Our recipe for sustainable research



Sustainable production is the key to a sustainable society. But how can the underlying research be made more sustainable? We have developed our own successful recipe. It is focused on awareness and measurability, and it engages each involved researcher.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition of the concept was formulated by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, as commissioned by the UN. The definition pertains to preserving the production capability of water, the Earth and the ecosystem, and to economising on the Earth’s resources. 



For this to continue being possible, we have to reduce our negative impact on the environment and society. In other words, we have to produce what we need in a more sustainable manner. How can we do this? It is here that the underlying research and individuals enter the scene, primarily in the field of production. There are two reasons they will play a key role in the solution, says Björn Johansson, who performs research on production and sustainability aspects.


“Firstly, research is conducted before putting products on the market, which means that influencing researchers will have a large impact on the forthcoming products and production systems. Secondly, the researchers also influence and educate other areas of society through seminars, workshops, lectures and media materials in print and on film.”

Björn Johansson has been part of the Production Area of Advance since the beginning. Together with Maria Knutson Wedel and Andreas Dagman, he was tasked with forming the Area of Advance’s Sustainability Awareness Group. He currently leads the work with Sara Palander from the Swedish Lifecycle Centre.



Associate professor Björn Johansson, from Chalmers Production Area of Advance's Sustainability Awareness Group


Sustainability through commitment

The Production Area of Advance comprises a total of 220 researchers. How can such a large group of researchers come up with more sustainable solutions? 

The most common scenario, says Björn Johansson, is that companies or research institutes appoint 4-5 people to an expert group, which is then responsible for sustainability work. Rikard Söderberg and our Area of Advance’s management asked us to think differently. They wanted researchers to get involved and consider what the sustainability perspective means for their own research field. The goal was to get each one of them to consider: “How can I use my research to contribute to   a sustainable future?”.

Three dimensions of sustainability

To answer this question, we first have to look deeper into the concept of sustainability. Chalmers here connects to the established division into three dimensions: ecological, economic and social sustainability. 

Amongst other things, ecological sustainability means enabling environmental protection, limiting harmful emissions and limiting usage of energy and natural resources. In modern manufacturing, for example, rare metals are frequently used. It is especially important in this case to utilise every single gram and make sure recycling is possible. Another aspect of this is the development of new environmentally friendly materials that require new manufacturing methods. Many manufacturing processes consume loads of energy and material resources. We want to make all preparatory development stages virtual to avoid having to perform testing in real environments with real products. This means we will be able to achieve savings as well as giving a finishing touch to the processes, thus making them as efficient as possible. 

Social sustainability focuses on values such as democracy, human rights and working environment. From a production perspective, this means, for example, regarding the individual as an asset rather than a limitation. Taking, for instance, ergonomics into consideration during assembly means the company also achieves major savings opportunities and can reduce wastefulness of resources. This sustainability aspect is particularly important in light of the world’s ageing populations, which are growing. Who is to build the electrical cars, solar panels or computers of the future if we do not manage to attract young people to the industry?

Economic sustainability is characterised by sound operations that survive over time. Competition in the industry is stiff, and increased demands related to the environment and customised products, for example, need to be managed without costs getting out of hand. One way to contribute to sustainable finances is to continuously reduce lead times, set-up times and waste. We are also looking for new solutions where platform and life cycle thinking can be better utilised as well as flexible methods to reduce time parameters and resource consumption.

In sustainable production, the three dimensions are concordantly and mutually to support one another.

Points of departure 

There was no obvious method for developing this type of sustainability thinking in an entire research organisation prior to 2010. Björn Johansson and his colleagues in the Sustainability Awareness Group realised early on that it was a good idea to work in parallel to increase all of the participating researchers’ awareness of sustainability and to measure the outcome.

“Everyone in the group has been involved with sustainability work of some kind, and the idea was for us to serve as coaches for the research teams. And this is what we have done. Twice a year we have met key individuals in each of the 16 groups in the various research fields and discussed sustainability from the researchers’ own perspectives. We have tried to diversify the concept of sustainability and increase understanding of the researcher’s ability to influence at an early stage. We want them to look upon their own research from an outside perspective in terms of its social, economic and ecological impact. It is a matter, for example, of a product’s life cycle – what happens before it is produced? While it is being produced? Afterwards? How does it impact social sustainability? Many people initially responded that it didn’t have an impact, but after thinking it over, they realise, for example, that it matters whether a robot welds a product together instead of a person, or in which country it is manufactured,” says Björn Johansson.

It is hardly surprising that the social aspect gets relegated to the background when researchers in the field discuss sustainable production. That does not mean, however, that they lack knowledge in social sustainability.

“There quite simply has not been a strong enough tradition of connecting it to their own research. Consequently, it has not primarily been a matter of teaching, but rather of raising awareness.”

Concept for raised awareness 


How can this be achieved? In addition to coaching and workshops, the Sustainability Awareness Group decided to use concept mapping. The tool was developed by Joseph Novak and his research team at Cornell University in 1970 (and was later even the subject of a doctoral thesis at Chalmers). It measures and compares awareness on the part of researchers. During the process, the researchers also see patterns of their own thoughts on sustainability, which helps them reflect on how to develop them.

Concept mapping can be done qualitatively, but the method selected in this case was quantitative. It is a simple method. Just like students taking a test in a lecture hall, groups of researchers have sat bent over a piece of paper. In the middle of the paper is a circle containing two words – ‘sustainable production’. The task they face is to find as many associations as possible for the circle in the middle and put these in new circles on the paper, within the space of 15 minutes. In other words, the question to answer is: ‘what is sustainable production for you?'.


Methodology of concept mapping



The work process starts with a general of knowledge increase of sustainable production. With knowledge and recurring concept mapping, we want to reach a higher level of awareness. The awareness continues to expand with the help of a number of metrics so that the researchers should be able to quantify their research. The point is that all the brain work and discussions with other researchers shall lead to new ideas and innovations for sustainability.


Think future already now! 

If we understand what effect a technical solution could have in the future, we can make conscious choices along the way. Measurements have shown that our 

researchers have broadened their sustainability perspectives so that more aspects of sustainability are considered together with a longer horizon of time.




Interpret the results of different sustainability aspects

During analysis, the circles are marked with different colours. Ecological aspects are marked in green, economic aspects in blue, social aspects in pink and institutional aspects (laws, rules, etc.) in black. ‘Recycling’, ‘customer benefit’, ‘quality’, ‘energy efficiency’ and ‘viable products’ are some of the typical concepts.

However, it is not only the number of rings with words plotted on the maps or how they are distributed and marked that determines the results. At least as important is how they are connected. The participant draws a line from one circle to another to demonstrate that he or she sees a connection between them. Connections between the circles with different colours, that is connections between different sustainability aspects, are valued the highest and are marked with a red line.

“If there is a map with a bunch of green circles, you might think this indicates a high degree of environmental awareness, but this plays only a minor role if there is no awareness of how the environment is connected to finances and education, for example.”

Single-coloured ‘trees’ of connected circles are easy to build. 

“Take finances for instance. You draw a line between costs, revenue, investments, etc. It grows into a big blue tree in about 15 minutes. But if you are to connect how economic growth leads to social sustainability, you have to think for a bit. This requires different and more complex lines of thought,” says Björn Johansson.

One simple calculation – the ratio of red lines to the number of circles – gives a rough measurement of the complexity of the concept map and thus an idea of what the awareness of the ‘tested’ researcher is in terms of sustainable production. 

What the mappings demonstrate

Thus far, concept mapping has been done three times (2010, 2011 and 2013) with a selection of 40 researchers. It has not been the same researchers every time, which follows how these types of studies are generally conducted. 

“There was a lot of blue the first time, almost 50 %. This is not surprising at a technical university since technology is included in the financial field,” says Björn Johansson.

He continues. “We have done concept mapping in other contexts as well, for example during the Chalmers Day for a Sustainable Future where several teachers participated. There were many pink circles that time, which reflects a different point of departure for sustainability thinking.”

At the start of the Production Area of Advance, however, the pink circles didn’t even reach 10 % while the ecological green ones reached 25 %. The Sustainability Awareness Group realised that more focus was needed on social sustainability – that the pink circles needed to increase during the next concept mapping. Measures were taken. 

“We brought in guest lecturers to talk about social sustainability, we held a workshop where each research team considered and reflected upon their impact on social aspects and we held coaching meetings with representatives from each of the 16 research fields.”

Clear increase

Just over a year later at the next concept mapping, awareness of social sustainability had increased. This was also true of overall awareness (understanding of the connection between the three sustainability aspects) of sustainable production. And an additional 1.5 years later in 2013, at the third and final measurement occasion, awareness had almost doubled compared to 2010.

Björn Johansson believes that a level of awareness has been achieved that will not increase much more. The distribution among the three aspects is more even. The blue circles constitute almost 50 %, while the 

green, pink and black aspects represent a fairly equal share each.

“We have struck a better balance. The blue circles will always be at the top because they include technology. We use technology to find solutions in our research. Now it is a matter of maintaining the more equalised level.”

Measurement as a framework

So, awareness of sustainable development has increased within the Production Area of Advance. But how is this utilised? How can we be certain that new products and solutions really are sustainable? Well, by measuring the effect of the underlying research. Using measures enables creation of a framework, which is a type of control for each research project.

The measures need to be designed to enable evaluation of research on product development, production systems and manufacturing processes. Ideally, measures should be a guide to where you are, where you are headed and how far you are from the ultimate vision. In addition to these, the indicators also need to be relevant, measurable, understandable, reliable, usable, flexible and based on accessible data.

For a measure to be sustainable, it must contain more than one unit. Björn Johansson gives a factory’s water consumption as an example.

“A certain amount is consumed every year. This measure doesn’t say much. You also need to know how many products are manufactured, to see how much water is used for each unit. It might also be a matter of how much is available. If the factory is in Sweden, this isn’t much of an issue, but in Africa, water is in short supply and this issue takes on a whole different meaning. Measures thus are a ratio of several parts.”   

Co-development of measures

Which measures could be used to define sustainable research? There were no earlier examples to fall back on when the question was posed in 2010, but Björn Johansson and his colleagues in the Sustainability Awareness Group still believed it would be relatively easy to produce ten measures to cover all of the research teams’ sustainability aspects. 

“We thought we would be able to resolve this in a day. But we were wrong. It took a long time, many meetings and twisting and turning to organise this.”

After structured interviews with the researchers, we had a long list of 134 measures! Now we have managed to chisel this list down to ten measures, with the help of everyone involved. Introduction of the measures was facilitated by everyone being involved in the work. Three of the measures are comprehensive and apply to all of the research teams. Innovation Maturity is at the top, and it resembles NASA’s definition of Technology Readiness Level.

“The method focuses on how mature a product is in terms of being launched on the market. NASA had nine steps that we scaled down to four – ‘research concept’, ‘developed theory’, ‘tested in lab’ and ‘implemented in company’.”

The second comprehensive measure, Knowledge Sharing, defines in three steps to whom the researcher has shared his or her research face-to-face. This might be other researchers, students, industry or the general public. 

The third measure, Visible Life Cycle Performance, goes through the product’s life cycle in six steps – raw material, product development, production, transport, use and recycling.

 “It is a matter of thinking through the entire life cycle and making it transparent and more sustainable. Which raw materials are used to manufacture a modern telephone, for example? Where is it manufactured? What is the work environment like there? How is it used? How is it recycled? Nothing may be neglected. For example, the telephone must not be designed so it can only be discarded at a garbage dump somewhere in Africa.”

The other seven measures – work environment, work efficiency, energy, toxics, materials, reuse and land use – are specific and are to be addressed to the extent they affect the various research teams’ projects. 

Continuous follow-up

Continuous follow-up ensures that the measures are utilised in research. Every year the research team completes a chart showing changes that have been made and how the changes ensure the set sustainability goals. The Area of Advance’s management thus obtains an excellent battery of material to show during evaluations and meetings with financial contributors.

“I can’t say that the measures are perfect and include everything, but this is a way to monitor research projects. Figures can never give a complete picture; at the end of the day, the issue is very much one of morals and ethics, that you have a decent and honest approach to what you are doing.”

Implementation of measures has proceeded in parallel with concept mapping, workshops and coaching. The method has been effective on the whole in terms of making our research on production more sustainable. Measurability and awareness are related. It is only possible to influence things we are aware of, at the same time that awareness actually increases when we attempt to measure or estimate the effects of what we are doing.

Many ingredients for an entire recipe

Which aspect has been the most time consuming for Björn Johansson and his colleagues in the Sustainability Awareness Group?

“The coaching meetings. There are sixteen groups, and we have met each group eight times, for two hours each time.” 

The workshops have lasted whole or half days, and have been spent, for example, on defining measures, mapping concepts and raising awareness of social sustainability or of how research results can be shared.

“We have also had media training. Talking to the media and appearing on TV are not easy to do, but you have to be able to tell others about the three sustainability aspects on which your research is based. You have to communicate and market, be visible in popular science and start businesses. A great deal of our responsibility includes ensuring our results come into use in industry. It is only then that we can reach our goal of sustainable production.”

As one aspect of this, each research team produced a brief (1-4 minutes long) popular science film. Björn Johansson shows one of them on his computer: “You could say we are performing health check-ups on the Swedish manufacturing industry’s machinery,” says researcher Anders Skoogh in the film. He cites an example from one of Volvo Car’s factories, where a research team is working with simulation models to find bottlenecks in production. The message is simple, and the film concludes with: “Better utilisation of resources results in better environmental friendliness, which results in better competitiveness. I personally come from a small village that is dependent on two large factories. It would feel great to help them become more competitive.”

We are now in the final stages of the strategic Sust­ainable Production Initiative. What will happen to sustainability work in the Production Area of Advance after that?

“I believe efforts will continue, but we have to shift our focus. We have raised the bar and naturally want to keep it high, but I also believe we need to focus on quality and on basing research on sustainability. This requires even more in-depth cooperation within the academic world, industry and other social functions, as well as between them. It is a matter of considering all three aspects and obtaining positive results,” says Björn Johansson.


Text: Lars Nicklason

Portrait photo of Björn Johansson: Jann Lipka




Quote ​from Günther Seliger, Prof. Dr.-Ing Technische Universität Berlin, a scientific advisor:

“This demonstrates that concept mapping works. It is interesting to see that the number of circles has decreased on the pieces of paper, while the red lines have increased. Complex lines take longer to discover.”

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Published: Mon 29 Jun 2015. Modified: Thu 27 Oct 2016