måndag 27 januari 2020

Homo Colossus@Expo 2020


Travelling to Dubai on a container ship (which has a limited numer of "hotel rooms")

I wrote a blog post three weeks ago about KTH's front page article featuring our new project, "Homo Colossus" ("Man is a dinosaur") and I wrote another blog post in mid-December about the invitation to be part of the Swedish pavilion's permanent exhibition at the upcoming World Expo (starting in October). This blog post is an update about some of the things that have happened since.

To be able to exhibit at the World Expo, the Homo Colossus project must be scaled up. This scale-up represents significant extra work compared to what we promised we would do in our approved three-year science + art + communications project, "From Homo Sapiens to Homo Colossus". We need help to make it happen and the idea is to make the World Expo into a separate-but-overlapping project to which we invite/recruit some of our talented students to help us out. From now on I will refer to two different (but linked) projects about Homo Colossus; the three year (2020-2022) funded research project "From Homo Sapiens to Homo Colossus" and the non-funded applied project "Homo Colossus@Expo 2020". This blog post is about the latter project and how we plan to run that project despite the fact that we currently don't have any funding.

I started to plan for the scale-up in December and did three important things before the Christmas break:
- I pitched the project to my 3rd year students at the very last lecture (wrap-up) on December 13. I also presented these 10+ thesis proposals for their spring 2020 bachelor's thesis course.
- I put together a comprehensive (2000 words) information sheet for students with all the information that I imagined a student would want to know before making a decision about whether to participate in the project or not. This information was primarily directed at our 4th year students (1st year master's students).
- I also talked to the head of KTH's Expo 2020 working group, Christina Murray. Her job title is advisor to the President on issues relating to internationalisation. At her request, I put together a proposal that she presented to the President of KTH to get money for hiring a student project leader for 50% of his/her time for a full year (which we got).

It turned out to be difficult to get 4th year students to apply to be part of the project by just sending out an email with a link to online information, so this past week - after the original deadline had been passed - I personally visited three different courses to pitch the "Homo Colossus@Expo 2020" project directly to the students. Thank you Mario Romero, Anders Lundström and Cristian Bogdan for allowing me to steal time from your courses "Information Visualization", "Physical Interaction Design and Realization" and "Interaction Programming and the Dynamic Web"!

I understand it's a big commitment to sign up for a project that will run for more than a full year, but I am still baffled by how much work I have had to put into recruiting students. I early on tried to figure out what could motivate the students to sign up for this project and money (reason #4) came out last. We will not pay the students anything to be part of the project, but Swedish students on the other hand have "enough" as it is. Also, our students at KTH assume they will earn more than enough when they get a "real job" in the future and many seem to be able to defer earning money into the future. We also imagined credits for courses (#3) could be important for some students - but not for all. More important would be to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime experience (#1) that will also look great on your CV (#2). The once-in-a-lifetime experience includes a trip to the World Expo in Dubai either in November 2020 or February 2021 to display our work there as well as participating in various activities at the World Expo. The plan is that our students will go by train through Europe and then travel on a container ship bound for China. These ships stop in Dubai (a 17-day long trip from Italy) where we will spend a week at the World Expo before going back to Sweden by plane (the container ships don't stop in Dubai on their way back from China). I have just now finished recruiting a great group of students who will work in the project during 2020 and into 2021.

This was some about the mechanics of getting the project to take off. There's obviously a lot more to say about this, but these were some highlights of what has been done lately and I am amazed by how only 500 words (above) can cover so many hours of work and so much thinking. I now switch track to describe some of the characteristics of this just-about-to-start project that I have been pondering lately.

Ordinary research projects (like the parallell funded Homo Colossus project "From Homo Sapiens to Homo Colossus") start with an urgent need to flesh out the ideas that were briefly presented in the research grant application (as well to create a more detailed budget). I handed in three research projects proposals last year and all three proposals were accepted. We got a lot of money and have for each project promised to do certain things and to deliver certain results. The Homo Colossus@Expo 2020 project is right now being scaled up and there are lots of activities - but we have yet to specify exactly what it is we will be doing in the project and what exactly we will actually display at the World Expo. That is however not a weakness, but rather a strength as we still have the flexibility to adapt in relation to what the students we are recruiting want and what various external supporters/stakeholders want. The project is at this particular point in time neither a blank slate nor set in stone, but somewhere in-between. I think it's fair to say that our project is a "boundary object" that different people and stakeholders read different things into. It can not stay in this position for long and a month from now we just have to know much more about what we are going to do during the remainder of the term as well as the remainder of the year. Still, this current state of openness simultaneously fills me with trepidation as well as delight because this project is different from other, more "usual" projects. At the moment, the sky is the limit and there is nothing stopping us. We have not made any specific promises to anyone (such as a funding agency) and we can thus ourselves decide exactly what we want to do. While there are many different ideas on the table, we relatively quickly need to figure out exactly what it is we want to do though! In my imagination, our project will soar in the sky. The task now is to make it soar not just in my imagination but also for real - instead of crashing and burning.

The fact that the project does not have a budget is thus both a strength and a weakness and I have thought quite a lot about how the lack of a budget makes this project different from other projects. A budget always comes with strings attached - a budget comes with promises that have been made and limitations on how the money can be used. A budget - money - is of course always welcome, but the main reason why a project needs lots of money is to pay for people's time, but in a project where voluntary participants contribute their time for free, the biggest costs have been deferred and money is only needed for the remaining, smaller expenditures. These expenditures can of course be relatively big, but they are still dwarfed by what salaries would cost in an "ordinary" project.

The fact that students will work without salaries creates interesting affordances. If I am the project leader, I can't heavy-handedly direct students to do things I want them to do that they don't want to do themselves because if they don't like to work in the project or they don't like to work with me, they can quit. If unpopular tasks have to be done, I guess I have to convince people that these are things that must be done for the sake of the project. For that to happen, people have to commit, feel ownership and feel that the success of the project is important to them personally!

This demands a different kind of leadership. It's not unlike an amateur theatre production where we are at liberty to experiment and take larger risks than usual compared to a theatre production (with paid actors) that will perform on an established scene. Homo Colossus@Expo 2020 is not an ordinary project, but it also isn't a skunkworks project that flies under the radar and where resources are diluted from whatever it is you are supposed to do (by whoever pays your salary).

Wikipedia refers to a definition of skunkworks project that states that such a project constitutes an "enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures". Skunkworks also applies to "high-priority R&D projects at ... large organizations which feature a small elite team removed from the normal working environment and given freedom from management constraints". I can definitely see that parts of this applies to our Expo project - with me selling a vision of what the project could be/become to various parties, for example individual students who sign up for the project, fellow teachers who adapt their masters level courses to the needs of the project, the KTH Expo 2020 working group, the President of KTH, the Swedish Expo 2020 organisation, the Stockholm Science Museum [Tekniska Museet], the art exhibition hall Färgfabriken and others.

One other thing that would obviously be hugely beneficial for the project is if we could get space (a room of our own?) for the project - a place where we could work and hang out. I'm working on it because I think it's important. This is one of the things that is tricky because without a budget, I have to find someone who freely gives us what we want and I first have to figure out who that is, what they want and how our respective resources and needs could be matched. These are the challenges you face when you run a project that does not have a budget and it requires real thought instead of just "throwing money at a problem to make it go away".

Although there is more I could write about I will end this blog post here. My new rule is that blog posts should not be too long - I should preferably not spend more than an hour writing a blog post because the chances then increase that the blog posts in questions will remain un-published (un-written or half-written). I do have plenty of topics for future blog posts about the Homo Colossus@Expo 2020 project though. I'm pretty sure I could crank out a new blog post every week (I won't though). But do ask me about the project if we bump into each other!

onsdag 22 januari 2020

FLIGHT project presentation + test workshop


FlightViz showing 12 months of airplane trips at KTH (8350+ trips). Who flies?

Four months ago I wrote a blog post about our research group's many proposals to the project course "Advanced Project course in Interactive Media Technology". One of the proposals was called "Flightminder - Gapminder for KTH’s flight data". One student project group chose to work with it and the name of their tool has since been changed to FlightViz. Our great students interviewed me and the other researchers in our FLIGHT research project and developed a tool that took as raw data all trips made by airplane during a 12-month period and then made nice graphics out of this data. The five students (Alexander Heikinaho, Jonathan Ramirez Mendoza, Alexander Nordh, Filip Stål and Joel Weidenmark) did a great job and they presented their work to us earlier this week. The only person who had lots of opinions about (many) possible improvements of the tool was my colleague Mario Romero - who is not part of the research project but who helped supervise the students together with me and who was the one person that works with visualisation on a day-to-day basis.

The image above is one of the three main views in the tool and it show who (which school and which department) flies and it is based on test data for the period September 2018 to August 2019. This data will be replace by new day that covers the whole period (36 months) between 2017-2019 that we have just received. The image below instead shows where we are flying. The (code for the) FlightViz tool will be handed over to the FLIGHT research project and it's our new PhD student Aksel Biørn-Hansen who will care for it (I wrote some about him in the previous blog post). As he moves to Stockholm a month from now, we have postponed the actual handover until he has relocated from Gothenburg.

The next step is to evaluate how well the current version of the tool works also for others at KTH who would like to know more about our flying (our travel manager, the KTH Sustainability Office, heads of schools etc.). Fortunately there is great interest among our students to take on this particular topic for their bachelor's theses during the spring term (January-June). That course is only just now starting but I will write a blog post when I know more (within a few weeks). Prospective user evaluations of FlightViz (spring 2020) will then generate input for the next version of FlightViz (autumn 2020).

FlightViz showing 12 months' worth of airplane trips at KTH. Where do we fly?

While there are other projects that look at academic flying, I have yet to see another project that develops tools that put effort into visualising universities' flying patterns. To develop such tools is however not the main purpose of our project, it's just a means to help us understand our KTH's flying. Based on such understanding we can then propose ways to decrease flying that is in line with KTH's climate goals (decrease CO2 emissions from flying with 20% over a five-year period).

To that end, we also conducted a test workshop that very same day. We met up with a department that flies very little and showed them their flying during this 12-month period, this time using poker chips. We also compared and discussed their flying with that of another department that has the same number of employees but that flies considerably more. Many interesting things came out of this workshop but one thing that was interesting was thet "low-fly" departments' trips were very evenly distributed while the "high-fliers" were very unevenly distributed. Out of the 95 trips the high-fliers did during a 12-month period, half the personnel contributed nothing to that number as they had not flown even once. Out of the people who flew, most had flown only once, twice or three times in a year. A small minority had instead flown more than once per month on average and the trips of a handful of persons (<15% of the personnel) constituted a very high proportion of the departments' total trips. I have a hunch and that is that this patterna will be reproduced in many different departments.

This was a test workshop. We are currently recruiting departments for the "real" workshops and are aiming for five departments (on at each of the five KTH schools). I will of course get back to and blog about this topic again (and again) because FLIGHT is a three-year project and these are early days in the project. The research grant application was submitted almost exactly a year ago and the project started about half a year ago.

lördag 18 januari 2020

Writing camp (workshop)

MID writing camp at Rönneberga conference center

Nowadays our department starts each term with a "writing camp" that is either two or three days long. This past week we went to Rönneberga conference center at Lidingö (near Stockholm) for two days of socialising, eating well and of writing.

This is always an appreciated activity and the last time I wrote about a writing camp was two years ago when our department organised its first writing camp at another conference center (also on Lidingö). Writing camp was a new thing back then but we have since organised writing camps at the start of every term. I have not written about them on the blog, despite the fact that I myself was responsible for organising the previous writing camp half a year ago (at Wiks slott outside Uppsala).

The just-held writing camp was a organised by the TEL (technology-enhanced learning) group at the department, so some of the activities we did together were related to things they work with. Otherwise this writing camp was freer in its organisation that previous camps. Instead of formally pairing up people who belong to different groups and who don't usually work together, people and research groups were allowed to self-organise this time around. That meant that the sustainability research group booked a room that was our "base" and where we organised our work efforts in 40-minute long "shifts" (writing sessions) that were broken up by meals and fika sessions.

One activity at the writing camp was the department's Christmas gift for all its employees, a close encounter with horses at the nearby Elfvik gård. Led by very experienced horse trainers and interacting with very well trained horses, we got to experience a close-up encounter with horses and learned some about how horses think and how they "read" humans (body language).

Another significant event for me and the rest of the sustainability team was the we got to meet our new PhD student, Aksel Biørn-Hansen, for the first time. This is the very concrete outcome of the job ad I posted on the blog three months ago. The ad resulted in almost 50 applications but many were to be regarded as "spam" (clearly not formally qualified for the job and I don't understand why you then even bother to apply). The remainder was winnowed down to five candidates who were interviewed and this later resulted in us offering a position as a PhD student to Aksel. He accepted our offer and he will primarily work in the FLIGHT project that I lead (which runs from mid-2019 to mid-2022). I will be his thesis advisor.

I have by now interacted with Aksel over Skype (the job interview) and later by phone, mail and text messages, but this was the first time we met in person and Aksel also got to meet the rest of the sustainability research group and many of his future colleagues at our department. Aksel will start to work at KTH in February but will not start to work full-time until May. He currently lives with his family in Gothenburg and needs to relocate to Stockholm during the spring.

Aksel originally comes from Norway but has lived in Sweden for years and years; he has a bachelor's degree in cognitive science from Gothenburg University and a master's degree in interaction design from Chalmers University of Technology. Aksel has worked at Svalna as user experience designer (concept development, prototyping, conducting user tests) and wrote his master's thesis about the Svalna carbon calculator: "Evaluation of a carbon calculator: Challenges and opportunities with calculating emissions from consumption behaviour". Aksel is also very special in that he, as an undergraduate student, worked together with researcher Maria Håkansson and then wrote a paper with her, "Building Momentum: Scaling up Change in Community Organizations", that was accepted to the very selective and prestigious 2018 CHI conference. It's a feat for a PhD student to have a paper accepted to CHI and it's even more of a feat for an undergraduate student to be the first author of such a paper.

We all welcome Aksel to our department, to the sustainability research group and to our research project!

söndag 12 januari 2020

Starting up my second career (in stand-up comedy)


I have signed up for an evening course of improv (improvisational theatre) during the spring term together with my son. I have taken improv before but I have also signed up for an intensive one-week stand-up comedy course during the spring.

There are several reasons for taking a stand-up comedy course:
1) It's a fun thing to do with my time - I expect to enjoy the course.
2) I might pick up something that I can use when I lecture.
3) I can provide the entertainment at my department's summer party.
4) After modern capitalistic industrial society inevitably succumbs to the mounting pressure of the unescapable climate catastrophe, people will need to be cheered up now and then; a career in stand-up ("will entertain for food scraps!") will thus become an obvious fall-back option when it no longer is viable to be a researcher and a university teacher. Also, stand-up is more fun and less back-breaking than tilling the soil.

A friend of mine that I met this weekend asked me what role models I have among Swedish stand-up comedians, but I drew a blank. While I have watched quite some improv, I haven't watched a lot of stand-up (do get in touch if you plan to go to Norra Brunn and want company!). We instead had to retreat to sit-coms and we discussed classics like "Seinfeld" and "Friends", but if I were to emulate (e.g. "be inspired by") someone in particular, I think it would come relatively easy to me to go for Sheldon in "Big Bang Theory". His utterances are often patently absurd but he delivers his absurdities with panache while simultaneously being ignorant of their absurdness. I can do that! Sheldon is also very precise in his language, tying together many complicated terms into precise harangues that sound great - but absurd. I can do that too!

I had already figured out that I need to develop a persona for the stage and that's going to be very easy; I will of course perform with a persona that is based on my day job as a researcher and a university teacher. I am also a civil servant who sometimes has to butt head with absurd rules. I am also a voracious reader of academic literature and could partly be an educator on stage, drawing on and jokifying research that I have come across. I am also a sustainability champion and I figure I can draw on that too, but I still think my main platform should be as a researcher and a university teacher.

I have thought about what language I should use. It has to be English if I am to entertain my colleagues/at my department. I can do that! But I'm not sure English will work in the course!? I assume everyone else at the course will go for Swedish so I'm leaning towards starting with Swedish and then later evaluate if or when I should switch. This decision is in fact hard because if I go for Swedish, that assumes a Swedish-speaking audience (such that you would find at a stage in Stockholm). If I on the other hand go for English, that assumes an audience of fellow researchers and the kind of jokes I would develop for such an audience would be different. I did get a super-small notebook earlier this week where I make notes about ideas that could be developed into jokes. At this point, they are not refined and they could become jokes that are told either in Swedish or in English.

Also, what does it mean to be "entertained"? For stand-up, you would think that laughs would be the currency that matters, but how do other outcomes measure up like learning something new (or something bizarre), like being challenged or provoked or being emotionally affected? I'm not sure laughter is what I would want to aim for, I would be very happy if I managed to encourage reflection in members of an audience.

When it comes to the actual content, I would say that whatever I go for, I aim for nothing less than to incorporate lots of ambiguities, paradoxes, dilemmas, oxymorons, contradictions, tensions, breakdowns and wicked problems into my act. Know unknowns and unknown unknowns will also be a great entry point for creating content. Donald Rumsfeld made these terms famous back in 2002 (but they have a  longer history):

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know."

As we all know, there are (only) two sorts of people; those who do stand-up and those who don't. Also there are also two other sorts of people; those who divide people into two sorts and those who don't.

When I signed up for the one-week intensive stand-up course, I read that there are three main reasons for people to take that course. These reasons clearly correspond to my own reasons (listed above); they dream about a career as a stand-up comedian (my reasons #3 and #4), they give talks today and want to be more funny (#2) or they just think it would be exciting to try it out (#1). In Sweden, if you want to be funny, you sign up for a course (I did!). My own courses at KTH are on the other hand very boring (to even things out).

I expect that you can book my new show before or otherwise after the summer. To make the magic happen, do get in touch with my agent and then get in line. Also be prepared to dish out significant amounts of moolah!

lördag 4 januari 2020

Man is a dinosaur (popular article)

Man is a dinosaur

KTH just published a (Swedish-language) popular science text about our brand new science + art + communications project, "From Homo Sapiens to Homo Colossus” (here's my previous blog post about that project). The article is right there on KTH's front page and it is called "Människan är en dinosaurie” ["Man is a dinosaur"].

In what way are we dinosaurs? We are dinosaurs because we (Swedes) consume as much much energy in our everyday lives as a 30-ton dinosaur needed to fuel its body from one day to the next. I had earlier routinely used the number 20 tons. I cannot remember any longer exactly where that number came from, but counting embedded energy (the energy needed to manufacture the stuff - elsewhere - that we consume in Sweden), I now believe it comes down to closer to 30 tons than 20 tons on average.

One thing I have realised I liked less with this article is the way it came to be. The journalist/communicator who works for KTH never spoke to me in person nor on the phone. Instead he mailed a bunch of questions and I foolishly spent quite a lot of time answering them - so it feels like I did at least half of his job. It would have been easier and more enjoyable for me if we had had a chat for half an hour and he would have created an article based on that interview and I have decided that I will never again accept this type of arrangement. I'm not a journalist and I shouldn't do the journalist's job (nor am I paid to do the job of journalists). The text itself is good though and I believe the journalist did a good job of taking the text I wrote and making an article of it.

onsdag 1 januari 2020

2019 - the year MID4S levelled up


2019 was the year when our "sustainability team" (MID4S) levelled up and became a real "research group". We pulled in tens of millions of SEK in research grants and we now manage more than half a dozen different research projects. We will also hire at least three new PhDs/post-docs during the first half of 2020, so much has happened since last year. This is a personal summary of 2019 from the point of view of the MID4S team and it consists of two parts:
1) the history of the sustainability team as recreated through contents of this blog and
2) a short summary of the most important things that have happened to the MID4S team during 2019

History of the MID for Sustainability (MID4S) team

I have searched for the history of our sustainability team, MID4S, on this blog. The earliest blog post with the term "MID4S" in the title, "MID4S - MID for sustainability" was published six years ago (December 2013). MID is of course the name of our department (Media Technology and Interaction Design) and in that blog post from six years ago:
- I commented that the team has existed for 1.5 years but that we hadn't really had a name up until the end of 2013. It was apparently Teo Enlund who coined the name of the team - MID for Sustainability (MID4S).
- I was proud of the fact that the team had written three papers about sustainability and ICT (our first papers!) and that we had submitted two research grant applications (of which one had just been approved).
- We had, at the time, just had our second team kick-off.
- With a new name for the group, we moved our blog to a new, easier-to-remember address: mid4s.wordpress.com which we will still use.
- We decided that we would write a proposal for organising a workshop about sustainability at the then-upcoming NordiCHI 2014 conference in Helsinki (which me and Elina did).
- We had also decided to write a position paper for the sustainability workshop at the upcoming CHI 2014 conference in Toronto (which me, Elina and Åke Walldius also did).
- We decided that we should write bachelor's and master's thesis proposals and that our team should be able to supervise students working on sustainability-related topics each term.
- On a personal level, I had just announced on the blog (Nov 2013) that I was going to UC Irvine on a sabbatical for half a year during the first half of 2014.
- We also did an exercise where each team member thought about where he/she wanted to be/do/have done as an individual and as team 1, 2 and 5 years from now.

I actually found a google document from that kick-off, "MID4S Vision", which, in eight bullets (plus an additional bullet that was added two years later), states where we as a group wanted to be five years later. It's fair to say that we have accomplished the majority of everything on the list, but that it took six years rather than five.

If I go back even further, I published a blog post in December 2012 about our first team kick-off:
- Nine out of 21 team members (on our distribution list) attended the kick-off "to discuss past and future activities of the team". Of those nine team members who showed up, four still remain at the department; me, Elina Eriksson, Cristian Bogdan and Anders Lundström.
- At that meeting we decided to switch from having semi-weekly Monday morning meetings to semi-weekly Tuesday lunch meetings - which we still do!

The very first blog post about the team was however written in February 2012 - almost 8 years ago (!). That blog post was written at a time when the sustainability team kind of hadn't really formed. Apparently we had only met three or four times when the summer of 2012 came around. So much for the history; now we fast-forward to the very successes year of of 2019.

2019 - the year MID4S levelled up

I will here refrain from enumerating things we have done during 2019 that we have done also during the previous years (e.g. organise workshops, attend conferences, write academic papers etc.). I will instead focus on what was significant (and different) in 2019 compared to earlier years.

The most fundamental difference between 2019 and earlier years is that we have, in fact, written significantly fewer academic papers this year because we have instead spent our time writing a very large number of research grant applications: We have altogether been part of no less than 20 research grant applications during 2019! Of those applications:
- two were handed in late during the year and are still being processed. They might be approved or they might be rejected and we don't yet know anything.
- four applications were not written by MID4S team members and we claim only a minor part of the money that is being asked for in these application. Two of these applications were rejected and two have been approved.

Of the remaining 14 applications that our team handed in, no less than 7 were approved - that's a smashing 50% of the applications we wrote and that number is phenomenal! We definitely seem to have "cracked" the code for shaping successful project ideas and for writing successful research grant applications. Almost all of the MID4S team's 14 applications were written by either Daniel Pargman, Cecilia Katzeff, Björn Hedin or Elina Eriksson - we basically wrote three applications each. One additional applications was written by our colleague Olle Bälter and one (huge) applications was written by Elina Eriksson together with Rob Comber. We did unfortunately not get funding for any of those two applications.

Me and Cecilia Katzeff have on the other hand been extremely fortunate. We handed in three research grant applications each and all six applications were approved! I don't have access to the budget for all applications, but my three applications together have an aggregated budget of more than 13 MSEK and I believe that all our 7+2 approved MID4S applications pulled in around 30 MSEK during 2019. That does not include the additional money from successful applications that were approved in 2018 - for research projects that are currently ongoing (another 14 MSEK or so).

To summarise; from feeling the pressure to pull in money to decrease our teaching load and to also spend our time doing research, we are currently, well, bathing in money. The rapid influx of money has in itself created (luxury) "problems" for us, or rather "bottle-necks" that we are currently trying to find solutions to. One challenge is that all our projects more or less end at the same time (in 2022) - but we have a few years to fix this and work out the kinks. Another challenge is that some of us are currently overbooked. It's probably the case that I am the most extreme. I am supposed to always teach at least 50% of my time. My department also pays 20% of my salary so that I can do "free research" (for example writing research grant applications). I was supposed to work 20% in one of Björn Hedin's projects. I was also supposed to be project leader and work 30% each in two of my approved projects and another 10% in the third project. That turns out to be 160% of a full-time job which unsurprisingly is way too much. The first thing that happened after several projects had been approved was that I cancelled my involvement in Björn's project (20% of my time) - and Björn cancelled his involvement in my project (20% of his time). This "liberated" money and another huge change compared to earlier years is that we now have the funds to hire no less than three PhD's and/or post-docs in our new research projects during the first half of 2020. We have already hired the first PhD (in one of my projects) and he (Aksel) will start to work at KTH a month from now - I will write a separate blog post about that later.

All our major ongoing research projects are listed on this webpage, but several new projects that will start in 2020 have not yet been added to the page.

All in all + to summarise:

- 2019 was the year when our research team levelled up and became a research group
- We are now running a bunch of research projects and several new will start in 2020
- We have come into serious money and will hire (at least) three new colleagues (PhDs/post-docs) during the first half of 2020.

2019 was thus a great year for our research group. I believe that many things changed on a fundamental level and that things will not be the same for me and my colleagues from now on. It's also exceedingly hard to imagine that things will go back to they way they were before.

We had a meeting the very last day before the Christmas break and discussed the very large number of upcoming research grant calls that are on our radar, so as to discuss which we should aim for. Due to our recent success and due to the fact that many of use are fully funded research-wise for several years ahead, we have decided that we have to restrict our research-grant-writing activities to projects that can seamlessly latch on to projects and activities that we are already doing. Despite this, we have decided to ourselves write or be part of either five or six new research grant applications between January - March 2020.

torsdag 12 december 2019

Homo Colossus at World Expo 2020!


Mattias Hansson, Program Director in the Committee for Sweden's Participation at Expo 2020 (front/middle) and the The Homo Colossus project team; Åsa Andersson Broms, Belinda Retourné, Daniel Pargman, Per Hasselberg and Mario Romero. 

I recently (less than two weeks ago) wrote a blog post about how we got an informal invitation to display our science + art + communications project "Homo Colossus" at the upcoming World Expo (October 2020 - April 2021). KTH will be part of the program in the Swedish pavilion during two separate weeks (in November 2020 and February 2021) and our project would then be part of KTH's program. We were invited by Karin Larsdotter who is part of the working group that manages the KTH Expo 2020 program. That working group had a meeting in the beginning of this week and Karin then reported back to them.

Apparently that meeting was also attended by Mattias Hansson who is Program Director in the Committee for Sweden's Participation at Expo 2020 in Dubai. That means he is responsible for the contents of the Swedish pavilion for the duration of the World Expo (6 months). I don't know exactly how, but Karin apparently managed to set up a separate meeting between Mattias Hansson and the Homo Colossus project and all five project members (me, Mario, Åsa, Per, Belinda) could, with short notice, liberate ourselves from other commitments and meet up with Mattias Thursday this past week (Karin also attended the meeting). The picture (above) was published on the Swedish Expo 2020 Instagram account the very day after we met.

Mattias started the meeting by stating that Sweden had decided to participate in the World Expo back in 2017, so whatever objections could be raised, participation was in itself not negotiable. I have since managed to find the original mission statement (the outcome of a cabinet meeting in December 2017) where the mission from the Swedish parliament is stated:

"The Government has decided that Sweden will participate in the World Expo 2020 exhibition in Dubai, provided that the state and the Swedish business sector [näringslivet] finance the Swedish participation in equal parts.
The purpose of Swedish participation in Expo 2020 is to strengthen a comprehensive and positive image of Sweden abroad, to promote Sweden as a knowledge nation, the competitiveness and creativity of Swedish trade and industry and to strengthen Sweden's attractiveness for tourism and investments and for research, innovation and cultural exchange. [...] Promoting Sweden and Swedish trade, education and research collaborations, economic relations and cultural partnerships with other countries also create platforms to discuss issues such as democracy, gender equality, human rights, sustainability and environmental issues.
The total cost of Sweden's participation in the world exhibition is estimated at about 165 MSEK, of which the business sector [näringslivet] and the state are expected to contribute 82.5 MSEK each. In the Budget Bill for 2018, the Swedish Government proposes that 3.5 MSEK is allocated for that purpose in 2018, and estimates that an additional 50 MSEK is allocated for the years 2019-2021 to cover the state's share of the costs of Sweden's participation in the exhibition. In addition, several state-sponsored actors will contribute to [implementing and financing] activities that are related to the Swedish pavilion."

Mattias then talked about the two main kinds of critique that the Swedish decision to participate in Expo 2020 regularly gets; concerns about sustainability and concerns about the the lack of democratic rights in Dubai. Here's a critical just-published report from the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs about "Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the United Arab Emirates" (Dubai is one of the seven emirates that constitutes the United Arab Emirates). The official Swedish position is that it is only by participating (as one of 192 countries) that we have the chance to change things for the better (in terms of democratic rights, women's rights, guest workers' rights, sustainability etc.): "Our attitude is to go there and show them what we think we are good at, rather than sitting home and telling them what we think they do poorly."

It was apparent that Mattias had given this speech many times, he talked for at least 10 minutes straight and we hadn't even presented ourselves at that point. Mattias also mentioned that the World Expo expects 25 million visitors and that (at least) 1 million will visit the Swedish pavilion. These visitors will stay for different durations and can be thought of as "skimmers" (15 minute), "swimmers" (30 minute) and "divers" (2 hours).

I then presented (pitched) the Homo Colossus project and this eventually resulted in an offer by Mattias to be part of the permanent exhibition in the Swedish pavilion for the duration of the World Expo. We even started to discuss which particular spaces would be most suitable for Homo Colossus to occupy inside and outside the Swedish pavilion. Mattias was also particularly intrigued by my idea of sending KTH students to Dubai on a container ship bound for China (these ships stop in Dubai on their journey eastwards). The students would first go by train from Sweden to Genoa (Italy) and then by container ship to Dubai - a trip that takes around 17 days. I had framed such a trip as a way of decreasing the carbon emissions of a trip to Dubai but Mattias also saw such a trip as a huge opportunity in terms of a media campaign. What was really interesting for me though was that Mattias opened up the possibility of having Expo 2020 sponsor our students' trip.

This is the eighth (!) and last blog post about Homo Colossus during 2019. The project has morphed and changed and picked up the pace during the year and I suspect so much will happen in 2020 that I I could probably write a new blog post about the project every week. There are certainly many more things I could have written about in 2019, but the project is only part of what I work with and I feel I can't fill the blog with information about this one project when much else is also happening. I thus won't write a weekly blog post about Homo Colossus in 2020 - but I'm also sure I will write at least one blog post per month. The pace of the project is about to increase even further in 2020.

söndag 1 december 2019

Homo Colossus at World Expo 2020?

The Swedish World Expo 2020 homepage

I attended the annual KTH Sustainability Research Day this past week (Thursday). I unfortunately missed the first two hours (I had a seminar with the students in my course), but the second half was really good. This blog post is however not about the KTH Sustainability Research Day but rather about what happened right after the official program ended.

At the reception, I chit-chatted with various friends and acquaintances and ended up talking to Karin Larsdotter who works for KTH Sustainability Office (who organised the event). Karin was the moderator for the just-held event and I congratulated her for a job well done. It turned out she is also part of a working group that will put together KTH's contribution to the upcoming (October 2020 - April 2021) World Expo in Dubai.

Almost before I had time to understand exactly what she wanted to talk about, she gave me a short speech about all the possible sustainability-related objections one could have towards World Expos in general and towards organising the next World Expo in Dubai in particular (not the most sustainable of places for starters). She said such objections were in the end moot, because KTH has made already the decision that we should be part of the World Expo. It was in other words a "done deal" at this point, but KTH had also decided that all KTH contributions to the World Expo should relate to sustainability (one goal would for example bo to "minimise" the number of trips to Dubai).

That's nice, I guess, but what did that have to do with me? It turned out the main question Karin wanted to ask me was if I/we were interested in representing KTH at the World Expo with our Homo Colossus project during the two weeks that KTH has access to the Swedish pavilion. I have never been to a World Expo and was a bit confused (not the least since the Homo Colossus project has not yet officially started), but I did of course not outright reject such an offer. Another complicating factor was however that I only had time to talk with Karin for 10 minutes since I had a schedule phone interview with one of the candidates for the PhD position we announced the previous month. I did however at the same time feel a great need to know a lot more about this offer and then discuss it with the other Homo Colossus project members. As I am currently very busy teaching, I suggested me and Karin should meet and talk a bit more about it up right before the Christmas break (a few weeks later).

Still, it was hard to put the aside and not think about it so what happened was instead that I immediately got in touch with the other four project participants (Mario, Åsa, Per, Belinda). I have also spent a considerable amount of time since then reading up on the World Expo as well as ways to go to Dubai without flying (train? boat? see the map below!). It turns out it is possible to go by train, but it is oh so difficult. The trip from Sweden to Turkey is long but comparatively easy; the hard part is to go through the eastern parts of Turkey and pass the border to Iran. To do that you need to:
- First travel from Ankara with the "Vangölü Ekspresi" to Tatvan. The train leaves Ankara twice per week.
- Then take the ferry from Tatvan to Van. The journey only takes four hours but boat schedules are only available locally.
- Take the train from Van (Turkey) to Tabriz (Iran). This train runs only once per week and the border control is in the middle of the night.
- Finally continue from Tabriz to Teheran and then travel to the coast.

Walking from Istanbul to Dubai would take 100 days even if you walked for almost 8 hours per day (the trip ends by crossing the strait of Hormuz by ship).

Another interesting alternative is to go by container ship from southern Europe (Spain, France, Italy or Malta) to Dubai. Such a trip that takes 2-3 weeks and it is also quite expensive.

Instead of postponing a follow-up meeting with Karin by 2-3 weeks, I wrote an email to Karin the very next day (Friday - just two days ago) and told her we needed to talk! I don't yet know what will come out of this but it's certainly very exciting! I am also pretty sure we can deliver - although I don't know exactly what we would deliver (what is called for). I guess that remains to be seen so stay tuned!

So exactly how bad is a World Expo from a CO2 emissions perspective? That's of course hard to say but Mike Berners-Lee wrote the book "How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything" in 2010 and one of the examples in the book is an analysis of the CO2 emissions from the 2010 football World Cup. The World Cup was held in South Africa that year and it was estimated that 1.2 million spectators saw the matches live. The total CO2 emissions from the World Cup were estimated to be 2.8 million tonnes and transport (of players, spectators and everything else) accounts for about 85% of all emissions. The World Expo is however much much bigger and it has been estimated that the 2020 World Expo in Dubai will be attended by 25 million visitors during the 6 months that it is open....

onsdag 27 november 2019

Homo Colossus course assignment

The energy footprint of a middle-class Englishman’s lifestyle (MacKay 2009).

We are about half-way through my main annual teaching commitment, the course "Sustainability and Media Technology" (DM2573) and this year we had to modify one of the weekly writing assignments for a couple of different reasons. While the content of this particular assignment had previously catered to my personal interests (having to do with the concept of Homo Colossus), I just about all-out highjacked the assignment this year so that the students basically worked for our not-yet-started science + art + communication project "From Homo Sapiens to Homo Colossus". From the project application summary:

"The idea of us being as big as our energy footprint is called Homo Colossus. The project aims to convey it through art, augmented reality, and a museum exhibit and by interactively visualizing the energy size of Swedes from all walks of life; from the poor single mother who struggles to make ends meet to the executive who flies several times per week. What do we look like through the lens of our energy footprints?" 

We in particular stated in the application that:

”These [Augmented Reality] portraits will be exchanged on a daily basis, randomly chosen from a larger pool of “personas”, e.g. fictitious persons that represent Swedes of different ages, genders, incomes, habits and lifestyle choices. Instead of representing “the average Swede”, these personas will illustrate the energy footprint of a range of lifestyles that exist in Sweden today; from the retired housekeeper to the executive who lives in Visby and commutes to Stockholm by plane on a daily basis.” 

While we were careful not to specify an exact number of personas in the research grant application, we have internally set the (very high) internal goal of working with 100 different portraits of different Swedish lifestyles. My "highjacking" of the course assignment consisted of me asking all my students to:
- 1) read our research grant application (it's only 3 pages long) and
- 2) create a ”persona” (sketch out a portrait of that persona and his/her lifestyle) and calculate the energy footprint (size) of that person's lifestyle. This value should then be translated into body weight (had that person been an animal that used an equal amount of energy to fuel its Huge body).

Below I paste selected parts of the instructions to the students and further below I also publish my feedback to the students after the task was completed. While the personas (as well as the calculations) need to be checked, the students submitted no less than 90 assignments and this is a big help and a big boost to the research project - it would have strained our fantasy to start with a blank paper and the task to invent 100 different lifestyles!

TEXT: Sketch out a portrait of an unusual lifestyle
- Choose an unconventional lifestyle. ”Unconventional” means that you can not choose an ordinary household, e.g. a family (with or without children) or a student living alone or with a partner. Think of a specific person who ”inhabits that lifestyle”, e.g. think of an unconventional friend, family member, acquaintance or possibly someone from a reportage you have read, a documentary you have seen or even a realistic but fictive person from a book or a tv series (no science fiction or fantasy!). 
- CLARIFICATION: High-energy (affluent) and low-energy (poor) lifestyles could be of particular interest in this exercise as are lifestyles that for some reason score high or low on specific ”energy-related activities/practices” (for example a person who for some reasons spends a significant part of her salary on petrol for her car or on flying).
- Write about one page of text (300-500 words – but more is OK if needed) about that person and his/her life, life history, lifestyle, motivation, hobbies, relationships, living arrangements, ”social practices” etc. Try to develop a rich portrait – the goal is to give someone who reads your text an understanding of that person and his/her life(style).

ESTIMATES: Estimate the energy footprint of your person’s/persona’s lifestyle. 
This part, ”estimates”, might look a bit daunting but should rather be seen as a checklist that you methodically work though.
- In his 2009 book ”Sustainable energy – without the hot air”, David MacKay calculates the energy footprint of the average middle-class Englishman’s lifestyle (”a typical moderately-affluent person”). Use the information below as a template/checklist and adapt it to fit your persona’s lifestyle. That means: you should vary the numbers when appropriate – but you should also comment and justify each choice and each important decison you make about your estimates.
- You don’t need to read anything from MacKay’s book to understand these calculations – but the whole book is available online for free at https://www.withouthotair.com).
- MacKay’s calculations (see the figure) indicate that the average middle-class Englisman uses 195 kWh of energy per person and per day. Average UK and European ”Primary energy consumption” (oil, coal, gas, wind, hydro, nuclear etc.) is instead only 125 kWh per person per day, but that figure excludes ”embedded energy”, e.g. energy that was used ”elsewhere” (for example in China) to manufacture stuff that is consumed in the UK, as well as the solar energy that was acquired ”for free” through photosynthesis and that is ”embedded” in the food we eat. 
- Please check and modify the following categories for your ”persona” (you don’t need to bother with the smaller categories but you can modify also those numbers if you want to):
1. Car use  (40 kWh/day)
2. Jet flights  (30 kWh/day)
3. Heating, cooling (of an apartment, house)  (37 kWh/day)
4. Food (farming, fertilizer)  (15 kWh/day)
5. Stuff & transporting stuff  (60 kWh/day)
6. Smaller categories (no need to customize):
public services, gadgets, light (12 kWh/day)

This is followed by more detailed instructions about how to calculate the energy footprint of each of the categories, for example:

2 Jet flights (chapter 5 in MacKay)
- MacKay: one maximum-range (14 200 km) roundtrip on a Boeing 747 where every single seat is occupied (416 passengers) = 12 000 kWh = 33 kWh/day. 
- MacKay: A roundtrip between London – Los Angeles is shorter (9 000 km).
- MacKay: Most planes are not full – let’s say planes are on average 80% full.
- MacKay: One single roundtrip London – Los Angeles on an 80% full plane comes to 29 kWh/day ≈ 30 kWh/person per day
- Comment: It is easy to fly significantly more than one intercontinental trip per year
- Comment: use http://flightemissionmap.org to check the distance between different cities in the world
- Comment: go with MacKay’s figures after estimating and adjusting for the total distance flown by your persona in a year.

This exercise ends with translating energy footprint into weight:

2c) CALCULATION: Calculate the weight of your person/persona’s energy footprint. 
- Go through the checklist [above] where you have adapted each category to your persona. NOTE: it’s important that you justify each choice – but you don’t have to write more than one or a few sentences per category!
- Ask for help or at least compare your answer with a classmate to make sure your answer is not fundamentally wrong when you answer the question “How much does your persona weigh?”

After all students had submitted their assignments and I had had time to look at them, I wrote a message with some feedback to the students:


I haven't read all the submitted Homo Colossus personas, estimates and calculations yet, but I have scanned and leafed through them and thus for example gotten to know 10 persons who have low (or very low) energy footprints (i.e. who weighs less than 10000 kgs) :

- My 91 year old grandmother
- Margaret Fairchild who has lived in a van for 15 years
- Sven (72) who lives in a hut in the woods
- Yara (21), a Syrian refugee who lives in Sweden
- Lea (24), and environmental activist
- Ms Person (28) who lives in collective/farm
- Sara Greenberg (25), a political science student
- Sarah Blom (36) who lives in a tinyhouse
- Emma who lives in protected residence for women
- Marita (82), a frugal pensioner

I have also gotten to know 10 persons with enormous (or humongous) energy footprints (i.e. who weighs > 150 000 kg):

- John Olofsson (39) - ex-professional snowboarder
- X (55), lawyer working in Moscow
- Aaron (25), a professional sportsman (NFL player)
- Alexander, CEO of Sustainable Feature
- Karla (20s), an Instagram influencer from Copenhagen
- My brother Michael (28) who lives in Munich
- Emma Marklund (27) who competes in racing
- Anna,  musician/bass player
- Dwayne ("The Rock") Johnson (47), actor
- Axl Rose, Rock star (Guns N' Roses)

Anna travels a lot as a musician and weighs 1 000 000 kilos and the last two on the list weigh about twice as much! I even got the tour dates for November 2019 for Guns N' Roses...

Thank you all for your assignments, they were really interesting and I will look closer at them after the course ends next week!


söndag 17 november 2019

How much do you (really) weigh? (popular science article)


The first popular science article about our new science + art + communication project, "From Homo Sapiens to Homo Colossus" has just been published. The article was published in Formas' online web journal "Extrakt" and Formas is the funding agency that gave us the money to run the project. I wrote about the project only two weeks ago when I pitched the project to be part of an upcoming (autumn 2020) exhibition at Färgfabriken.

While the project officially won't start until January 2020, I was contacted by journalist Karin Montgomery who works for Extrakt in the beginning of the month about doing an interview. The interview was conducted by phone on Monday November 11, Karin sent me a draft of the article for inspection and proof-reading three days later and the article was published online already the the next day. It should also be noted that the article was published one and a half months before the project officially started!

The title of the article is "Hur mycket väger du, egentligen?" ["How much do you (really) weigh?"]. It's a good "gateway" text - it's short and very easy to read but still captures the gist of the project.

The image above illustrated the article and it shows an artist (Joel) testing an app that our students developed in a project course one year ago. Since the project hasn't started yet, we don't have any "real" results to show (and we won't have anything to show until sometime next year). The article thus covers the background, the ideas and the plan but there is as of yet nothing to show in terms of results - that will have to wait until the end of the spring at the earlierst