Making the academic, creative: A graphic novel about community energy

by Sioned Haf

Drawings from the graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’

During the past few years of attending academic conferences, I have been to several workshops that talk about the need for academic research to be more clear, accessible and intelligible for non-academic audiences. Workshops have ranged from refining presentation skills, reaching influential policy makers, engaging with the public and using clear language in journal papers.

Using personal creativity as a means of disseminating academic research however, has never really been discussed, at least not in my experiences in such workshops. Is it that researchers tend to be regarded as uncreative types? (A myth – as in my opinion, we are all creative beings!). Would your integrity in academia be compromised, if you were to create an animation, a painting or write a song about an element of your work?

However, there are a number of creative pursuits that some academics have engaged in. One of my favourite examples, is the Bright Club  comedy circuit in Edinburgh – a stage given to researchers in Scottish universities, to condense their research experiences and findings into short stand-up performances. Other examples of creative academia include PhD Viva presentations being partly delivered through poetry – which also reminds me of a conference talk I once saw delivered with the aid of a ukulele. Type ‘Dance your PhD’ into YouTube, and you’ll see that there are a number of early career researchers, willing to take a shot at explaining their research in a completely abstract way – through dance. I’m not sure how keen more established academics would be to use interpretative dance methods in disseminating their work? Gauntlet. Thrown.

In 2011, I conducted some research of my own into the role of the creative industries in developing a wider understanding of sustainable development issues amongst society. This work entailed conducting interviews with people who had produced some creative work within the broad theme of sustainable development. This included authors, scriptwriters, visual artists, poets, arts and crafts practitioners and filmmakers.

The conclusion of this small study supported existing evidence that unpicking and presenting issues through creative formats can enrich understanding of sustainable development issues. This is of particular importance when considering that sustainable development is the most used term in political rhetoric but the least understood by the public (see Sustaining Spin by Gordon James).

So, if the theory is correct, the creative arts could be a means of disseminating and clarifying some complex and esoteric subjects amongst a completely new audience. Artistic discussions of ideas branching from scientific research are crucial for deeper and wider societal understanding of the challenges that face humanity.

The main character, Gwenno, learning about community energy in the graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’.

Energy infrastructure, use, ownership and engagement with energy and climate change matters could be some such complex subject matters that could be subject to such artistic dissemination. As my PhD research touched upon many of these themes (from looking at community energy experiences in Scotland and Wales), it was at the forefront of my mind to let others know about what I had found out, particularly outside academia. I also wanted to give voice to the concerns of the participants that had given their time to contribute to my research. I wanted to do this in a more creative way than just presenting findings in conferences and writing academic journals. Having made a few comic strips in the past, I decided on creating a graphic novel – a chance to create a narrative of my research findings, but also, a chance to doodle and paint!

Through a small grant from the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) in Bangor University, myself and author and climate change activist Angharad Penrhyn Jones, cooperated on developing a short graphic novel (a novel told through pictures) about community energy. Although the initial aim was to create a package that would be available for schools in particular (Key Stages 2-3), the story itself, being in graphic novel format (which is quite the ‘hip’ format as of late) was also written as a story accessible to all age ranges.

Gruff, explaining community shares in graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’

The process of writing, editing, illustrating and final proofing of the story, took about 6 months in all (which was the timeline allowed by the funders).  It was a true pleasure to be able to write ‘freely’ and creatively for once (although merging true voices amongst the characters in the story too). Having a break from traditional journal paper writing, for this project, is something I would encourage all other early career researchers to have a go at. As a first attempt at a graphic novel as a part of a teaching resource, I am immensely proud! I’ve also learnt about more technical, fiddly artistic things, like how to make storyboards, and that watercolours don’t scan very well – so there’ll be room for artistic improvement next time!

‘Tick-Tock: a graphic novel about energy, ownership and community’ (and additional teaching resources), is now available for free download from the Welsh Governments digital learning website here or for more information about developing the story and also to download, you can visit the project’s website here.

 

Building effective partnerships: a tale of two networking events

by Jen Dickie

Throughout my academic career I have always jumped at the chance to develop my national and international research networks. But networking can be difficult. We’ve all been in that awkward situation at a conference or workshop where we’ve desperately looked around, hoping to make eye-contact with someone to instigate a conversation with, only to find that everyone in the room is in deep conversation with someone else. If that isn’t hard enough, building meaningful and sustainable networks is even more challenging. In this blog I want to reflect on my experiences at two quite different networking events. I’ll also share some thoughts on what I think helps effective networking and what I (and organisers) might do differently in the future…

The first I attended was a Newton-Bhabha workshop (4th – 8th September 2017) held at the Indian Institute of Science Education  and  Research (IISER), Pune; this brought early career UK and Indian social and physical scientists together with practitioners and innovators to tackle the challenge of ‘Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India’. The second workshop was part of the RCUK’s Global Challenges (GCRF) engagement programme in Delhi. This meeting was a large international event aimed at showcasing the opportunities available through GCRF and to create new networks between researchers from a wide range of disciplines. Both events had networking at the heart of their remit but I want to pick up on some of the pre, during and post conference activities that I felt impacted, for better or worse, on the success of my networking.

Firstly, pre-conference activities – many of the ‘top tips’ for effective networking highlight the importance of doing your homework and planning whom you want to meet in advance (e.g. “The Eight Steps to Effective Networking at Academic Conferences”). In preparation for the Newton- Bhabha workshop we were provided with a ‘biog booklet’ (with photos – v. important!). I found this incredibly useful. I identified key people I wanted to talk to and even attempted to learn some names in advance, something that I find quite difficult to do when meeting people face to face. I was able to annotate the biogs during the workshop and have kept them for future reference when my face/name recognition skills fail me. I’m lucky, I enjoy meeting new people and can (mostly) strike up a conversation with anyone but I know that some people find it incredibly difficult – I think being prepared like this can help alleviate some of the anxiety around who is going to be there. It can also give you ideas for ‘conversation starters’.

In contrast, the GCRF meeting organisers only sent us a list of names without any indication of disciplinary background or research interests. Their argument was that they wanted us to ‘network’ to find out such information. I can see their reasoning for this but I’m not sure it worked particularly well; this was a 2.5 day event that had a large number of participants. During the event, however, I thought their ‘soapbox sessions’ were an interesting way of giving participants an opportunity to say something about their research interests, tout for collaborators or pitch an idea. The 2 minute limit was great because it meant we got through most people. It demonstrates why we should all have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready and waiting! This is a method that I think I’ll use in future when time is limited, but I’d make sure all the soap box sessions happen earlier on in the workshop to maximise the opportunity to follow up relevant interests, otherwise the soapbox approach can become a flurry of business card exchanges, and little else.

Building meaningful and sustainable collaborations takes time, and the Newton-Bhabha workshop had this on its side. It was more participatory and was facilitated in a way that meant we could explore different disciplinary perspectives and learn about each other’s expertise in a way that didn’t feel forced. (I’m not going to go into details here but if you are interested in how this was done you can look at Sara Shinton’s excellent blog and the workshop report). We were often pushed out of our comfort zones, having to deal with complex disciplinary differences and I often struggled to see how I could contribute to some of the more technology-based projects. It got the key ingredients right though; everyone respected and listened to each other and everyone was given the opportunity to contribute. To me, this is what really helps build strong and meaningful collaborations. And don’t forget, spending a bit of time together before submitting a bid is incredibly useful – working with people you like makes such a difference.

I really enjoyed both events and found them useful in different ways. Not only have I started to build what I hope turns out to be a strong and sustainable inter-disciplinary collaboration but I’ve also picked up some useful pointers on running effective networking events.

There are lots of great resources out there to help you, and cover much more than this blog (e.g. this page on the value of networking) but a top tip from me – don’t forget your business cards. It doesn’t look great handing out your contact details on a napkin…

What does the USS strike mean for early career academics?

As the strike over USS pensions has entered its third week, most people reading this blog will be aware of the details: proposed changes transfers the retirement risk from employers to staff, meaning that academic staff (including lecturers, researchers, and support staff) at a large number of UK universities could lose up to 50% of their retirement income.

RIPPLES members come in all shapes and sizes. What we have in common, however, is that we all define ourselves as early career academics. As we will likely bear the brunt of the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme, I asked my fellow RIPPLES members what the current dispute and strike action means to them.

Our pensions are important…

Our current pension provisions may look fairly generous to outsiders, but are not as great as you may think. RIPPLES members might define themselves as ‘early career’, but the days of being 21 are long behind us. The nature of academia, and the offer of often precarious employment post-PhD means that many of us don’t start paying into a pension until a relatively late age:

I am already in my 40s and have had a pension for a relatively short time. I got my first permanent academic job a year ago. My pension was already going to be fairly modest, and the changes look to effectively halve that modest provision.

I think being guaranteed a secure pension after an underpaid and insecure start to our careers is a small ask and something I certainly think is worth fighting for.​

Although UUK is apparently using early career researchers as an excuse to move away from a defined benefits pension scheme, RIPPLES members were generally clear: they don’t want flexibility, they want stability. The only scepticism expressed regarding the need to preserve our pensions was over whether it would benefit people of our generation: even if the current action is successful, what are the chances that the pension scheme in its current form will still be in place in 30 years’ time?

… but the current action is about so much more than just pensions

What came through in pretty much all responses, however, is that the current action is about so much more than pensions. It is about broader trends and principles; about how universities value their staff and their culture of learning; about how lecturers’ real wages have fallen by 16% since 2009, while seeing how VCs and other senior managers are paid; about feeling you are being exploited because you love the job and want to make a difference. While those working at post-92 institutions are not directly affected by the proposed pension scheme, they too are concerned that if the changes go through with the USS I feel it is likely to lead to other changes either to other pension schemes or general working conditions across all universities.

Others pointed out that it is not only about us: I feel like the outcome of this dispute might set a precedent for how other people’s pension schemes, especially teachers and other public sector workers.

Withdrawing our labour?

Although everyone was in agreement that the current dispute is important, many struggled with the idea of taking strike action. While some did decide to strike, the decision did not come easy:

There are many reasons why I considered not striking – the impact on my students’ future, increasing the workload of my non-striking colleagues, cancelling outreach activities and more selfishly, losing a significant amount of pay and potentially jeopardising my future career by rocking the boat.

Several members of RIPPLES – myself included – are full time researchers, and questioned the benefit of withdrawing our labour.

As a researcher I’m not sure the impact that withholding my labour has on the university, as ultimately I will still deliver the research for the project and so the university will receive its funding.  As a result, I have done a small amount of research work while I’ve been on strike, which I have felt very uncomfortable and conflicted about, but ultimately decided it needed doing to fully value the contribution of participants’ time.

I feel the same: as a full time researcher, the main person impacted by my absence is me. I did ask myself whether there was any point to striking at all, but I decided it felt like the right thing to do, and if anything, there is strength in numbers. This was somewhat of a luxury position though, there is a bit of flexibility regarding my work and upcoming deadlines, and with a line manager and collaborators who are also on strike, I feel I work in an environment where my decision is supported.

With these considerations in mind, I asked the others if they thought strike action is the most appropriate form of action? On the one hand, many felt that withdrawing one’s labour is pretty much the only position of power that employees have. On the other hand, while going on strike is presumably never an easy decision, early career academics face a number of particular challenges when deciding whether or not to strike, as they are more likely to be in lower-paid and/or more precarious positions:

In my part-time staff role, I am currently at “risk of redundancy” as my fixed term contract ends in four months.

The whole thing is complicated by my contractual situation. I currently have two part-time contracts: A 1 day/week research contract with a striking institution, and a 3 day/week teaching contract with a non-striking institution. So my teaching must go ahead as planned, even though it contributes to an MSc course for a striking institution. Crossing a picket line for a strike that I support is a horrible feeling and I will strike on my research day (Friday) in the final week if the action is still ongoing by that stage. 

As a fixed term researcher, with primary data collection in full swing, I feel I need to keep working just now to keep my project going. So my options are to ‘strike’ but keep working – effectively work for free; or ‘really’ strike, jeopardise my project, and therefore my future job prospects… neither seem great. So I’m working from home to avoid physically crossing picket lines, feeling awkward about being a protest free-rider, and wondering what else I could do.

So, what else can we do?

  1. Make sure junior colleagues are aware of the UCU Fighting Fund and any local Hardship Funds. Claims for strike pay from those on low pays and insecure contracts are prioritised, so that loss of pay alone should not be a barrier to taking action.
  2. Speak out and organise against the much wider trend of casualisation in academia. Having members of staff at the start of their career decide they cannot strike because they cannot afford to lose the pay or because they are worried about their job prospects is not right. These are symptoms of a broader issue with casualisation and precarity in academia and beyond: having people regularly working unpaid on days off and with no prospect of job security any time soon is not right either. Oh, and don’t just leave it up to those early in their career to organise against this. There is a great argument here about why senior colleagues should join the fight against casualisation too.
  3. Speak to junior colleagues about taking industrial action, what it means, and the implications. Remember: many of us have potentially never been on strike before, it can be a somewhat daunting prospect. If you are a senior academic, especially if you are managing junior colleagues or PhD students who teach on your course, remember you are likely to be not just a manager, but also a mentor, you can help make the process of taking action less daunting.
  4. Use the proposed ‘freedom’ and ‘flexibility’ of a defined contribution pension scheme against the USS. One option might be to withdraw from making any further contributions into USS, with an open letter telling them why. There are plenty of other defined contribution type private pensions out there, many with ‘ethical’ investment options. Perhaps this is the neoliberalisation of protest – treating everything as shopping; but it might ‘hit them where it hurts’ more effectively than me working for free?

‘TRIPPLES’: Third Annual Gathering of the RIPPLES Research Group

by Emily Creamer

University of Stirling: 11th & 12th January 2018

After a sluggish first week back at work, the third annual RIPPLES gathering was exactly what I needed to jump start my 2018.

As has become customary, the meeting kicked off with us sharing our biggest successes and challenges of the past year. This included an inspiring array of publications; research collaborations (e.g. REINVENT; Community Energy Finance;  Local Authority Engagement in Energy Systems; Reshaping the Domestic Nexus); international networking (e.g. UK-India Newton Researchers Link Workshop); conference organisation and contribution; undergraduate and postgraduate teaching; PhD viva successes; and five-a-side football triumphs.

We spent much of our time together laying out our plans for the year. We came away with solid ideas for at least five collaborative papers and several conference sessions (look out for us at People, Place & Policy in June; RGS-IBG in August; Energy & Society in September). We’re keen to engage more actively with researchers and research groups beyond RIPPLES. So, as well as blogging and tweeting our news and ideas more regularly, we plan to host a workshop in the autumn to connect with RIPPLES-esque researchers across Europe. Watch this space!

There were some absences at the meeting on account of various non-negotiable commitments, including a PhD viva and – equally excitingly – the arrival of a couple of baby ‘ripplets’. These new arrivals mean that around half of us now have children and, as (relatively) young researchers, that percentage may well increase over the years. Recent research has demonstrated the significant impact that a university’s maternity policy and childcare provision have on the careers of their female academics. One particularly pertinent finding of the research for RIPPLES members was that, in several institutions, maternity packages varied depending on length of employment and tenure. Many RIPPLES members are women on fixed-term contracts (of varying lengths). We are encouraged to move institution several times to improve our chances of gaining a permanent academic post. So it is us – or people like us – who are at the sharp end of these inequalities. Unsurprisingly, no relationship was found between maternity or paternity leave provisions and the career opportunities of male academics.

Reflecting on what it is we each value as a member of RIPPLES, a key thing for many of us is the non-instrumental, social support that the group offers. An article in Science last year reported findings from France that suggested non-permanent academic staff members experience “a very strong level of anxiety, demotivation, and mistrust”. As transient residents of university departments, PhD candidates and postdocs often occupy that strange insider-outsider space: belonging, but not fully. In these roles, we are frequently the sole full time researcher on an externally funded project, and some of us have few – if any – colleagues with shared research interests in our own departments. RIPPLES helps fill that gap for many of us. And so it goes that life imitates art (if you call our research ‘art’, which I do), with RIPPLES becoming a demonstration of what ‘community’ does that other social structures don’t, and why it persists (despite not existing).

Ecosophical Geographies

by Gerry Taylor Aiken

I’m delighted to say that the first special edition, on Ecosophical Geographies, I’ve been behind has been published this week.

Obviously this is nice to see in print, but it’s also a reminder that keeping faith with your ideas and finding interesting conversations is a key precondition to any academic collaboration I want to pursue. Rob Shaw (who co-edited the collection with me) and I would have long late night conversations as we did our PhD’s together. In many ways I feel the special edition brings together both of our joint interests: Rob’s theoretical obsessions, including Deleuze and Guatarri, and my desire for committed thinking, or seeking ideas that can change how we live our lives.

Rob was always really interested in the theory side of things, while I arrived at the PhD fresh from a masters with the Centre for Human Ecology in Glasgow, a much more activist-engaged-embodied form of academia, if you can even call it academia. Somehow we had the feeling that between these two worlds—the environmentalist and the theorist—there was something that could be said of relevance in the world of human geography. Although of course we both were eco and theory inclined: many of these conversations were worked out over tasks in the local Green party, or sharing excitement over our latest reading.

We found that many of the deep green thinkers and permaculture ideas I was reading and chewing over (Johana Macy and others), drew on ideas of ‘ecosophy’ from Arne Naess. Simultaneously this same term was drawn into French poststructuralist thought by Felix Guttarri’s take-up of the term. Both Macy and Guttarri were also influenced by Gregory Bateson and looking back I wonder if it was a trip to see a Gregory Bateson biopic where the penny dropped.

Anyway, we tentatively drew up a proposal for a session at the RGS-IBG 2014 conference and were very pleased with the quality of the papers. Charlie Carlin’s paper in particular seemed exactly the sort of thing we were after: empirically drawing on a ‘vision quest’, the very thing I had had to undergo as part of my MSc (Imagine getting an academic qualification for fasting on the edge of a cliff in Knoydart!); theoretically cutting through some fascinating post-humanist thinkers I’m sure Rob had been trying to explain to me a few months earlier.

The ideas in the room from that session were too good to stay there, so I’m very happy to see them in print now. It’s been a long but rewarding process getting these ideas out in the end. Hopefully too, ecosophy can make a bit of a difference in thinking through human-environment relationships.

Looking across borders – the recent rise of the Dutch Green Party

by Bregje van Veelen

Looking across borders – the recent rise of the Dutch Green Party

Although we’re a network of mostly UK-based researchers, we like to keep an eye on what else is happening in the world. This month: a closer look at the recent rise of the Dutch Green party.

Image result for groenlinks

A week before the parliamentary elections on 15 March the Dutch Green Party (GroenLinks – GreenLeft) arranged an election hustings in a concert hall in Amsterdam – 5,000 people attended. As many followed the event online. The following week the party won 14 seats: a significant increase from the four seats it held during the previous parliamentary term. While still only the 5th largest party (out of 13) in the 150-seat Dutch parliament it was the best ever national electoral performance for the party. It also looks likely that the Greens will be part of the governing coalition. That’s right, 6 weeks after the election there is still no government – they like to take their time to form a coalition in the Netherlands.

So what  helped the Green party do so well and does this mean the Netherlands is now a country of environmentalists?

“What makes the Green party so sexy?”

It’s difficult to imagine this question being asked about the Scottish Green Party or the Green Party of England and Wales, but it does reflect the current image of the Dutch Greens: suddenly the party has moved away from its ‘geitenwollensokken’(1) image and has become trendy. This is not least because of the party’s new, popular, young, Justin Trudeau look-a-like leader Jesse Klaver. Klaver is a youthful 30 years old and it is perhaps not surprising that the party is currently polling particularly well among the 25-34 age group. The party’s message is one of sustainability, Europe and focused on the future, the antithesis of the right-wing PvV (Freedom Party) led by Geert Wilders. Some have attributed Klaver’s popularity to his hopeful message. Highly-educated young people (among whom the Green Party does particularly well) feel like they have grown up in a world of cynicism and negativity, but do not personally tend to see globalisation or migration as a threat. They are young enough to not be overly concerned about mortgages and pensions but are concerned about issues such as inequality and the environment. Plus, they’re sufficiently optimistic that a better world is possible, and want to contribute to that.

But surely, everyone in the Netherlands is an environmentalist anyway, otherwise you’d be under water?

No, not really. Perhaps influenced by images of millions of cyclists, people are sometimes quick to assume that the Netherlands is at the forefront of radical environmental policy. Whilst there are indeed more bicycles than people, the country does not perform as well in other areas. It is performing poorly on renewable energy, and currently it looks like the Government will miss the 2020 targets. The Dutch target is for 14% of all energy to be produced by renewable sources by 2020 (which in itself is already lower than the 16% European average target). Last year it managed to achieve just half of that (7%).

With the Green Party (possibly) in government, is the Netherlands is going to lead the way on climate action from now on? 

Again, probably not. Dutch political culture is known as the ‘polder model’, a consensus-based approach to decision-making. The approach partly stems from the proportional representation electoral system which favours collaboration over adversary. Coalition governments are the norm: all governments in the last 100 years have been collaborations between two to five political parties. In environmental decision-making the consensus-based model has also been extended beyond the realm of political parties, bringing other stakeholders into the decision-making process. For example, the 2013 Energy Agreement, which sets out energy policy until 2023, was developed through a collaborative process, including 47 stakeholders ranging from Shell to environmental NGOs. While this means that the Agreement has a broad support base and have therefore perhaps a higher rate of success, it also means that any decisions are supported by incumbent interests and thus are unlikely to be very radical in nature. The new government, if they manage to form a coalition, will consist of the Green Party, D66 (comparable to the British Liberal Democrats) and the centre-right VVD and CDA parties. While the VVD tried to project a ‘Green Conservatives’-like image during the election campaign, it’s policy record from the last four year shows little evidence of any transformational environmental policies. While a government including the Green Party and D66 will be somewhat more environmentally-inclined, few think it will deliver radical change.

What about local action? Are communities going to lead the way?

As in the UK, there has been a lot of talk in recent years of a move towards a more participatory society, where people are expected to take on roles and duties that may have previously been delivered by governments. One fundamental difference with the UK is the number and relative strength of local authorities. There are 388 of them, which is almost identical to the UK’s 391 local authorities, but covering a much smaller area and population. The largest local authority in the UK is Highland council, covering 25,657km2, more than 55 times the size of the largest Dutch local authority. Dutch local control and decision-making powers than their UK counterparts. And a number of them are implementing more radical environmental measures than the Dutch Government is. Some of the larger cities are taking the lead with innovative projects, trying to ‘outgreen’ each other. In smaller places there has been a real growth in collaborative projects between authorities and community groups, which does not appear to be as common in the UK. Of course not all environmental action is collaborative and cooperative in nature. In 2015 a group of Dutch citizens took the government to court for not doing enough on climate change, and won. The state has appealed the decision, but if upheld, then it will force the government to implement more radical change.

At the moment it therefore looks that despite the electoral success of the Green party, it might be citizens and lower levels of government who’ll be leading the way on climate change.

 

 

(1)  Geitenwollensokken drager. Literal translation: someone who wears socks made of goats’ wool. Meaning: a tree-hugger.

Image credentials: the local Schouwen-Duivenland GroenLinks branch, https://schouwen-duiveland.groenlinks.nl/

RIPPLES 2.0

SteelCity

Image credit: ‘Sheffield: The Steel City’  © Matt Cockayne, Goo Design

by Mags Tingey

RIPPLES 2.0, our second group meeting, was held in the Steel City at Sheffield Hallam University, on 9-10 January 2017. Rather than endless research updates, we structured our meeting around discussion between fellow RIPPLERs. To that end, and much to my delight, PowerPoint wasn’t fired up once.

As a new group we’d already decided it was important for us to take stock and look forward. What have we achieved over the last year since our first meeting in Edinburgh (March 2016)? And what role has RIPPLES as a group played in that? What do we want to do, and importantly, think we can do, over the next year?

With that in mind, we first spent time taking stock, engineered through a ‘non-cringe worthy’ ice-breaker helpfully introduced by Tim Braunholtz-Speight. And by golly there was so much to congratulate our fellow RIPPLERs about. Vivas had been successfully defended, PhDs awarded, whilst for other studies had just started. There were also new jobs, papers resubmitted, and data collection finally finished. Plus, new babies, cats, and flats. Landmark milestones were aplenty!

After such an enthusiastic start, we got down to the business of discussing papers that some of us have been working on. Will Eadson and Mike Foden outlined their paper on Energy Markets, Communities and the State, whilst I got helpful input and ideas for a paper about the potential for local benefits to be secured from local government engagement with energy. Unfortunately, Bregje van Veelen, who was stuck at the far end of travel disruption in Georgia, was unable to sketch out her paper on energy democracy.

After an evening of not very successful though fiercely competitive pub quizzing, we reconvened on the following morning to look forward and set out a plan to conquer the world (of publishing and conferences). With the support of Jen Dickie, we identified two review papers to collectively write. One on decentralised energy and one on the use of ‘community’ in environmental policy. Conference highlights included Gerry Taylor Aiken coordinating a group of us to submit a session proposal to The Value of Life: Measurement, Stakes, Implications conference in The Netherlands.

So what remains? Although we’re each addressing similar questions from different angles, we confirmed that by coming together we’re able to share knowledge and build on each other’s work. This will, we hope, support discussions on new conceptual thinking about the policy and practice of local environmental sustainability, enable more informed research outputs, and help identify the many research gaps that still exist.

But ‘wait’ I hear you say, ‘put that academic stuff aside’, ‘wasn’t there mention of a pub quiz?’ Indeed, there was, and it would be wrong of me not to end with our most important discoveries of RIPPLES 2.0:

  • that Monday is a very popular night for pub quizzes in Sheffield
  • that very few of us knew much about David Bowie and his many aliases
  • what Rheas are
  • the identities of some surprising vegetarians
  • and what Alan Bennett would sound like with a Scottish accent

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.