söndag 9 november 2014

Supporting development through small projects / our Smart Sustainable Cities course

My university at times asks for descriptions of small projects and hands out money to bottom-up suggestions from teachers and researchers that would not otherwise get money/support. I like it; easy to write, easy to judge and fast money with few strings attached for a concrete project with a short time span that a "colleague" supports and really wants to happen.

I've personally (successfully) applied for money (together with Björn Hedin) for several small pedagogical projects where the call came from my own school (Computer Science and Communication, CSC). We have also applied for money for a small pedagogical project where the call came from the school of Education and Communication in Engineering Science (ECE). My school, CSC, has also handed out money for interdisciplinary projects that ties together people from different departments and research environments within the school (but I haven't applied for any of those funds).

The amount of money handed out is typically in the range of 50.000 - 100.000 SEK (6.000 - 12.000 USD). That money typically mainly covers one or a few persons' time and with a standard of, say, 500 SEK/hour, that money typically buys 100 - 200 hours of one or a few persons' time. As apart from "real" research grant applications (i.e. millions of SEK), the threshold and the effort to write one of these small applications is typically very low. The emphasis is on having a good idea for a small project and this reduces the risk in terms of money used/wasted. Having a good idea is (in the best case scenario) half of what you have do to as an applicant - instead of in advance having to spend a lot of time promising or hypothesising about possible future outcomes and benefits (perhaps years down the road) that might or might not come true.

This past summer, I was offered to be a teacher representative in the KTH Sustainability council and KTH-S recently offered to support small projects relating to "Environment and Sustainable Development". KTH-S offered 500.000 SEK to small action-based projects and the emphasis was of networking between different departments and different schools. The suggested size of the applications was in the range of 50.000 - 75.000. I have been one of four persons who read and graded all the applications submitted. The deadline for handling in applications was October 8 and 18 applications were handed in. The total amount of money asked for in these 18 applications were between 2.5 - 3 times the amount of money available.

Most applications were only two pages long, of which the majority of the information on first page treated formal information; the names of applicants, departments involved, name of the project, amount sought etc. The applications themselves belonged to a number of different categories, for example:
- starting up a network around the interdisciplinary topic X at KTH
- creating an undergraduate, master's level or ph.d. course together with another department/school
- conference-related (for example supporting the attendance of local students, teachers and researchers)
- organising a workshop (which could double up as a graduate course)
- supporting (supplementing) an existing research project or perhaps the kernel of something that could turn into a new project
- support the establishment of a school-wide teacher colloquium

Reading the 18 applications, I was surprised by the number of applications that were relatively easy to put aside as "not relevant" or "less relevant". I thus felt that quite a few applications missed the mark by asking for too much money, by not involving any significant networking between different schools or departments, by asking for money that should come from a research project or from the basic education budget, by only involving (named) participants instead of being open to new actors (e.g. lack of networking potential), by asking for money that (for the most part) would be paid to an external consultant and so on.

Still, there wasn't really a problem to find enough applications that did fulfil the criteria and proposed promising ideas of how to use the money in question. I did in the end recommend that seven applications should be funded. With supplemental money for supporting the development of ph.d. courses (that were not part of the call), KTH-S will in the end support nine applications (including all the seven applications I recommended).

My colleague Elina Eriksson was responsible for one of the applications (I settled for including it in the set of applications I recommended should be funded but refrained from reviewing or comparing it to other applications). As it turned out, her application, "Citizens and planning in Smart Sustainable Cities - an interdisciplinary course" was funded! The application/course is a cooperation between three departments (Media Technology and Interaction Design, Environmental Strategic Research and Industrial Ecology) at two different schools (School of Computer Science and Communication and School of Architecture and the Built Environment).

The money will be used for first developing a ph.d. course and later transform it into a master's level course, and, the idea is that the course will be developed and given by the two different schools as well as to attract participants from both schools:

"Furthermore, we need to investigate what schools and master’s programs that could benefit from this course and approach these (discussions have been started within the network KTH Smart sustainable cities, approx. 15 research groups). We will coordinate our efforts with course leaders for MJ2685 Smart Cities and Climate Mitigation Strategies, so that the curricula will complement that course. Moreover, we will develop the course to give it at doctoral level first in order to try out the curricula with the benefit that the lead times for such a scheme is shorter than for giving it at master’s level."

Developing this course neatly fits the MID4S group's bid to develop a master's level "track" (specialisation); this course could become an eligible course for (especially) those students who choose to read our proposed "Sustainable Information Society" track when the new tracks are in place (two years from now). Almost all of the money applied for (90+%) will be used to "buy time" (pay salaries) so that Elina Eriksson, Anna Kramers and Hanna Hasselqvist can develop the course curriculum. Here's the very short project description:

"The aim of this project is to collaboratively develop a master’s course on the topic of citizens, ICT use and planning in smart sustainable cities. The course curricula will cover the use of technology, and the practices of technology use within smart sustainable cities and how this is correlated to planning practices. The long term goal is to make the course selectable for several different master’s programs at KTH, effectually creating a diverse and multidisciplinary student group with background knowledge in ICT development, energy technology, Human-computer Interaction and urban planning."

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