söndag 27 juli 2014

Articles I've read (March)

Below are articles I read earlier this year, in March, on my sabbatical at UC Irvine. Here is my previous blog post about the articles I read back in February.

I have started to post between 0-3 "quotes of the day" on Facebook from stuff that I'm reading. In this and later blog posts about books and articles I have read, I am from now including these quotes in the blog posts (see further below). Each asterisk before the authors' names represent one quote further down on the page.

Batch/week 1 - texts about transition towns and the transition town movement
Comment: I searched for papers on the Transition Town (TT) movement and read a bunch to learn more about what has been written from an academic perspective.
  • ***Barry, J., & Quilley, S. (2009). The transition to sustainability: Transition towns and sustainable communities. The Transition to Sustainable Living and Practice, 4, 1. */ This 25 pages long article is excellent (see also the quotes below). "both the authors are profoundly sympathetic to the TT movement, which stands at the cutting edge of a much longer tradition of relocalisation. In what follows, we identify a series of issues raised by the movement and which warrant further research. Some of these are academic ... Some are political ... [and some] are of more practical significance to the main stakeholders in this process." Highly recommended - but the text was hard to get hold of! /*
  • *Connors, P., & McDonald, P. (2011). Transitioning communities: community, participation and the transition town movement. Community development journal, 46(4), 558-572. */ A "new social movements" perspective of the Transition Town movement. Lightweight in comparison to the previous text and quite critical of the TT movement (too many white middle-class people - what about the really poor? etc.). The text implies that the TT movement has been very successful and has taken oven and perhaps also partly "high-jacked" the efforts of previous movements that have worked in the same space (e.g. Permaculture etc.). /*
  • Bay, U. (2013). Transition town initiatives promoting transformational community change in tackling peak oil and climate change challenges. Australian Social Work, 66(2), 171-186. */ "This study explored the adoption of the transition model by community members in one small rural Australian town. The qualitative study used semistructured interviews with 10 active members" Draws on "social work, social movements, and community work theoretical and disciplinary framework." Too little - almost random - material collected and unfortunately also lacks any particularly interesting conclusions. Lightweight. /*
  • Aiken, G. (2012). Community transitions to low carbon futures in the Transition Towns Network (TTN). Geography Compass, 6(2), 89-99. */ "This paper examines the use of 'community' rhetoric in the Transition Town Network". This was an in-depth treatment of a particular aspect of the TT movement and it is well done but perhaps only of interest to those - like me - who are particularly interested in the concept of 'community'. /*

Batch/week 2 - texts about transition towns and the transition town movement
Comment: I searched for papers on the Transition Town (TT) movement and read a bunch to learn more about what has been written from an academic perspective.
    • Wells, P. (2011). The transition initiative as a grass-roots environmental movement: history, present realities and future predictions. Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, 12(4), 372-386. */ "Drawing on concepts from institutional theory" and trying to "identify and explore the range of characteristics of successful [New Zealand transition] initiatives". It was hard to find the empirical material collected and this made the text less interesting for me. The paper mostly consist of background information about the TT movement and theoretical musings that were of limited interest to me. /*
    • Taylor, P. J. (2012). Transition towns and world cities: towards green networks of cities. Local Environment, 17(4), 495-508. */ "The basic question that this essay considers is how to relate [the TT] movement's favoured units of practice, transition towns with populations of around 5000, to the contemporary world of large cities, co-called word cities, global cities and mega-citites." The author correctly points out that half of humanity lives in cities and that cities "are particularly difficult to fit into the transition vision" but it's downhill from there. It feels like Taylor has misunderstood much of what the TT movement is about when he writes that cities are the home of innovation, economic development, diversity, increased specialisation and then suggests "a green network of cities". It becomes ludicrous when the author claims that "large cities are invariably much more self-reliant than small towns" and implies that the future of sustainability is to be found in large cities rather than in Transition Towns. /*
    • *Barr, S., & Devine-Wright, P. (2012). Resilient communities: sustainabilities in transition. Local Environment, 17(5), 525-532. */ The authors "focus on the notion of resilient communities in developed nations through the lens of social, economic and individual "transitions". After pointing out a variety of challenges, they conclude that "Resilient communities may ... emerge but their constitution may not be a form of Utopian or romanticised local pastoralism, but rather constitute a resilience based on power, prestige, position and influence that could ultimately lead to a dystopian future marked out by inward-looking and even "gated" forms of community."/*
    • Scott-Cato, M., & Hillier, J. (2010). How could we study climate-related social innovation? Applying Deleuzean philosophy to Transition Towns. Environmental Politics, 19(6), 869-887. */ I have not read Gilles Deleuze's works and am therefore hesitant about the utility of using his "key images" - "arborescence" and "rhizome" to understand social networks and the TT movement. Quite theoretical and perhaps of less interest unless you are familiar with Deleuze or the ideas of other post-modern thinkers(?). /*
    • **Graugaard, J. D. (2012). A tool for building community resilience? A case study of the Lewes Pound. Local Environment, 17(2), 243-260. */ "Findings suggest that complementary currencies can enhance social-ecological resilience through awareness-raising and changes in consumption." The question the paper asks is: "How can community resilience be conceptualised and measured?; and, do complementary currencies contribute to community resilience?" Excellent paper! I very much liked a table with "Resilience criteria broken down into social, economic and environmental indicators". This is one of the few texts with a good idea of what "economic sustainability" could actually mean in practice and where it has been operationalised (which makes it possible to measure, e.g. "Is the Lewes Pound affecting the consumption patterns of its users? etc."). Almost 15% of local shop owners "say that they have considered substituting some of their imported products with local ones since they started accepting Lewes Pounds."  /*

    Batch/week 3 - texts about challenges facing humanity
    Comment: Two hits and one miss about the major challenges humanity of facing today.
    • **Youngquist, W. (1999). The post-petroleum paradigm—and population. Population and Environment, 20(4), 297-315. */ "This paper examines the role of oil in two contexts: Its importance in countries almost entirely dependent on oil income, and the role of oil in world agricultural productivity." "Countries almost solely dependent on oil income are chiefly those of the Persian Gulf region. The prosperity which oil has brought to these nations has resulted in a rapidly growing population which is not sustainable without oil revenues." Excellent, hard-hitting paper that "tells it like it is". What are the implications of Peak Oil on agricultural production and on global populations? The one-word summary is "grim". Very good paper. /*
    • *Markley, O. (2011). Research and action toward the upside of down. Journal of Futures Studies, 15(3), 145-174. */ After having read Homer-Dixon's book "The upside of down", it was of course attractive to read this article. The text however felt like it consists of the disjointed ides of someone who has attempted to tie his own previous understandings and works (future studies, foresight) to a new bandwagon. The resulting text is unfortunately not very coherent - although I did learn some about future studies. It mostly feels like a rehash/mash-up of the author's own/previous research in a new context. Written by a Professor emeritus in "Studies of the Future" from the University of Houston-Clear Lake (who apparently offered a now-discontinued master's program for "Studies of the Future"). /*
    • **Gunther, F. (2004, June). Ruralisation a way to alleviate vulnerability problems. In Proceedings of 4th Biennial International Workshop Advances in Energy Studies “Energy-Ecology issues in Latin America”, Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil. */ Like other texts by Günther, this is choke-full of challenging and stimulating ideas from many different areas. It is the exact inverse of Markley's text since Günther has something extremely urgent to say and draws together many different threads to further his "story" (instead of just "killing time" - or wasting space?). The text might encompass too many diverse ideas and theories as it perhaps too quickly hastens over difficult territory. There are unfortunately many problems with the language (including spelling mistakes), but the text is excellent as a source of fascinating and stimulating ideas. Recommended! /*

    ---------- QUOTES ----------

    ----- on a major contradiction in the Transition Town movement -----

    "The kind of ecotopias envisage by anarchists, social ecologist and proponents of "deep ecology" all depend on an unspoken, unacknowledged premise, namely the continuation of a very modern kind of personality with a highly developed superego.
    However, such scenarios rest upon a major contradiction. The conscienceformation implied by such an advanced superego emerged only in the context of highly socially differentiated, relatively materially affluent, individualised, densely populated societies, regulated by states capable of imposing an effective monopoly on violence. Social liberalism, toleration, gender equity, democratic participation, the universal validation of human rights and the sanctity of individual lives and metropolitan sanguinity with regard to "difference" are all core values and ethical motifs shared by liberals, socialist and greens of (nearly) all persuasion. But they became thinkable and acquired meaning only in the context of capitalist, industrial societies with an ever more extended division of labour."
    Barry and Quilley (2009), "The transition to sustainability:
    Transition Towns and sustainable communities"

    ----- On (UK) Transition Towns vs (US) survivalism -----

    "Rob Hopkins has been explicit in his rejection of the survivalist framing. For example, in an interview in 2007, he stated as follows:

    "the survivalist response [might seem] as some kind of an option for a very small number of people in a country with lots of space like the US, but here in the UK ... I see this as a challenge that is about coming back to each other, learning how to talk and work together again. When you talk to people who lived through the Second World War ... what became important was the people around you, the community, its resources and skills. ..."
    Is there a tension here between a survivalist (individualistic, negative) and a non-survivalist (collective, positive) framing of the end of cheap oil and the impacts of climate change within the Transition Town movement? Does the Transition Town movement represent a particularly non-Americal ... framing of peak oil different and in tension with the more prominent survivalist North America discourse and politics?"
    Barry and Quilley (2009), "The transition to sustainability:
    Transition Towns and sustainable communities"

    --- On the relative effectiveness of peak oil vs climate change as a driver for lifestyle changes ---

    "Is the prospect of peak oil proving to be more effective than climate change in stimulating behavioural change amongst individuals, families and communities? ... Greens have often been wary and even hostile of peak oil perspectives, believing that an emphasis on fuel shortage will divert political attention from the tailpipe problem of emissions. However, climate change propaganda and activism has been signally unsuccessful in changing lifestyles, consumption behaviour and political priorities.
    In contrast, the rapid "horizontal" or rhizome-like growth of the TT movement ... suggests that the peak oil perspective is proving much more effective in mobilising individual, familial and community-level changes in lifestyle, material practices and associated behaviours."
    Barry and Quilley (2009), "The transition to sustainability:
    Transition Towns and sustainable communities"

    ---- Critique against the transition town movement governance structures ----

    "for a movement founded on principles of inclusion and participation, it appears that TT has, in practice a quite rigid, top-down and it must be said, an inherently undemocratic management structure (as a movement with an anointed "founder" and arguably a prescriptive manifesto). The Transition Initiatives Primer (Version 26), while claiming over and again that it is *not* prescriptive, equally makes clear what TTs should and should not do and what they must or must not do in order to be recognized as "official"
    Connors, P., & McDonald, P. (2011). "Transitioning communities:
    community, participation and the transition town movement".

    ----- on Agenda 21 ("sustainability") vs Transition Towns ("resilience") -----

    "[In] the Unitied Nations (1992) ... Agenda 21 document ... the local was conceived as the most appropriate scale to encourage change for the benefit of the global commons. Yet new forms of community resilience are now partly reversing these messages, putting forward the argument that communities need to look inward and, in celebrating the uniqueness of place, insulate their communities against the (inevitable) onset of global change [e.g. referring to climate change and peak oil].
    Local Agenda 21 campaigns were characterised by promoting practices that lacked local context or spatial specificity, for example, the widespread roll-out of recycling initiative that often adopted a "one-size-fits-all" model of resource management and public participation. With the growing emphasis on resilience, there is a renewed focus on exploring the vulnerabilities of communities and the likely changes that will be required to make communities more resilient through locally specific practices of pragmatism that maintain the integrity of local resources, skills and expertise."
    Barr, S., & Devine-Wright, P. (2012).
    "Resilient communities: sustainabilities in transition".

    ----- on community-based currencies and resilience -----

    "the concept of resilience ... has also been employed in ecological economics in recent years where it is seen as an important feature of a health economic system promoted through the creation and use of multiple currencies. Community-based currency initiatives use complementary currencies as a way of minimising the environmental impact of the economy, localising trade, encouraging sustainability values and community-building.
    community resilience is still under-researched. There has not been any in-depth studies of Transition currencies to date, and currency research has not yet developed a framework for empirically evaluating the ability of complementary currencies to create or strengthen resilience in local economies. Two questions, which are currently under-researched, are addressed here: how can community resilience be conceptualised and measured?; and, do complementary currencies contribute to community resilience?"
    Graugaard, J. D. (2012). "A tool for building community resilience?
    A case study of the Lewes Pound".

    ----- on resilience in socio-economic systems -----

    "Walker et al. (2004) identified four fundamental aspects of resilience in SES [Socio-economic systems]:
    (1) Latitude; relates to the amount of change a system can undergo before crossing a threshold after which recovery becomes impossible.
    (2) Resistance; describes how susceptible a system is to change.
    (3) Precariousness; denotes the distance of a system from a threshold.
    (4) Panarchy; cross-scale interactions influencing the system from above or below, e.g. political and socio-economic structures or environmental changes.
    In a summary of a symposium on sustainability and vulnerability, Berkes (2007) identifies four strategies that have a high probability of enhancing resilience to future changes in SES: (1) fostering ecological, economic and cultural diversity; (2) planning for likely changes; (3) fostering learning; and, (4) improving communication."
    Graugaard, J. D. (2012). "A tool for building community resilience?
    A case study of the Lewes Pound".

    ----- dy-na-mite - BOOOM!!! -----

    "That oil production will peak and then decline is not debatable. If the more optimistic are right, and the peak date is a little further away ... this would simply exacerbate the problems, for it means that the population at the turning point of oil production will be even larger than it would be at an earlier date, and it will be then more difficult to make the adjustment toward life without oil.
    This paper presents two especially significant aspects of the post-petroleum paradigm ...
    - The effect of the decline of oil production in the countries which are almost wholly dependent on [income from] oil for their survival.
    - The effect on world agriculture of ... depletion of oil and closely associated natural gas supplies
    Some countries have become almost totally dependent on income from oil. What happens to economies and social structures which have been built largely or almost entirely on the base of a nonrenewable resource - oil?
    As early as within two decades, by some estimates, even the Gulf nations ... will be experiencing a decline in oil production. Higher pries may cushion the economic effect of this decline, but inevitably, as oil deposits are consumed, oil income will eventually cease to be significant. ... Without some other large economic base, and none is now visible, huge adjustments will have to be made in lifestyles and probably in population size. It will not be easy."
    Youngquist, W. (1999).
    "The post-petroleum paradigm—and population".

    ----- on fossil fuels and food - the big picture -----

    "three factors have combined to produce the green revolution ... two of these elements, mechanisation, and petrochemical, are provided by oil and natural gas. ... About 2% of the working U.S. population now provides all the food for this nation, which is the world's largest grain exporter. Oil and natural gas make this possible.
    There are now two trends clearly on collision course: First, population is growing at the astounding rate of nearly a quarter of a million a day, and is highly and increasingly dependent on oil and natural gas for food production. Second, the end of petroleum supplies are clearly in sight.
    A future without oil is difficult to visualise in detail, but ... Replacing the role of both oil and gas in agricultural production will be the most critical problem, and may not be entirely solvable. World population will have to adjust to lesser food supplies by a reduction in population. ... If humans do not control their numbers, nature will."
    Youngquist, W. (1999).
    "The post-petroleum paradigm—and population".

    ----- On too dire (climate change etc.) messages backfiring -----

    ""Dire or emotionally charged warnings about the consequences of global warming can backfire if presented too negatively, making people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint. ... Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people's fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. ... The scarier the message, the more people ... are motivated to deny it".
    In a sense, Feinberg & Willer's finding replicates the early experience of the nuclear disarmament activist, Joanna Macy (1983), who, in the 1970's , found that many potential citizen activists were so deeply disturbed about the threat of a nuclear holocaust that their sense of despair had turned into a type of denial, making them unresponsive. After much experimentation, Macy developed a powerful workshop designed to bring potential activists from "despair to empowerment" "
    Markley, O. (2011). "Research and action toward the upside of down".
    First paragraph from Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2011). "Apocalypse soon?
    Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just-world beliefs".

    ----- Best summary ever (?) of the problematic relationship between oil/energy and food -----

    "I will, however go into detail somewhat in another basic sustainability problem; Food supply. All societies are dependent on agricultural production somewhere. Today's agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

    Half a century ago, it was still common for farms in Western Europe to grow a large part of the feed for their animal and to keep a wide variety. Cows, pigs, horses, geese and chicken could be found on the same farm, together with a variety of crops and refinement procedures. Today, this situation is very rare. The farmers are forced by the increased price for their inputs and the decreased price for their produce to focus on products that can be produced in large quantities to a low unit cost. Rather than managing the land, a farmer now runs a company. State subsidies ... have intensified this specialisation, which has lead to a decrease in diversity, reduced resilience and a decrease in number of production units and support units. In such a situation, the importance of the distributing system increases. Transportation lines are longer, which is a well-known way to increase vulnerability
    The implicit assumption ... is that fossil fuel and the other necessary inputs will always be so cheap that they will not increase food prices beyond what the public can afford."
    Gunther, F. (2004).
    "Ruralisation a way to alleviate vulnerability problems".

    ----- On structural change sin the agriculture sector and oil-dependency -----

    "Since 1970, in Sweden, which is not different from the trends in most industrial agricultures throughout the world, the amount of agricultural units have been deduced with 70%, at the same time as the average area has doubled. Simultaneously, the number of support units, as dairies and slaughterhouses have decreased with more than 80%. Such a change is typical for many countries. The reduction of the mesh density of the food system will clearly reduce its redundancy, and consequently its resistance to disturbances, especially in the transport and supply system. These systems are the most prone to be affected by fossil fuel depletion.
    North Korea (DPRK) ... can be considered a full-scale experiment on what happens when an industrialised nation is depleted of the access to cheap energy and imported industrial services. ... Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, DPRK exports to Russia fell by 90%. By 1996, oil imports amounted to only 40 percent of the 1990 level ... It was estimated that by the end of 1998, 80% of the motorised capacity in the DPRK agricultural sector was inoperable. It is estimated that grain production in the DPRK in 1999 was approximately 40% of what it was ten or more years previously."
    Gunther, F. (2004).
    "Ruralisation a way to alleviate vulnerability problems".


    söndag 20 juli 2014

    Follow-up (spring 2014)

    Ongoing projects often generate follow-up blog posts. A submission to a conference will generate a blog post about that conference (some months later). A research project will generate a new blog perhaps three or six or nine months later. Some "projects" (blog posts) don't generate follow-up blog posts even thought they "should". A blog post about an article that was submitted but that was rejected will most often not generate a follow-up blog posts, so, every six months I go back and look for "loose ends" to follow up and tie up.

    In these follow-up blog posts, I don't follow up everything that has happened, but only create closure for those projects and blog posts that can come to an end by writing a short blurb about them.

    I here primarily look at things that has happened during the spring (Jan-June) but have also started to go back a full year looking for loose ends to tie up. It turns out that this time around there aren't that many loose ends from the almost 50 blog posts I have published since January. Some of those 50 blog posts contain temporary loose ends that I will come back to later and that I thus don't bother to write about below.

    Autumn 2013
    Me and my colleague Björn applied for a small amount of (KTH-internal) money for a project, "Social annotation systems and formative peer feedback for bachelors' theses", and we did get that money. We have worked on that project during the latter part of the autumn term and during the first half of the spring term and Björn presented the results in the beginning of June. Our project and the results were much appreciated by some of the "high and mighty" at KTH and we apparently gained goodwill (a currency that is good for getting our next project approved).

    I participated in a course on "Research supervision" during the autumn term. The attendance rules were draconian and since I missed one meeting I had to do an extra assignment. We agreed to customise that assignment and I was to interviews two US Ph.D. students and compare the situation of Ph.D. students in the US and Sweden. I did the two interviews back in April but only managed to submit my assignment last month (June). It is however done now and I did pass the course - yay!

    Me and Björn wrote another application for (CSC-internal) pedagogical funds in December so as to develop the work we have done procrastination and we got that money too. Our application was called "Do it now! Support for better education about procrastination" and we more specifically promised to "develop our own teaching materials - a tailored, KTH-adapted compendium - dealing with the topic of procrastination and nearby areas such as study habits, distractions and the use of technology". This is one of the projects that I wanted to work with on my sabbatical, but I haven't and it is one more reason for why the autumn term will be very busy. We plan to put together a 75-page compendium that will replace the ragtag readings we have been using this far.

    Me and Björn wrote yet another application for (CSC-internal) pedagogical funds for yet another project in December about social annotation systems, "Increased thesis quality through increased goal focus and peer- and self-assessment". Also this project application was funded (again with just a small amount of money though). This project overlaps, but is still different from the social annotation project above. Björn have managed these two (social annotation, peer feedback) projects and while I've been working with both of them remotely, it's a little hard for me to be on top of all the facts when I was in the US. I think we have done everything we were supposed to in both of these projects (and if not, I expect Björn to tell me).

    I wrote a (popular) blog post about my negative experiences of using Airbnb this past winter when on vacation in Argentina. It all worked out for the best in the end though and I have used Airbnb a ton since. Now that I know how to better use the service, I'm really quite happy with it. I will go to a conference in Germany in August and another conference in Helsinki in October and have already booked apartments through Airbnb...

    I wrote a blog post about Barath Raghavan's visit to UC Irvine. This was the first time I met with Barath personally and we have since written a paper together that recently was accepted to the NordiCHI conference. This was just the start of a fruitful cooperation and we have two more papers in the pipe as well as planning for a workshop that will be held next year, e.g. there is more to follow...

    I'm the co-author of no less than three papers that were submitted to the upcoming ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference in Stockholm. One of the papers, "Green websites for next-generation screens", was rejected but the other two papers (here and here) were accepted and both were furthermore nominated for the best paper award (only eight papers were nominated).

    Malin Picha and I submitted an article, "Explorative scenarios of emerging media trends" to the Journal of Print and Media Technology Research. It has since been accepted for publication but I don't know when it will be in print. Hopefully some time later this year.

    Nothing has happened since April that can be followed up yet, stay tuned for the next follow-up half a year from now though...

    onsdag 16 juli 2014

    A blast from the past

    While looking for something completely different on the Internet, I came across this picture of me:

    I snooped around some and realised that that photo came from the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium that I attended back in May 2006. I've been on a sabbatical at UC Irvine this spring and my half-year long stay at Microsoft Research (MSR) during the second half 2007 (one year after the photo was taken) was my one and only previous sabbatical. (As an aside, it for sure won't take another 7 years until we go on a sabbatical again!). My presence at the 2006 symposium was perhaps to some extent MSR's way of getting a feeling for who I was(?) - but I just don't remember the details of this-and-that (e.g. the connection between my presence at the invitation-only event in 2006 and my stay at MSR 15 months later). After all, all of this happened almost 8 years ago.

    I did however find a 7-minute long video where I give a high-speed, high-content talk about "mobil/pervasive social computing" and here it is! The talk builds especially on Martin Bjerver's excellent master's thesis on the long-ago defunct game "Botfighters". The thesis is called "Player behaviour in pervasive games - using the city as game board in Botfighters" and it's available online (abstract, full text).

    Wow, that was a long time ago! My two sons who today are 10 and 7 years old were 3 and -1 back then. Also, my current all-encompassing interest in sustainability wasn't even on the map back then - the starting point for that turn-around happened two years later, in 2008.

    This whole event makes me wonder what other crap is "archived" on the Internet if you dig deep enough? Not that this is crap though, I actually still think it's pretty good and the content of the talk is actually relatively amazing, right? Still, it's like a blast from the past - like a postcard from a previous life...

    I wrote this blog post a few weeks ago. It's scheduled to be published just as I'm on the airplane, heading back to Sweden from my half year-long sabbatical at University of California, Irvine. By the time you read this text, I will be back in Sweden again.

    söndag 6 juli 2014

    The Global Dimension in Engineering Education

    I was asked to contribute to a project about "The Global Dimension in Engineering Education" (GDEE) at the end of last year. More specifically, I was asked to write a book chapter to help university teachers get their engineering students engaged in "the global dimension". I was confused about many things - starting with the term "the global dimension". I had a chat with the project coordinator, Emily, back in February and I accepted the challenge after I understood more about the project. "The global dimension" refers to all non-technical topics that will impact the engineering profession at a global level over the next 20-30 years.  These topics include sustainability, but also globalisation, inequality, climate change etc. The goal of the project is to find ways to integrate these topics into “mainstream” engineering educations. Emily reached out to me because of the paper I wrote together with Elina Eriksson and that we presented at the conference Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) in September last year, "'It's not fair! Making students engage in sustainability".

    The Global Dimension for Engineering Education (GDEE) project is funded by the European Commission and it is also a partnership with NGOs in Italy, the UK and Spain. The goal is to “develop the capacity” of engineering academics to teach topics related to the Global Dimension in their engineering educations. It turned out Emily actually works not of the European Commission, but for one of the NGOs involved - Engineers Without Borders UK.

    The practical goal of the project is to produce a series of online courses and accompanying "resource packages" to be offered for free to EU engineering academics. The first three courses (out of nine)  were launched this spring; "Making a case for a critical global engineer", "Key elements for addressing the Global Dimension of engineering" and "The Global Engineer in Sustainable Human Development". A "course" consists (as far as I understand) of several "modules" and each module consists of several "sections". Each "section" consists of several different parts of which the most important parts are:
    - A short book chapter on the subject matter in question (10-12 pages, 4000-5000 words)
    - One activity ("examination") for the online course, including proposed evaluation criteria
    - Pointers to additional resources (readings, videos, slides etc.)

    I was asked to prepare a section on "the relevance of GD issues" which is part of a module on "The global dimension in teaching". Other sections in that module are:
    - Key pedagogical/learning theories relevant to teaching GD topics
    - What skills/competencies are needed for global engineers? Learning outcomes and teaching/assessment methods for “non-technical” GD courses.
    - Intended Learning Outcomes.
    - Teaching and assessment methods.

    The target audience for all of these activities are university teachers who are interested in integrating GD topics into their (under-, post-)graduate courses. One of the challenges for these teachers are to get the students onboard, e.g. how do we get engineering students to care about “non-technical” subjects? In Emily's original e-mail to me she wrote that “Your paper, presented at the EESD Conference in Cambridge in September 2013 on how to engage students in sustainability education is similar in content to this session.” My task was thus to use the EESD paper as a draft version to be "repurposed" into a book chapter and the goal of my section was help other teachers communicate the relevance of the global dimension to engineering students. The emphasis was primarily on motivation and engagement and only secondarily on sustainability (in a broad sense).

    It took some time and effort to reach the (perhaps still partial) understanding that made it possible for me to write the text you have just read (above). I have to admit that I'm still a little confused by all the different moving parts of this project and how they are supposed to work together. Beyond "courses", "modules" and "sections", there are also "resource packages", "blocks" and "sessions". It might be that "sections" and "sessions" refer to the same thing, i.e. that my "session" - "The Issue of Relevance" - is located "within Block C (Integrating the Global Dimension into Teaching and Research), Module 2 (The Global Dimension in Teaching: Theory and Practice)".

    It all of a sudden comes back to me - all the reasons why I think any project that becomes endorsed at a pan-European level oftentimes is doomed to mediocrity or worse. Such projects often seem to become a matter of "design by committee". Despite having accepted to be part of this project, I still get irritated when I find it difficult to understand exactly what I am to produce and for exactly what purpose (how will my part fit with other parts?). I really feel I have to be exceedingly selective in the future any time I'm on the verge of becoming involved in a project that is endorsed by EU or at a supra-national level. It all just seems to become very complicated and with huge overhead costs for communication and coordination and perhaps in worst case also with (relatively) little output to show for it. I of course don't object to introducing the global dimension to engineering educations, it's just that I think that comparatively little will be accomplished when the initiative and the money comes "from the top" and where "the top" might as well have been located "in a country far far away".  I compare this with the sleeker KTH-initiated project to help teachers plan and teach project courses and that I wrote a blog post about half a year ago; "Handbook for project-based courses".

    Despite these concerns, I am quite happy about the chapter I have written and I hope (but am by no means certain) that Emily will like it and that I don't have to change or work too much with it from now on. It turned out in the end that I did not only write a new version of our EESD paper, but rather a brand new text that draws on that paper and of Elina's and my latest paper, "ICT4S reaching out: Making sustainability relevant in higher education". We will present the new paper at the ICT4S conference in the end of August.

    Here is the introduction to the book chapter I just submitted:

    The Global Dimension: On getting students on-board


    This practical text is written on behalf of university teachers who want their (engineering) students to “get on-board” and care about issues that are usually perceived to be outside the scope of (traditional) engineering educations. These issues pertain to “The Global Dimension” (GD), i.e. to primarily non-technical topics (challenges) that will impact the engineering profession at a global level over the next couple of decades.

    These topics include but are not limited to climate change, ecological crises (e.g. pollution, species extinction etc.), globalization, surveillance, erosion of freedoms, militarisation and decreased prevalence of democracy, overpopulation, overconsumption, resource depletion, energy scarcity, water scarcity, overfishing, decreased food production, recession or depression (e.g. decreased or negative economic growth), jobless growth, increased unemployment, social instability, global poverty and inequality etc. The list is long and can be made longer, but it can also be compressed into three broad overarching topics; how can we create a sustainable society in terms of environmental, social and economic sustainability (Brundtland 1992)? This short text does not aim to answer that particular question, but rather another, related question - namely how to get engineering students to care about and become engaged in such topics.

    This text is written with a particular audience in mind. It is primarily an attempt to support individual university teachers as they plan and develop a course that treats GD issues. It is secondarily directed to someone who is in a position to commission such a course, for example someone who is responsible for an engineering educational programme. It would of course be desirable to not just develop and teach a single course on GD issues, but rather to integrate GD issues into a number of courses, or, to allow such GD issues to shape a whole educational programme (Mann et. al. 2009, Cai 2010, Sterling 2004). This text has a more modest goal though.

    I personally teach a course for first year master’s students in a media technology engineering programme at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. The one overarching challenge we work with in my course is environmental sustainability. My experiences and many of my examples will thus relate to environmental sustainability in particular, but, my aim has been to write this text in such a way that it is useful primarily in terms of student engagement. Still, the text would become very abstract and hard to read if I had to hang a long string of qualification to every statement, so, I will at times write the text as if your task too is to engage your students in the particular issue of environmental sustainability. My hope is that you easily can exchange this particular “preoccupation” of mine with your own preoccupation - be it issues pertaining to globalization, inequality, poverty, climate change or other issues.

    This text is based on two articles I have written together with my colleague Elina Eriksson; “‘It’s not fair!’: Making students engage in sustainability” (Pargman & Eriksson 2013) and “ICT4S reaching out: Making sustainability relevant in higher education” (Eriksson & Pargman 2014).


    tisdag 1 juli 2014

    Books I've read (Jan)

    I read the four books below during my Christmas vacation in Argentina and during the first few weeks of my sabbatical at UC Irvine (which, as I write these words, is coming to an end), i.e. between the end of December and mid-February. Here's the previous blog post about the books I read before that.

    My new habit (as of February) is to each day post one or two quotes from books or articles that I'm reading on Facebook. I will harvest these quotes from Facebook and post them at the bottom of this and future blog posts. They will thus flesh out these blog posts considerably and constitute a sample of memorable quotes from the book(s) in question. Each asterisk below denotes one quote from that book (further below).

    The book "Future of News" is in fact the final report from the 10 groups that took my master's level project course "The Future of Media" during the autumn 2013 term. Instead of writing a final report, each project group writes a chapter and we put them together and print them all in a limited-edition book. I wrote several blog posts about different aspects of this year's course itself during the autumn term (for example this and this). The previous year's book is called "The future of magazines" and I wrote about it a year ago

    I read this book primarily because I had to; I needed to grade the project groups and their "final reports" were neatly collected in the above limited-edition book. Although the physical book is hard to get hold of, the texts aren't - they're online! You can either download and read individual chapters or download and print/read the whole book (pdf file, 6.14 MB).

    The quality of the chapters (e.g. the project groups' final reports) vary, but the three most-appreciated projects (solid texts, great deliverables and interesting ideas in general) were "Newsify" (pdf), "You've got bias" (pdf) and "Future of ads" (pdf). Do note that not only the texts, but also some really great concept movies about the projects are available in the online archive. An alternative to reading the book above might be to download and watch some of those movies (and then deepen your understanding by reading the book chapters about your favorite projects).

    Since the book consists of 10 very different chapters, it's difficult to say something about the book as a whole rather than about the individual chapters/projects. I do have to say that the book itself looks great though - as usual! I hope we can reach the same level of quality in this year's course (with a new, different theme) that starts after the summer.

    Thomas Homer-Dixon's 2006 book "The upside of down: Catastrophe, creativity and the renewal of civilisation" is a very interesting book. Homer-Dixon successfully combines results from many different areas, including the social sciences, ecology, energy and complexity studies. The book is very "sturdy" - 300 pages of text and 100 pages of detailed notes. A major part of the book treats developments and stresses of different kinds (environmental, social, economic) on local, national and international scales:

    "Convergence is treacherous, too, because it could lead directly to synchronous failure, if several stresses were to climax together in a way that overloads our societies' ability to cope. What happens, for example if together or in quick succession the world has to deal with a sudden shift in climate that sharply cuts food production in Europe and Asia, a severe oil price increase that sends economies tumbling around the world, and a string of major terrorist attacks on several Western capital cities? Such a convergence would be a body blow to global order, and might even send reeling the world's richest and most powerful societies. Global financial institutions and political stability could begin to break down" (p.17).
    "Any management policies that really address the underlying causes of our hardest problems usually require big changes in the existing economic and political order. After all, that order is often a central reason why our problems are so bad. But big changes always run headlong into staunch opposition from powerful and entrenched intest groups - like companies, unions, government bureaucracies, and associations of financial investors - that benefit from the status quo" (p19).
    "Because it's hard to challenge the arrangements that benefit vested interests, when we try to manage serious threats to our well-being we usually create new organizations, institutions, and procedures rather than reforming those that already exist. ... too often, though, this strategy simply adds another layer of complexity on top of an already cumbersome and dysfunctional management system. So, over time, our mechanisms for dealing with a more volatile world become more rigid and susceptible to catastrophic failure when exposed to severe stress" (p.20).

    This longish quote pretty much summarises a large part of the book. Those of you who might have read any of Joseph Tainter's works will recognise his ideas about decreasing returns of increasing complexity. Beyond being influence by Tainter, biologist Buzz Holling's work on "panarchy theory" (of biological cycles of growth, collapse, regeneration and renewed growth) has also had a large influence on Homer-Dixon's thinking. Being a social scientist, Homer-Dixon transposes biologist Holling's theory of adaptiveness and resilience to the social and societal arena. The picture Homer-Dixon paints is in general pretty grim, but he does also propose ways to go forward from where we are by emphasizing creativity (which often is unleashed in uncertain times) and the birth of something new (e.g. "the light at the end of the tunnel")

    Homer-Dixon is the director of the Trudeau Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in Waterloo outside of Toronto. I was in Toronto a few months ago and tried to set up a meeting with him about a project that I am spearheading. We did unfortunately not succeed in setting up that meeting - not the least because Homer-Dixon is busy working on a new book "about how humanity might solve its global problems". I can understand that that topic might keep him busy…

    Married couple Michael and Joyce Huesemann's (2011) "Techo-fix: Why technology won't save us or the environment" is a broadside against human hubris, and, against the human belief that we can "improve on nature" with/through technology. From the introduction:

    "Tech-optimistm is pervasive in our society but hardly justified. ... Techo-Fix questions a primary paradigm of our age: that advanced technology alone will extricate us from an ever-increasing load of social, environmental and economic issues. Techo-Fix shows why negative unintended consequences of science and technology are inherently unavoidable and unpredictable, why counter-technologies, techo-fixes and efficiency improvements do not offer lasting solutions and why modern technology, in the presence of continued economic growth, does not promote sustainability but instead hastens collapse.
    Techo-Fix ... asserts that technological optimism and the unrelenting belief in progress are based on ignorance, that most technological cost-benefit analyses are biased in favor of new technologies and that increasing consumerism and materialism, which have been facilitated by science and technology, have failed to increase happiness.

    It would be easy to imagine that a book like this would have been written by journalists, historians or philosophers, but the two authors actually have Ph.D.s in chemical engineering and mathematics. Moreover, the book actually does elaborate on each of the statements above and methodically delivers on them. The critique that is formulated is very well grounded - for example taking evolutionary biology and the laws of thermodynamics as starting points:

    "One assumption that underlies a substantial number of technological applications is the belief that nature can be improved upon or perfected for the benefit of mankind [but] the process of evolution guarantees that, within a given environment, species function and interact in a changing but largely optimized fashion. ... in effect there are some two to three billion years of "R&D" behind every living thing. ... Our most glittering improvement over Nature are often a fool's solution to a problem that has been isolated from context, a transient, local maximizaion that is bound to be followed by mostly undesirable counter-adjustments throughout the system. 
    ... Because the negative consequences of science and technology often occur in unanticipated forms and in distant locations, and sometimes after significant time intervals, they are often not perceived as related to their causes."

    I especially appreciated the job the authors did on tearing cost-benefit analysis to pieces. They spend a whole chapter (25 pages, "The positive bias of technology assessment and cost-benefit analysis") on showing how arbitrary systems boundaries are, how important but "diffuse" stakeholders (e.g. the general public, future generations, plants and animals) are sidelined or ignored, and how such "analyses" are set up so as to always overestimate the (possible) positive effects and underestimate and downplay the (possible) negative effects of new technologies.

    Techno-Fix is a really deep book and it is, in my opinion, almost on par with Alf Hornborg's excellent book "The power of the machine". While the ideas expressed are first-class, the drawback of the Huesemanns' methodicalness is their sometimes plodding writing style, enumerating one thing after another after another. No stone is left unturned in this book - for good and for bad.

    I originally found out about the book by listening to a podcast where the first author was interviewed. I immediately thought both the author and the book sounded really interesting, but I think it has taken me two years or more from when hearing the podcast to buying the book and then reading it and writing about it here. My lead times can apparently be very long in this ongoing book-reading project of mine... I'm pretty methodical myself and the drawback is a lack of spontaneity.

    ***** (five asterisks = five quotes from the book below) Joseph Tainter came to visit UCI back in February and I wrote a blog post about it. My copy of his classic book "The collapse of complex societies" is back in Sweden so I thought I would buy and read another book of his to prepare for his visit and my choice fell on Joseph TainterTadeusz Patzek's (his blog) (2012) "Drilling down: The Gulf oil debacle and our energy dilemma". This is a really strange book as it not so much a cooperation between two authors as it is two totally different books within the same spine. The authors have very different profiles and it is exceedingly easy to figure out which chapter is written whom. The chapters are furthermore hardly linked to each other at all! Patek is a professor of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at The University of Texas and his current research "involves mathematical and numerical modeling of earth systems with emphasis on fluid flow in the subsurface soils and rocks". I learned much more than I ever wanted to know about the nuts and bolts of offshore/deepwater drilling when I read Patzek's chapters...

    Needless to say, I bought the book not because of Patzek but rather because of Tainter and his chapters did not let me down, despite the fact that I have the distinct feeling that they for the most part are built on touched-up already-published articles of his. I think this is a sloppily written book - perhaps the authors had a tight deadline or something - but Tainter's ideas are so interesting that I still appreciated reading the book quite a lot. For more about Tainter's ideas, see the blog post I wrote after Tainter's UCI visit. Do also have a look at the quotes below for sample of the book!

    ---------- QUOTES: ----------

    ----- on the extravagant use of energy in modern society -----

    "The late anthropologist Leslie White once noted that a bomber flying over Europe during the World War II consumed more energy in a single flight than had been consumed by all the people of Europe during the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, who existed entirely by hunting and gathering wild foods."
    Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

    ----- on large effects of small screw-ups -----

    "In 2005, during Hurricane Dennis, an incorrectly plumbed, 6-inch. length of pipe [...] ultimately caused the Thunder Horse platform to tip into the water. The platform was fully righted about a week after the hurricane, delaying commercial production initially scheduled for late 2005 by 3 years."
    Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

    ----- on living in a risk society -----

    "Thousands of computer screens and messages are misinterpreted or misunderstood every day, but only occasionally does a mine cave in, a nuclear reactor melt down, a well blow out, a plane crash, a refinery explode, or soldiers die from friendly fire as a result. Each time we are reassured that the incidents were isolated and could have been avoided if people were just more thoughtful, better trained, or better supervised, managed, and regulated. Is this sense of security justified [...] or are these events the result of societal processes over which we have little control?."
    Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

    ----- on the price we pay for societal complexity -----

    "We pay a price for complexity, and two of the currencies for counting that price are stress and aggravation. [...] When an electronic device pesters us to update antivirus software, or download, install, and configure some program said to be improved, we count the cost in the currency of annoyance."
    Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

    ----- on decreasing returns of "big science" -----

    "fields of scientific research follow a characteristic developmental pattern, from general to specialized; from wealthy dilettantes and gentleman-scholars to large teams with staff and supporting institutions; from knowledge that is generalized and widely useful to research that is specialized and narrowly useful; from simple to complex; and from low to high societal costs. [...]
    exponential growth in the size and costliness of science is needed just to maintain a constant rate of innovation.
    we have this impression of continued progress not because science is as productive as ever, but because the size of the enterprise has grown so large."
    Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".