söndag 3 juni 2012

Green ICT for growth and sustainability?

I have just returned from a workshop in Vienna on "Green ICT for growth and sustainability?" Do notice the question mark - one of the main questions at the workshop was indeed to "improve the mutual understanding between the "pro-growth community" (i.e. economists and policy makers oriented towards growth as an overarching policy goal) and the "beyond-growth community" (i.e. scientists oriented towards the limits to growth debate and policy makers involved in sustainable development)." (the quote comes from the pdf "event flyer").

The tension between pro- and beyond-growth was also one of the things that originally attracted my attention. I know what I personally think, but I need to have an intelligen "stance" in regards to this question when I teach my new course on "Sustainability and media technology" after the summer. I asked the moderator to perform an informal poll (raised hands), and the majority of the participants (75%?) claimed membership in the "beyond-growth" community. I did have problems connecting this large majority to the actual opinions expressed at the workshop though, so I guess there is no real consensus as to what "beyond-growth" actually means though...

The subtitle of the event was "Linking science and policy", something I didn't think much of at the time, but which actually is one of the explicit goals of the EU research project of which this workshop was a part. The event that I participated in was part of a larger (research) project of linking "sustainable consumption and economic growth" and it was the last of five such workshops (the others four were held between January and May 2012 and covered "Sustainable food consumption", "Sustainable mobility", "Sustainable housing" and "The role of household savings and debts in a sustainable economy"). There was perhaps a (slight) tension between the interests of on the one hand some of the organizers who might primarily have been interested in the larger research project and the whole series of (five) workshops and on the other hand the participants of this particular workshop who were primarily interested in "Green ICT" and less interested in other sustainability topics or in linking science to policy (?)

The term "knowledge brokerage" was used several times and I take it to be a more fancy term for "discussing stuff together". I'm not sure about the success of this event in terms of "knowledge brokerage" between EU policymakers (Eurocrats) and researchers, but I do think it was a success in many other terms and I enjoyed participating in the workshop very much. What was so good about it? The short answer is 1) the organization and 2) the participants. The fact that many participants enjoyed each other's company might in fact have been an effect of the great organization. So what was so great about the organization then? Here are a few things:

- The organizers had hired a professional mediator/presenter. He worked throughout the event and he knew just enough about the topic (Green ICT) to pose good and relevant questions, but he above all knew how to make people interact with each other and how to get the participants to open up and to pose good and relevant questions. He was great and he set a positive tone for the whole event.

- The program contained many events which were "interactive". Instead of (only) "passively" hearing talks and lectures, there were several exercises where we divided ourselves into parallel working groups depending on our interests. These work sessions were followed by "debriefings" and knowledge transfer between the work groups. More than half of the program consisted of these "active" (or "interactive") exercises. The other half consisted of invited talks ("keynotes" - see the list of speakers) and panels and of coffee breaks and lunches.

- Coffee and lunch was served where we worked and so we could eat and socialize during these breaks. This together with the slightly "pushy" mediator recurrently telling us to talk to people we didn't know made it easy for many to get to know many other participants. The program started at 9 in the morning and very few people dropped in later or left early.

The main exercise we did was something called "systems mapping". Part of my participation in the workshop was in order to evaluate if I could use this method in my education in general, and more specifically in my upcoming course "Sustainability and media technology" in particular. I think I will write a separate blog post about systems mapping within one or a few weeks. I might also write a follow-up blog post that more specifically summarizes my take-home lessons from this workshop as this post is more about the (organization of the) event itself.

It was stated that the proportion of researchers-to-policymakers at the workshop was 80/20. I'm not so sure about that, I could only find one person (of the 40-50 participants) who agreed that he actually was a policymaker. Some participants were neither, or in-between (for example an analyst working for the International Energy Agency). During the final discussion, we agreed that as stakeholders go, perhaps equally or more interesting than having EU policymakers participate would be to have (also) participants representing industry (for example Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon etc.). There was one guy at the workshop, Dan, who being an "environment research manager" works with "green issues" in Microsoft's data centers in Europe, and his input was extremely valuable. He actually knew a lot of stuff about the practical work of making data centers green - some other participants (researchers) also knew stuff but he had "inside info" (although there were also things such as actual Microsoft figures that he wasn't allowed to talk about). It would have been great with more people with "inside info" about these present-day closed-off "Internet factories"...

There will be a second round of workshops on the same topics between December 2012 and April 2013 and I will keep my eyes open for the follow-up Green ICT workshop. I would be especially interested to go if a large-ish proportion of the people I met decides to come back! I learned a lot and made several interesting contacts that I will get in touch with during the coming week

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