Educated Optimism

Educational futures, knowledge cultures, environmental, technological and social change

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Is there any point teaching research ethics any more?

We all know when we teach research ethics, that we are teaching a very simple thing – do no harm.

Whatever approach to ethics you take, whether you are focused on legal procedures or relationship building, collaborative research or traditional social science it all comes down to this point – do not leave those who participate in research worse off as a result of their involvement in the research.

The government’s Overseas Development Aid cuts, which have led to a huge cut in the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund make a mockery of this. Mid-way through projects with partners in low and middle income countries, after years of relationship and trust building, taking partners’ time away from other activities that they can only barely afford to neglect, the funding is being cut, with no warning, no safety net and no time to adjust.

Thousands of small fragile organisations have invested in staff and activities on the expectation that the universities they are working with will honour their promises of research partnership. Individuals in low income countries have made decisions about what to work on, what jobs to take and even where to live, on the assumption that the commitments made to them will be fulfilled. Time and effort will have been wasted, organisations diminished and depleted, and this in some of the poorest countries and most vulnerable communities on earth.

The UK’s academic community has made it clear that the effect of these cuts is manifold: they will harm communities, individuals, efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the UK’s international reputation and the reputation of Universities.

What has not been made clear however, is that these cuts mid way through grants undermine the fundamental ethical basis for all research. If individuals are required to take responsibility for their actions as researchers, but the institutions that they are part of (universities, UKRI, the UK Government) are not, there can be no such thing as ethical research. The government’s actions must be recognised as the threat that they are to the ethical foundations of UK research.

Equally, that UK Research and Innovation (the body that administers research funding in the UK) should both agree these cuts to low and middle income country research (rather than exploring other options across its whole portfolio) and announce them without critical commentary, without recogition of the impact of this decision on the ethical foundations of research in the UK and in a letter that simply repeats the government’s line about its proposed future investments in this area, raises serious questions about who is upholding ethical standards for the UK’s research community.

We will all now have a new case study in our research ethics teaching – what is the point of individualised ethical responsibility when the government actively undermines it? And why should anyone ever trust UK universities as research partners again?

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Digital tools Covid-19

This is a summary digital tools that may be of use for Covid-19 responses – compiled by Howard Baker from the USAID Covid-19 Digital Response Guidance listed below. These may be of particular use for those working in Low and Middle Income Countries

USAID COVID-19 Digital Response Guidance (PDF)–I1qDdJw3bEAls2Rm4_1kFGHRkdG5WBLw/viewform steps that can be taken to increase institutional readiness to prevent, detect, and respond to COVID-19, and its effects (4)

Digital systems:

Public solutions spreadsheet identifies new technologies to contain coronavirus (4b)

Digital Solutions for COVID Surveillance

Health Check allows automated reporting of symptoms by ‘patients’ (using Interactive Voice Response). Health agencies can periodically and automatically monitor the symptoms (4b)

 nCoV Surveillance System for local public health officers, captures demographics, immigration, symptoms of COVID-19 disease, and possible contacts at all ports of entry based on their geographic area (4c)

Harmony rapidly deployable data integration and advanced analytics platform for epidemic surveillance, case management and outbreak response (4c)

Digital Solutions for COVID Prevention

 COVID-19 Connect delivers automated information responses to the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19. There is a WHO version using WhatsApp – (4a)

Interactive radio pairs AM and FM radio broadcasts with mobile phone responses for rural and remote communities at scale in local languages (4b)

Inclusive eLearning platforms e.g. targets individuals with intellectual disabilities and supports prevention efforts e.g. good hygiene practices (4b)

askNivi free interactive chat service for people to learn about key health topics and make informed and supported decisions about their health (4c)

Check out #sanitisersforslums – twitter

Digital Solutions for COVID Diagnosis

CommCare built on a free template application, fully implements the WHO FFX Protocol for contact tracing and case investigation to support rapid deployment of COVID-19 Response solutions (4a)

Triage CheckUp health worker automated risk assessment application to check a patient’s symptoms and epidemiological factors using Korean coronavirus guidelines (4b)

Diagnosis CheckUp general public, self-reporting tool to assess their risk factors for coronavirus infection (4b)

OpenELIS Global open source, enterprise-level laboratory information system helping with receipt and tracking of potential COVID19 samples, assisting labs to effectively process and report to clinicians (4b)

NoviGuide decision support platform transforming static guidelines into point-of-care decision trees. Health systems can rapidly deploy guidance, monitor use and remove outdated content (4c)

Consult Station fully connected, video-based medical booth giving providers the ability to remotely examine patients using medical grade diagnostic instruments (4c)

Digital Solutions for COVID Treatment

mHero a two-way communication platform connecting ministries of health with frontline health workers allowing for real-time information exchange and outbreak response (4a)

WelTel secure, web-based, communication platform using SMS, voice or video for integrated virtual care & patient engagement (4b)

Community Health Toolkit includes open-source technologies for Community Health Workers and supervisors; open-access resources; and a community of practice to advance universal health coverage (4c)

HealthBeats for healthcare workers – a global Remote Vitals Monitoring platform. Can track temperature, blood oxygen levels, and heart rate with automated and streamlined data collection (4c)


11 things I’ve learned from Educational Futures work that might be helpful for Covid-19

Last Friday, one of my colleagues asked me the following question: ‘so does your futures stuff help with this situation in any way?’ As I was, like everyone, still struggling to get my head around our changing situation at the time, I didn’t answer particularly well or helpfully right then. But the question has worked on me over the last few days – so here’s what I have to offer. These are the things that are helping me and guiding what I’m doing right now. They draw on the last 20 years I’ve spent working with and talking with people about the tricky reality of how we live without knowing the future. It also has a few links to resources that I’m finding helpful for this sort of thinking.

  • 1. Remember that the future (still) doesn’t exist. Everything that we are worrying about, hoping for, anticipating and imagining will come, does not (yet) exist. The question is: which ideas of the future is it useful for us to work with? Which ideas of the future invigorate us, challenge us, help us to see possibilities and ask hard questions in the present, or help us just to get through today? Which ones shut us down, freeze us, cause us to curl up or to fight each other? Which ones llow us to act as the humans we want to be? Which ones allow us to act as grown-ups or to start working together to create something different? The thing with the future is to pay attention to the way our ideas of the future, and what it may bring, act upon us, and to think about how different ideas of the future create new possibilities and resources to stimulate, challenge and inform what we are doing in the present. Each of us is different – some of us are invigorated by images of hope, others by looking at the worst that may come and working to prepare for it. It’s worth just starting to notice how you react to each image of the future that is coming in, and reflect on whether this is helpful or not to you in terms of building your capacity to think and feel and act.
  • 2. People have different preferred or habitual orientations to the future (1). Some of us have a tendency to think about catastrophe, others about transformation, others about business as usual, and others about rationing and struggle. Jim Dator calls these the four ‘myths’ of the future. These are the big foundational stories we tend to tell ourselves. It is useful to know where you tend to position yourself – are you one of those delighting in sharing stories of collapse and disaster, or stories of transformation and hope? Are you just focusing on the end date and when we can get back to normal, or thinking about what needs to be planned for in difficult times ahead? It’s worth noting which of these stories you tend to focus on – and what that means you might miss or over-emphasise about what’s happening. It’s also useful to understand other people’s preferred positions and perspectives and to see how these can complement yours. This helps with empathy – recognising that people respond in very different ways – and it isn’t necessarily the case that you have to have the same story of the future in order to be able to listen to each other and work together.
  • 3. People have different preferred or habitual orientations to the future (2) Our orientations to the future are also about our own sense of agency and possibility. Some of us want to step back and observe what is happening, others to explore and open up new possibilities, others to plan and come up with a clear direction, others to find a way to just respond as it emerges. There is often a lot of tension between people who work in these different ways – a tendency to say that there is one right way. But all of these people will have roles to play – our challenge is to keep talking, to keep seeing what possibilities, choices and responsibilities open up with each step. For example, while we may want a chief medical officer to have a very clear plan about how to ensure there are enough ventilators in hospitals and to be focusing on the near term, we might want someone else to open up and explore possibilities for thinking about how to develop a health service for the long term in the light of this crisis. Different roles, not competing.
  • 4. Don’t search for absolute certainty and control. This is a tough one, we all want it. But it isn’t going to happen. We can’t predict and and we certainly can’t fix the future. What we can manage, however, is our own response to change and our relations with others. So, if you’re after control, look to your responses and actions, understand who you are, what you care about, what you value and how you respond to the situation – this is a domain in which you can act. And then build relationships and connections that will help to make the future out of solidarity and commitment to each other.
  • 5. Acknowledge the emotions. Fear, anxiety, hope, excitement, desperation, dread, giddiness, grief – these are all pretty reasonable responses to a world being turned upside down. Thinking about the future is always an activity that generates emotional responses and in the present circumstances, even more so. Our challenge, however, is to allow ourselves to notice and feel these emotions, to value them for what they are telling us about ourselves and the world, to let them play their course, and allow them to subside again. Any emotion doesn’t last forever, it comes and goes. Naming those emotions and acknowledging them is not a sign of weakness, it is the beginning of a conversation and the opening up of a possibility for connection with someone else. It is also OK to laugh and tell bad jokes. Laughter may be one of the most powerful tools for opening up new possibilities.
  • 6. Remember this is not the first time people have felt an existential threat. For those of us lucky enough within our living family memories not to have felt the risk of extinction, we are now having to learn fast what that means. The elders we might learn from, however, may not be in our communities. They may be in those communities who have faced huge existential threats before – from those who have lived through wars and conflict, to those who have built civil rights movements, from de-colonisation movements, to those who have faced terminal illness and severe disability. Now is a time to learn from and to respect the knowledge that these groups and movements have to offer.
  • 7. Technology will not (completely) save us – it will be human relationships, commitments, care, love, sound institutions that we can trust, wisdom, expertise, people willing to risk themselves, working together. Yes, the vaccines and tests will in the end, help us to adapt, but this will not come quickly and will achieve nothing without the social, cultural and emotional infrastructures that we are a part of. Don’t just hope for the technology to come and fix things, it won’t (although the video conferencing is useful). The challenge is to work collectively with others to build relationships, institutions and communities that can create a liveable future.
  • 8. Notice what is emerging from this moment. The future isn’t a mapped out landscape in front of us that we can control if only we can get good enough at predictions. Instead, reality is emerging from each and all of our actions. It makes a difference to the future, what we do in the present. Think of it in this way – we are walking backwards, the future is flowing out from each step we take, and at the same time, with each step we take comes a new horizon of possibility. Our job is to see what is emerging with each step – what are we making and what new horizons are opening – and to open up new horizons. What patterns are emerging from this world that we are weaving? Who is benefiting from this situation, who is most at risk? What futures are being made from the choices that are being taken? In particular, keep an eye out for how marginalised communities are being treated and how the most powerful are acting in this crisis. This is a ripe moment for disaster capitalism.
  • 9. Bubbles give partial information. Any good futurist reads widely and gets out of their own friendship groups. What else is going on outside the groups you are familiar with? What ideas, practices, ways of responding to this situation are emerging? Explore new information sources you have not tried before – if you are a free market fundamentalist, play with Al Jazeera or the New Internationalist – if you are a paid up socialist, have a look at the Economist or the FT. If you are only interested in politics – what’s happening online in the twitterverse around music, art, celebrities? If your main interest is your clothes, your family, your friends – have a look at what is happening to the planet at the moment. In other words, while (some of us) are inside, it may be a good time to get out more and check out parts of the world that are not familiar to us.
  • 10. Remember that any time of change is a good time to reflect on the status quo. This is a moment to ask – do we really want to go back to business as usual? Is ‘back to normal’ what we are aiming for? Can we instead ask ourselves – what we have lost that we want to stay lost, what do we want to keep and what new do we want to emerge?  
  • 11. Support young people to engage with the future with critical hope. Once we’ve developed our own responses to the situation, once we’ve worked through our own emotions and begun to understand our own orientations to the future, we need also to create conditions for young people to think about and respond to this situation. Our students and children know that the world has just gone very weird – and they want to talk about it. We can work with them, using all the tools of futures literacies, linking them to all the communities and people who have gone before in addressing difficult conditions, and connecting them up with others to create new possibilities. We can support them to reflect on the world that they have left behind, and to ask what world we might imagine next, together.

There is also one thing I’ve learnt from this experience that I didn’t really deeply understand beforehand:

Don’t make lifeboats, change the blooming boat. I’m writing this from my temporary home in Sweden where I find myself accidentally stranded a long way from the home and community relationships I was beginning to make in another country, a home that was to be my ‘lifeboat’ when I had just finished off some things I had to finish…in a few years… when the time was right…. It turns out the future happened more quickly than I was planning, and I am neither at home nor in my lifeboat. I’m trying to find some insight from this, and what is becoming clear to me – something I should have known before of course – is that life is short. In other words, that planning and putting off till tomorrow what you know you should be doing today, is perhaps not the way to go if you want to create liveable futures. What I think this means is that there may be no better time to start than now, wherever we are, to build the relationships and commitments that can create the futures that we need. We are not in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the right time to come along when we can magically do something. Now is what we have, now is when we get to act, now is what we can value and cherish, and in doing so, different futures, ones that we never envisaged, may open up.

Hoping you are all well, and able to take care of yourselves, and each other.

With love


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What does ‘climate change leadership’ mean?

In March I started a new role as Zennström Professor in Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University in Sweden. It’s been an interesting few months really thinking through with colleagues there, in the city and the region, how schools and universities can start taking seriously what it means to live with climate change.

A central question I’ve been working with in this role is, of course, what on earth does it mean to offer ‘climate change leadership’ today? In relation to a phenomenon so contested, complex, multifaceted and where risks of disaster capitalism and denial both abound, this is far from a simple question to answer. My response has been to see leadership as offering invitations to a discussion where our aim is to create new responses and ideas. This is not a time for dictatorial leadership, but for harnessing the different experiences and knowledge of all in society to begin to experiment with new ways of living.

Some of the areas for conversation seem to be:

Intergenerational relationships – how can and should teachers and students relate to each other in conditions in which climate change is being set up as a source of intergenerational conflict? My worry here is that opposition between generations or framing climate change as a ‘problem’ for young people to fix is really unhelpful (as my other work on all-age friendly approaches to cities points out). I’m trying to work out with colleagues how we might rethink this dynamic.

The relationship between internationalisation and sustainability – academics fly a huge amount, and also tell others to cut down their emissions. Is this hypocrisy? Should there be a massive change in academic behaviour or will this reduce the capacity of academics to act as part of a global community? Is this just individualising a problem that is structural and institutional, requiring massive changes rather than individual actions? Or is this an essential moment for self-reflection and a recognition of how much we are dependent on fossil fuels in all areas of our lives? There is a huge amount of debate and activity on this at present.

The question of emotion, anxiety and panic. I have seen a lot of students who are already massively burnt out and anxious about ‘climate change’ and who are confident that we are facing apocalypse. At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of emotion amongst others who see climate change as a conspiracy theory (of either neoliberal or radical socialist flavours, pick your favourite). How we work with the emotions that talking about a changing climate necessarily brings up, seems a hugely important area to explore. This means finding ways to deal with everything from grief and anger to wishful thinking and the role of joy.

One of the areas that is particularly interesting to me here is the development of a new relationship with the planet through the Earth Rights movement. This is starting to open up ways of rethinking the rights of mother earth (as the universal declaration puts it) . It is an interesting, trickster-ish intervention that looks promising.

Relatedly, I’ve been drawn to the calls to restore culture that are emerging from groups such as Dark Mountain, David Abram or the mythologist Martin Shaw. These are important and profound shifts in our sense of who we are and our place in the universe. There is important work to do here. I wrote a piece last year on the role of storytelling in troubled times, it would benefit from a rewrite in the light of what I learnt this summer at Shaw’s School of Myth and Storytelling.

Getting from diagnosis to experimentation. I’ve been surprised at how little there is that really shows and explores how we might live in different ways to enable ourselves to fit within planetary boundaries (although see here) and how much this is reliant on stories of denial or loss (although see here). We need to create opportunities for conversations about how we can collectively begin to experiment with new ways of living. And in education, this means supporting students not only to learn about questions of sustainability, but to engage in meaningful active participation in communities to experiment and act carefully and in partnership with others.

Finally, that old bugbear keeps coming up – whose conversation is this anyway? The huge inequalities built into carbon emissions became very clear when I was shown this report that argues that over 50% of emissions are produced by the richest 10% of the global population (see also here) . How we begin to think about whose rights, futures, livelihoods are at stake in these debates seems increasingly important a conversation to be having. As in much of my other work, with Connected Communities and Common Cause, I’m concerned that we will see, again, that those who are most affected, or who have expertise to offer, are excluded from conversations that take place behind closed doors.

So – over the next year, in Uppsala, we’ll be starting to experiment in all of these areas, starting to learn and talk with people, opening up the conversation.

If you have thoughts and comments on any of the above – or suggestions for areas we need to be talking about but aren’t – please do email me at Uppsala or Bristol and I hope we can carry on the conversation.


Universities – there is another way

Growing up in the UK in the 80s under Thatcherism, an era of strikes, hostility, growing inequality and racism – not to mention stone washed denim and dodgy perms – the Soviet Union played an important role in the imagination. It was a land where things were different, it was a whole chunk of the world where society, economy, culture were organised in a completely different way.  It opened up an imaginative space, a little crack in the perception of the world that encouraged you to think that what you were living with wasn’t necessarily what you were stuck with.

We need that crack in the imagination today in relation to our universities. We need to know that there are other foundations upon which education can be built, and other forms that it might take. Such a crack exists and is growing.

A couple of years ago, the Ecoversities network held its first gathering, convened by Kelley Teamey and Udi Mandell and bringing together over 50 people from all around the world who are demonstrably building new approaches to education.

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Reflections on Anticipation 2017

Now the dust has settled on the Anticipation 2017 Conference, I think it’s time just to reflect on the event, who was there, what happened, what we learned and what pointers the conference offers to the future of the field of Anticipation Studies.

The most remarkable feature of the conference was its huge interdisciplinarity – there were specialists in heritage futures talking alongside scholars of post normal science; philosophers and management scientists; critical pedagogues and specialists in divination. What was important, though, was that these groups were talking with each other across difference – there was a commitment to listening and an openness to exploring different perspectives that was truly astonishing, enlivening and productive.

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12 Top Tips on Submitting Proposals for ‘Engaged’ Research Projects

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages but haven’t got round to it. So here it is, some reflections on what to do and what not to do if you are putting in proposals for ‘engaged’ or ‘collaborative’ research projects (based on my experiences on research council panels over the last few years and in particular on the last NERC panel for ‘engagement’ activities).

1. Who is this ‘general public’  you are planning to engage with??? Be specific about who you are interested in engaging with and think carefully about what the barriers might be and what you are planning to do? Think here about everything from questions of language, to transport, to cultural differences and childcare. Basically, please don’t just wave your arms around and say you are going to engage ‘the public’ without explaining which publics and why they should care about what you are proposing to do.

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What are universities for?

A few weeks ago I found myself on a sunny Wednesday afternoon sitting on a river bank in Uppsala, Sweden, with a group of students and staff from the CEMUS centre, discussing how they might creatively use a new space they have been offered in the centre of the city. Such an opportunity raises hundreds of questions – should this new space be a platform for student work, could it act as a resource for community knowledge building, can research be conducted here, who should govern it?

These questions, and myriad others, keep coming up everywhere I go recently. A couple of days later, I found myself talking to the head of strategy and innovation for a Stockholm municipality, who wants to attract universities to the region. The problem, she says, is finding institutions who want to think creatively about what they are for. A few weeks before that I was sitting with my colleague Dave Cliff, discussing how Bristol, my own university, might imagine a new campus and what precisely we should do there.

These are interesting conversations – but the reality is that we cannot begin to answer these questions unless we actually know what universities are for. And this doesn’t mean something as obvious as pointing out that they should be institutions for the public good rather than private positional benefit. Rather, it means getting into the work that they do and understanding it.

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