Published 2018-01-04

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Bright future for Mistra Urban Futures research

Thomas Rosswall is stepping down as Chair of Mistra Urban Futures. The programme will thus lose a singularly experienced academic leader with an international outlook. However, he believes that the research has prospects of continuing after the end of the programme.
Today, tackling these issues is more topical than ever, he says.

One of the reasons why Rosswall, who had reached retirement age, agreed in 2014 to lead the Board of Mistra Urban Futures was that he wanted to learn something new.

‘I’d got used to dealing with more or less the same questions, moving in the same circles. I could go to meetings and almost guess what people would say,’ he says, when we meet at Mistra’s secretariat.

As usual, Rosswall is elegantly dressed when we meet. He is accustomed to heading complicated processes in academic contexts. He has been the Vice-Chancellor of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). For seven years, he served as Director of the International Council for Science (ICSU), a multifunctional umbrella organisation for the world’s academies of science. One of them is to be, as Thomas Rosswall puts it, ‘the voice of research in the UN’.

‘It also has the role of a kind of Amnesty for researchers around the world who are oppressed or under pressure.’

ISCU has its headquarters in Paris, and Rosswall continued to live in France after retirement. The warmth and light make it more agreeable there, he thinks. But then he started getting more and more assignments in Sweden, and moved back.

He took on several heavyweight roles for Mistra. He led the evaluation group that paved the way for Mistra Biotech. He was on the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Board, and was also the first Chair of the Mistra Council for Evidence-Based Environmental Management (Mistra EviEM).

Mistra Urban Futures was addressing issues that were sufficiently new for the microbiologist from Uppsala University to be persuaded. He had always been interested in global issues. And as SLU’s Vice-Chancellor in the 1990s, he had already spoken of the need for broadened horizons and a common focus for disciplines in the social and natural sciences.

Here, it was all about urban life, sustainable and fair urban planning and issues of development aid — and this was partly unknown terrain for Rosswall.

Mistra Urban Futures is a complex centre with platforms across large parts of the world: Manchester, Cape Town, Kisumu, Gothenburg and nowadays also Lund.

The programme aims to produce knowledge in a new way. Here, principals such as municipalities, regions and government agencies are supposed to participate in the entire research process and, jointly with researchers, formulate the research questions, participate in the research process and then co-own the results.

‘Far from all researchers want to work like that,’ he says. ‘Most people think it’s a muddle. The others may be a small minority, and it’s a matter of finding them.’

Rosswall refers to the ‘Johan Rockströms’ and ‘Hans Roslings’ who are conceivably out there — first-class researchers with intellectual breadth and enough self-confidence to address the big human issues.

‘Of course, not everyone can be like them. But more researchers with fresh thinking are needed since more and more knowledge is going to be produced like this in the future.’

When he took office, Mistra Urban Futures was at a low point. The programme had lasted two years following the two initial pilot years. It was highly unclear whether there would be any continuation. There was too little coordination between the various platforms. One of the early efforts was to appoint a new head of the centre, the South African David Simon, who had long experience of urban research and good contacts in various UN agencies, not least UN-HABITAT (the United Nations Human Settlements Programme).

‘Individually, the platforms did good things, but there was very little cooperation. David Simon led the work jointly with the leaders of the various platforms. And with the Board’s support a programme was developed in which the overall results added up to considerably more than the sum of the individual platforms’ activities,’ said Rosswall.

The Gothenburg platform was the only one that had representatives on the Board. The other platforms felt like hangers-on.

‘We made sure that changed. Leading people from all the platforms got seats on the Board,’ Rosswall says.

Almost immediately, David Simon started a pilot project to find indicators for the UN’s 11th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), ‘Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. It was the first comparative project, and several of the platforms could serve as test beds.

‘We had very good timing,’ said Rosswall. ‘The UN was going to formulate new SDGs and Simon had excellent contacts there. It was by no means obvious that there would be a goal of sustainable cities. And of course we can’t claim that it was our doing. But it was an important job we did there.’

What Rosswall is most proud of is that Mistra Urban Futures got a second term.

‘It wasn’t at all self-evident. We really had to put on a good show, with all the trimmings. But, as the evaluators note, the co-produced research that’s done is, well, verging on world-class.’

During the second phase of the programme, activities have expanded. Lund–Malmö–SLU became a new Skåne platform. Cooperation also began with KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University.

To make more active use of the fact that the centre’s constituent platforms are located in cities in two continents, combining them has been necessary. In the past two years, the programme has held joint conferences: last year in Gothenburg and in October this year in Kisumu, Kenya.

‘In many ways, it was a fantastic conference in Kisumu. Not least, for a long time it looked quite unlikely that holding it would be possible at all, given the unrest in connection with the election in Kenya,’ Rosswall says.

Soon it will be time for Mistra Urban Futures to find further funding. In two years’ time, Mistra’s involvement will end. It will then be ten years since the initiative began.

Rosswall praises Mistra’s long-term initiative. But he also realises that the work of the Board is better led by someone else.

‘It was clear from the start that I’d step aside at this stage. I don’t have the right contact network to lead the Board during the work of finding new core funding.’

Rosswall himself will spend his days taking it easy and ‘cultivating his garden’. He still has some assignments, such as chairing the Research Council of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

And he believes in a future for Mistra Urban Futures, and hopes for continued core funding from Sweden.

‘The time is absolutely ripe for these issues, and Sweden aims to lead the field.’

Thomas Heldmark