An initiative by the Chalmers University of Technology, Challenge Lab is a collaborative project that aims to reinforce students and the university as active part within local and regional ecosystems. It exists around the facilitation of direct conversation amongst stakeholders that, led by the students’ initiative, intend to identify contemporary issues and potential points of leverage for future action. This multidisciplinary cooperation tries to introduce systemic change in the university structure, bridging the gap between education and utilization.

Linked to their Master Thesis, participating in the Lab does not entail extra credits for its participants. Instead, it offers students the opportunity to develop their understanding of the complexity of societal challenges, applying their own vision for a sustainable future and engaging with industry, academics and municipalities to navigate the intricacies of their topic, and strengthen the accuracy of their line of questioning. Priority is given to the adequate definition of the issue, over the potential delivery of specific solutions.

Challenge Lab appeared in 2013 as a response to the resistance of societal actors to deeply engage in the conversation to solve modern urban issues. Inspired by a water management project completed in Barcelona, Prof. John Holmberg proposed the creation of an independent body within the university to promote the development of concepts in pursuit of sustainable development. This autonomy from the traditional university structure aims to combine expertise from a variety of disciplines in order to tackle complex issues such as urban mobility, waste production, housing or clean energy. One of the unique characteristics of Challenge Lab is the introduction of students as neutral, unthreatening intermediaries to drive the conversation, with the hope that business, industry, researchers and municipalities would play a more active role without the need to protect their own financial or intellectual stake. Innovation is enhanced by strict criteria of multidisciplinary research, where pairs of students allocated to specific topics are always from different academic backgrounds. This diversity aims to reflect the complexity of urban challenges, encouraging students to develop a collaborative mindset.

HOW IS THE MASTER’S THESIS COMPONENT STRUCTURED?

The Master Thesis Lab complements the standard Master Thesis module, and offers a co-creative environment for students to deliver a research project with real life impact. Each thesis is completed in pairs, accepted by the departments of Architecture and Civil Engineering; Engineering for Sustainable Development; Mechanical, Automation, Naval and Industrial Design Engineering; and Technology and Learning. It is also accepted by the Gothenburg School of Business, Economics and Law. This joint research method is considered to increase the quality of the thesis.

The semester prior to the beginning of the programme, students are introduced to fundamental sustainability principles, encouraging their own understanding of the topic and exposing them to concepts that will inform their thesis. This course, called ‘Leadership for sustainability transitions’, is part of the department of Space, Earth and Environment, and its completion increases the probability for students to be accepted to the Master Thesis Lab. Access to the programme is via open application in September-October, including a motivation statement.

After screening and a series of interviews, acceptance of candidates aims for a diverse range of students, with different background and with a flexible approach to modern urban issues.

HIGH IMPACT AND RECOGNITION OF THE PROGRAMME

The development of the Master Thesis Lab allows students to tackle modern issues while considering a wider range of perspectives. Thanks to the implementation of multidisciplinary approaches, and the focus on systems innovation, students develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of social challenges allowing for more inclusive and comprehensive research. This holistic model, and the iterative process with academics and practitioners help students deliver research that is relevant and with high level of applicability. Despite the focus of Challenge Lab being centred around the conversation between stakeholders, the consistent engagement of businesses and municipality creates an opportunity for the outcome of research projects to be developed and implemented.

With regards to the dialogue between researchers, industry and municipality, the more casual debate led by students facilitates an increase in the engagement by external stakeholders. Not being subject to the formal requirements of institutionalized exchange, representatives of businesses and governing bodies perceive the Lab as a place to discuss modern issues, support the student community and access an innovative source of ideas.

Challenge Lab received the Green Gown Award 2016, in the category of Student Engagement for Europe. These awards are organized by the Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability (GUPES), and supported by United Nations Environment Programme and the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC).

This blog article has been produced as part of the Challenge Lab Case Study Report of the UCITYLAB Project Case Study Collection.

Photo credit shutterstock.com

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