Challenge Lab: A transformative and integrative approach for
John Holmberg1, David Andersson2, Johan Larsson1
1Division of Physical Resource Theory, Department of Energy and Environment, Chalmers University of
Technology, SE-412 96 Gothenburg, Sweden. E-mail: email@example.com
2Division MORE - Management of Organizational Renewal and Entrepreneurship, Chalmers School of
Entrepreneurship, Chalmers University of Technology, SE-412 96 Gothenburg, Sweden.
We present a model where master students act as change agents, inducing sustainability transitions in
socio-technical systems by applying backcasting.
Creating transitions in a complex socio-technical system, where universities need to collaborate with the
public- and private sector (the triple helix) is often hindered by various kinds of lock-ins.
In Sweden, previous attempts to solve this include companies, governmental bodies and researchers
acting individually to bring together stakeholders to dislodge these lock-ins. To complement this, a neutral
“Challenge Lab” arena was created, where master students run transformative backcasting projects.
Interviews with triple helix stakeholders were conducted. Industrial stakeholders claim the students were
in a unique position as unthreatening, yet challenging. Academic stakeholders highlight students as
unravelling issues and going deeper in the questions resulting in quicker processes and trust in their own
dialogue work. Public sector stakeholders claim dialogue resulted in true personal opinions coming to the
surface and another stakeholder modified their overall climate strategy as a result of the change agent
The study indicates that students are unthreatening yet challenging change agents, catalysing trust on
various triple helix system levels. Other universities can adopt this model for engaging in sustainability
Keywords: Sustainability transitions, Backcasting, Change agent, Challenge lab, Transition arena
Current societal responses towards complex issues and persistent problems such as climate change,
biodiversity losses, resource scarcity/unfair distribution, have been considered partial by either getting the
prices right or creating win-win solutions through technological development or proposing a radical value
shift. They have also been considered insufficient to bring about the necessary changes such as re-
shaping energy-, transportation- and urban systems. To overcome this narrow focus on either prices,
technology or behaviour, the concept of socio-technical transitions was introduced, looking at dynamic
interactions and co-evolution between the three elements mentioned, addressing change at concrete
sectoral and/or system levels. A good overview of this can be found in Geels, Hekkert and Jacobsson
A socio-technical transition does not per se guarantee a development path leading towards sustainability.
Transitions with the characteristic of leading towards sustainability are purposive (Smith, Stirling &
Berkhout, 2005) and therefore in need of guidance (Loorbach, 2010; 2007; Rotmans, Kemp & van Asselt,
2001). Efforts to create them are often hindered as current systems are subject to various kinds of lock-
ins (Unruh, 2000; Walker, 2000).
Several authors propose systemic approaches to tackle complex challenges (eg. Senge, Hamilton &
Kania, 2015; Ehrenfeldt, 2005; Forrester, 1994) and in the field of sustainability transitions they would
benefit from including strategies to deal with lock-ins. Not least UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
seems to talk about lock-ins in a synthesis report on the Post-15 Agenda, where transformation is the aim
and watchword to step away from business as usual. He states that the challenges are universal and
results “from actions and omissions of people, public institutions, the private sector and others…” (United
Nations, 2014, p. 4) and demands multilateral action, based on evidence and built on shared values,
principles and priorities. The approach should be holistic and integrated where the three interdependent
dimensions of sustainability are considered. The six elements of dignity, people, prosperity, planet,
justice, and partnership are defined to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and considered
essential to frame and reinforce the universal, integrated and transformative nature of a sustainable
development agenda (United Nations, 2014). In this paper, we divide lock-ins in two broad categories in
order to simplify the following discussion.
The first lock-in concerns difficulties achieving structural change since existing systems are stabilized by
mechanisms creating path dependencies (Unruh, 2000; Walker, 2000). The system that exists hinders us
from seeing what alternative systems could be. Furthermore, institutions in the system have vested
interests and use their power to resist change and withstand external pressures (Geels, 2010). This is
referred to as a system lock-in since it takes a macro- and top-down perspective on it. Hence, there is a
need for frameworks that free the mind from the present situation and make systems open for transitions.
One way of approaching the system lock-in would be to dislodge path dependencies and the culture of
incremental change - when current development is either not pointing towards sustainability or being too
slow to reach agreed and/or necessary targets. This strengthens the necessity of transformative
approaches where there is a need to create an understanding of the gap between an envisioned future
state and the current situation (Holmberg, 1998; Senge et al., 2015; Stewart, 1993).
The second lock-in considered is of a normative character: actors tend to work in silo-settings dealing
with one issue at a time, locked in themselves with few or narrow perspectives struggling with
reductionism. The insufficient level of awareness leads to the creation of sub-optimal solutions on
complex issues that give rise to externalities, cf., Jordan (2011) especially on perspective awareness1.
This is referred to as a normative lock-in since it takes a micro- and bottom-up perspective on the
difficulties. This calls for an integration of actors, perspectives and issues.
When it comes to approaching normative lock-ins hindering sustainability, a potential solution would be to
increase the level of collaboration across borders, to co-create the future system as a whole by having
1 Jordan describes in a framework on meaning-making structures of societal change agents’ five types of
awarenesses: complexity, context, stakeholder, self, and perspective.
integrative approaches towards the challenges. This could be realized by conducting dialogues to build
trust within and between organisations/institutions, and understand others’ perspectives (Jewell-Larsen &
Sandow, 1999; Jordan, 2011). Sustainability transitions are - after all - interactions between technology,
policy/power/politics, economics/business/markets, and culture/discourse/public opinion (Geels, 2011).
One actor in society that by tradition has worked with the interactions above mentioned is the university.
Over time, they are often a more stable presence than the industries in a region, last longer than one
mandate period - and can, due to its institutional stability - be a long-term actor. In the triple-helix, the
university has the capacity and mandate to conduct education, research and innovation. Also referred to
as the knowledge triangle. These capacities makes it natural for universities to take on a special role in
building regional knowledge clusters in a neutral, open and inviting way (Holmberg, 2014). Not least the
university students might have a unique role in the transitions, as they can be a “bonding medium”
building trust between stakeholders in the triple helix and question mental models. Students can take this
role as they have the dual capability of being unthreatening yet challenging. Unthreatening, since most
stakeholders at some point have been a student, therefore know their situation and can identify with
them. In addition, students seldom represent a certain establishment in society with economic,
organisational or power incentive stakes in the challenge at hand. Students are challenging as they are
knowledgeable and can question current modus operandi by introducing new perspectives. To bring forth
the potential that students possess, they need space for change and to be trusted as change agents. It is
also helpful for them to operate from a neutral arena (Holmberg, 2014). Universities with their students
thus have the potential to play an important role in dealing with both the system- and the normative lock-
One promising setting to operate in a multi-stakeholder context addressing complex challenges is in the
form of a “social lab”. They are often referred to as Change Labs, Design Labs, Social Innovation Labs or
(Sustainability) Transition Labs. In this paper, the overarching definition of these phenomena is referred to
as Social Labs. Below follows three core characteristics of them, studied by Hassan (2014):
1. They are social. Social labs start by bringing together diverse participants to work in a team that acts collectively. They are
ideally drawn from different sectors of society, such as government, civil society, and the business community. The
participation of diverse stakeholders beyond consultation, as opposed to teams of experts or technocrats, represents the
social nature of social labs.
2. They are experimental. Social labs are not one-off experiences. They’re ongoing and sustained efforts. The team doing
the work takes an iterative approach to the challenges it wants to address, prototyping interventions and managing a
portfolio of promising solutions. This reflects the experimental nature of social labs, as opposed to the project-based
nature of many social interventions.
3. They are systemic. The ideas and initiatives developing in social labs, released as prototypes, aspire to be systemic in
nature. This means trying to come up with solutions that go beyond dealing with a part of the whole or symptoms and
address the root cause of why things are not working in the first place.
The purpose of this paper is to present a methodology and some results from the process in West
Sweden called the Challenge Lab, where master students take on complex societal challenges together
with industry, academia and the public sector - related to five regional knowledge clusters; Urban Future,
Marine Environment and Maritime Sector, Green Chemistry and Bio-based Products, Sustainable
Mobility, and Life Science. The students are considered being change agents in this cluster - catalysing
transformation and integration - backed up by the Chalmers University of Technology matrix organisation
“Areas of Advance” entities: Built Environment, Energy, Information and Communication Technology, Life
Science Engineering, Materials Science, Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Production, and Transport.
Currently, the Challenge Lab is built on a preparatory course and a physical arena for master thesis work
located at one of the science parks in the city of Gothenburg.
Chapter 2 explains the general methodology and process of the Challenge Lab. Chapter 3 gives some
results from the past two years during which the lab has operated. Chapter 4 discusses the results in
relation to the methodology, our asserts, further research and development.
2. Methodology - Backcasting for sustainability transitions
Below, a methodology in the setting of a social lab as a transition arena to approach lock-ins hindering
sustainability transitions in socio-technical systems is presented. We call this arena the Challenge Lab,
where students work as change agents with sustainability challenges in an applied environment with
multiple stakeholders. The lab is built around a transformative approach where backcasting is applied to
tackle system lock-ins and an integrative approach with a neutral arena dealing with normative lock-ins.
Transitions are characterised by uncertainty, irregularities and long time spans (Geels, 2010; 2002) and
due to this the future state cannot be too specifically described. Nevertheless, as sustainability transitions
are purposive (Smith et al., 2005) a framework is needed to anchor the purpose guiding the transition
process. A proposed governance model to deal with such processes is transition management (Loorbach,
2007; Rotmans et al. 2001). The idea is to get a broad acceptance that change is needed, whereas
details of the proposed change are put aside, as they “ultimately will be decided through selective
interactions” (Meadowcroft, 2009, p. 327).
A framework to set a transitional purpose based on criteria for sustainability is backcasting, which “takes
its starting point from a future situation. In order to find flexible strategies for the transition, it is important
not to try to view the future situation in detail, but rather to find guiding principles, which can act as a
frame for many possible futures. To fit the methodology of backcasting, they should be principles of the
outcome (sustainability), not the transition (sustainable development)” (Holmberg & Robèrt, 2000).
Backcasting is particularly useful when the problem to be studied is complex; there is a need for major
change; dominant trends are part of the problem; the problem to a great extent is a matter of externalities;
and when the scope is wide enough and the time horizon long enough to leave considerable room for
deliberate choice (Dreborg, 1996).
By envisioning the characteristics of the desirable future the gap between a desirable future and what we
have today is unmasked, opening up for transformative change. In the Challenge Lab, this is applied in a
backcasting setting by students who do their master thesis during 20 weeks. They do not start from a pre-
defined research question, a proposed theoretical framework or an assigned supervisor. Instead, they
take a step back to let the question emerge from a sustainability challenge which is unmasked in “the
creative tension between the future and reality” which as recently mentioned by Senge et al. (2015) is
where system leaders are ought to operate.
The students spend the first part of their thesis to in participative manners define criteria for sustainability
and then analyse today’s situation in relation to the criteria and identify sustainability challenges. This
represents the first two steps of backcasting (figure 1) (Holmberg, 1998).
Figure 1: The four steps in the Backcasting framework (Holmberg, 1998)
The backcasting process in the lab is embedded with an outside-in and inside-out dimension (Holmberg,
2014). The outside-in part includes knowledge, methods and tools to understand and deal with the
requirements global sustainability will put on the system. Once the criteria for sustainability have been
defined (step 1), the present situation is analysed through tools like the multi-level perspective (Geels,
2002), system dynamics (eg. Forrester, 1994), and identification of leverage points (Meadows, 1997)
(step 2). The gap between step 1 and 2 gives the input for a design process (Lawson, 1997) for
envisioning future solutions (step 3) and identifying strategies to realise it (diffusion theories (Robinson,
2013)) and scenario planning (Schwartz, 1992) (step 4). During step 3 and 4 the students are encouraged
to either develop their own transformative initiative or aim to catalyse sustainability transitions in identified
ongoing local projects - by challenging and/or support current efforts to be lead in the direction of
sustainability guided by principles. It is in relation to the project the students define their research
question. At this step the students are connected with a supervisor at the university, who provides them
with more specific knowledge on their chosen research topic - along with the general supervision from the
Challenge Lab faculty.
Parallel to the outside-in part the lab also includes an inside-out part realising that real change starts with
recognising that we are part of the systems we seek to change (Senge et al., 2015). The inside-out part
includes knowledge, methods and tools to understand and identify individual values, strengths, visions
and motivations (Ryan & Deci, 2000) as well as to understand and manage dialogue (Isaacs, 1993) in the
interaction with and between different stakeholders. The lab uses dialogue as a tool to create a space to
think together around a common challenge, share perspectives and create trust (Sandows & Allen, 2005;
The purpose of integrating the outside-in and inside-out perspective within the backcasting framework is
to create a clear method emphasising the need of staying in the challenge and question formulation long
enough. It is also a process for the students to “look inwards” connecting the own aspirations and values
to the challenge at hand. The “sensing of the systems” before defining the question gives a new
perspective on learning and a description of this journey is included in the thesis. This is believed to
increase the possibility that the right question is being answered and that the students with clear
intentions and motivations contribute to a transitional process.
In addition consideration was taken to design the lab to create space for change - trust that students have
great potential when given the right conditions. The power of creating space for change was recently
described by Senge et al. (2015): “the conscious acts of creating space, of engaging people in genuine
questions, and of convening around a clear intention with no hidden agenda, creates a very different type
of energy from that which arises from seeking to get people committed to your plan.”
2.2 The neutral arena
There are of course many examples of projects and methods to gather actors to share perceptions,
create trust and resolve conflicts. At Chalmers University of Technology there are positive experiences
from using neutral arenas to involve actors in change processes (Holmberg et al., 2012). The strategy
builds on three building blocks to achieve change: create a neutral arena/organization, build on individual
engagement and involvement (bottom-up) and communicate a clear commitment from the management
In the neutral arena, multiple actors can act simultaneously to integrate perspectives and co-create the
future. These settings have the potential of unlocking systems as well as mindsets to induce transition by
broadening the scope of how challenges and problems are framed and defined (Hickey, 2004).
For this neutral arena to be seen as neutral, the “inhabitants”, master students - not belonging to a certain
organisation or bound by incentive structures - are the change agents in the Challenge Lab. The neutral
arena is further supported by the placement of the lab in the science park, in the metaphorical “middle of
the two triangles”. One triangle representing the triple helix and the other representing the knowledge
triangle. Here, it is possible for the students to connect actors from industry, research at the areas of
advance, and also the authorities and departments within the city and region (figure 2).
Figure 2: The Challenge Lab is uniting the three processes within the university: research, innovation and education (the knowledge
triangle) by the students as change agents. In a societal context, the lab - through the change agents - is then uniting triple helix
stakeholders in society.
It should also be noted that the Challenge Lab was not only created with the interest to partake in
sustainability transitions by utilizing students as change agents. In fact the interest has been mutual:
students seem to appreciate the formation of the lab and the competences within sustainable
development built there seems to be in line with what they are demanding of their education.
A recent survey indicates students lack knowledge in sustainable development and application of the
same. (Sustainergies, 2015) Recent studies of alumni at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden
show that 35 per cent encounter sustainability issues from sometimes to daily in their work. However,
only half of them believe they possess enough competences to make decisions from a sustainability
perspective (Hanning et al., 2012). Another study showed that curriculum development needs to address
the interconnectedness of the different aspects of sustainability, by integrating the environmental,
economic, social and inter/intragenerational aspect - in order to help students understand the complexity
and the challenges. (Kagawa, 2007) The same author also states; Pedagogies which help students
envision and take actions towards their preferred futures need to be developed. In a rapidly changing and
uncertain world faced by sustainabilityoriented challenges, higher education needs to play an
increasingly significant role in helping students become active responsible citizens.
The overall structure for the case examples in this chapter is following the following:
1: The lock-in, related to the two categories system and normative, is present in the specific case
2: The method used to address the lock-in
3: Description of the example where this has occurred.
3.1 Unlocking the systems of today
This part deals with the system lock-ins where transformation is needed. The two broad categories of
interventions can be described as 1: challenging the system using principles and 2: creating new
initiatives disturbing the current system.
Challenging the system - using principles
Case 1: The Regional climate strategy in Region Västra Götaland, Sweden
Method: Using principles to challenge the system - with neutral change agents.
Description: "Two of the students in the lab were doing their Challenge Lab master thesis connected to a
project where the Region Västra Götaland were developing a climate strategy towards a fossil
independent region 2030. The project group consisted of civil servants, with support from two
researchers, who were identifying suitable themes upon which backcasting multi-stakeholder workshops
were to be conducted during the fall. After some meetings with representatives of the project group, the
students identified two things; first that the time frame seemed narrow to achieve the desired
transformation, second that there might be co-benefits if more sustainability challenges than the climate
issue got equal attention in the strategy, something the project group also had acknowledged while
setting up the workshop themes. In a dialogue setting at the Region office, the time frame was discussed
in relation to the long-term purpose of the strategy. During this dialogue it was agreed that it was
better to free up space by aiming for the 2050 target of being fossil free. The fossil independency
goal of 2030 could be seen as an interim target to keep the urgency to act. With this new time frame the
workshop themes could be broadened up and address wider socio-technical systems in need of
transformation by integrating more sustainability aspects than fossil carbon emissions." (Jörgen Larsson -
Group member of the Region Västra Götaland project group, personal communication, August 4, 2015)
Case 2: Transforming funding of sustainability effort in industry
Method: Using principles to challenge the system - with neutral change agents.
Description: The tools used in the course Leadership for Sustainability Transitions were applied in a
master thesis at Chalmers University of Technology where the students were acting as change agents in
an industrial setting within a large chemical agent producer. They were introducing new thinking by
applying a broader perspective on sustainability and challenging the current mental models within the
company. The students introduced a new way of looking at green bond investments within the company.
This is a process that is coloured by internal corporate politics, but according to the manager of the
sustainable development group, the students could do this, due to the unique character as unthreatening
and not part of company internal politics.
Interviews assessing the impact from the students give the following:
“If I or anyone else in our Sustainability group was to ask our finance department some questions, we
could not just do that, since it is politically sensitive and you don’t need to have that political sensitiveness
when you come from the outside, just like ”I am just a young student I can ask anything”. Then it does
not really matter in the same way. The students are change agents in the sense that they do not
need to be involved in the internal politics in the company. They do not need to take into
consideration the internal politics in our organization, in the same way any employee inside our
organization has to take. It is a fact.
They can be “blue-eyed” and naive or pretend to be blue eyed and naive in another way as the other can.
They are not seen per definition as a threat. If I were to ask the questions a student is asking, then
someone would ask ”why are you asking that??” ”are you after my job?” Ok, they are not saying it
explicitly, but they are thinking it inside of their heads. But they are not thinking that of a student.
Many are thinking of the student regardless of their subject as a ”fresh wind” coming into the organization.
The students who are coming in to us in the later stages of their studies are knowing things that we do not
know, since we have been behind a desk for a number of years. People in the organization are aware
of that and want to have the students’ opinion and see what the students want or look into what areas
the students are focusing on.
Then there is the backside where people do not think they have time to work with the students. Maybe
they think, this is not giving me anything in return.
But generally there is a positive stance to having the student interviewing.” (Claes Hallberg - Manager
Sustainable Development Group AkzoNobel, personal communication, June 3, 2015)
New initiatives and projects through challenge-driven entrepreneurship
This part describes examples of new initiatives, concepts and projects created using the method in the
Challenge Lab. Here the students are prototyping a niche - before it is needed - by using criteria,
principles and a design thinking process. Challenging the current regime using principles and through an
artefact or introduced concept. The projects are showing something new to the regime - challenging it
from an unthreatening student project. By empowering entrepreneurship, the students are encouraged to
initiate and continue develop their ideas from the course and their master thesis projects.
Case: Sustainable restaurants and conference service
Method: Using principles to establish a vision. Dialogue.
Description: The course initiated a cross-disciplinary project involving researchers, personnel, and
students. The project was started during the fall of 2014 and was developing into an initiative in the
university Restaurant and Conference company. The students initiating this were using tools from the
course Leadership for Sustainability Transitions.
“I would like to say that the student involvement was only positive. It created a curiosity and
interest in what we really believe in and stand for, but also the will to be of influence.
The most positive thing that occurred was that we have had a question in our guest survey regarding
what our members (the students) think about our sustainability efforts. For many years the answer has
been “No opinion” or that it is simply flat bad. Now, in this work, the question was “on the table” for real
and the ones that have insights think our work is done well and that we are doing the right thing.
The question is so complex mainly because the research is not in line with what the average person on
the street thinks when they go to shop groceries. Everything is so much more complex.
Now we have started a working group that - in collaboration with us and the university (Chalmers
University of Technology) - will create a proposal for an internal eco-label that goes along with what
research is telling us - that have peer-reviewed research behind it. Not just a “Green bird”-label. Many
times it is emotions that tells you it is better with ecological carrots from Africa to your beef.
We have seen an increased interest in vegetarian food.
The students’ influence has given us contacts with other parts of the university that we did not
work with before. The most important is that it is not only talk, but also action. The work is also beyond
doing a good master thesis or doing a good job at work, but to raise awareness to leave a better world to
the ones coming after us. The question I ask myself is if it is worth eating a beef with mashed potatoes for
lunch - and at the same time knowing this has equivalent emissions of 30 vegetarian lunches in terms of
CO2?” (Magnus Danielsson - vice president Chalmers Conference and Restaurants, personal
communication, June 10, 2015).
Electricity bus line app
The collaboration called ElectriCity is consisting of stakeholders from academia, industry and
government. It rendered in a new electric bus line connecting the two science parks in Gothenburg
located at Chalmers two campuses. Two Challenge Lab students were working with a new augmented
reality app for the ElectriCity collaboration. The app rendered in a continued relation with the Regional
Public Transport company and a new company to continue develop the concept (Ilves & Lillandt, 2014).
Sharing Economy Platform - PICKIT
This example is the prototyping of a service utilising an infrastructure of smart boxes to detach the
exchange of products from disrupting people’s daily schedule by meetings. Borrower and lender of
physical objects can just agree to use a box station in the city located at a frequented place, such as bus
stops or cafes. The lender then reserves a box online and places the object in this box. By sharing the
access code to the borrower the process of exchanging goods is easy and less time consuming than
meeting up in the city (Lehner, 2014).
Urban Bioretention Planters
This example is a concept bringing in all three dimensions of sustainability and presenting an integrated
solution in the form of bioretention planters where the design allow for cost-effective storm water
handling. The concept was novel and interesting enough for the Chalmers University of Technology
campus development group to finance a pre-study for the implementation of this concept.
3.2 Unlocking collaboration and co-creation through a neutral arena
This part refers to the examples of interventions unlocking normative lock-ins on various levels in the
multi-level perspective. This can regard the vested interests at individual and organisational level, but also
the lock-ins regarding narrow perspectives - hindering transdisciplinary collaborations.
Connecting Stakeholders/Actors/Projects between organisations
Case: Stakeholder dialogue to introduce solar energy for a sustainable campus.
Method: Neutral change agent in neutral space conducting dialogue with multiple stakeholders.
Description: This project, within the Challenge Lab 2015, was exploring a research question in, where
one Challenge Lab student was initiating dialogues within a number of diverse stakeholders at the
university campus. The response from one stakeholder showed that the Challenge Lab project was
creating a change in the stakeholder group and also added stakeholders to the dialogue. These
stakeholders were initially unaware of each other on the onset of the dialogue sessions.
The project was reinforcing already established stakeholder relations and also induced and created new
ones. One stakeholder puts it as:
“Through the dialogue step and the interviews conducted, I have experienced the understanding
of our respective work within energy, in each organization has become much better. Since we
usually are “sitting on” our own issues in our respective chambers in our respective organizations, the
work tend to sprawl too much. [Furthermore] the different organizations own agendas tend to be
prioritized when it comes to the strategic and operational work to be coordinated between, for
example Chalmers University of Technology, Chalmers Fastigheter (the University real estate company)
and Akademiska Hus (the state-owned university real estate company).
By letting the students start to working on the issues on energy efficiency on campus, we reached
the essence of what is important to focus on for us all as stakeholders. Since I am a coordinator and
has had dialogues with various stakeholders before, I felt that the process took a leap forward when
the students began to unravel and "untie" the issues. The dialogues, and the interviews were crucial
to give the work the push forward, that would otherwise have taken another 6 months to complete.
Through the dialogue with the students, I got even more input into my work and strengthened my
questions from a larger width than before.” (Magnus Wennergren - Environmental Coordinator Chalmers
University of Technology, personal communication, June 1, 2015)
Stakeholders connected within the Science Park
Method: Neutral change agents connecting stakeholders.
Description: A research institute and a government-funded project - hosted by the science park - was
present at a meeting with Challenge Lab students. The interviews with two stakeholders were set one
after another at the same afternoon. The first stakeholder was working on several projects related to
electro mobility while the second stakeholder was working on CLOSER, which is a EU project for
sustainable freight transport. Both of them worked on sustainability in Lindholmen Science Park, but the
did not know each other until they happened to meet in the stakeholder meeting.
The case shows that the external collaboration not only happened between Challenge Lab and the
stakeholders but also between different stakeholders. Stakeholder meetings provided opportunities for
stakeholders to know each other, which usually was not the purpose. The activities of Challenge Lab
have facilitated connection between stakeholders. (Sekar & Tang, 2014)
Connecting silos within an organization
Researchers within the Areas of Advance
Method: Neutral change agents connecting diverse areas of research.
The matrix organisation at Chalmers with the formation of the Areas of Advance are serving as
connections internally - connecting silos - within the university connecting researchers across
departments and institutions. The areas of advance was very focused on the research part of the
knowledge triangle, but lacked an educational component. To fulfil this, the areas of advance co-funded
the Challenge Lab to serve as an educational component to increase the capabilities for the areas of
advance to address societal challenges. The Areas of Advance were formed to work across the university
- bridging the gap between the departments. This structure was formed 2009 and was recently evaluated
by 28 international and external evaluators. The effort to build the areas of advance was ranked as
“Excellent” and in this context “the Challenge Laboratory is an interesting innovation”. (Swedish Research
Council, 2015). Here, as a result, the students opened up a new perspective and had two research
groups looking into a common new area. “Our main focus on storm water handling is through filters, but
the students gave us new perspectives on the rain garden concept. I also think that the other research
group opened their eyes for this concept. We should push more for this in future research
applications” (Ann-Margret Strömvall - Associate Professor Civil and Environmental Engineering Water
Environment Technology Chalmers University of Technology, August 3, 2015).
Authorities within the municipality
Method: Neutral change agents facilitating meeting with separate organisations.
Description: Representatives from a municipal park authority and a municipal wastewater treatment
company were present at the final presentations of the Challenge Lab Master thesis presentations. The
thesis was “Urban Bioretention Planters” - addressing storm water. Using the Challenge Lab method, the
students brought in additional perspectives for the proposed solutions. They included well-being
perspective, economic, nature and society. The project involved stakeholders from the city authorities,
and concluded that these had to increase the collaboration to realise the proposed concept. The two
representatives got to meet since the Challenge Lab change agents connected them, thereby the
students had an important role in facilitating these collaborations.
Connecting Master Programs
Method: A course focusing on transition - unified students from diverse programs.
Description: The 7,5 credit course “Leadership for Sustainability Transitions”, was when introduced, the
most diverse course at Chalmers University of Technology. The course had fourteen different master
programme represented across the 30 students attending the course.
Creating trust and courage to act
Dialogue with students
Method: A dialogue at a neutral arena with neutral change agents unfolding underlying mental models.
Description: A civil servant from the Public Transport Authority in the Region Västra Götaland was
invited for a stakeholder dialogue with the students of the Challenge Lab 2014 cohort. The civil servant
was alone with the students and the Challenge Lab coordinator was recording the dialogue. The students
had all been equipped with dialogue tools from previous theory modules in the initiation of the master
The dialogue was including subjects ranging from technology and politics, and was heavily leaned to
discussion regarding the democratic process. The transcript can be found in Appendix B.
After the interview, the public servant spontaneously stated that he said things in the dialogue that he
would not do at work. “In the dialogue I was stating things that I would not normally say as a civil
servant” (Civil servant - Public Transport Secretariat Region Västra Götaland, personal communication,
March 7, 2014).
Building trust over time
The Campus Development Group
Method: A dialogue at a neutral arena with neutral change agents unfolding underlying mental models.
The campus development group has been taking part in both the course “Leadership for Sustainability
Transitions” and the Challenge Lab master thesis. In the course, the Campus development group has met
in dialogue within the university, but also with another university in Gothenburg. The campus
development group will now continue to be part of the course and the Challenge Lab master thesis as
stakeholders. The group has also funded projects stemming from the Challenge Lab, thereby validating
the importance of the project continuation.
4. Discussion - Results, method and further development
We have now presented a methodology to deal with system and normative lock-ins, based on using
backcasting in a neutral arena in the form of a Challenge Lab. The aim was to catalyse sustainability
transitions in socio-technical systems through transformation and integration. Some results and
experiences from the first two years of the Lab were described.
The methodology was designed to be generic as it takes a wide scope on our global sustainability
transition and we have identified Challenge Lab project engagements on various system levels, ranging
from transforming policy development (case of Region Västra Götaland) to introducing new concepts
presented to regimes (case Sekhi and PICKIT).
The Regional climate strategy case and the AkzoNobel case exemplify the transformative capacity of
the Challenge Lab. Here, the students could widen the perspectives in how challenges were approached,
transforming current practices to be guided towards sustainability. Students backed up by criteria seemed
to challenge current practices, yet they were unthreatening which eventually opened up for broader
perspectives. This “interventionist approach” aimed towards catalysing sustainability transitions in socio-
technical systems and thus reduced the risk having the regime itself shaping their innovative activities
through endogenous renewal; leading to incremental and path following transformation processes (Smith
et al., 2005).
The cases described in the results section where 1: The campus development group was invited for
dialogues in the Challenge Lab preparatory course, and 2: where various stakeholders were meeting
around solar energy deployment - are two cases exemplifying the integrative capacity of the Challenge
Lab. Here, the students used the neutral arena to gather diverse stakeholders from industry, academic
research and governmental real estate owners. These dialogues facilitated by the students seemed to be
the factor for success, since the students did not have a hidden agenda or plan for the outcome of the
dialogue - they just wanted to understand the stakeholders’ perspectives and situations. Furthermore, in
connecting separate organisation and research fields, the students - by proposing questions, issues and
solutions stemming from the first steps of backcasting - has served as connectors of perspectives and
thus as integrated the thinking between separate organisations. “By succeeding in initiating a
transformation of certain stakeholders’ perspectives, it might become possible to accomplish other goals,
such as realizing a vision” (Jordan, 2011 p. 81).
The methodology used here, where students work with the backcasting approach from principles - in
combination with the neutral arena provided - makes the Challenge Lab complementary to the general
concept of “social labs”, researched. Social labs often start in (societal) needs that seek solutions. Their
process can be described as demand/needs-driven innovation. This is an important expansion of - and
complementary to - the general idea-driven innovation process at universities.
We argue that, in order to be even more relevant for sustainability transitions, it is also important to take a
challenge-driven innovation approach - staying in the challenge and then searching for needs and
demands within this challenge - using a purposive and guiding approach based on sustainability
principles. The approach at the Challenge Lab, has been based on not rushing towards the solution, but
to take a step back and stay in the challenge and identify the gap between the sustainability criteria and
the present situation - (and potential leverage points in the system). This is manifested in the step 1 and 2
in the backcasting framework. Then the design process can start and search for needs and demands
within this challenge.
The first and second steps in backcasting, used the Challenge Lab, makes the students become part of
framing the challenge as well as the question for their master thesis, thereby reversing the normal top-
down creation of a master thesis topic - generally by an external actor or professor. During the challenge
framing the students learn about global and local sustainability trends, apply tools (outside-in) to navigate
in the complex systems and reflect (inside-out) on their own motivations to contribute to a sustainable
future. For this, the students are also trained in dialogue tools to better understand themselves as a
group, and the stakeholders they interact with. What makes dialogue unique for integration - and bridging
of perceived silos - is, as Isaacs (1993) states, “its underlying premise: that human beings operate most
often within shared, living fields of assumptions and constructed embodied meaning, and that these fields
tend to be unstable, fragmented, and incoherent.
As people learn to perceive, inquire into, and allow transformation of the nature and shape of these fields,
and the patterns of individual thinking and acting that inform them, they may discover entirely new levels
of insight and forge substantive and, at times, dramatic changes in behaviour.”
During the initial process of the Challenge Lab, full trust is given to the student. The methodology is
believed to lead to student empowerment as they after having defined the challenge can chose their own
topic guided by a process, developing on their intrinsic motivational factors (Ryan & Deci, 2000); 1:
autonomy (the student is in charge and can operate as a change agent while doing the master thesis), 2:
competence (the student can use their prior knowledge gained from their previous studies, now applying
them in a real-world project) 3: relatedness (the students are working integrating various stakeholders
and also relating to the outside world - meanwhile having a tight group in the overall change agent team
in the lab - creating trust from both their peers and the Challenge Lab faculty staff present.).
These first steps have also been accompanied by an initial feeling of uncertainty among some students
in stepping out of the “safe haven” of the conventional university program process - and standard master
thesis practice. Further ongoing research will elaborate in more detail around this and implying further
development potential such as making the process more structured facilitating the work for these
Utilising double-loop learning and student feedbacks, the lab was restructured from the first pilot in 2014.
Then, the students were experiencing the process too pressured during the first steps of backcasting, and
the used theories and tools were therefore taken out as a separate course. The course, containing all the
backcasting tools, also made it possible for an expanded group of students to make use of the tools in the
Challenge Lab. This seems to have been of some benefit in the Case at AkzoNobel where the students
used the learning from this course, but within the setting of a thesis at a separate company.
Furthermore, the resulting projects have - for time constraint reasons - been hard to complete in its full
utilization. Therefore, several projects have been applying for funding to be continued and further utilised.
To enable this for coming years, the university has started a pre-study aimed to create a fund for seed
money, thereby prolonging the possibilities for the thesis results to be fully utilized. The possibility to
continue in an internship fashion within a stakeholder organisation will make it possible for the change
agents to continue their work. One example is the Urban Bioretention Planters project that was adopted
and funded for a pre-study. This is also a way to support the development of what can become niches in
terms of new innovations that can challenge and disrupt current regimes.
The above mentioned measures are utilising the 20 week Master Thesis framework and administrative
boundaries - and at the same time freeing more time “around” the core master thesis, thereby keeping the
necessary explorative step 1 and 2 in backcasting as a core foundation in the process. In sum, these
measures give a full year of Challenge Lab-based activities, thereby the possibility to better iterate upon
the findings from previous years of master theses and seamlessly link the lab iterations in time, building
long term capacity.
In conclusion, we have seen so far the capacities of students to deliver transformative and integrative
capabilities within socio-technical systems to support transitional processes towards sustainability.
Traditionally, universities are interacting with society through research as an “interface” to society. We
see that there are benefits of approaching society through the students - due to their unique character of
being unthreatening, knowledgeable, and that actors in society are familiar and can empathise with them.
Therefore, to intervene with the education capacity of the university with the students as a bonding
change agent to deal with complex challenges has so far delivered some promising results.
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