Professor Frank Boons, Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute

Wed, 19 May 2021 16:46:00 BST

For over two years Frank Boons, Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University has been working as a senior academic fellow in the Systems Research Team at Defra (the UK government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). As part of a team of 5 academics and an ambitious group of civil servants, he has developed approaches to deliver more systems-based policies in areas ranging from food waste, air quality, land use to sustainable and healthy diets.

The programme was initiated by the Chief Scientific Advisory Office of the Department, recognising that societal challenges increasingly cut across the boundaries of departmental units. Systems-based approaches seek to look at the interrelations between trends (i.e. obesity and negative environmental impacts) and the processes that generate them, to develop policies that have a system-wide impact without generating unintended consequences.

As part of the programme the Systems Research Team made substantial progress in three areas. First, a contribution to actual policy improvement, for instance in helping shape the new Waste Prevention Programme, and the department-wide approach to achieving net zero carbon emissions.

Secondly, the development of tools for (participatory) systems analysis that are tailor-made for the department, but which have also drawn the attention of other departments.

Thirdly, and arguably the most important, making systems approaches part of the organisational routines of the department. In that sense, a major success was that the programme (set for 2 years) was dissolved into a standing organisational unit which deals with systems approaches and futures. As part of that development the Department now has an active community of practice where department members meet on a regular basis to learn from each others' progress in underpinning policies in the areas of food, environment and rural affairs with a more systemic perspective.

Frank Boons remains seconded to Defra for the foreseeable future, but more in an advisory role, as the capacity of the Department to work in a systems-based way is increasing. While it has been challenging at times, this has been a huge learning experience for the academics and civil servants involved. The Fellowship has allowed Professor Boons to gain a better understanding of the intricacies of the UK government, and the ways in which systems-based approaches can be brought into such complex organisations.