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Q&A with Måns Nilsson, Executive Director

Måns Nilsson became SEI’s Executive Director at the beginning of April 2018. In conversation with Robert Watt, he describes his aspirations for the institute and his leadership goals.

Robert Watt / Published on 26 April 2018
Måns Nilsson

Måns Nilsson at Science Forum 2018. Photo: SEI.


Måns Nilsson
Måns Nilsson

Executive Director

SEI Headquarters

What are the key challenges you’ll face when moving from the role of Research Director and Deputy Director, to that of Executive Director?

One challenge I’m very conscious of is the need to let go of some of the analytical work that I’ve been doing over the last years. As Executive Director, I must focus on the leadership of the organisation, and that leaves less time for research. That’s not to say that I’ll lose contact with my research roots – for example, I plan to continue supporting the development of our work on SDGs and governance.

I also expect it’ll be tough to step away from some of the working relationships I’ve developed with project partners around the world. These aren’t just colleagues, they’re friends too. But I look forward to building new connections to political and business leaders, and further developing my contacts in the global arena of academia, research institutes and think tanks.

Finally, and this is certainly not unique to being Executive Director, finding a balance between work and life is always tricky. I have two children, and my wife and I share family responsibilities equally. My wife is also a leading professional in her field – it’s a scheduling puzzle!

What are your goals as Executive Director?

Putting administrative and intellectual leadership on equal footing is a priority for me. It’s as much a process as a goal – a constant balancing act between control and creativity. Finding that equilibrium within an organisation is, in my view, the biggest task of a leader. And while they may often been thought of as being ever in tension, in practice they go hand-in-hand. SEI needs to be innovative and efficient at the same time. We must have the curiosity to explore and the capacity to exploit. My goal is to enable the institute and researchers to investigate what lies beyond the current research/policy horizon while at the same time be effective in our delivery today.

On the administrative side, I have a few immediate goals. First, to strengthen our process for monitoring, evaluation and learning. Second, to improve our environmental policy. Third, to align and make smarter our internal planning and reporting.

I also see a need to bring together our intellectual capacities to tackle some key issues, such as cross-sectoral action on the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement, in partnership with other experts from research and policy. And we must maintain a high level of innovation, while having the elasticity to respond to emerging issues.

Crucially, we need the right resources, financial and human. Attracting, developing and retaining top talent is a high priority for me.

Next year SEI turns 30 – a time to reflect and look to the future. What are your highlights from two decades of working at SEI?

Among the proudest moments for me are when we help shape the working methods and strategic development of sectors that might not normally be associated with environmental protection – in recent years with the steel industry and before that in the field of Strategic Environmental Assessments. Sustainability is no longer confined to a ‘green box, and I believe SEI has played an important role in providing the evidence to shift sustainability into mainstream policy making, into company boardrooms and onto international and national development agendas. This is particularly close to my heart, as environmental policy integration was the topic of my doctoral thesis.

I’m also proud of the long-term partnerships that SEI builds and maintains across the world. These make our research relevant to challenges faced at the level of management, improving practices and methods where it matters.

Another highlight is the response to, and use of, our signature tools, such as LEAP. The underlying philosophy of these tools captures the soul of SEI – rigorous analysis that empowers others to take action.

The 25th Anniversary, and the stories we told at that event, was a real highlight too. It showed an organisation that had grown in confidence, was having real impact and could communicate this in a way that engages and empowers.

You’ve spoken about needing to “adapt our skills and tools to new and changing sustainability challenges”. What are those new challenges, and how can SEI equip partners to tackle them?

We do not know that yet. OK – we know something – for example how industry in many places is rushing ahead of policy makers in wanting to take action on the SDGs. So we need to equip them with tools and ways of thinking to make our research relevant and applicable. This means orienting our tool development to a broader range of societal actors – some who formulate policy, others who deliver solutions.

But I’m confident we can adapt. SEI has a history in the engineering style of tools, but we have renewed them and also developed new ones: now tapping into new data streams and visualising them, while also providing analysis and decision support.

For example,  conceptual tools and methods, such as the SDG interactions framework, can give decision makers a structured way to think about sustainability and a systematic analytical language to tackle implementation.

I expect to see more of this. Research projects should be asking themselves – ’can we turn our insights into a tool, a method or a service that helps implement science-based solutions?’.

How can SEI improve its impact?

By improving science-based engagements with society, which is the SEI niche. Each of these three words can be further sharpened: better science, smarter ways of engaging and communicating, and better understanding of society, decision making and politics. Our research centres around the world give SEI a unique edge here. No other organisation in our field has the potential to comprehend local and regional policy contexts around the world like SEI.

I also believe that working in partnership with decision makers to co-create knowledge will enhance our impact. But we must never lose touch with SEI’s ability to be adaptive and innovative since we can be sure our operating environment will change in unpredictable ways.

SEI’s people, whatever their area of expertise, are absolutely world class – a rare blend of passion, brilliance, development ethos, street smartness and pragmatism. The way we have responded to and gathered our forces in view of new agendas is so inspiring. In a way these forces are unleashed already – my job may sometimes be to get out of the way! But I will give those that are on the cutting edge the space to grow and be creative.


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