sessions were workshops. I think it is a stellar idea to have workshops at conferences because it allows you to not only hear about methods but experience them firsthand. I think this is a great way to learn about methods.

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