Published 2019-12-18This post is also available in Swedish
Iverfeldt moves on
Åke Iverfeldt joined Mistra as a CEO with a to-do list. The tasks included raising the Foundation’s profile and opening it up to the EU. Now, having ticked off the listed items, he leaves the Foundation with a broader international outlook and a highly topical programme portfolio. For himself, the plan is to become a full-time ski bum.
‘Now I’ll spend a few months going off-piste. And then I’ll compete in the Vasaloppet race, both Open Track and the usual,’ says this experienced skier, who is hoping for a snowy winter.
He adds what sounds like a Vasaloppet metaphor: ‘I think I’ve succeeded, and when you reach the finish line it’s time to tackle something new.’
When Iverfeldt took charge of Mistra, he had a plan. It was a kind of internal to-do list —pledges to himself, and to the Board when he first met its members as the newly appointed CEO, in spring 2014. Even before his recruitment, he had made it clear that simply being an administrative manager was not his intention. He wanted to develop the Foundation.
‘I aimed to build on Mistra’s good reputation while modernising its mission. We have the research. We have a good programme portfolio that you could do a lot more with.’
He pledged to boost the number of Mistra-funded programmes, to breathe more life into them and create greater synergies among them, so that better use could be made of research results and ideas. He wanted to strengthen the financial platform and he was to find new ways into the EU, in terms of both research and legislation.
He also wanted to develop research communication. Research should, he thought, have a greater impact and result in a better world. He had a near-Biblical respect for the statute on the Foundation’s purpose: ‘to fund research of strategic importance for a good living environment.’
‘That’s one of the things that make Mistra so wonderful. You’re free, and the only thing you’re bound by is the statutes. And you have to stay faithful to them,’ he says.
When he took the CEO job, he had known Mistra well for a long time. He had followed the Foundation since its inception, when he was involved in an application that was rejected — correctly, he says: they had not yet fully grasped Mistra’s ideas about interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder programmes.
‘I also knew many of the people on the first Board and in the Secretariat. I had the Mistra story in me and have kept up with the Foundation’s activities all along. As soon as I arrived here, I felt I’d ended up in the right place. Here, my interests in research, the environment and financial markets came together. I also saw a great opportunity to further develop what we do with our investments.’
So, almost six years later, how does he think those pledges have been kept?
‘It feels as if I’ve done what I promised the Board and myself. I feel truly proud of what all my well-qualified, skilled co-workers and I have accomplished. It’s also been fun. Going to work has been easy and it’s been a privilege to work as an effective team with these talented high-flyers.’
Under his leadership, some 20 new Mistra programmes — about three a year — have started. Regular conferences for the programme directors have been held to bring about the ‘crosstalk’ Iverfeldt called for.
The Foundation’s presence on the European stage has been strengthened, thanks in particular to its collaboration with the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). This think tank has also had a say in several Mistra programmes, most recently as a partner in Mistra Carbon Exit.
A year ago, Mistra Dialogue was launched as a platform and idea workshop to disseminate Mistra’s research and open the door to the EU for its affiliated researchers.
This is because Brussels is where more than half of all environmental legislation comes into being. If you want to influence it you must be present there, Iverfeldt argues.
Iverfeldt emphasises the importance of generating demand for research results among decision makers. They must want and ask for them. This calls for trust and an expectation of research results to be established through continuous dialogue — efforts that should begin early.
‘it’s no good waiting for eight years, until the programme is over, before starting to talk to the outside world. Getting a programme from Mistra means you’re an expert and have knowledge to convey. By the time the programme starts, you should have activities and a plan for how to communicate the results.’
Research communication, he argues, is about not just reaching out, but also reaching in —and becoming relevant to those who can and need to turn the results into reality. For this reason, Mistra Dialogue has got off to a flying start with several meetings and seminars in Brussels.
‘I’ve clarified our role as an active force in society, not a passive funder. We should be seen. We must stand at the barricades, but we should always back up what we say with scientific knowledge. That’s how I’ve seen it.’
Iverfeldt was a PhD chemist by training, but as his career progressed he became closely involved in sustainable finance. Before joining Mistra, he was Executive Vice President of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, with responsibility for business development and markets.
Quite soon after he took the helm at Mistra, several financial-market initiatives were announced. In September 2014, Misum was started at the Stockholm School of Economics. A few years later came the Mistra Financial Systems programme.
‘In the ’90s, I’d already worked with the financial industry and learnt that uncertainties in financial analyses are much greater than those in environmental analyses. From that, a conviction was born in me that by taking sustainability into account and having a long-term perspective you reduce risks rather than increasing them.’
This view — that by being a sustainable investor who also generates a good return, you show the way for others — also characterises Mistra’s own asset management. During his tenure as CEO, Iverfeldt has intensified this work and pressed ahead.
‘I’ve seen that Mistra’s work has three pillars: research funding, knowledge dissemination and asset management.’
Of the programmes started during his time, he is reluctant to highlight one at the expense of any other. However, he mentions Mistra Carbon Exit as a vital initiative. It started in 2016 as a response to the Government’s climate-policy goal, and Swedish legislation, on zero net carbon emissions in Sweden by 2045.
‘Fair enough, but how is it to be done? Mistra Carbon Exit sets out to help answer that question.’
Another especially well-timed programme is Mistra Geopolitics, which started at a time when Sweden was experiencing major migration flows and gained a seat on the UN Security Council. But during the current programme period, too, Trump, Putin, China, Brexit and generally growing geopolitical instability have made the programme even more relevant.
In a complex job with much to bear in mind, from various fields of knowledge, what has been the most difficult aspect?
‘Keeping track of new knowledge is my lifeblood. I’m driven by curiosity, so that in particular hasn’t been difficult… What was a challenge, on the other hand, was finding a new office when we had to leave our old one. I realised how important it was for the brand to locate the right premises that would give the right impression, without it costing too much.’
This most daunting task, a purely administrative one, ended well: in 2017, Mistra moved from Gamla Brogatan in central Stockholm to another equally central address, in Sveavägen. In an interview film from the year’s annual report, Iverfeldt guides the viewer around the second-hand furniture bought online, the carpet made from old fishing nets, and the recycled furniture in the conference room.
‘Trying to find an office that reflects what we stand for wasn’t easy. And we wanted to be close to the Central Station because we’re a meeting place. But now that we’ve been in the new premises for a couple of years, I think it’s an upgrade.’
From the New Year, Linda Bell will be acting Chief Executive and manage the team. From summer 2020, Mistra’s new CE Anna Jöborn will take her place in the Sveavägen premises. By then, Iverfeldt’s ski season may be over and he will have found other challenges and projects to dive into.
‘I’ve been striving for the core values for society that I believe in, and I’ll continue to do so in some way.’
His successor-to-be, Anna Jöborn from the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management, is someone Iverfeldt knows and has confidence in. But he is still cautious about giving advice.
‘I know her well and it’ll be great. She’ll have the world’s most enjoyable job and ample scope for influence,’ Iverfeldt says.
CEO of Mistra: 2014-2020
Background: chemist, University of Gothenburg PhD in 1985
Former Executive Vice President of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute 1999–2014
Text: Thomas Heldmark