The Mistra Environmental Communication Research Programme Component at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism (ICSJ)

Interview with Martin Westin

Dialogues on Sustainability: Is it ever possible?

Martin Westin is a researcher at the Division of Environmental Communication of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). His experience includes over 15 years of work with participatory planning and change processes in Sweden and abroad. Martin’s research and practice interest revolves around the role of facilitation in multi-stakeholder collaboration in view of transforming complex, contested and uncertain sustainability situations. Within Mistra-EC research programme, he is the leader of Work Package (WP1) on dialogue-based governance in sustainability.

Building dialogue between a wide diversity of stakeholders may sometimes feel like an impossible task, especially when it comes to issues of environment and sustainability.

In this interview, Martin Westin, environmental communication researcher focused on processes of participation and change, tells us about the challenges and rewards of dialogue processes, and the new tool developed by the Mistra-EC team at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in collaboration with field practitioners, to support these processes via “Reflection Cycles”.

Thank you Martin, for being our guest in the Spring 2022 Newsletter. We are delighted to have you, and very much like to hear about your work within Mistra-EC programme, focusing on dialogues in governance for sustainability. But before we start talking about this work, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your research, interests?

Martin: Yes, sure. My research is very much into these kinds of participatory processes. I have been doing this for quite some time now. I am interested in power relations in this practice, and participation, and I am interested in participation on issues which are a little bit conflictual, and difficult, and complex: how do you involve people or how do people involve themselves in that kind of governance processes? I am curious about it, and I have also tried to practice it myself, so I try to move between academia and the practice of governing and development. I find it useful to have one foot in each (theory and practice), so to speak.

I have been working both in Sweden, and within the development and cooperation world; in South Africa, Southeast Asia, and India mainly. So, I have experiences in different contexts when it comes to participation. It is always a new process, but it is also possible to draw some more general lessons and that is what I am trying to do.

How is it, having one foot in practice, as a researcher?

Martin: I find it really interesting to try out being in the practice. I think it provides a deeper understanding of what is going on. Then I find it really nice to have the luxury of having some time to reflect on such experiences. It is rewarding: it is difficult work, but rewarding work.

What motivated you to work on the matters of environment and sustainability? How was your involvement in the Mistra-EC programme?

Martin: I think I have always had a very strong political interest. I am interested in these kinds of issues, which we have to deal with together, and how we can do this together in the society. And then, I have always been very interested in nature, both for my own recreation, but also more in relation to how we are able to provide good opportunities for citizens to live sustainable lives. To understand where they stand in relation to some big changes in how we relate to the environment.

So, I was always interested in environment, in politics, and in policies. Therefore, I find it really nice to be in the Mistra-EC programme. I am really happy for it. I was part of writing the proposal, I worked a little bit in that, and I have worked mainly with this component, where I am now the WP leader, which is about invited dialogues, or dialogues for public affordance, in governance for sustainability. I am happy to be in the programme, because I am very much interested in these issues. That’s the short version.

Could you tell us a bit more about this focus area, dialogues in governance for sustainability - its aims, the research being done?

Martin: In this Work Package, we have an interest in the process of invited dialogues. With invited dialogues, I mean collaborative processes, where alliances at different levels (local alliances, state alliances, or even international alliances, and different kinds of public sector organizations) invite interests, actors, citizens, but also professions, different organizations, to have interactions to deal with difficult issues. That is the empirical focus that we have in common in the work package.

And then, we have several interesting cases that we work on. I, myself, together with colleagues, work on urban development, so I look at both the physical planning of urban areas, and also the social dimension, and the links between the physical environment and the social. We also have colleagues, who are interested in water governance. So, we have studies of collaborative water governance, the governing of watersheds and lakes. We are mainly focusing on a specific area around Lake Mälar, she is one of the biggest watersheds in Sweden.

Then, we also work on a case, which revolves around the dialogues between the Sápmi people, people living up in the north, who are indigenous inhabitors of Sweden, and the public authorities of Sweden. It is a kind of dialogue between two nations within a nation, so to speak, because indigenous people participate based on rights, so it is a different kind of dialogue, when it comes to dialogues on water management and urban development. It is an interesting process up in the north, where we have colleagues who work with that.

And finally we have a case, which revolves around the forestry and the governing of forestry in Sweden. There, we look into the collaborative process, where the Swedish Forestry Agency invites a group of actors with different interests in the forestry, trying to find ways of agreeing on indicators for the environmental objective of forestry in Sweden. So, it is about how to measure what a “living forest” means -which is also very interesting and conflictual area, with different perspectives, including the industry, with their specific interest in harvesting, and then we have the nature protection site, also involved in that process.

So, we have these four cases which are different examples of invited dialogues. They take place in different contexts, but we have a shared interest in understanding how power relations are constituted in this practice and how conflicts are dealt with. Thus, we use those two concepts; power and conflict, as the theoretical lenses to look into the cases.

As you said, dialogue processes, particularly when it comes to environment and sustainability, have a broad diversity of actors and stakeholders, from individuals and different societal groups, to civil society and institutions at different levels, from local to global. And when we talk about environment and nature, it is our living habitat, so, much is at stake... Given your experiences, how is dialogue actually built between these very different actors and their oftentimes conflicting perspectives?

Martin: Well, we can also ask, “Can dialogue be possible?” (chuckles). It is, of course, challenging to have dialogues for different reasons. It is challenging because we, as those, who are supposed to understand each other and communicate, come from different walks of life. So, we have different frames, different understandings and perspectives on the world. We know that it is difficult to understand each other over such boundaries. That is one reason.

Another reason is, of course, that these questions ARE conflictual, and people involved in these processes represent organizations with different purposes. We have, for example, the conflict between development and nature, which is organized in different ways. We have civil society organizations looking after nature protection, and then we have industry organizations, private sector companies, and state companies which are there… to develop. Of course, those positions are not supposed to be the same, because both are needed in a society.

So, it is difficult to have a dialogue across those different organizations. But we can say that it is possible sometimes, under certain conditions, and we see it as our task mainly to help, or support, and have some kind of reflective process going on with, the practitioners in this practice. They are sometimes called facilitators, or process leaders, process designers -they are called many things- but they lead the processes in different ways. They might be working from within the public sector, or they might be working for consultants hired by the public sector. Our niche in this, say, big field is to try to make sense, and support, and reflect together with, those who are in this practice of dialogue. Of course, the success of these practices is not only hanging on the practitioners. There are many other factors that influence what is going on, and if there is going to be a meaningful dialogue or not. But we think that these practitioners are important, we feel that it is worthwhile, as our part of research and development, to work closely with them.

This actually brings us to Reflection Cycles, which is a tool introduced by the Mistra-EC team at the SLU to support the practitioners -people who lead these dialogue processes, and serve as a guide for organizing discussions in relation to environment and sustainability. Can we learn more about this tool? How does it help the practitioners to organize these often-difficult dialogues?

Martin: The idea is very much that we learn from experience, and we learn from reflecting on experience, and we specifically learn from difficult experiences. So, we question this kind of focus on best practices, and say that it is actually very important to pay attention to when we feel that we have not done what we wanted, or even when we feel that we have made a mistake. Those kind of experiences involve a lot of learning, if we are dearing enough, or willing enough, or have time, or whatever, and we need to reflect on them. That is the starting point for developing this tool: the idea that we should have a concrete focus on experience when we try to learn, and also the idea that by reflecting on experience, we might be able to increase our action repertoire, so that we can adjust our actions to the context, or to what the situation requires, as dialogue leaders.

Reflection Cycles is a tool where you bring in your own experiences, and then you first try to describe what actually happened. We think it is very important to try to separate the description from making conclusions. Often we tend to jump to conclusions -all, including me, we tend to jump to conclusions based on previous conceptions of how we understand things. So, we want to provide support for describing the process first. And then, we have a number of steps, it is a cycle, so we have a number of steps in a cycle, where you gradually deepen your understanding of what was going on in that situation, and how you acted, and how others acted, and then towards the final steps of the cycle, you draw some conclusions on things that might be done differently when you come across a similar situation. By doing so, the idea is that we can both support the individual learning based on these experiences, and also draw conclusions about the organization, and sometimes, even about the multi-stakeholder group. How they can be learning both on an individual level, but also on an organizational level, and perhaps even at the larger level -if we call it the system.

Based on your own experiences, how does such reflection support opening a conversation, and building dialogue?

Martin: It is, of course, different in different situations. But often, the dialogue or the lack of dialogue is ongoing in a particular area. You have the same kind of constellations, which are interacting in different ways over time. And then, of course, there are certain processes, maybe strategies that need to be developed. We may need to make a decision about a mine, or we may need to sort out how we are going to deal with the planning of the urban area. Then, a particular process comes in, and then you may have some additional resources to do dialogue. And in those kind of situations, we like to say, or suggest that we put emphasis on designing these processes -it is not only us, but we think that it is very important to try to have a good design.

We think that it is very useful, if resources are available, to be able to understand the different perspectives around the issue, to make sure that you have an understanding of the different ways of seeing the question at hand. So, we suggest a mapping of perspectives at the beginning of the process. And then, the idea is that we can tailor a process design, based on the understanding of these perspectives, and the issue you are dealing with. When you come to that stage, it is more about facilitation, to try to lead a meaningful conversation, a meaningful joint action between the stakeholders.

So, that is a very general answer to your question. And then, of course, it is (contextually) situated, so it will be different, in different contexts.

Where do you see media and arts in this dynamic, in connection to what you are working on? What role, do you think, they play in shaping or communicating different perspectives on the matters of environment and sustainability?

Martin: To start with, this is not my field of expertise, so my answer may not be exhaustive. But, I will still answer based on my own understanding.

I think there are many many links. What I see is that, of course, media and arts are used by the actors of the processes we are talking about: they bring in that practice into the dialogues. They think that there is a value in these more aesthetic ways of knowing. Often, I hear -as I have also seen myself- practitioners talking about how media and arts can be a way to question what is taken for granted. So, it is a way of shaking up a little bit maybe, providing emotional impacts, or providing symbols and ideas that you might not get access to as an actor, if you are not in this kind of creative process, so to speak.

And I also think that arts and media play a very important role by troubling things a bit, making it a little bit more difficult to do what you are supposed to do, and so, you start to rethink a little bit. They shake us around a bit. I think it is important. Also, there is this emphasis on doing, which I think is really useful, because dialogue is often very much about words and speaking -that is also doing, of course- but there are also other ways of doing, using your body in other ways. That is often brought by media and arts, and artists, and those who have that kind of competence.

There are many different environmental struggles going on across the world, which include, amongst others, the actions against mining. Recently, the controversies over mining have, once again, been highlighted with the discussions around the Gallok mine in Sweden. What do you think about the role of media and arts, particularly in these kinds of conflictual processes?

Martin: First of all, I am not much knowledgeable about that particular process. But I can say something more general, based on my understanding of that process. I think expressions through art and media play a very important role in activism. They are a tool for activists. And, there is the possibility that media and arts can be some kind of a neighbour of the dialogue between the different sides.

But sometimes these two might be a little bit difficult to combine. So, you might find that, in order to act as an activist, you need to be very clear with your position, you need to articulate that through whatever means you have: media, arts, or other acts. And then, you wanna have a dialogue. It is, of course, about articulating your own view, but it is also about listening to the other view, and providing a possibility to understand each other. That does not necessarily mean that you have to agree, of course. But dialogue in practice has this kind of logic, where it is actually about understanding and trust. And sometimes, if you go at it too hard, with media or arts for example, then it might be difficult to have a dialogue.

Of course, activism has a really important place in society. But there is a tension between activism and dialogue, I think. And that tension, in the better worlds, can be dealt with, but I think it is something to pay attention to. It is good to be aware of those tensions and paradoxes, cause then you might be able to manevour it a little bit better. But, as I said, I do not know much about the case, so my reflection was more of a general one.

My last question will also be a quite general one :) Given what we have talked about so far about the dialogue processes and tools geared towards environment and sustainability matters, what would be your dream process, output or result?

Martin: My dream would be a little bit humble. I can dream for sustainability largely, but what I dream of more specifically -if I can have a more specific dream, since it is my dream (chuckles)... It is my dream about being able to provide possibilities for reflection, both for myself, but also for people who work with dialogues. That is what I am trying to do.

I think it is a humble dream, but it is also an interesting one. I mean, it is about learning. I find it really nice to listen to practitioners, who explain the important work that they do, and then they reflect, and then they learn, and they feel that they make a meaningful contribution to something large. And I am happy if that happens.

Anything you would like to add?

Martin: In relation to the Reflection Cycles, I should emphasize that we have developed this tool together with dialogue practitioners. We did the process with planners in Uppsala. We have also organized many other processes with dialogue practitioners, so, it has been a joint development. The tool is available in Swedish only, but we expect to have the English version ready somewhere around this September. Currently, we are doing a new round of development, to equip the cycle a little bit better with the power perspective. We have a power perspective, but we like to tweak it a little bit, so it becomes even more useful. That is what we are doing now.

Thank you, Martin for this nice interview!

Martin: Thanks for hosting me!