Kick off the Professorship in Sustainability Transitions

On 3 June, Frans Melissen will officially kick off the new Transversal Professorship in Sustainability Transitions with his inaugural lecture in the BUas chapel. What’s his take on it?

  • About BUas
  • Research

On 3 June, it’s going to happen, your inaugural lecture. Nervous?

‘It’s my third time, so not really, no. Enthusiasm is what I feel mostly!’

A new episode?

‘That’s one way to look at it, but it actually builds on everything I did before. I was Professor in Sustainable Experience Design and, in addition, I was co-Chair of Management Education for Sustainability with Lars Moratis on behalf of BUas and Antwerp Management School. The kick-off of that joint professorship took place in 2020, during the corona pandemic. To address this unique situation, we creatively presented our inaugural lecture through an introductory film.’ 

Live in the chapel, this time. Still a bit your home base – Hotel & Facility?

‘Not anymore, that is.’

I guess the word ‘transversal’ has something to do with that!?

‘Exactly! This professorship spans across all BUas domains.’

Interesting term, comes from mathematics, right?

‘True. Actually, it means a line that crosses two other lines. Transversal is about cross-connections. Jorrit (Snijder, Executive Board President, ed.) came up with this term and I am still grateful to him for that. Every time it turns out to be a conversation opener and that’s exactly the intention!’

And what does the professorship in Sustainability Transitions stand for?

‘The professorship is mainly looking for ways to speed up the societal transition towards an economy that operates within planetary boundaries, focuses on well-being, and is based on social justice.’ 

That’s quite a lot!

‘It is. It starts with people thinking about it. In the sense of, what do I want it to mean to me personally? To my domain or field? After all, sustainability transitions are not just about technology; the solutions often exist across various domains. However, transitions are slow because people find it difficult to change. Therein lies the crux. How do you motivate people to actually put the available solutions into practice? This question resonates across all domains. How are we going to rethink and reorganise our approaches and behaviours?’

And for that we need to go ‘beyond the bubble’?

‘People who are already involved in this topic often find themselves in a ‘bubble’, using complex jargon and intricate concepts, facts and calculations. That’s all quite valuable, of course, but it doesn’t lead to any real change, any action beyond the bubble.’

But don’t we have bubbles like these within BUas too?

‘Definitely. Indeed, I’m inside them myself. It is very easy to get positive reactions from people who are already enthusiastic. Just look at LinkedIn. It’s full of applause from like-minded people. Same again now, with my recent inaugural lecture post. That is fine, of course, but it is essential that we get people on board who are not involved in these issues every day. That is where our true challenge lies.’

Puncturing bubbles then?

‘Well, not that, exactly. Puncturing doesn’t work. I’ve learned that by now. I’ve tried various forms of prodding. You can paint doomsday scenarios that scare people, you can get angry – I’ve done it all to motivate people into action, but it doesn’t help.’

So what does help?

‘That’s exactly what I want to explore in my inaugural lecture.’


‘It doesn’t help to keep rubbing in the dangers, the things that can go wrong. This can be intimidating, causing people to shy away. Yet I’m sure almost everyone recognises the importance. I don’t know anyone who does not wish for our survival. Do you?’

If you put it that way, no. But when the situation gets concrete and close to home, when people have to give up things for it, then it often becomes a different story.

‘Exactly, but sustainability does not mean that you have to give up everything. Let me share a somewhat unusual example. I follow a 98% vegetarian diet. It’s not because I have an irresistible craving for the remaining 2%. Rather, I’m allergic to mushrooms. So, if the sole vegetarian option on the menu contains mushrooms, I happily choose an alternative and still enjoy a nice evening. And you know what? That’s perfectly okay. One solution lies in creating more diverse alternatives. We need to think about that together. In all areas.’

What is your personal motivation to work on this topic?

‘I simply have to be involved in this. It is important to me. Although I have noticed a shift in my approach. More relaxed, calmer. No longer out of frustration. My girlfriend and I have an understanding: we deliberately don’t talk about it at times as a form of self-preservation. Impatience, I’ve learned, can be counterproductive. I try not to fall into that trap anymore and we shouldn’t do that with the professorship either.’

What will you and your fellow researchers be working on?

‘What we are definitely not going to do is collect even more data and evidence about the problem, however useful. I don’t see that as the primary role of our professorship. Instead, our main task is to investigate and work out possible solutions. This approach aligns with BUas’ overall research ethos. It is a BUas-wide approach, collaborating with and benefiting our industry partners and involving our young professionals, because there are also students who actively take part in the professorship. And throughout that joint quest, we should embrace experimentation without fear.’

Failing forward? Is there time for that?

‘Nobody knows exactly what the world will look like in 10 to 15 years. We should keep trying different things and not pass judgement when things don’t pan out as expected. You start something because you think it will work. If it doesn’t work, you have to try something else. That takes guts and we need to encourage that. We will also seek out positive examples – instances where things work well. To show that those who achieve it just get it done, and they even enjoy the process. I believe that’s precisely how you motivate people!’  

Want to hear what Frans has to say?

Then come to his inaugural lecture on 3 June in the chapel of BUas. It starts at 15.00 hrs. Just sign up here. See you then!

Frans Melissen