Mads Randbøll Wolff – the pragmatic idealist who wants to transform the world one concrete step at a time

Nov 2014

lCIS had the pleasure of speaking with the recently appointed Director of the Centre for Sustainability and Resilience (CFBR) - Mads Randbøll Wolff. We talked to Mads about sustainability, natural resources and the vision of CFBR.

Born on the Island of Bornholm, with a background in public administration within the natural resources sector, Mads has always wanted to work towards improving life quality. Mads calls himself an idealist. In actual fact he is a pragmatic idealist; he chose to work in the public sector to make the ‘world a better place’, but the pathway he wants to take to achieve his vision of a sustainable society is through concrete, practical and innovative solutions. It is this transformation of strategy into action he wants to see frame the vision of CFBR.

The pathway Mads wants to take to achieve his vision of a sustainable society is through concrete, practical and innovative solutions.

‘I am an idealist. I entered the public sector simply because I wanted to contribute to creating a better society. But that has become increasingly difficult. In public administration I have experienced more hinderances than opportunities to being an idealist and working for the good of people and society. Weak policy execution is a critical issue. Increasingly strategies, policy and financial instruments express ambition but they are not supported by on-the-ground initiatives that effectively implement and enforce these ideals. This is what I want to change.’

Although food and agriculture are important issues to him, and will factor strongly in CFBR’s work, he is also very keen to explore and develop initiatives that are about achieving a ‘sustainable culture’. In his opinion, it is our cultural mindset that is a key obstacle to transforming our current systems and structures from segmented to integrated sustainable processes. Developing initiatives based on sustainable culture thinking will represent a significant component in CFBR’s activities.

One aspect of developing a sustainable culture is our economic culture. An initiative that Mads strongly believes in and has worked with is expanding Bioeconomy-based thinking and processes. According to Mads, this thinking is transformative as it represents a cultural shift in society’s economic mindset; a shift away from an economy that is based on fossil fuels to one based on bio-based products. He would like to see CFBR’s work focus on initiatives like this that are cross-sectoral and transformative.

‘We will work on transforming strategies and policies into action to make a better world. That is what CFBR is going to do.’

Mads clearly voiced his over-arching framework for CFBR: ‘We will work on transforming strategies and policies into action to make a better world. That is what CFBR is going to do.’

In his view, he sees CFBR using either established strategies or policies from different actors such as national governments, scientific and policy-making institutions, global environmental and economic organisations and local authorities, or developing strategies to frame discussions and identifying concrete solutions. Additionally, what is important for Mads is bridging the dialogue between change agents, whatever the level in the decision-making hierarchy.

How he plans to do this is by setting an agenda, discussing solutions and creating top-down/bottom-up and horizontal partnerships, carrying out the vision and fundamental ideas of the centre.

‘We need to discuss the effectiveness of the strategies that are already in place and we need to speed up the process from strategy to initiative by facilitating action. We will: 1) Set out the agenda – identify the problem and create a dialogue; 2) Identify the solutions through workshop-style events; 3) Develop partnerships – with different actors representing global organisations, businesses, local authorities, civil society.’

CFBR needs to be the catalyst, the facilitator to bridge action between stakeholders and make change happen!

‘We often talk about a project as top-down or bottom-up. In my opinion it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the top and the bottom meet. Otherwise our visions will not be aligned. CFBR needs to be the catalyst, the facilitator to bridge diverse sets of actors and make change happen!’

Overall our conversation revealed that Mads sees that cross-sectoral integration, bridging relationships between actors at different levels of the decision-making process and the transformation of societal structures as fundamental frameworks for the work of CFBR.

Here are some more details of what he shared with us.

Sustainability must be cross-sectoral

Asking Mads about the challenges of following a sustainable approach in the public sector, he identified the lack of integrated policy across sector boundaries and how this inevitably impedes progress.

“Very often the interested party views the problems through their own lens rather than considering the issue through the three spheres – the environmental, social and economic – described by the work of Gro Harlem Brundtland. This conflict, between protection and production, is not healthy and is a classical conflict – for all sectors.”

“These governance structures, formed many years ago, dictate how we should structure society and decision-making in a segmented way. And we are still bound by this structure. This system is being challenged now because it is not possible to solve the challenges today through this sector perspective. You have to – when addressing modern global challenges – go beyond sector, silo interests, and look at societal interests as a whole. Discussing policies between ministries and between the different levels of governance from the state level to the local level is still a battle rather than a dialogue. We need to improve bridge-building between different interests.”

Bioeconomy – an integrated initiative

In order to create bridge-building between sectors and decision-makers, Mads points to the need for initiatives that are cross-sectoral in nature and which challenge our current economic world-view. He has been involved in the development of the bio-economy strategy in the Nordic Council of Ministers, and also participated in the European discussion related to the European Commission Bioeconomy strategy. He stresses that the aim of a bio-economy approach must be focused on a transition away from a strongly fossil-fuel based economy to a sustainable economy based on biological, renewable resources.

“With its cross-cutting nature, the bio-economy offers a unique opportunity to address complex and inter-connected challenges, while achieving economic development. It can assist Europe in making the transition to a more resource efficient society that relies more strongly on renewable biological resources to satisfy consumers’ needs, industry demand and tackle climate change.”

Mads is strongly pro a bio-economy approach because he sees it not only as a means to reduce environmental impacts and drive economic growth but also a concept that supports a more equitable and fair economic status quo.

“Basically the bio-economy concept is a societal transformation away from fossil fuels to a bio-based economy. This can be be done in many ways, through many approaches. It is not a question of supporting a specific type of technology; it is a question about the sustainable management of our natural resources. By management I mean protection and utilisation.”

“I would add that with a bio-economy approach we have the opportunity to make some radical societal changes in regard to unsustainable consumption patterns. Fossil fuel resources are a limited resource, concentrated in a few specific places; and a fossil fuel based society has lead to a strongly centralised, imbalanced system. Bio-based resources are found all over the world. You don’t need to centralise your systems and processing centres. You can localise systems across the globe.”

Green Growth the Nordic Way

Scandinavia is considered the region of the world that is most progressive on the environmental front. Why? According to Mads, the region’s success in developing a green economy is because life quality is a high priority throughout its society and Nordic decision-making is centred on trust and fair negotiation. But in his opinion, although Scandinavia might have some good, solid green credentials the region needs to recognise that to maintain its position and reputation it needs to continue challenging itself and exploring new game-changing sustainable ideas.

“I am a little bit unhappy about saying that the Nordic countries are at the forefront. We might be. We do a lot of good things and have many good solutions to show. But when one is too eager to say how good one is one forgets to keep improving. It is a sad state. It allows us to be happy about ourselves and not be ambitious enough. Rather we should state that our aim is to be the best and therefore fight to maintain that position.”

“We have some advantages that you do not find elsewhere in Europe – our welfare society and labour market are two examples. But it is how we make decisions that really sets us apart. Here development is based on trust and negotiation. It is trust between the government and the people, businesses and employees, civil society and industry that paves the way for our success in creating good standards of living. When we meet, negotiate and discuss we can expect that the decision will be upheld and implemented. Trust is an excellent foundation for fair development. But trust is endangered!”

Sustainable Cultures

Mads wants the themes and initiatives CFBR focuses to have a broad impact – within frameworks such as the bio-economy and sustainable cultures. Challenging our culture – how we behave and our mindsets – is something Mads would like to have explored at CFBR.

‘One topic I am keen to explore is Culture and Sustainability – our health, economy, life-style – our general life-quality. We need to ask questions about the way we live and challenge our habits, our culture, to help us to develop a sustainable society and the means to create it. Whatever the topic is it needs to be interrelated – if it is about food we need to talk about employment, better environmental production and sustainable consumption habits.’

‘We need to ask questions like: What if we did this differently? How can we promote a circular economy, what is at stake, why is it difficult to promote? What behaviours promote sustainability and which ones limit progress? What cultural habits act as barriers to sustainable development? How do we change this status quo? The challenge is how do we engage civil society and acknowledge that we live in an unsustainable and unhealthy culture.’

Mads will officially take on his role as Director in January. During the spring CFBR will hold a series of workshops on different themes. But something tells me there might be a concrete project in the making – perhaps something about food…

For more information about the Centre for Sustainability and Resilience (CFBR) visit its website at:

Mads will be speaking at the conference, ‘Bio-economy – Potentials for new Growth’, in Copenhagen on December 1st,

By Philippa Shepherd