More Than the Degree

Insights from studying collaborative MA programmes (Part 1/2)

After two years of studying my Master’s in Creative Sustainability (ARTS) and International Design Business Management as a minor subject, I feel the need to draw a short interim conclusion. In project-oriented and collaborative courses, I was, among others, on the road in South Africa and Nepal to solve wicked problems. Working with students from different disciplines and all kinds of stakeholders from the private sector and government agencies has given me many skills and insights that I would like to share with you. To this end, I would like to summarise a few important observations about the two fields of study and their focus. Especially if you are interested in one of the two degree programmes or have already been accepted, these will hopefully facilitate the further course of your career.


Overseas projects such as in South Africa (where our team was tasked to use the biomass of invasive plant species to contain their spread) made me realise how much the implementation and success of projects dealing with sustainability depends on the real will to change of each stakeholder. It is therefore essential to try to involve every stakeholder and convince them of the importance of what they are doing. Especially as a service designer, it is therefore important to listen to the signals of all stakeholders and to work with them. Often it is the very complex problems, such as the work around invasive plants in South Africa in our project, that rely on community engagement and ownership, and the mitigation measures designed in this project stand or fall on the success of this effort. 

To further address this discrepancy between the perceptions of project stakeholders, let me add another observation: We, as sustainability-minded Northern and Central Europeans, find ourselves in a bubble. We have developed our own notion of sustainability and believe that the understanding of how and how far and how to implement sustainability is universally applicable. At the same time, we should listen to other understandings of sustainability in other countries, for example in the global South, and be more responsive to them. Especially if they do not fit into our world view. On the moral level, we should also be more liberal in this respect and grant people in countries with different circumstances than ours their right to have these different ideas. On the one hand, the situations are often different, which is something that is hardly noticed or not looked at closely enough in Western countries. On the other hand, there are often other problems that are just more urgent in poorer countries, these priorities should be recognised and better acknowledged. 

I have also been easily led to simple conclusions, especially before my travels to our research areas, and wondered why certain things are simply not implemented in other countries or why measures are considered unimportant or beyond belief. A good example is the attitudes and assumptions towards meat consumption in South Africa. I didn't understand why the need to give up meat was considered unimportant there. It was only after talking to the right people and observing the environment closely that some of the reasons behind this became clearer. For instance, because the farm animals there are not normally dependent on artificial feed and normally graze in vast areas on huge steppes. In contrast to many European countries, livestock breeding is not dependent on imports to meet the country's demand for meat. Crop production in most areas of South Africa can also be less sustainable than livestock production. This is due to the need for heavy artificial irrigation, and a large requirement for fertilisers and pesticides to make cultivation economically viable. So the reality there is just a bit different. 


Establishing rules at the beginning of the project is enormously helpful and necessary for the smooth running of the group work. Here it helps me to make comparisons with all the other (interdisciplinary) group work that I was allowed to be a part of during and outside of my studies. When I talk about rules, I'm talking about the ideas and expectations of all the team members for the project and comparing them, the division of roles, communication rules and no-goes. Experience has taught me that working through these issues at the beginning saves or at least reduces many conflicts. Even if the team presumably already knows each other well or has already worked together on other projects. In the event of conflict, these jointly established rules can be used, criticism is given substance and runs less risk of being perceived as a personal attack by the person being addressed. It is also good for one' s own psyche if one knows where he or she stands with the team which prevents stress in the long term. 


I have to say that I was already quite well trained in using and working with systems thinking in my projects through previous courses. However, in the practical research work in South Africa, I was still overwhelmed by the sheer endless interrelationships and the incredible complexity of natural systems. The biggest challenge here, and this was relatively new for me, was to know where to start horizontally with the design solution. By this I don't mean the vertical, i.e. the depth of the approach, which is a well-understood and integrated part of the thinking culture of systems thinking. It is the new contexts that are added to the actual problem to be worked on, of which one did not know before and of which one notices how they would help the problem to be solved, prevented or alleviated, as it were, or even to a greater extent. Especially in the cooperation with a client, these realisations are extremely explosive, since the design solutions to be changed through this gain in knowledge are often no longer really in the client's area of responsibility or his idea about the problem. The design solutions that are to be changed as a result of this insight often no longer lie within the client's remit or their idea of the project. Furthermore, it is difficult to maintain motivation after such realisations, when one realises that the path of the project cannot contribute to the solution of a problem to the extent that the potential would be with a different direction. 


I was particularly struck by the comparison with other groups in a corporate context of how much the complexity of project work is in different certain "corporate horizons". The problems of companies, especially when they offer products or services, are often in simpler systems, but as soon as natural systems are involved, problems become exponentially more complex. This often culminates in the work of public institutions or NGOs.


I have become aware of how important it is to have a common and easily visible task and project plan. Especially in multidisciplinary teams, working methods are often very different and personal preferences or shortcomings can strongly influence the good progress of a project. Here it has proven to be very impactful for me to create a visually congruent plan that not only addresses deadlines and assigns people, but also makes connections between parts of the project visible and explains them. This kind of project communication also helps to convince all team members of the meaning of their work and to align it with the big picture.

If these observations resonate with you or if you have any further questions about the courses or the courses themselves, please feel free to look for me on Unibuddy and write to me there.

- Michael, second year master's student at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture

Student looking at a view on a study trip
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