Ice and water

PhD Defence by Martin Mohr Olsen: Fourth Mission and Post-Sustainability Oriented Innovation in the Arctic

Martin Mohr Olsen will defend his PhD project "Fourth Mission and Post-Sustainability Oriented Innovation in the Arctic".


This thesis concerns itself with how small Arctic institutions of higher learning can work to implement sustainability as an operational factor. I take the stance that implementation of sustainability within academic organisation is complicated by the interconnected nature of the issues that it addresses.

Institutions of higher learning are found to be built around rigid and sharp demarcations between different fields and disciplines, lacking interdisciplinary collaborations and dialogue between not only
distinct academic fields but also in terms of communications with the communities that surround them. Communities which are most likely in need of solutions to concerns related to sustainability.

Based on own professional experiences from the University of the Faroe Islands and work done there in conjunction with attempts to introduce sustainability within the university, and me extensive work with and within the Arctic region, I question definitions of sustainability in terms of local contexts and search for actionable frameworks that can aid in sustainability adoption and implementation.

I propose that solutions are likely found in two overlapping academic spheres–in terms of adoption in how the concept of sustainability is defined in a local context, and in terms of implementation based on actionable and operational frameworks that are in line with such definitions.

Therefore, this thesis addresses the following research question:

How can we explain and understand the potential benefits and barriers for small Arctic institutions of higher learning to implementing sustainability as a Fourth Mission?

This line of questioning is engaged from four different angles, in four different academic papers each with increasing scalar focus:

  • Paper A takes a historical lens to the University of the Faroe Islands in order to investigate a fissure between institutional and organisational structures that see it lacking, amongst other things, in sustainability implementation.
  • Paper B looks to the Arctic and engages very small institutions of higher learning in order to understand what sustainability means to them.
  • Paper C is a systematic literature review with a global perspective, focusing on publications concerned with sustainability implementation through the use of innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • Paper D is an attempt to produce a sustainability-focused framework or checklist that can be used in conjunction with projects (intended for the defunct Centre for Innovation at the University of the Faroe Islands).
  • Working paper E, summarises papers A-D into a concluding portion.

With a constructivist perspective informed by Flyvbjerg's phronesis and Bourdieu's symbolic capital,these papers are deconstructed to reveal recurring themes. Four themes stand out; the concept of sustainability itself as an idea, the analytical lens of transscalarity, university mission statements and how they shape modern-day academia, and the emergence of a new, fourth, mission statement.

I find that academic institutions within the Arctic often play an outsized role of identity creation within communities and are symbols of progress and autonomy. They are perceived as custodians of
culture, history and language and due to how tightly they are woven into the fabric of the identity and aspirations of these communities, they can be slow to change. I point to how sustainability within the Arctic is often perceived in terms that differ markedly from how it is defined elsewhere, and note that it is often political and contingent on time, place and identity. This is not a rejection of sustainability itself–but rather a rejection of terms. I introduce a burgeoning paradigm of post-sustainability as a means to come to terms with how sustainability can be better understood contextually within the Arctic. It is also explained that there exists an emerging global trend that rejects current operational modes in order to escape the confines and restrictions of conventional academia. This move beyond historically established academic missions, takes the form of co-creation with local stakeholders. As of yet, it is still a novel concept that is not widely practised within academia, but I point to a number of small Arctic institutions that have long since adopted this manner of operating.

Principal supervisor

Professor Jason Li-Ying, DTU


Associate Professor Francesco Rosati, DTU Entrepreneurship
Associate Professor Jens Christian Svabo Justinussen, University of Faroe Islands
Affiliated Teaching Lecturer Lau Øfjord Blaxekjær, University of Faroe Islands


Associate Professor Maria Theresa Norn, DTU Entrepreneurship
Professor Leslie King, Royal Roads University, Canada
Professor Firouz Gaini, University of Faroe Islands

Chairperson at defence

Professor Jes Broeng, DTU Entrepreneurship

Link to follow live

You can follow Martin's defence via MS Teams - click here

A copy of the PhD thesis is available for reading at DTU Entrepreneurship,371, 2nd floor, Diplomvej, DK-2800 Kgs Lyngby. 


Fri 01 Dec 23
13:00 - 16:00



DTU, Technical University of Denmark
Building 421, auditorium 074
DK-2800 Kgs. Lyngby

AND online via MS Teams