The first RIPPLES in the water

by Tim Braunholtz-Speight

Billed as “all the best bits of a conference (the conversations) without the boring bits (the presentations)”, the inaugural meeting of the RIPPLES network was held at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation on 14 – 15 March 2016.

After the icebreakers had established vital community statistics such as who had the strangest family customs, and who had visited the most boring place, we moved into discussion of the papers we had submitted as our influences or inspirations. These revealed that we like papers that combine theoretical with empirical work, and that are readable and accessible. Key conceptual themes emerged: placing localism in a multi-level context; critically analysing ideas and practices of “community” to avoid romanticising or dismissing them; and similarly taking a “details matter” approach to broader societal changes like the spread of neoliberalism. We are keen to look at issues of inequality, justice, and power; and do empirical work on energy, money, sustainability – and “why people do things”.

In the next session we shared our current research and our interests for future projects. As well as the readings themes – especially energy, community, and justice – we were interested in working on democracy, transparency, planning, cultural economy, and natural resource rights. Methodological points were also raised: about “hybridity” as a theme, about impact as an object of study, and ethical reflexivity as to our impact on and engagement with the people and practices we study.

The group then repaired to Heema bar and restaurant to take food and refreshment, and to discuss work and other matters, until the weary bar staff gave us a five minute warning to leave before they locked up.

The following morning, following an inconclusive self-organising exercise, session organisers grouped us into tables around “community and environmental justice”, “economy” and “social impact and democracy”: a practical demonstration of “power with” vs “power over” in community consultations! The “social impact” table made considerable headway towards developing an innovative research project. Others didn’t get that far, but were productive in terms of initial ideas and mechanisms for continuing collaboration to refine them further. We then worked into the afternoon on collaborative paper proposals, again with a wide range of ideas, and some writing partnerships forming.

After a late lunch, we discussed the way ahead. Time was devoted to the details of ensuring that the website will be fit for the purpose of facilitating further discussion and project development. Establishing a user-friendly online discussion forum was felt to be a key priority. In terms of more face-to-face networking, there will hopefully be a RIPPLES-sponsored session at the RGS conference in September, and then a further members event early next year – venue to be confirmed. Various people took on responsibility to draft position papers on some of the issues that had been discussed over the course of the workshop.

Defining who’s in and who isn’t is a key issue for any community. Of course, being a member of RIPPLES doesn’t preclude anyone from also working with other people! But we also discussed whether we should expand the formal membership of RIPPLES, given that we all knew other people whose work and interests could “fit in” relatively easily. However, it was decided that RIPPLES was still at an early stage of development as a group, and that we would stay at the same size for now. As the group became more established,  the possibility of expanding membership could be discussed again. Yet there was a strong sense that the answer to the agenda question “Is this RIPPLES thing worth continuing with?” was “Yes!”. People then trickled away to their homes and trains, with the words “see you on the forum” ringing in their ears.

What did we take away from RIPPLES 1? I can’t speak for others; but for me the benefits included: the renewal of old connections and the making of new ones; inspiration and ideas for future work, including a great collectively-produced literature review; and validation of many of the things I had been turning around in my head on these topics. Now back in the bustle of everyday life, other things inevitably take priority in the short term – but it was a useful and positive (and enjoyable!) beginning.