Educated Optimism

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

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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.

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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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May Utopias Weekend

To celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the first publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, the Anticipation research group at Bristol will be running a ‘Real Utopias’ weekend in partnership with the Festival of Ideas on May 21st and 22nd. We’ll be exploring how we might create Utopia in the twenty-first century; what past examples of utopian thinking can teach us about utopia now and in the future; what technology might offer – in areas ranging from sex robots to climate change; and how to get started on imagining and building utopias. Come and join the conversation. Details and links to book (free) places are below.

Saturday 21st May  10 – 11.30: Utopian Cities: Learning from the Ruins

Speakers: Charles Burdett, University of Bristol; Alex Marsh, University of Bristol; Eugene Byrne, Independent Historian

Chair: Keri Facer

The session considers utopian planning projects from the past. It looks at the notions of time, the future and the conceptions of social architecture that were behind three disparate projects. The session aims to ask how plans of the modern impacted on the imagination and collective practices of different groups and it considers the afterlife of each project. The session begins with Charles Burdett’s discussion of the implications of the utopian thinking that lay at the heart of Italian Fascism with its plans to create a vast Mediterranean empire. The talk considers the material and psychological debris of the Fascist utopian project. Alex Marsh will examine the rise of local authority and New Town housing as a response to problems related to urbanisation, the delivery of good quality affordable accommodation, and the creation of sustainable settlements. He will then trace out the story of the decline of local authority housing, and social housing more broadly. Central to this story are political narratives of local authority housing as a failed social experiment. In England we now find ourselves in a situation where the death of social housing, as it has conventionally been understood, is a genuine, if currently rather remote, possibly. Eugene Byrne looks at some of the ideas for post-war Bristol after much of the central part of the city was destroyed in the Blitz. The debate on the shape of the new city took some very idealistic turns, but even the plans drawn up by the sober-suited men at the Council were indeed Utopian. While they could never be realised in full, Byrne argues that the planners were more successful than they’re nowadays given credit for.


Saturday 21st May 12.15 – 13.45: Climate Utopias and Dystopias

Speakers: Stephan Lewandowsky, UoB; Mike Page, Uni of Hertfordshire; Chris Goodall, Independent Author. Chair: Stephan Lewandowsky, UoB

Climate change may displace upward of 150,000,000 people during the 21st century. The world needs to produce as much food during the next 35 years as has ever been produced during the history of agriculture to date. Floods and droughts will ravage many parts of the world. And human beings are notoriously unable to consider and plan for the future.

So we’re all gonna die. Or will we?

The Paris agreement on climate change has ushered in a new era of willingness to tackle climate change and new technologies and ways of thinking about the future are emerging that may enable us to head for a delightful rather than a dreadful future.

This event will examine the challenges but also the opportunities that await us in an uncertain but manageable future.

Saturday 21st May 14.30 – 16.00: Making Utopias Workshop

Speakers: Kat Wall, NEON/ Policy Bristol; Patricia Gaya, EFIM; Sado Jirde, BSWN

Who gets to imagine, decide and make our futures? Decision makers, thought leaders and many involved in social change organisations come from a particular part of society – often white, often middle class, often university educated. If we are thinking about making utopia – the best possible future – we will only be able to do this when everyone is involved – when the richness of diversity is expressed in the imaging and creation of a better world. To address the current imbalance of voice and influence in ‘utopia making’ we need to better understand issues of power and privilege. Come along to this workshop to uncover the role power and privilege play in the kinds of future we can create; to explore how we can understand our own power and privilege; and to deepen our awareness of what can be done to re-centre social change work going forward. This workshop will appeal to people involved in social change who feel they have the power to shape the future and to those who feel that, at present, they do not.


Saturday 21st May 17.00- 18.30: Sex Robots and Utopian Fantasies

Speakers: Genevieve Lively, University of Bristol; Kate Devlin, University of Goldsmiths

Advances in computing, robotics, and A.I systems (as well as popular science fiction narratives) confidently predict that sex robots will play an import role in our future lives. The prospect is welcomed by many for the potential such robots promise in helping tackle some of the problems associated with loneliness and bereavement, in reducing some of the harms associated with sex work, and in offering therapeutic as well as recreational benefits. But others see sex robots very differently. This discussion and debate will consider both sides of the issue – in particular, inviting participants to take the long view and consider what we might learn from the history of sex robots. This is a remarkable history which stretches back millennia and anticipates both our utopian fantasies and dystopian fears about human interactions with these machines.


Saturday 21st May 19.30 – 21.00: Creating Everyday Utopias Through Play

Speaker: Professor Davina Cooper, University of Kent, Chair: Keri Facer

What are everyday utopias; can imaginative forms of improvisation help to establish them; and can play help us to re-imagine what markets and states could be like? This session will explore two sites of play: the micro-site of Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, and those counter-institutions that perform everyday governance relations differently. It examines how Speakers’ Corner, as a place where one-timers and regulars argue, debate and laugh together, re-enacts the relationship between markets and play. At Speakers’ Corner, markets are satirised, relations of exchange are re-imagined, offerings are tasted, diverse speech acts and encounters are sampled, and risky transactions enjoyed. But if Speakers’ Corner provides some hints of a different way of approaching markets, can play help us to reimagine states? I am interested here in simulatory, often serious, non-competitive forms of play that don’t mimic the state as it is, but indicate ways of imagining what states could be. Prefiguring statecraft may seem an odd idea given the anti-state assumptions and ethos pervading much utopian and left-wing scholarship and activism. Without at all denying or minimising the oppressive, coercive practices of states both now and in the past, this session will explore whether there is value in imagining and enacting other kinds of statecraft – including at micro-level – that perform political governance relations in more progressive ways. Drawing on a series of different examples, including establishment of the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove, the session will address the challenge of forging counter-states through play.

Sunday 22nd May 11-13.30 (including screening) : Screen Utopias

Speakers: Tim Boon (Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum), Adam O’Brien (Teaching Fellow, University of Bristol), Sefryn Penrose (Postdoctoral Researcher, University College London), Angela Piccini (Reader in Screen Media, University of Bristol), Sarah Street (Professor of Film, University of Bristol)

Chair: Angela Piccini

What is it about the idea of things to come that energises and terrifies in equal measure? How do we come to imagine what it is that’s not yet here? And is what is to come next year, one hundred years from now or tomorrow? Taking its inspiration from H G Wells’s 1933 story, The Shape of Things to Come, which, in 1936 was adapted for the screen by Alexander Korda, this session explores ‘social and political forces and possibilities’ (H. G. Wells, Things to Come – A Film Story, London: Cresset, 1935). While on-screen utopias are most readily seen through science fiction, our panel will discuss a wide range of film and television genres, including musicals, sports films, documentaries, prison dramas and political satire in addition to sci-fi. Academic Richard Dyer has argued that all screen entertainment forms are utopian. How might different genres envision yet-to-come communities, ways of being and new politics? Join the conversation about the different ways in which ‘things to come’ have been explored on the silver screen. Followed by a special screening of Things to Come (Alexander Korda, 1936).