Business Developer Vivian Elion has been working on sustainability transitions at FreedomLab since the summer of 2021, questioning established paradigms and searching for concrete actions to pave the way to a better future. In this interview, team member Joep Schot and FreedomLab Fellow Victória Ferreira ask Vivian about the challenges we face and the factors that sustain her much-needed perseverance.
Joep: Could you please tell us a little bit about your role at the thinktank?
Vivian: Finding my space in the thinktank has been a collaborative journey. At first, I needed time to embrace transdisciplinary thinking and delve deeper into the multidimensionality of today's most prominent issues. Soon after, I started to think about what I could add to this environment and quickly came to see that my biggest differential was my hands-on mentality: an essential complement to theoretical insights and abstract concepts.
My role is to bring abstract thought into practice and act as a mediator between FreedomLab, external parties and the other Rasile subsidiaries: Dalpha Real Estate and investment boutique Dasym. My specialization is in Deep Transitions, a topic my colleague Sjoerd Bakker explained in detail in his interview. In brief, it concerns the profound fundamental changes society must undergo in order to create a socially and ecologically sustainable world.
Victória: So what does your work actually look like in practice?
Vivian: I work on several projects. Within FreedomLab, my colleagues and I are developing our Deep Transitions framework continuously; I scrutinize the researchers' learnings and turn them into actionable items. For example, for Dalpha Real Estate, I am developing potential new business models for shared mobility (a theme in the framework). In this research, I am taking into consideration socio-economic inequality, energy use and responsible technologies in Dutch neighborhoods. We are focusing on creating long-lasting positive impact instead of minimizing negative impact. Additionally, I am working on a new service for FreedomLab that uses the framework and its guiding principles as a navigator for complex decision-making in sustainability challenges.
Next to this, I launched the Responsible Rasile initiative. Both on a strategic and operational level we have made enormous steps. From weaving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals into our internal operations to creating ambitious five-year sustainability targets for all Rasile subsidiaries, we are actively integrating sustainable values into the organization. These steps can seem small, but it is through walking them that we create a substantial impact.
Joep: What are the biggest challenges you face when tackling sustainability transitions?
Vivian: The quest for sustainability can be very intimidating, considering how all-encompassing it is: it's easy to get demotivated by the extent to which we have to change. I believe the biggest challenge is our conviction that endless economic growth and limitless consumption are goals in themselves. To combat this, we must shift our mindset towards a perspective in which we see ourselves as part of nature. This means that we should rethink our relationship with each other, our direct surroundings and the ecosystems we are part of. Unfortunately, shifting our mindset does not happen overnight. Just as Donella Meadows points out in her research, mindshift change proves to be a difficult yet highly effective measure in system change.
"I believe the biggest challenge is our conviction that endless economic growth and limitless consumption are goals in themselves. To combat this, we must shift our mindset towards a perspective in which we see ourselves as part of nature."
I sometimes feel hopeless when reading the news and can imagine that it also happens to other people. We all know by now how bad things are, but how do we go forward? To overcome this hopelessness, I aspire to be the kind of person who offers people reasons for optimism, good news, and small steps we can take today. In many ways, it gives me a sense of purpose. With this sense of purpose I hope to make a positive contribution to a more just world.
"I aspire to be the kind of person who offers people reasons for optimism, good news, and small steps we can take today."
Another significant challenge is the acceptance of transition pain, the discomfort we feel having to let go of our deep-rooted and dangerously unsustainable customs. It's a particularly bitter pill to swallow when the transition seems to cause us only harm. Personally, I've felt compelled to reduce my air travel and consumption of meat and fish to reduce my carbon footprint. These actions are difficult because I can't directly feel the benefit I am getting from my choices. However, knowing that these choices contribute to the restoration of our relationships with nature, the transition pain is more than worth it.
Victória: What keeps you up at night?
Vivian: I keep thinking about the privileged position I am in. Here I am, preaching about sustainability while not being the one facing the most dire consequences of the climate crisis—at least not for now. For example, in the Netherlands, many of us are championing the move to electric mobility. However, we do not seem to reflect enough on what this could mean for others. Consider the negative externalities of lithium mining in countries like Chile and Argentina. We are demanding a lot from them without acknowledging that they are feeling the bulk of the pain. I hope the commonly used idiom “One man's loss is another man's gain" will soon be an idiom of the past.
Nevertheless, what keeps me up at night is also what gets me going in the morning; I’ve taken it upon myself to channel my frustration into motivation to build a better tomorrow, one step at a time!