Category Archives: biographical

Manchester and the ‘what to do’ question…

Manchester is famous the world over for its football, its music and now, sadly, for being the latest in an ever-lengthening list of European cities that have suffered terrrorist atrocities- Madrid, London, Oslo, Brussels, Berlin, Nice, Paris – in recent years. (And globally the list takes in Oklahoma City, Boston, Mumbai, Baghdad and so very many others).

Manchester has had terrorist incidents before, (such as the IRA bombing in 1996) but Monday night’s atrocity is on a different level of horror.

The pattern is familiar now – the attack, the rolling media coverage, the hashtags, the facebook ‘safe status’ search, the heartbreaking circulation of photographs of the missing – young, innocent people – the tales of heroism, the diligent professional work of the emergency services, the skill of the medical staff, followed by speculation about the perpetrators and their motives, the resolute sombre speeches of national leaders, and the solidarity expressed by other politicians, especially those from cities recently afflicted.

Also there are vigils. Last night thousands of us gathered in front of the Town Hall for a much needed vigil and show of solidarity, unity. The city had been on edge all day. Sirens and helicopters, people compulsively checking updates on social media and news feeds. The now all-too-familiar messages of solidarity from other cities that have been the subject of attack in the recent past. And when (not, sadly, if) the next attack happens, then Manchester’s leaders will themselves be signing condolence books and sending tweets.

I was with my wife and friends, and although we heard some of the poem, we heard little of the speeches of assorted political and religious leaders (it was a bit like that opening scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – blessed are the cheesemakers).

Of course, the words were not the point. The point was that Manchester rejects the idiocy of hate, divisions based on class, religion or race.  Manchester is cosmopolitian, and very determined to say that way.

What can we do?

The blood banks are full to overflowing – for now. But giving blood is a really good thing to do, part of the gift relationship. A work colleague wrote yesterday “Fear of needles not withstanding, I tried to give blood this morning because I am O-. However, they are a bit overwhelmed and can’t register me yet. I should have registered before. Anyway, if you are a registered, universal donor, you are exactly who they are looking for right now!”

Perhaps put a note in your diary for a fortnight, or a month’s time from now?

I personally don’t think the choice of target – where young women gather to hear about women’s power – was an accident. Neither do people like Australian commentator Greg Sheridan. So, continuing to support increased opportunities for everyone (while recognising the historical and systemic barriers that women have faced)

Contesting some of the ways that this atrocity will be used. I think there are two things here. Firstly, people outside the UK (and within it) have some very weird (by that I mean “wrong”) ideas about how things are. Remember the terrorism “expert” who claimed in 2015 that Birmingham was a ‘no-go’ zone?

To quote a wise friend

please push back against people with very transparent agendas who will use this event to talk about Manchester as some kind of “war zone”, or make references to “no-go zones” where lots of South Asian immigrants live. I’ve already seen people pushing that narrative, and it couldn’t be more wrong. Manchester is a beautiful city full of sports, music, and history, and it is made all the better by its diversity….. Muslim taxi drivers offered free rides to get people away from the arena. Muslim doctors worked overtime to help the victims…. And today, as the smoke is clearing, people are dusting themselves off, helping and comforting the victims, and getting on with their lives. Manchester is resilient and it will survive this.”

My wife, who speaks both Arabic and acerbic spent time yesterday doing precisely this kind of ‘push back’ work on Twitter and Facebook, against those who want to stir up hatred and stupidity.  It’s a Sisyphean challenge of course. Or perhaps, more like cleaning out the Augean stables.

Secondly, the attack may be used as part of the ongoing power grab by the State, for ever more control, surveillance. This is really tricky, because on the one hand there is a need for more frontline staff, but at the same time swelling budgets end up swelling the scope of the state’s reach into private lives. Troops on the streets is, at the very least, ‘unsettling.’  Those who try to exchange freedom for safety often end up with neither.

When you think climate change, think “dam”…. #3MT

Here’s me giving my spiel in the “Three Minute Thesis” heat at University of Manchester

Here’s the slide I used.

hoover dam3


And… I’m through to the Three Minute Thesis Final to be held on Wednesday June 7, between 2pm and 3:30pm in University Place Lecture Theatre A. You can register for a (free!) ticket



Learning by doing – it’s the only way…

Case. Study. Bloody. Research.  Still, it meant I read

Stake, R. 1995. The Art of Case Study Research. London: Sage,

And on page 35-6 there is this gem-

One century ago, philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey argued that science was not moving in the direction not helping humans understand themselves:
Only from his actions, his fixed utterances, his effects upon others, can man learn about himself; thus he learns to know himself only by the round-about way of understanding. What we once were , how we developed and became what we are, we learn from the way in which we acted, the plans which we once adopted, the way in which we made ourselves felt in our vocation, from old dead letters, from judgments on which were spoken long ago… We understand ourselves and others only when we transfer our lived experience into every kind of expression of our own and other people’s lives.


Which puts me in mind of Jason Bourne in the second Bourne movie (The Bourne Supremacy) – while he is Goa, static, the memories are not coming clearly. Only when he moves do things begin to unlock…. (Compare Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – can only shoot well when moving…)

Retching wretchedly in the datasmog

Long-time case researcher Harry Wolcott wrote in his manual (1990).

The critical task in qualitative research is not to accumulate all the data you can, but to “can” (i.e. get rid of) most of the data you accumulate. This requires constant winnowing. The trick is to discover essences and then to reveal those essences with sufficient context, yet not become mired trying to include everything that might possibly be described. Audiotapes, videotapes, and now computer capabilities entreat us to do just the opposite; they have gargantuan appetites and stomachs. Because we can accommodate ever-increasing quantities of data – mountains of it – we have to be careful not to get buried by avalanches of our own making.

Stake, R. 1995. The Art of Case Study Research. London: Sage. (p 84)

Wolcott, H. 1990. Writing Up Qualitative Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

“Confer”ence – the clue is in the name; excellent #transitions event in Lausanne

A brilliant event –  the “2nd PhDs in Transitions Conference: Theory and Practice – took place in Switzerland, last week.  Organised by four enterprising PhD students, it was a 48 hour space for students at different stages of the process (from touching naive enthusiasm all the way through to night-sweat panic) to exchange ideas and advice, with a few older hands there to nudge and challenge as appropriate.  And repeatedly transitioning from sobriety to merriness, obviously.

How many times do you go to a conference expecting to get useful feedback on your work, meet lots of like-minded and sympathetic potential-future colleagues, and have space to think about others’ work and how it might help your own,  but come away disappointed?  We’ve all been there – or will be there – an over-stuffed programme, with alpha (male) chest-beating displays and turf battles making conferring (the clue is in the name, that’s what a conference is for, no) that much more difficult, if not impossible.

All of the former and none of the latter was in evidence last week in Lausanne.  Around 45 would/will-be-scholars of socio-technical transitions gathered to…. Wait,  what is socio-technical transitions when it’s at home?’ I hear a reader ask – well, roughly,  it’s a new academic field/sub-discipline/whatever you-want-to-call-it, where geographers, historians, economic modellers, innovation scholars, political scientists, technology geeks etc (try to) grapple with the how/when/why of societies moving from one way of organising things (food, transport, energy) to another.  Within it you’ve got all sorts of competing rules-of-thumb (Multi-level perspective, transitions management, technological innovation systems, strategic niche management –

as many as there are grants for, basically).

Clear enough?  Okay, … 45 PhD students got together to deliver powerpoint presentations, get feedback, engage in workshops, schmooze and drink (the latter activity constrained by the 7 quid pints of Switzerland).

The event was held near on the EPFL campus in Lausanne, within walking distance of Lake Geneva.

A building opposite the venue was under scaffolding, with a bright red banner advertising “FACT construction”, which will have annoyed any positivists  who had stumbled in by mistake.

fact construction at lausanne

After registration of Swiss efficiency, day one started with a keynote/Q& A “Presenting different transition frameworks, history and application.”  Too much to fully capture here, but this’

As per Kern and Markard (2016) on socio-technical transitions versus transitions you gotta see they’re value laden, public policies matter, power and politics are central (vested interests, winners and losers, coalitions and alliances), they’re complex, uncertain, long-term, context dependent and multidimensional.  [tl:dr – it’s complicated, usually more complicated than you are willing or able to see, especially if you fall in love with a technology or a policy or a set of events. You gotta step back and try to see the wood for the trees. Which needs lotsa lenses. Good luck.]

There are various traps – with (young) scholars as the mice, the cheese being the technology/policy/concepts/set of events with which they become transfixed and the trap being the (intellectual) cage they might build for themselves.

  • You might read (too much) literature (not systematically enough) and get hopelessly confused [this never happened to me, not at all.]
  • You might raise issues in a paper and get beaten down by a senior scholar (“It’s all in my earlier writing”)
  • You might end up ‘reinventing poor copies of old wheels (ad hoc theorising)
  • You  might end up getting sidelined by “mainstream” disciplines which ignore 20 years of spade work
  • You might get caught up in too much jargon, a lack of definitions, the micro-macro confusion, (and not everything meso is much help with that), the structure-agency dilemma.

In the words of one of the presenters, you might end up “riding the same old horse, sometimes feeling it’s already dead.”

How to navigate these various Scyllae and Charbydises?  Delineating systems, having better methodologies so the comparison of empirical studies becomes possible, staying woke to the normativity problem (i.e. normative motives don’t excuse sloppy methodology).  We were urged to “build bridges but also stand on our own two legs”, to “be constructively critical and intermittently bold” to be “obsessed with methodological rigour.” In addition, not to be too naive in our normativity and to develop better policy advice.

One speaker argued that we need more studies of technologies NOT taking off, and of industrial decline.  Further, we need to be able to look at exactly how strong a regime is (labelling it ‘semi-coherent’ might only deflect rather than resolve the problem).

Lunch was followed by two 90 minute sessions where three or four students presented their work for ten minutes, followed by ten minutes of Q and A (the chairs did a fine job, with no need for the clap clinic technique).

hm2 Clap Clinic

Those watching the presentations were invited to give their comments directly or via bright pink/yellow post-its.  “That’s a meaningless gimmick that will fail”  I thought, when it was explained.  100% wrong, of course – it worked a treat, and thanks to the six people who wrote down encouragement/advice [though not to the person who listed all those mouth-watering articles.  Like I need distraction from WRITING.]

There were sessions with titles like “the diffusion of innovations and technologies”, “reflections on participation, changing contexts and experiments in energy transitions” and “participation and communities in transition processes.”

The day closed with an “Apero” (that’s Swiss for wine, beer and nibbles) and was followed by drinks in the city centre, with the Dutch dressed in Orange for King’s day.

Day two was two more sessions including “transitions’ spatiality and the role of cities” and “agency and power in transition processes”, with presenters using the advocacy coalition framework

and also the multiple streams approach

Three parallel workshops – “modelling in transition studies”, “Social Network Analysis in Transition studies” and “Applicability of transition frameworks in developing countries” were followed by lunch and a final session – “simulating the role of individuals in sustainability transitions” and “applying practice perspectives in transition research.”

Basically, the conference (far) exceeded the expectations of everyone I spoke to.   Why did it work? IMHO because it was

  • Well organised.
  • Careful selection of attendees
  • A ‘night before’ social
  • Long enough breaks between sessions (half an hour) and a decent lunch break (90 mins on the first day and 60 on the second).
  • The organisers had clearly thought about what they wanted to achieve
  • Subtle and well-executed support from the invited ‘big beasts’ who knew exactly how and when to give us the benefit of their accrued experience (I would say wisdom, but that would be too sycophantic, even for me.)
  • No gaudy or aggressive displays by anyone

What could have been better?

“Not much” is the short answer.   Perhaps something on how to increase the impact of transitions scholarship in civil society (as opposed to simply giving presentations and keynotes to policy-makers) might have been a useful fourth workshop or discussion session?  (It was planned, apparently, but wasn’t possible for personnel reasons).  The only other “criticism” is that the bar has been set so very high for the third PhD student conference which (hopefully) will happen next year.

Unsolicited advice –  PhD students in transition studies should beg borrow steal or blackmail in order to be able to come to the next one, wherever it is.

Good things to do in Lausanne- The lake, obvs.  Three stops on the Metro from the Gare, at Ouchy-Olympique.

The pizza place opposite the station  called Bella Vita.  The horse, I am told, is lovely.

A final shout out – to all those who organised the first conference, in Greenwich, (building on the research agenda thing from IST 2015).  Without your efforts to get the ball rolling, this Lausanne thing couldn’t have happened.  Thanks!

UPDATE 30 April 2017- Thanks to Pete, who commented on this video on “anxiety, social class and who feels comfortable at top-down meetings” from 2013, with this link to “the conference manual“, which is brilliant and hilarious.

UPDATE Two – here, fwiw, is a blogpost I wrote about last year’s two day DPhil conference at SPRU