Centre for Environmental Strategy

The blog of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey.

From “a plan” to “The Plan”

Patrick Elf has recently begun the Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability program in CES. Here he reflects on his experience so far:

Plan your future

When I was younger my plan was to make a lot of money and travel the world. As part of my business degree in Germany I was able to go to Chile where I, yes, travelled a lot. I met equally interesting and inspiring people, learnt different language, ate (too often) weird stuff and saw beautiful places. Places made of ice, deserts with little water, rainforest with the most unimaginable creatures and much more – Places only nature is able to create.

Well…I am still fascinated by different cultures, languages, nature and, especially, people; but I realised that there is a bit more to life than making money. Our course director Dr. Jaqi Lee likes to call this probably “this light-bulb moment” some people experience. And it is true, I had one of these moments which made me change my plans.

Plan 2.0

So, back in Germany I was curious what I could do to preserve the environment as part of a rapidly changing society in Western Europe. I’d strike it rich in London, finish my business degree and move to the UK: Plan 2.0.

Plan 2.0 was to do my master in Sustainable Development, to go back to Germany and to live happy ever after as a sustainability expert.

Well, it didn’t quite work out like this as you might imagine by now. And this brings us closer to where I am right now.

During this very intense time I got to know new people. People with a passion for sustainable development who were driving the agenda for decades. Two of these inspiring personalities were Prof. Tim Jackson and our Ian Christie. I had the great pleasure to learn from both during the Forum Masters. Since both are part of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey I soon became interest in CES’ work and, luckily, kept in touch after I finished my course.

So I moved on, was working for the Greater London Authority as part of the secretariat at the London Sustainable Development Commission (probably Plan 2.1 if you like) but kept on reading all the stuff these academics down in Surrey were doing.

The Master Plan? CES – The Centre for Environmental Strategy

It almost took a year before I told Ian Christie that I am fascinated by the new Practitioner Doctorate Programme at the University of Surrey. It was just the time when my contract with the GLA came to an end and I was about to sign a contract with another company. Interesting job, no doubt, but just not quite as interesting as the project Ian was about to tell me about – A project together with IKEA, the world’s biggest retailer as part of my doctorate studies.

I never planned to do a PhD (or a PD). What I planned was that I wanted to change something; to do something good. For people and for the planet. Well, here it was, the opportunity to develop my understanding, skills and knowledge further and bring them to a whole new level.

During the first three months I soon realised that I made the right decision. Together with my fellow “PDs” who are on equally, if not even more interesting projects, I had the chance to delve into life-cycle thinking, design for sustainability, sustainable development, and learn from the same, and more, experts at Surrey. Dr. Jaqi Lee and Prof. Chris France, together with their team at Surrey paved the way for the next three years or so to make a difference at, and together with our companies. The aim of the PD programme is to create change makers, people who understand both academia and the business world. In other words, people who can work on the interface between both and, well, drive positive change.

The course helped me to develop crucial knowledge which can help me to do exactly this. And even though that I am just 4 months into my PDs I feel well equipped to face future challenges with my already newly acquired knowledge and the backing of my supervisors at Surrey.

My MASTERPLAN? Well, life is full of Black Swans but I am sure that it is the right plan

Being a Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability: Erica Russell’s Story

Erica Russell has recently begun the Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability program in CES. Here she reflects on her experience so far:

So what’s it like going back to university?

It’s challenging, interesting, thought provoking, fun, perception changing, and hard work. Having spent 30 years in business I’m now ‘trying out’ something different. Is academia harder? I’m finding that out, but what is clear is that it does need you to be open minded and it makes you realise that being able to review critically is a skill that needs honing. It’s a bit like joining a new company or starting a new project. You spend the first few months trying to get a handle on how it all works, having to get to know new people and then finally begin to figure out just what it is you’re supposed to be doing. And in any spare time there is always more to read.

So why the Centre for Environmental Strategy?

I did a Masters in Sustainable Development here in 2010. It was part time and I enjoyed the balance of academic thinking along with guest speakers from industry. I also liked the great breadth of thinking covered, from the costing of externalities to ethics. This mix of research and practical application mattered to someone that spent the rest of their time overcoming business problems. But most of all I liked the attitude of the academics and staff. They are keen to share their knowledge and saw passing on their experience as a critical part of their work. Coming up with great research results is not enough – it won’t help change behaviour if no one knows about it or what to do with it!! That resonates with me.

So back to school.. yes but first a job interview.

Gosh, that was something I’d not done in a while. I had to present my ideas to not just the University but also Carillion plc who were interested in sponsoring a PhD student to work with them. The Practitioner Doctorate programme, similar to the EngD format, is very much about joining real world business problems with academic knowledge. The area I wanted to research, ‘improving sustainability through the supply chain’, is something Carillion want to develop as part of their ‘Leading the Way’ position in the construction industry. The session went well and here I am.

But before I could start…. 9 intensive weeks of academic learning

This very focused period of full time learning based at the University offered three huge benefits at the start of the PhD. Firstly it meant I was able to get to know my fellow cohort of students. There were four of us in this inaugural year, all working on very different projects. I enjoyed spending time with Paschalena, Patrick and Abeer and we’ll continue to meet even though we are now spread out round the country. It’s really good having people who understand the problems and on whom you can bounce-off ideas. The second really important element was the modules on Life Cycle Thinking and Sustainable Development. Some of this was delivered through personal lectures and part came through filmed material created during the Master’s courses. During all of it Chris France and Jaqi Lee acted as mentors and challengers. It was fascinating to see how far life cycle thinking had developed from the module I had done on LCA in 2007. And finally the post graduate support at Surrey is impressive. We were given advice on the structure of a PhD, how to manage our data, our project planning and even what type of academic style we need to adopt. Having to write in a concise grammatical way which does not include sentences starting with ‘And’ or finishing with………! will continue to be a challenge.

Enjoying a break – Centre for Environmental Strategy Retreat 2015

And being a student…..

Yup, I wore jeans with holes, was a helper at the ISIE conference and wore the ‘Here to Help’ Tee shirt. I have the obligatory awful photo on the library pass/student card, have been to the pub, and lain on the grass sunbathing after lunch. And of course it wasn’t all about making the brain work! The four of us were invited to take part in the annual CES retreat. Academics, students and departmental support staff all spent time volunteering at the Weald and Downland museum and enjoying an open air lecture, sitting in WL West & Sons woodyard. It was unstuffy and fun.

Picture Credit: Ian Christie


Do your food choices influence your level of respect for the environment?

In this blog Centre for Environmental Strategy MSc student Richard Toms shares the findings from his research dissertation:

Recent decades have increasingly seen the consumption of livestock products become widely debated in the public domain. The impact its production has on the environment, and the associated animal welfare issues, add fuel to this. It could be expected, then, that people who consume high quantities of animal products will demonstrate a low awareness of the environmental impacts related to the livestock production industry. Research undertaken for my Master’s dissertation investigated this.

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