onsdag 21 oktober 2015

KTH Sustainability Research Day

KTH has many activities around sustainability and I have just attended the annual KTH Sustainability Research Day (which is organise by KTH Sustainability). I also attended last year's event, but did for some reason not write anything about it. My colleague Ulrica wrote about it in our team blog though.

Selected KTH researchers (many are acquaintances of mine) presented their cutting-edge sustainability-related research and discussed different topics (including the promises of various research areas) with industry representatives and politicians. This year's program was divided into three parts around the topics "Mobility (beyond transportation)", "Materials in production and circulation" (i.e. circular economy and recycling) and "What does society want from KTH?".

Or vice-chancellor with responsibility for sustainability, Göran Finnveden, started by presenting the new (September 2015) UN Sustainable Development goals. Thes goals are divided into no less than 17 topics like for example "end poverty in all its forms everywhere", "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all" and "ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all".

An interesting talk by KTH researcher Fredrik Lundell discussed possible implications of their research on nano-structures based on wood (it's probably related to this wikipedia article about nanocellulose). The resulting materials are strong and durable but also biologically degradable. Fredrik mentioned the possibility of building a wind turbine from these materials and later "have the cows eat it" after it is decommissioned. The research in question was definitely at the basic research stage at the moment and far, far away from being applied. When asked about time frames, Fredrik stated that when you have no idea of the time frame (10 years? 100 years? never?), researchers tend to say "10 years from now" which he too did.

I enjoyed the event but will not cover the program in detail in this blog post. I will instead adopt a meta-level analytical approach to the event and develop a few of my thoughts here. Despite my quite critical comments below, I still think it's great that KTH organises this event. It's a pity I personally used the event mostly to network with people I already know instead of meeting new people!

1) Most research that is conducted at KTH is nerve-wrackingly incremental. While it is clear to me that the problems we face are monumental, the proposed solutions are small and slow and assumes that we can and for the most part will live "like today" also in the future. This has, in my opinion, less to do with realism and more to do with (I'm guessing here) wishful thinking and lack of imagination when it comes to thinking about futures that are not linear extrapolations of (real or wished-for) current trends. I'm thinking of quote I recently read in a text by John R McNeill:

"Soon after the World War II ended, the global economy entered its most remarkable era, growing 6-fold between 1950 and 1998. ... Taken as a whole, this era is the most unusual in the history of economic growth, although many people, having experienced nothing else, now imagine it is normal."

Those "many people" who according the the quote can be regarded as wearing blinders include every single persons who attended the KTH Sustainability Research Day event! Some of the effects of this historically unrivalled - and probably anomalous - period of unprecedented economic growth are of course the growth of science and technology - including many different kinds of technical research that we conduct at KTH. Almost all the research presented at an event like this will assume that funding for (at least their specific and very very promising) research areas will either continue at current levels or perhaps further grow. The idea that we could have less resources at our disposal in the future (including resources for conducting research) is either taboo or invisible at KTH and at an event like this. I find this fascinating and it flies in the face of some of the things that were said during the day regarding the role of universities for thinking and communicating thoughts and ideas that can not be thought or said in other places and by other actors in society (corporations, politicians etc.).

2) This makes me realise how radical the discussions and literature that me and Elina put in our students' hands is in our course on Sustainability and ICT. We don't gloss over the seriousness of various societal and global predicaments (energy, food, water, population, resources, economy, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions etc.). It might be that all other sustainability courses at KTH will seem like they are discussing different varieties of "vanilla" sustainability in comparison to our course (we coined the term "vanilla sustainability" in a paper of ours that we wrote a few years ago). We on the other hand don't shy away from suggesting that our way of life is unsustainable and that we will experience large-scale disruptive changes during this century. This implies that small, incremental change probably won't cut it. An event like this is also like a science fair or a beauty pageant. Different researchers tell the audience that "I do this" and "I do that" while simultaneously extolling the virtues and the potential of their approach and their research (implicitly stating that "the research I do is really important so please give me more money"). An event like this makes different voices heard but it's still not so much of a conversation about difficult issues as it is advertising for different real or imagined techno-fixes. With some exceptions. My colleague Teo presented the project "car-free year" where they took the cars from three families with kids and replaced them with light electric vehicles in order to study problems that then appeared in different everyday practices. This could be great source of knowledge for politicians who want to facilitate car-free lives in a compact city like Stockholm with great public transportation.

3) Following from the text above and from my impressions from this day, KTH and its research outcomes are regarded as a cornucopian horn that provides an endless stream of potentially useful results and inventions that politicians and corporations can pick and choose from - like plucking mature fruit from a tree. The role of KTH is to "deliver the goods" or at least deliver the promise of being able to deliver the goods that will solve any and every present and future societal problem. It's an alluring promise and great position for us to be in. All we ask for in return is to be fed some resources in terms of the money that will (primarily) buy researchers' time so that they (we!) can look into the problem in question (almost any problem, that is). Sometimes we also need some money to buy some advanced and expensive equipment too (the MAX IV particle accelerator that is currently being built in Lund was for example mentioned during the day).

The day ended with a comedian, Al Pitcher, doing a 20-minute skit. He was funny but he had to fight against the tiredness of an audience that had sat down for too long. He was pretty good but I would have thought that his show could have been a little more geared towards sustainability at an event like this.

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