Professor wants us to think differently

Sverker Sörlin is a university professor, researcher, historian, author – and a transdisciplinarian. But he is also passionate about skiing and physical fitness, and thinks like a winner. “If there is anything I’ve learnt from sport it’s that you have to aim high.”

Sverker Sörlin enters his office which is lined from floor to ceiling with books. One corner is dedicated to his own publications; books he has written himself or with others. Numerous volumes fill many shelves in what he calls the “palace of memories”. His full book collection is extends across various rooms in his home – between 10,000 and 12,000 volumes in all. Sörlin doesn’t know the exact number but he claims he can navigate his way around the shelves quite well.

He returns with his doctoral thesis from 1988 called “Framtidslandet” (the land of the future). It’s about the great industrialisation in Norrland, the northernmost part of Sweden, from 1870 to 1920 based on the rich natural resources there: forests, ore and hydropower. The extraction of these resources required labour and capital from the rest of the country and abroad as well to make industrialisation a reality. The debate at the time was about what would happen to the profits and the development made.

Sörlin sees historical parallels with the new industrialisation taking place in Norrbotten and Västerbotten today. Steel manufacturers Hybrit in Luleå and H2 Green Steel in Boden and battery manufacturer Northvolt in Skellefteå are building new operations from scratch. American data giants have already built huge data centres in places like Luleå on their quest for cheap green energy and cooling.

“There are big similarities between what’s happening now and what happened then. To start with it’s really capital intensive and the capital needs to come from outside – at least a large portion of it. Science, innovation and technology are also part of the change process. That’s externally driven as well. The right conditions are being created through sweeping political reform and funding from outside, and today the climate issue is driving the launch of projects to produce fossil-free steel. This is nothing unique to Luleå, it’s taking place in many of the world’s cold locations, but it’s happening at the local level,” says Sörlin.

He sees a new belief in the future growing in Norrland, similar to that which existed at end of the 1900s. People are once again prepared to move – not southwards as they did during the prolonged depopulation, but in the opposite direction this time. They’re heading north to the land of the future. But it’s not enough to just build new industries, according to Sörlin.

“We can’t just throw up a hangar and say ‘Come and work here’. Urban planners and architects have an important role to play. They’re the ones who make cities and locations into good, functioning societies, incorporating culture and leisure, and creating an attractive environment. People want to live a good life. We need people to build families and for children to grow up there.”

In the jury’s explanation of its decision to award Sörlin the Academy's Great Gold Metal, they call him an active participant in the public debate. He pushes back a little against that description, considering himself to be first and foremost a university professor, researcher, historian and author.

“I don’t think that being active in the public debate is my most important role. But it’s true that I do debate issues that I work with in a bit more depth. I’ve participated in the public debate on the environment and climate, and especially research, innovation and education. I’ve also had an advisory role for the Government for many years. Recently there’s probably been some debate on issues relating to the nature of education and schools as well. But my primary task is not to contribute to debates. In fact, the opposite is true: Opinion-forming grows out of research and thought.”

His book under the heading “Till bildningens försvar” (defence of education and self-formation) was published in 2019. He wouldn’t have actually written it if the publisher hadn’t persuaded him to. The subtitle translates as: “The difficult art of knowing together”. The book is a manifesto and a reinterpretation of the concept of education and self-formation (bildung). He digs deep and turns the concept inside out in an effort to understand what distinguishes knowledge, facts and learning from the concept of bildung. What is actually meant by “it’s general knowledge”, the importance of which is drummed into many of the older generation?

“When I was about to write the book, I thought to myself “What on earth am I going to write? I can’t just repeat the old gospel that everyone is familiar with, or talk about the importance of education and self-formation for the emancipation of the individual. So after six months of getting nowhere, I went back to the publisher and asked ‘Can I write a book about knowledge instead?’ They said no.”

It turns out that he was actually glad he got a firm “no”.     

“It forced me to think deeper and I discovered that there was a line between knowledge and self-formation, although the concepts are strongly connected. There is no education and self-formation without knowledge. The term knowledge is also distorted, with a flattened interpretation in recent years. We’ve started to confuse knowledge with performance. The book therefore became polemical, arguing against the one-sided focus on knowledge performance as if measuring knowledge with a PISA score is the only way to go about it. Obviously we want to do well on the test, but it has become too one-dimensional. Bildung is a way of thinking differently about how to use knowledge and how we obtain it.”

Politicians talk often and eagerly about how Sweden needs to be a knowledge nation. What are your thoughts on that?

“We’re supposed to have a kunskapsskolan (knowledge school). Now the minister says that we’re to have a knowledge and bildung school model. Have you noticed that? But as yet no one is saying that we should be an education and bildung nation. I think that’s more difficult to say because bildung is associated with personal characteristics and it’s not easy to connect it to things like innovation. But that’s what we should really be doing, because I think people who have a broader knowledge base find it easier to be associative. It’s important to have a breadth of knowledge – it leads to an increase in creative environments and unexpected combinations. This in turn is what leads to breakthroughs or whole new insights.”

Sörlin is a committed transdisciplinarian. He works across large fields of knowledge and often finds unexpected combinations in his research and writing.

“A transdisciplinary approach is important to avoid the challenges and problems we encounter and need to solve – both in scientific and social contexts – being categorised based on scientific disciplines. Part of me is a generalist, but then I also have my specialist areas. Being a generalist has sometimes made it easier for me to act as a broker, bringing together different types of researchers in larger collaborations and finding interfaces for cooperation with society at large. A favourite project of mine at the moment is expanding the repertoire of liberal arts subjects at universities of technology. The best universities of technology in the world have deeply integrated social sciences, art and humanities, and require their students to take a broad range of courses. They’re creating responsible leaders. We should do more of this in Sweden.” 

Since 1994 Sörlin has been a frequent member of government research commissions and is a clear voice in discussions about higher education and research.

“When it comes to research and education policy as well as innovation policy, my interest has been in developing systems to make things work better. When I was growing up some of my friends enjoyed tuning up their moped engines, making them work more efficiently by tinkering with the various parts. I had no interest in mopeds at all, but when I got to university and started working there, I looked at it as a kind of moped, only faster. Universities can also be tuned up and fixed to make them better, and sometimes it’s necessary to make sweeping changes – take a different approach.”

“I studied at the University of California, Berkeley, for a year as a post doc. It was a transformative experience. Not just because of the work I was doing, but also because I was able to see how one of the world’s top universities worked. Suddenly I looked at Swedish universities in an entirely different light and thought to myself: We can’t go on like this. We’re too set in our ways; we can become more efficient.”

How did it differ from a Swedish university?

“There were many differences, but the main one was that they decided that they need to excel in everything they do. That’s something I’ve learnt from sport as well – you have to aim high, decide that this is where you’re going to put your efforts, be conscious of quality and drive an organisation consistently in that direction. It has to be ingrained in the culture. A university is not a normal bureaucracy where people go to work for eight hours doing administrative tasks. We have these fantastic jobs because we’re meant to do fantastic things for all of society. Understand, criticise, improve. This is what I took away from Berkeley.”

“Since then I’ve been going around being irritated for decades. Improvement is needed everywhere. There is ignorant leadership, a lack of strategic thinking and an insufficient international outlook. Researchers and educators aren’t usually the problem. It’s normally organisational structures and management that are stuck in trivial red tape and, unfortunately, all too often lack insight into what makes a university great. That’s why it’s so important for academic leaders to also lead academically.”

Sörlin considers himself an elite practitioner of physical fitness. In his large kitchen two sports bikes lean against the wall. The older one is a Bianchi – a memory from his time at Princeton. The other is a Scott of a later vintage. Both are for keeping fit. But his main passion is skiing. “It’s a better form of all-round exercise,” he says. He’s also written a book about the art of cross country skiing called “Kroppens geni” (the genius of the body), on the philosophy of skiing and training with the Norwegian and Swedish national teams on the slopes and Italian glaciers – it’s a bit of science and technology history. This is Sörlin as an investigative journalist in the snow, interviewing innovators in the sport, Marit Bjørgen and Petter Northug.

“Like many Norwegian and Swedish skiers, I come from an environment with plenty of snow, in my case Västerbotten. Skiing was one of the few things we could do in the winter, apart from ice hockey, going to the cinema and homework. Everyone took part in the ski competitions that circulated between the different towns in the municipality. There were expert skiers in every village.”

As in so many other areas of knowledge, he saw a local tradition worth studying in depth.

“I was able to make use of my regional development research: What explains the success of glassworks in Småland and shipbuilding in Österbotten? They are rooted in a deep tradition of knowledge, which is also very practical and based on learning from the best and building self-confidence. Be number one in your own little valley in Tröndelag so you can become number one in the world.”

“It’s not all that different with research. You need to be among people who are capable and talented, and in the end you’ll become one of them. That’s why environments are so important. That’s what it’s all about: Building fantastic environments where people want to be so they can learn from each other – and have fun along the way.”

SVERKER SÖRLIN

Age: 65

Career: PhD, History of Ideas 1988, Umeå University; Professor at Umeå University 1993; guest researcher at UC Berkeley 1993 and the University of Cambridge 1999 and 2004–2005; guest professor at the University of Oslo 2006; Professor at KTH since 2007. Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton 2013–2014; Guest researcher at the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town 2013, Centre for Advanced Study in Oslo 2016 and the University of British Columbia 2016 and 2018.

Fellow: The Royal Skyttean Society 1993, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) 1999 and the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA) 2016. From 2006 to 2009 he chaired the Swedish committee for the International Polar Year. Since 1994 he has been a frequent member of government research commissions. Association Chair, Folkuniversitetet since 2012. Member of the Swedish Climate Policy Council since 2018.

Other information: Winner of the August Prize 2004 in the Best Non-Fiction category for “Världens ordning” and “Mörkret i människan”. In 2012 he was awarded the Lars Salvius Prize for his contributions to increase understanding for climate and environment issues and the role of the humanities in society. Stig Ramel Prize 2018. Honorary doctorate from Åbo University.

Professor Sverker Sörlin is awarded the Academy’s Great Gold Medal for his outstanding achievements as an innovative researcher, research director and active participant in the public debate, and for his meaningful contributions to and deep engagement in research and higher education.