söndag 25 februari 2018

Barcelona thoughts

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So I'm on a sabbatical and I'm currently in Barcelona, visiting the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona to learn more about Degrowth (see my previous blog post). I've been here for two weeks now and feel it is time to share some reflections about my time here this far. First on more professional aspects of my visit but then followed by some more personal thoughts.

One really cool thing is that ICTA (or rather some persons at ICTA) organise a reading group on Degrowth. Also researchers from other universities are invited and the reading group doubles as a social activity - they meet in somebody's home about once per month and everybody brings something to eat or drink. Here's the introduction to the program for the academic year 2017/2018:

Barcelona Reading group on Degrowth
Organized by Research & Degrowth and ICTA-UAB

This is the 7th year of the Research & Degrowth / ICTA reading group. The group consists of convivial, three hour gatherings every few weeks, where we discuss in detail a classic or recent book, a collection of articles, on an important theme that relates to degrowth, or more broadly ecological economics and degrowth. Over the years, we have read books from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Andre Gorz, Silvia Federici, Ivan Illich, Amaia Orozco, Serge Latouche, and many many others. The discussions that took place in the reading group resulted in a series of joint publications, public interventions, Special Issues and the edited volume “Degrowth. A vocabulary for a new era” (vocabulary.degrowth.org). Below is a tentative list of the planned reading groups for the current academic year.

I arrived to Barcelona on a Sunday and it just so happened that there was a reading group meeting in professor Giorgios Kallis' home the following evening on the theme of "The State and degrowth". Other topics from this year's reading group program are for example "Automation, Artificial Intelligence and degrowth", "Commons and degrowth", "Capitalism, socialism, degrowth", "Degrowth and Environmental Justice", "The naturalization of growth" and "Recent work of Juliet Schor" (coinciding with a visit of hers to Barcelona).

The meeting was inspiring and I immediately started to think about how we could "appropriate" the form(at) in Stockholm. I'm not sure we have a theme that works as well as Degrowth does in the one place "where it's happening" (Barcelona) but I guess the closest thing that I can think of in a Stockholm context would just be to have meetings relating to "ICT and sustainability". Sort of like a ph.d. course except it's not aimed specifically at ph.d. - more like a "higher seminar" where ph.d.'s, post-docs and professors (also from other universities) are invited. It's definitely something to think about. One thing that could be done immediately though is to copy the "Recent work of..." format. We have had Eli BlevisJeffrey Bardzell and Ann Light pass Stockholm by and have then taken the opportunity to invite them + one or a few other guests for dinner in our home. That's nice but an alternative could be to ask for a few recent texts of theirs and have a more open "seminar" (or "a convivial gathering") where we discuss their texts and take part of their thoughts. That's definitely something to think about.

I brought quite a lot with me to read in Barcelona but was predictably overly optimistic. It's in fact worse. While I have been in Barcelona physically, I brought a lot of work with me and have worked towards a number of deadlines together (Skype) with colleagues in Sweden. I for example realised that I had offloaded tasks back in Sweden and said "let's talk when I'm in Barcelona, I will have time then...". In hindsight I'd say that was not so smart. My major work effort has been to lead the effort to put together and submit the application "Turning black swans white". On the last day before the deadline, I stayed "home" and worked 12+ hours with finishing, putting everything together and polishing the application. And while necessary, it wasn't very social but it could have been ok had that been the only deadline I had worked towards... All these deadlines and other ongoing projects ”back home" have severely hampered my possibilities to have plenty of free time just to read (about degrowth etc.) and to socialise and discuss with people at ICTA, so the lesson here is that I will make sure to bring no or few projects and deadlines with me next time I come to Barcelona and to ICTA.

That however connects to another thing I've been thinking about. I wasn't really invited to ICTA as much as I invited myself here. So no one here really knew me beforehand and no one have felt a particular responsibility to take care of me. So I have had to be quite active to get to know people and more "free time" would have been helpful. While I have gotten to know a bunch of people, it would have been better had I also had the time to (for example) read a paper or two (on the fly) written by the person I met. Also, no one has read anything I have written and I have to start from zero here. That has been a strange experience. At KTH, I am someone. Lots of people know me or know of me. Quite some are familiar with my work or at least what area I work in. I'm surrounded by people who have interacted with me, cooperated with me, read papers of mine, written papers with me - people who know, like and respect me. Here I'm kind of nobody. Or rather an unknown entity. Here I have to "establish" myself and perhaps even to some extent "prove my worth" in every conversation and with every new person I meet. That takes a toll. Well, it's exciting too - but it's hard work. I have also been at another university, UPC, one day per week. I know two computer science professors there, we have met at conferences and have overlapping interests and things become much easier then. I just slide right into the company (nerdish pretty much all-male computer scientists) and the speech culture is like meeting an old friend - we're very specific about things we say and we make sure we can back up and if challenged can provide "proof" to pretty much every single statement we make (with references to science fiction thrown in for good taste - "multiverse", "42", "Asimov" etc.).

I have also, finally, come to be a great fan of the Swedish "fika" culture. It's actually a pretty great idea to have semi-mandatory coffee breaks twice per day. That's how you meet and get to know Swedes/your colleagues and I wish other countries could adopt this really nice + useful custom. Perhaps IKEA could market it worldwide? ICTA only has a communal coffee break once per week. I went last week and had a great time but I only talked to one single person, a British ph.d. student who is finishing up his thesis and who is the only person I have met this far who has read both of the supremely excellent books "In the servitude of power" and "The subterranean forest" (that I read two years ago - see this blog post). 

So while I have gotten a lot of work done (much of which could have been done in Stockholm), my social life hasn't been great. I didn't think of that as a problem before I came here. But how long hours can you work and when should you go home if you know few people and there is nothing in particular to go home to? I thought that, well, then I'll just read some more when I come home, but I was cooped up in a small room that was nice but at times also felt a bit claustrophobic. So while I'm a person who definitely doesn't need to have people around me all the time and who likes to have (plenty of) time for myself to read books and write blog posts etc., I have come to realise that there is still some minimum level of human contact that "even I" need to feel good and that I fell short of at times. So after a week of eating dinner alone I started to look for Facebook groups with "Swedes in Barcelona". Not that I want to meet Swedes in particular but that's an easy way in. And so I for example went to a talk in the beginning of my second week here equally much to socialise and meet up with people (who happened to be Swedes) as to listen to the (actually quite interesting) talk, "ABBA-Kadabra! How Catalans see the "magic" Sweden". I also have some ideas for "how to build a social life from zero" next time I come back here.

Being away from home is conducive to reflections. About the country you live in, the place you visit compared to place you work in, and, about yourself. I didn't really think about it but I have to some extent been challenged on a personal level and have learned some things about what makes me tick so I guess it's been a learning experience (personal growth etc.). Perhaps it's a bit like travelling alone (something I have rarely done). You have to cultivate a super-social side of your personality or make do without company. Which makes me better prepared next time this happens.
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