Tag Archives: conferences

Group dynamics and “research agendas from below” #IST2015

So, I was at the International Sustainability Transitions Network conference for 3 and a half days. (Here’s my take on days 1 and 2.)

Because I am a mug, I volunteered to be one of the chairs of the “Shaping the future transitions research agenda” process, which ran on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. This meant I got to work with a random bunch of conference delegates to come up with a research topic, a justification for it and a bunch of sample research questions, all to be delivered by Thursday at 7pm.
My group did quite well, apparently – we were even going to have our own stand-alone theme in the final presentation on Friday (but in the end we didn’t.) This high performance was of course entirely down to the good looks, calm demeanour and disciplined intelligence of the chair, and is in no way a result of there being eight very smart, collaborative people committed to the process, who listened to each other intently and intensely, with a total absence of chest-beating and horn-locking. Oh yes.

So, at the foot of this blog post I cut and paste what we sent to the organisers. Before that I outline what I did to ‘chair’ the three sessions, what went well, what didn’t, what I would do differently if I had to do it again. Why? Because I believe in all that iterative learning guff.
NB, Some of my justifications are slightly ex post facto, but not that much.
Session 1 “Who are we?”
This came on Tuesday afternoon, directly after the conference opening and before the plenary. It took me a second to find where I was supposed to be (oops). There were 8 of us. Rather than have each of us say name/position/university (boring, doesn’t work), I had us turn to the person next to us and describe where we had woken that morning and what had happened during the day up to 5pm. I gave people a couple of minutes to do this, then I told them they’d have to introduce that person to the group. My pair went first, to model the concision.
Why this? Because it gave us a sense of which parts of the world we came from, and turned us into humans with families and pasts, rather than brains on a meat-based transport system.

Next I asked if anyone could summarise what our mission was. Fortunately people volunteered a very good explanation. I explained that I didn’t know much more than them, but that we could give it a go!
Why? To find out if everyone was up to speed, and to give people who were a chance to pipe up, rather than listening to me.

Next I had everyone get two pieces of paper and on one write something they were good at and on the other, in a box, something they’d like to be good at. Once everyone had done that, I had us stand and circulate, to see if there were any “skills matches.”
Why? So even if the topic-writing process went tits up (always a possibility/likelihood), people at least had a sense of what others in the group were good at. And who knows, maybe some of them will take the tool and use it elsewhere? PS Next time, I’d make sure I had white and coloured paper…

We then had a quick brainstorm of potential names for our group, and a somewhat confused voting system that lit upon (what I thought was the best) – ‘the Grand Challengers’.

Next I had us split into two groups of four to start brain storming various topics. I scribed for my group (one of the few ways to shut me up), and I asked the other group to have a scribe too.
After about ten minutes, we came together and made a master list, of 9 ideas (which included the one we finally chose).
By then it was time for the plenary. I confirmed with everyone they knew that we would be in the same place and that we were meeting at 4.15 the following day.
Things I forgot to do – encourage us all to visit specific posters during the poster session.

Session 2 Boiling it down to one topic
For this one, on Wednesday, we were missing two people at the outset, but given the short-time frame, couldn’t afford to wait for them. There was one new person, and I got him to introduce himself.

Then I had us work in pairs again, on the question of ‘name one good thing (for you) that has happened so far during the conference’ (that was by then 24 hours old) and we then all reported back on what the other person had said to the big group.
Why? To get people into a positive/grateful frame of mind, and have them talking with someone else at the outset of the hour.

Then I explained what our job was – to boil down to one topic. I also flagged that the role of the chair was NOT to force the team into a decision, especially the chair’s preferred one. I explained that I had a strong preference for one topic (not the one I had come up with!) and that if people felt I was abusing my role, they should kick me in the shins.
It wasn’t clear to me how the group wanted to decide which of the topics. We ran through them, and then started eliminating some, combining others.
We almost decided on pursuing a ‘explaining transitions theory beyond the ivory tower’ theme when, with exquisite timing, one of us [not me!] brought us back to basics – we wanted a specific research topic, not wider actions that the Transitions network might like to undertake.
We all agreed on one topic (with me invoking ‘chair’s role’, but actually I think [hope] that was simply ratifying the consensus?!), and agreed that we would meet, same place, next day…

What I did well – admit my biases, listen to other folks, create conditions for discussion
What I didn’t do well – have had a proper think about how we as a group were going to hone down; it kind of emerged by accident.

Session 3 We had to do the job itself.
We only had an hour for this, and I am still surprised how much we got done.
Fortunately two people had laptops. I asked one to open up a document, and create headings

We quickly got the title and keywords written.
We recapped the research topic that we’d chosen.
There was some discussion about whether to work as one big group on first the abstract and then the proposed research questions, or in parallel. I had a strong preference for in parallel (because a group of 8 moves very slow, and is not particularly smart, with quieter people side-lined and disengaged). Fortunately people were willing to go along with this, and we worked as two separate groups of four, for about 20 minutes.
We then recombined and modified/tightened the abstract. The group I was in had come up with a brainfart of questions in no particular order. This was emailed to the first person with the laptop and then we as a group re-ordered the questions, combined them and tightened them as best we could.

Then we did the proposed tweet.
Then we were out of time…

We only lost two people in the third session (one of whom I spoke to, and he’d been caught up in conversation). That was pretty good, given exhaustion levels had set in and there was a distinct absence of afternoon breaks. We all seemed to enjoy the process, and I think we were happy with the output (though I didn’t test this in any rigorous way!).

Why did it work? First and foremost, a really good mix of very smart participants who were happy to work hard. Did it go better than it otherwise might have thanks to the format? We can’t know. Could it have gone better? Probably. Would be very happy to hear any comments from people in the group or beyond…

And here is what we sent in –

TITLE: Funding the Transition: Timelines and Tensions between State Investment and Private Capital

We propose to study the financial concepts and funding sources necessary for transitions; the diffusion of innovation, and realising transitional pathways. We believe that while niche developments and early full scale applications could be financed by public capital, private investment will be necessary for the next step. To date, the opportunities and challenges posed by privately capital have been largely ignored by the transitions literature.
We propose that a better understanding is necessary to enable and encourage private investments while at the same time safeguarding societal goals and ambitions. Initially, this will include developing endogenous concepts to suit the transition space.

1. What are the emerging finance and regulatory models for transition? (E.g. crowd funding, venture capital)
2. Institutions for financing? Are the current institutions fit the purpose? If not how will niche institutions put pressure on the regime?
3. What are the measurements for success? (In different sectors ROI, return to shareholders, community participation, …)
Contradictions between the emerging niche financing models and the existing financing regime?
4. The role of specific types of investors in different stages of a transition?
5. Destabilisation of regimes (e.g. divestment)
6. Whose money? Is there moral hazard?
7. What opportunities are emerging from financial crises?
8. Alternative financial regime? Advantage of Transparency of investing in concrete projects?
9. What can we learn from failed finance experiments?
10. Bail-out questions?
11. Financing models and effect on technological path dependencies (variety creation or selection)

KEYWORDS: Investment, Transition, Innovation, Upscaling

TWEET: “Show me the money.” Financing the Transition: Who, When, How? #IST2015RA

Environmental #IST2015 – of ‘sustainability transitions’ and (beyond) the ivory tower

There’s nowt as practical as a good theory, as we sometimes say up north. If true, this  would make the University of Sussex one of the most practical places in the world about now.

The sixth istlogoInternational Sustainability Transitions‘ (IST) conference (the main event of this network) is taking place over 3 and a half thought-filled days. I write this blog with angry seagulls for accompaniment, on the morning of day 3, while I still have shreds of spare neuronal capacity.

Sustainability Transitions folks look at how ‘we’ (might) get from our state of using up resources and polluting the atmosphere/oceans quicker and quicker to the putative sunny uplands of a (non-growth?) economy that lives within its environmental means. What are the tools for transition? Who uses them, how and when?  What are the obstacles?  How does it all change over time? Are the theories and frameworks valid globally  or only locally?  The questions ramify…
Study of Sustainability Transitions have been going on for years (well, decades – it depends how you define it), but have special relevance now in the lead-up to conferences that look at climate change and new development goals.

Aware of the charge that this called all be dismissed as ivory tower chattering, the organisers have scheduled two keynotes already, one , on ‘Sustainability Transitions in EU policy‘ from the head of the European Environment Agency , Hans Bruyninckx [it may be career-limiting to say this, but that surname would be an awesome, if unlikely, score in Scrabble]’. The second, ‘In times of transition: the role of goal changers.‘ was by  Jan Rotmans (aside a gazillion other activities, he set up Urgenda, the citizens’ group that successfully sued the Dutch State for not reducing emissions as promised on  This was an entertaining post-Toffler-esque riff on tipping point indicators, ‘harmonica dynamics ‘and ‘front-runners, connectors, topplers and followers. (To share one of my own less-successful neologisms, we may need to get a little… transruptive).

Another keynote, ‘Transformations in global governance for sustainability‘, by Frank Biermann and sponsored by Future Earth, follows this afternoon.

I am hoping that in a not-too-future year we can have one on ‘Where’s My Jetpack?’ (which also happens to be the title of my friend Cameron Roberts erudite and interesting blog). Or perhaps ‘Scientific Progress Goes Boink‘.

All the hallmarks of a ”normal’ academic conference are here. (Writers such as David Lodge have had great fun with the rituals of these sorts of conferences, which are important status competition arenas for the academic tribe, and also (if you are REALLY cynical) a lek.] There are sage on the stage style presentations, question and answer sessions that go well and others that don’t (here’s my too-cynical take, with plaintive practical proposals, on that).

There have been some cracking good sessions that combine theory and practice in useful ways, with succinct answers to questions from panelists There have been other sessions that perhaps don’t reach those dizzying heights. There are times when the program is over-packed and people vote with their feet, and have an extended coffee break or natter in the corners (meeting old friends and making new ones, swapping gossip and proposing future work, are of course, the major draw for these events). As with many things in this life,, ‘what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.’

Personally the most ‘useful’ bits (so far) have been

a) the poster session (there are always too many proposed papers to fit into the schedule, so one way of keeping people happy/increasing opportunities for knowledge exchange is to have people make posters of istpostertheir research projects). My poster is on my efforts so far to ‘prove’ (in the French sense) and extend the awesome ‘Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model‘ of Geels and Penna.
I had a bunch of very well-informed people telling me about the (unsavoury) nitty-gritty of the German ‘Energiewende’ (energy transformation)

b) the innovative ‘get-together-three-times-with-a-random-group-of-conference-attendees-and-propose-a-new-research-topic.

Given that sustainability transitions are about innovation (which usually starts at the ‘edges’) it’s good to see the organisers trying to if ‘institutionalise’ this, (or at least create the conditions of it being more likely!) Over the two sessions eight of us, going by the name of the ‘Grand Challengers’ have honed in the topic of ‘Funding the transition(s) – time-lines and tensions between state and private capital.‘ This afternoon we have to write a 250 word abstract and a tweet (bless you, twenty-first century).

The final session of the conference, on Friday afternoon, will hear back from the many groups (none with as cool a name as ours, to be sure) about the proposed topics.

As the carbon climbs, and oceans acidify and the species are disappeared, we humans will try to use the same brains and opposable thumbs that got us into this mess to get us out. It’s what we do.