I was the designated "opponent" at Per Fors' "mid-term seminar" a few days ago. Per is a ph.d. student at the Department of Engineering Sciences, Division of Industrial Engineering and Management at Uppsala University (my own alma mater).
My role as opponent/external reviewer was to look at Per's work at a point in time when he is about half-way through his ph.d. studies and discuss his work this far as well as possible ways for him to proceed. The "mid-term seminar" is more or less the equivalent of a licentiate thesis but an alternative for those who aim directly for the ph.d. thesis instead of "wasting time" putting together a licentiate thesis (and everything that comes with that).
I had been provided with a bouquet of texts beforehand, namely:
- A "kappa" (the introductory chapter of a compilation thesis, i.e. the key to understanding the red thread that holds everything else together). The preliminary title of the kappa/thesis was "ICT for sustainability: Critique and approaches"
- A published article in a respectable journal (2015), "ICT and environmental sustainability in a changing society: The view of ecological World Systems Theory" (Lennerfors, Fors, van Rooijen)
- A book chapter, "Gamification for Sustainability: Beyond the Ludo-Aesthetical Approach" (Fors, Lennerfors). Accepted for inclusion and a finished text but not yet published.
- Another book chapter, "An intuition-based approach to sustainable ICT: Lessons from Eco-Ethica" (Fors and [some ph.d. student at another department]). Will be submitted later this summer and still possible to change.
- A 3-page draft, "Sustainable Entrepreneurship literature review" (Fors). It is what it says, a literature review - the results of reading up on "entrepreneurship studies".
I've met Per Fors only once before, in Zürich back in 2013 at the first ICT4S conference (the fourth ICT4S conference will be held at the end of August). It also just so happened that I reviewed an article that Per Fors, his advisor Thomas Taro Lennerfors and fellow ph.d. student Jolanda van Roijen submitted to the second ICT4S conference (Stockholm) two years ago. The submitted article was called "Sustainable ICT: Insights from World Systems Theory" and I liked it a lot. Despite this, I was hesitant to accept it to the conference because I thought the basic idea had much more potential than what the actual text showcased. I did in the end chose to grade it "weak accept" but my co-reviewers chose to reject it. That article was later rewritten and now lives on in the shape of a published journal article (see above). I never did understand why Per didn't show up at the ICT4S conference that year though since the distance between Uppsala and Stockholm is negligible. I did not think to ask that question when we met a few days ago, but it is actually no more clear to me now since both ICT and sustainability are central topics to him and central topics in his (future) thesis. I have however come to understand that he has moved between interests, disciplines, journals and conferences for two or three years instead of putting down his (academic) roots at a (limited) number of places (communities).
That leads to my main critique of the draft thesis - the lack of direction. I started to read the kappa and the first article and thought this would be a thesis about World-Systems Theory (WST), about Alf Hornborg and his theories, about unequal exchange and ICT, but, that was followed by an article on gamification, an article about Japanese philosopher Tomonobu Imamichi's (eco-techo-philosophical theory) Eco-Ethica, and finally a draft about European entrepreneurship studies. While all four texts somehow can be connected to sustainability, ICT and perhaps also to WST, it was hard to see exactly what knit them together and even harder to see the direction this was leading in. Had I read the articles in some other random order, I would halfway through my reading have had very different ideas about where this was all leading. The lack of focus is also evident in the choice of preliminary title for his thesis. While "ICT for sustainability: Critique and approaches" accurately describes the lowest common denominator that ties all of the texts together, that is indeed a very low denominator; it could mean and it could house just about anything. If I got a ph.d. thesis with that title in my hand, I would have little idea of the actual topic of that thesis beyond the fact that it in some way was "critical".
Reading the texts made me acutely feel that Per had tried to embrace too much and should instead look for synergies between future work and the work he has already done instead of having to read up on a new area/corpus for each new article he writes. My main suggestion for Per was for him to instead focus on something - anything! While the first two texts are "finished", the third text is still possible to change and the fourth is little more than the preliminary results of a literature review. My suggestion was to first write the themes that are explicated in the kappa into the third article, and, if I'm honest, my advice would be to skip the last article. Or perhaps to write it but to treat it as a "side project" and without having the intention of including it in the future thesis.
If I was one of Per's advisors, I would push hard for developing the ICT + WST angle. The kappa plus the first article raises and answers some (very interesting) questions, but they also raise a lot of unanswered questions that I would love for someone (Per!) to explore. Per has an advantage here as I am not aware of anyone else having asked and thought about anything even near those (very pertinent) questions. I almost wish that I had raised and explored the intersection between WST, sustainability and ICT myself, but second best is that someone else (Per!) explores them.
When asked, Per said that the topics/communities that is of most interest to him is 1) ICT for Sustainability (core), 2) critical management studies, 3) ethical ICT ("slow technology") and 4) World-System Theory (WST). He doesn't really have a "home" conference that he has attended regularly.
My suggestion was for him to clarify where he wants to go. When he presents his thesis a few years from now, what does he want it to be about? Or, if he were to do a post-doc and could choose freely, where would he want to be four years from now? What then does he need to do this year and next year to increase the chances of getting there? This (e.g. planning) is the opposite of what seems to have guided Per this far (e.g. happenstance, pure curiosity, varying interests and perhaps chance (?)). I can suggest different options for his thesis, but I can't really advice him about what he should do since I don't know much about critical management studies or ethical ICT, but I did invite him consider submitting something to next year's Computing within Limits conference as well as to consider going to the upcoming ICT4S conference - including the workshop on Limits that we will hold at that conference.
Since he was not familiar with the areas I read up in, I had also printed 25 or 30 articles that I gave him before I left (Limits, Sustainable HCI and some other related conferences/texts). I also suggested he might be interested in having a look at the work that has been done on "critical design" in the HCI community and that seemed to interest him quite a lot (Dunne & Raby, Bardzell etc.).
All in all it was very stimulating but also at times slightly confusing to read his draft. I wish him the best of luck with the "second half" of his ph.d. studies and I hope he shows up at the ph.d. course on "Sustainability and ICT" that me and Elina will give directly after the summer (a separat blog post about that course is slated to appear soon).