My lesson from Sweden? That not rushing research makes huge sense

She is not a typical researcher, spending their life burrowing ever deeper into their subject. Rather than one niche specialisation, Lucia Dobrucká’s approach gravitates towards a broad, comprehensive purview. Her field is spatial planning – a discipline that merges issues of space, strategy, and landscape. She endeavours to understand and reconcile the interests of all parties involved in urban development planning.

Read the story in Czech translation here.

Currently, Dobrucká is working at the Masaryk Institute of Advanced Studies and at the Faculty of Architecture, Czech Technical University (CTU) in Prague. She spent two years in the north of Sweden, closely studying how mechanisms of power operate in urban planning. One of the insights she gained there was that instead of being detrimental, a more deliberate pace of research can ultimately be beneficial.

Ten years have already passed since Lucia Dobrucká returned from the chilly Swedish town of Luleå, but even today she perceptibly brightens when recalling the two years she spent there as a post-doc fellow. “It was in March that I simply packed an enormous rucksack and headed off to snowy Sweden, to a place about 100 kilometers below from the Arctic Circle. I enjoyed the winters there: my record temperature was –42 centigrade. That kind of cold isn’t even windy because the wind freezes, too. You get used to it, though,” she remembers.

An even greater shock than sub-zero temperatures, however, was the one she experienced at work. “I was used to a very fast pace. Both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, people in my line of work commonly have two or even three jobs. Before leaving for Sweden, I’d been working at two schools and on two large projects, virtually non-stop, even over weekends. So, in Sweden I suddenly felt like I was on holiday. At first, I struggled with an inner pressure to be doing something more.”

A collaboration that started over a family dinner

Before heading north, Lucia Dobrucká had been employed at the Slovak University of Technology and at Comenius University in Bratislava, besides which she had been helping on a series of projects as an expert and member of teams developing various towns and the surrounding landscape. And she also was forced to take half a year off after experiencing burnout. At the age of thirty.

It all began for her approximately twenty years ago, in Bratislava, where she enrolled onto a course on business and strategic management. In 2003, two years after she had begun her PhD studies in business management, Lucia Dobrucká struck a collaboration with a person she had known well for years – her own mother, Anna Dobrucká, a renowned Slovak landscape architect and frequent collaborator of urban and spatial planners. In addition, Anna Dobrucká was also employed at the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra. Mother and daughter were not, therefore, colleagues at the same institution, but they found out they could link their work together very well.

“In my family, we’d always discuss what each of us was working on. So for me it was natural when, in one of our family debates over dinner, we both concluded that, since I’m creative and so is she, it’d be interesting to put our heads together,” Lucia Dobrucká recalls.

Consequently, Lucia and some colleagues from her university jumped on board her mother’s projects. In these undertakings, seventy-five per cent of which were university-related and the remaining twenty-five percent had to do with Anna Dobrucká’s practice as a landscape architect, Lucia was in charge of the economic and social angle, as well as management and marketing.

One of the earliest joint mother-daughter ventures was a project in which experts, accompanied by a group of students, travelled around Slovak towns and villages consulting locals on the deficiencies and needs of their communities. “We’d usually hang around for about a week working on projects tied in with our university jobs. We’d take along students from various fields and work with all of them at once so that they’d be forced to network and negotiate an agreement in order to finish their assignment. Someone came up with the idea to set up a tea garden in the town, for example, and then an economist came in and did the calculations and a designer suggested what the place might look like,” Lucia Dobrucká describes the bold project.

Landscaping exhibition as a big lesson

She also likes to remember some of the more substantial enterprises they undertook – like the request made in 2006 by the Slovak town of Skalica for integrating the development of its green spaces into the town’s development strategy. “The place had a forward-thinking mayor; they were asking for parks and planting in the town. First, they repaired the houses and then the question came up of how to produce some sort of synergy with the green space through planned planting,” she describes.

“In particular, our task was to work out the option of holding a so-called landscaping exhibition. It’s a concept frequently used in Germany and Austria, where they revitalise huge swaths of unused or derelict land, mainly brownfield sites, through large exhibitions dedicated to urban landscaping – which, simply speaking, is green space in cities. They overhaul the whole place, plant it with greenery, and install some amenities,” clarifies Dobrucká.

“Well, and they simultaneously open it to the public as an exhibition, which over some six months brings in a decent sum from entrance fees and various events,” she adds, saying that once the exhibition ends, the temporary installations are removed, leaving a nice green area, such as a park. “We produced a concept for the green space development of the whole town of Skalica and the central idea of the exhibition. A part of the landscaping took place, but the exhibition didn’t, because the system of subsidies and grants in Slovakia is different than the German one and we could find neither sufficient financial support, nor enough systemic support,” she explains.

It was a big lesson for her – not only did she have to deal with the managerial and economic side of the project, but also facilitate the process of negotiations between the different parties and professions involved: Who would be interested a landscaping exhibition of this sort? Who would be coming there and what activities would they expect to find? Also, what would be left behind once the exhibition was over? Another question was who would be served by the revamped green space: What the residents were calling out for? What interest groups or politicians were demanding? And what was absolutely off the table? In other words, not just calculations, but also politics and diplomacy.

Two years after she had signed up for a PhD course on business management at Comenius University, where she was focusing on the strategy of small- and medium-sized businesses, she took up additional doctoral studies. She enrolled onto a PhD programme on municipal strategic planning at the Slovak University of Technology.

When a strategic plan is more than a mere formality

“If it’s set up well, a municipal development plan can be a very useful document. It produces a space for all members of a community – from ordinary citizens through politicians and investors, to various interest groupings and clubs – to give thought to what kind of future they would like their children and grandchildren to have. What the place should look like a few generations later,” the researcher explains.

She thinks that, unfortunately, many strategic plans are produced only as a formality, as subsidy application materials or tools for promoting the interests of a particular group. “Many conflicts arise from giving priority to immediate needs (what I want) over the long-term vision (what kind of world my descendants should live in),” comments Dobrucká on the situation.

“One of the outcomes of my PhD was a set of methods for developing strategic plans in Slovakia, one of the first such guidelines to emerge in Slovakia at the time,” Dobrucká says. Thus, together with fellow researchers, she contributed to laying the country’s groundwork of this practical discipline.

“Most of all, this experience enabled me to appreciate a variety of different occupations. What suits me is being able to communicate with a large number of people from different fields and understand what they’re talking about. We were compelled to seek consensus from among historians and ethnographers, from sociologists, architects, and geographers, and to obtain financial opinions from economists and marketers,” describes Lucia Dobrucká, adding that municipalities usually treat such projects as assignments they outsource to plan-makers. “But in Skalica, for example, we had the very capable head of the town’s strategic development department on the realisation team, and several councillors were involved, too,” she recalls a positive experience.

“What also worked well was shutting ourselves up for three days at a cottage with people on the team. On the first night, we had such a row that two team members left in tears. But people were so determined and willing to talk that they eventually came to an agreement,” she adds.

After pondering the question what role usually has the most say in projects, she offers no definite answer: in legal terms, the land-use plan has a strong voice, as it is a statutory requirement, but environmentalists and people involved in heritage protection and can similarly back their claims with legislation.

“Being rooted in law confers a considerable advantage over many other professions, whose involvement is seen as ‘optional’ by the municipalities and depends on the size of the budget and the discretion of councillors. Another powerful group tends to be the representatives of powerful business groups, various kinds of investors or developers,” she elaborates.

Next, she points out the people who she thinks often put in enormous amounts of work – historians, ethnographers, and sociologists. “They know an awful lot, but they don’t make any suggestions, because they’re mainly there to provide data. Unless you encourage them and ask their opinions directly, the others very easily just steamroll over them,” Lucia Dobrucká relates her experience.

Feats of diplomacy

Another feature, she thinks, is how teams gel – even personality-wise – and how the roles are marked out. “Each person’s individual traits, their mindset, resoluteness, their capacity for understanding different opinions or, conversely, the degree of aggression in asserting themselves are important factors that often get underestimated,” opines Lucia Dobrucká. She thinks it is the strong groups that take such factors seriously, and then profit from dispatching their most competent negotiators to talks.

“In this part of the world, however, individuals are generally discussed from the perspective of human rights, but rarely in terms of their real capacities and responsibilities. And so-called ‘soft’ skills – the ability to moderate between multiple points of view and resolve conflicts – are unfortunately neglected, even in the training of future spatial and strategic planners and co-ordinators of development projects. It’s particularly the younger people in this profession who enter practice having the expertise, but struggle to personally cope with difficult interdisciplinary debates,” the scholar believes.

Another obstacle to cooperation, in her opinion, may be otherwise very active groups that, however, only stand up for their own agenda. “If they lack the ability to see the larger picture and recognise the claims of other groups as equal to their own, it may be very hard to achieve consensus. On multiple occasions, certain players didn’t take part in the process of generating ideas, which went on for months, and only turned up at the end. They came in, listened to the conclusions reached in long and hard deliberations and declared they weren’t happy with the result and that the whole thing should be handled differently. Then they’d send in several pages of requirements,” remembers Lucia Dobrucká. But what does one do after six months of work, when the project is nearing its end, the contracting authority expects results, and nobody will pay for any additional work? “Either you work for free and risk a penalty for late delivery, or you only include the most critical of the new batch of requirements and ignore the rest. And then you hear complaints that the process wasn’t transparent. Very often, though, it’s not the process that’s at fault but the ignorant attitude of particular people involved. Unfortunately, it’s easier to criticise than to make a creative contribution,” the expert observes.

She thinks that Czech and Slovak municipalities are often very poor at cooperation. “Often, the issue succumbs to ‘departmentalism’, and if there does happen to be somebody who can see the whole picture, their input seems unwelcome,” she reflects.

She considers this understandable: departments protect their turf because it is tied to their budgets, competences, and importance, their expertise and experience. “When someone emerges who tries to link things up and bring departments together to work, such person usually hits a wall. This stumbling block comprises the unwillingness of the authorities to give up any of their power, and a lack of understanding from experts. So far, exceptions are rare, although luckily they do exist and their number is very slowly rising,” Lucia Dobrucká believes.

Seven or eight years into tackling such projects, she burned out. “I was hardly able to greet people in the morning. The field trips were very often at weekends. So I finished up my university projects and I left academia, literally heading off to the labour office,” the researcher reminisces on this period of personal hardship. 

Six months later, she returned to academia, but no longer as a scholar. For a change, she participated on various projects in a managerial and administrative capacity. “After two years of this kind of work I was ready to re-enter research, but I wanted to gain new experience somewhere else, outside Slovakia. So, I was on a lookout for opportunities to go abroad for a while,” she spells out her motives.

As chance would have it, her then-supervisor knew about a possibility of going to Sweden on a scholarship – a post-doc fellowship at the Department of Civil, Environment and Natural Resources at Luleå University of Technology. And Lucia Dobrucká applied at once. “It was only after I’d handed in all the documents that I started looking where Luleå actually was. I got a little scared when I found it just below the Arctic Circle,” she laughs.

Double standards on mechanisms of power

In Sweden she got the opportunity to fully immerse herself in the theory of the complexity of urban planning. She was particularly engrossed in the issue of power – the influence of different agents, power factors, and philosophy. “I spent a lot of time buried in books, but I was also in great company: Socrates, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Foucault. Hard-nosed pragmatists who said that while we need lofty ideas, we’ll get nowhere unless we nail down the real workings, too,” Dobrucká describes.

According to a leading authority on the theory of power, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, power and mutual influencing are ever-present, even within today’s democratic processes of participatory planning. The coexistence of different agents in the same town or city inevitably introduces various pressures, their moderation, mutual relationships, and interactions.

During her studies, Dobrucká authored several papers on the possibilities of dealing with the issue of power more systematically, to place different approaches to power side by side and consider under what circumstances they could or could not be applied. She took an ‘inside’ look at the operating mechanisms of different stakeholders who have a say in planning. She drew on a variety of case studies derived from her previous experience with projects, as well as practice. These helped her propose several hypotheses that now need to be tested out.

“When you look into how power operates, what tools are applied, you might discover that a wealthy developer, for example, whom everybody’s complaining about because the public perceives them as the bad guy who imposes their conditions on others, may ultimately be using very similar or even the very same tools and mechanisms as those used by NGOs. These guys, too, can be ruthlessly pushing their own agenda,” the researcher exemplifies one of her findings.

“Yet NGOs are seen as a force for good, because people are on board with their agenda. Depending on the circumstances, the same mechanisms of exerting influence – like cherry-picking data, rationalising certain kinds of behaviour, lobbying, or sending the most persuasive speaker to negotiations – can be seen in a negative or positive light,” she adds.

To illustrate the clash of divergent interests, she quotes a project concerning a historical park in a Slovak town in which a mothers’ club wished to set up a playground; a big controversy broke out around the fact that the park was indeed historical and had cultural value. “As mothers of young children, they couldn’t be negotiated with because they were fundamentally appealing to emotions and to the fact that children, being our future, should have somewhere to play. Rational arguments pointing out that the playground could be built a little further down the street and that the park needed to be used differently got short shrift. Thus, the mothers eventually pushed through their playground in the park in a way that damaged the historical site,” she relates one of the conflicts from the case studies she has examined.

She also recalls a case when a project was blocked by an endowment fund that argued it only supported citizens’ initiatives, whereas the project managers also wanted to hear from experts. “I was gobsmacked: so an expert is not a citizen then?” says Lucia Dobrucká, reporting similar dispute.

In so doing, she touches on a fundamental problem underlying the issue: what position in such public projects can be assumed by a researcher who has their own worldview, all efforts at impartiality and correct methodology notwithstanding. “One question discussed for some time within the international scholarly discourse is whether researchers are agents in their own right, exerting influence or intervening in some way. Because by the mere fact of describing and relating something, you are suddenly influencing opinions and events. Suddenly, the researcher wields power,” Dobrucká says.

The end justifies the means

She volunteers that her stay in Sweden and her study of philosophy gave her greater perspective and enabled her to recognise that while urban planners try to be objective, that does not necessarily mean they are always impartial. “That’s the case with planners – spatial planners, but especially strategic ones. They are commonly regarded as objective and unbiased. But they, too, have the power to influence things, for example through the selection of the realisation team members, by setting the agenda of public hearings, or simply by the structure of their texts and the language they use. Writing style tends to be underestimated, but it has a significant impact on the intelligibility of the text. So the planners’ opinions do play a role, too,” she explains.

“What was also liberating for me, in a way, was the realisation that the mechanisms described by, say, Machiavelli, still work. His name may rub people the wrong way, but that’s not quite fair. His most famous dictum, that the end justifies the means, is still valid, the statement still applies,” she opines.

“We can see it in operation around us virtually every day. Our opinion on whether this or that is acceptable or not largely depends – just like Machiavelli claims – on our purpose, aim, or worldview. That’s the reason why we can condemn a set of tools a rich investor uses to exert influence, yet we barely notice the very same tools in the hands of mothers promoting the interests of their children. Instruments of power as such are often neutral, what turns them into something good or bad is what use they’re put to and our opinion of that application,” she explains.

Czechs try to play all the angles

If she could transplant something from Sweden to the Czech Republic, it would be principally the Swedes’ more leisurely way of working. “You can be highly effective even if you work more slowly, at a more leisurely pace,” is a key lesson she learned in Sweden.

That does not mean, however, that she did not put in any work there – she thoroughly studied the literature, reading extensively. “But although I’d spent eight or ten hours a day at work, my stress levels were really low,” she observes.

She was particularly surprised by the Swedish daily routine: people would come to work at 8 or 9 am and get together for their first coffee break – called fika – at 9:30. They spent half an hour drinking coffee, took a one-hour lunch break at 11:30 and the afternoon was again split in the middle by another coffee break. They would leave around 4 or 5 PM. 

“Although at first I had the feeling I was just drinking coffee all the time, I gradually found out that people are more efficient at this pace than they’d be if they were constantly stressed out, skipping lunch, huffing and puffing from chasing deadlines,” Dobrucká relates one of the insights she gained in Sweden.

These days, she knows that when she is really exhausted, a day in the woods will do her more good than pushing herself to work long hours. Lucia Dobrucká usually does not set out for the woods on her own, however: she takes her two horses – Atom and Badyán – along to keep her company. “The former is a young, five-year-old Karachay, a kind of Caucasian mustang. So many things that work automatically with older or home-bred horses won’t get past him. He’s very empathetic, attuned to the state of my mind and he reacts to my mood and thoughts rather than to visible physical cues. There’s no fooling him. It’s not enough to act as if I’m doing something or want something, I must actually do it or want it. He’s like a litmus paper: I must be at one with myself, or else I’m going to get hurt,” she smiles.

Czech research could certainly benefit by emulating Scandinavian cooperation among researchers and their willingness to help each other. “Here, research is much more individualistic; the Swedish are more open to sharing information – I never had anyone refuse to help me or to give me information. I’ve run up against that here, though: this is mine and you mind your own stuff,” the expert remarks.

And she segues straight to the very heart of the differences, one of which has to do with the general mindset. “The Swedish are systematic and reliable to the point of being boring. But that’s what helps them be so hugely successful. They build on earlier research, making tiny steps forward rather than constantly starting something new. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia we keep coming back to square one and fail to draw on the results of existing quality research. Instead of linking up, teams start over,” Lucia Dobrucká observes. 

By general mindset she also means the Central European tendency to ‘play all the angles’. “The Czech are exceptionally creative, but that’s also true in the sense of coming up with ways of playing the system. This is completely alien to the Swedish. There may be some people there who steal and lie, but not to the same extent as here. A nation that doesn’t swindle itself has a chance to actually cooperate and be productive,” the researcher believes.

Even if she occasionally found Scandinavian feminism excessive – like when her female co-workers rejoiced over the establishment of an all-girl school, while also admitting that they wouldn’t be quite so exhilarated about an all-boy one – following her moved to the Czech Republic, she immediately observed that many local men do not know how to act towards women. “You get all sorts of off-colour comments or jokes that are supposed to be funny, but in reality they’re often embarrassing, if not downright offensive. I’ve also noticed that ideas or suggestions are more likely to be ignored if they’ve been brought forth by a woman,” Lucia Dobrucká says.

Not tying oneself down for life

She would also like to see more collaboration between Czech scholars and their foreign counterparts. “Research in Sweden is really open, it’s global. The town of Luleå where I was staying was regarded as being at the periphery of the country, yet the university had people of 52 different nationalities from all over the world. In my two years there, I only met a handful of people who didn’t speak English, I even had nice conversations with a bus driver and a cleaning lady,” adds the expert, criticising the fact, for instance, that at Czech universities, study departments are closing themselves off from the world by producing Czech textbooks over and over again, instead of routinely drawing on foreign literature and up-to-date international scholarly papers.

This relates to another phenomenon in Sweden that Dobrucká views as positive: the turnover of people. In her group alone, twenty percent of the approximately thirty members were swapped over three years. “They have some permanent staff and then there’s a cluster of people who move around. They come in for projects, scholarships, they stay for a while and then they’re off to somewhere else. Plus, there are practicing professionals who do a stint in academia. It’s seen as normal that you don’t tie yourself down to one position for life,” she comments.

That being said, she concedes the differences are so deeply entrenched in the two systems that changing partial details in Czech academia would have little impact. Post-war Sweden chose to follow the path of a knowledge economy and education. “They deliberately poured vast sums into subsidies for science and research, a lot of money went into student support, into scholarships. So you don’t have to have a job while studying. I shared an office with this girl, a historian and former museum employee. She was doing her PhD and she was able to single-handedly take out a mortgage on a flat and could still afford to go on holidays, four times a year, to destinations like Turkey or Iceland,” Dobrucká exemplifies the profound differences stemming from the substantial and systemic support given to research and education.

“Around here, this is seen as a waste of money, but the Swedish know that by supporting students and subsidising scholarships they’re also supporting the economy. Those on the receiving end won’t have to be working two other jobs, in which they’d be producing nothing worthwhile anyway, and the economy can be driven by stimulating demand, promoting competition, using the service sector. Even students with middling incomes are customers,” explains Dobrucká, adding that unlike Czechs, the Swedish also understand that supporting basic research is necessary prerequisite if they want their country to be on the cutting edge.

“They don’t underrate the theoretical part, because an idea always comes first and practical applications follow suit,” she notes.

Trying to resist pressure

That basic and applied research are of equal importance, and that the right way forward is balancing both, is a conviction Lucia Dobrucká has brought back from Sweden. “I’m trying to resist the pressure from the system and retain a sense of perspective, not to underrate theory and include even non-practical things in my research,” she affirms.

At the same time, she is trying to maintain a high degree of openness in her work – not confining herself to the comfort zone of her own group of fellow researchers, the way some Czech scholars are inclined to, but cooperate and discuss issues with a variety of people.

Indeed, on her return from Sweden she got a shock in this respect: despite her two-year foreign experience, her participation in a number of projects, and her wealth of contacts, she was unable to re-enter Slovak academia. “The academic positions were all jammed up, there was virtually none of the openness and personnel turnover typical of Sweden,” she explains. Eventually, she arranged a post-doc fellowship at Charles University in Prague, where, for a year, she collaborated with a philosopher – professor Miroslav Marcelli.

How to solve the Czech housing crisis?

Now she is employed at Masaryk Institute of Advanced Studies and at the Faculty of Architecture, Czech Technical University in Prague, and her work with architects and strategic plans has led her to issues of housing and development. She collaborates with fellow researchers from other fields who are laying the foundations of some towns’ future housing policies.

According to her, few people realise that the current housing crisis – the soaring prices and the unavailability of flats – cannot be solved merely by reducing prices, raising wages, new construction, and social support. “The solution must come from several directions at once, even at the cost of unpopular measures,” she believes.

On the supply side, Dobrucká finds it necessary to increase the number of flats on the market, mainly by newbuilds and re-developing suitable properties into apartment buildings. “The laws need to be simplified, otherwise the pace of construction won’t pick up. But supply can also be regulated by forcing owners to sell or rent out their properties instead of just keeping them vacant. There are many vacant flats and houses in the Czech Republic. Abroad, it’s common to have rules on property use, and high taxes on unoccupied housing capacity,” she adds.

At the same time, demand needs to be reduced. “A non-negligible cause of the current housing crisis is that many people have bought flats as an investment or even speculation. Putting up property taxes has been discussed in the Czech Republic. But that would mean taxing everyone, including the poor devils who can barely pay their utility bills. Abroad, taxes are raised progressively – you pay a little on your first home, the tax on the second is a lot higher, and the third can cost you a pretty penny. This curbs the demand for investing in multiple properties. The rich seek out different ways of depositing their money, and there are more flats for the less well-off to actually live in.”

Dobrucká also recommends re-assessing the forms of housing: the market should offer properties for both buying and renting, as well as subsidised, council, and employer-provided housing. Nowadays the issue is no longer just about providing for the poorest, but unfortunately also about supporting the middle class, because housing has become unaffordable even for professionals in education and healthcare. Shaping a municipal housing policy involves towns knowing what kinds of occupations they need to encourage for the future and the capacity to provide people in these professions with adequate housing at a higher standard than that of welfare flats. Not to mention the fact that such housing ought not to be clustered in poorer neighbourhoods, but needs to be dispersed across different parts of the city.

“If I were to try and boil it all down, we’re back to the issue of strategic planning: what kind of city should our grandchildren live in? Back to the issue of willingness to cooperate – to draw in different points of view, acknowledge different needs. And to the issue of leveraging power – how to persuade people that they should give up a piece of their own comfort to benefit society as a whole?” 

She would also like to finish what she started in Sweden – translating questions of power from the plane of philosophy to suit more practical needs. She intends to stay for a few years at CTU, where several promising projects are now taking off. “But when I get the urge to move on, I’ll find something else in six months, pack up, and leave,” she smiles.

Translated by Petr K. Ondráček