please – not a heroic impact narrative

patter

Recently I’ve seen and read a lot of hero/heroine narratives. But no more than is usual in journal articles I’m sent to review and edit. They now seem to be popping up in research impact plans and claims about impact.

You know these heroic narratives – they are everywhere from nursery rhymes to popular films. It’s the knight on a white charger who slays the dragon, the cowboy who rids the town of lazy barflies, the cop who cleans up the burb and sends all those good-for-nuttin drug dealers and pimps to the big house.

There is a research version of this kind of narrative. You know them too I’m sure. The researcher/lecturer/professional rides into town – usually this is an impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people/ hopeless policy agenda. Through the process of intervention/teaching/participatory or action research/evaluation the impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people floundering around/hopeless policy agenda becomes…

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“The importance of stupidity in scientific research” by Martin A. Schwartz

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do without that feeling. I even think it’s supposed to be this way. Let me explain.

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.

Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about `relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

“The Future of Cities”, documentary


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/195304295″>The Future of Cities</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/ohboyson”>Oscar Boyson</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

“Why we bike?” Documentary

To the Dutch, cycling is as normal as breathing. We don’t think about it, we just do it. Perhaps the fact that we don’t think about it, is the key to the bicycle’s success in this country. But because we do not give cycling a second thought, we don’t really know what the deeper needs of cyclists are. In the documentary ‘Why we cycle’ we take a ride with ordinary cyclists and specialists from a variety of disciplines. These conversations uncover some obvious, but even more hidden effects of cycling on people, on societies, and on the organization of cities.

Rush Hour, a documentary on “hypercommuters” today

Rush Hour Synopsis: A feature documentary about the odyssey involved in commuting to and from work in three large contemporary cities: Los Angeles, Istanbul and Mexico City. Rush Hour is an intimate approach to the personal stories of three commuters who spend hours of their lives going from home to work and back, reflection a common reality shared by billions of people. What is the impact of these lost hours on their relationships an their quality of life? What really direves them to make this journey every day? What does this say about our cities and our way of living them? This is not inherent of a specific area of the world, neither it has to do with gender or class, but rather it is a global issue that has to do with the way we have developed and conceived our largest cities.

Further info: https://www.citylab.com/life/2018/05/awful-commuting-unites-us-all/560624/?utm_source=SFTwitter

 

Ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability: an overview and conceptual framework

Abstract

Can ecological distribution conflicts turn into forces for sustainability? This overview paper addresses in a systematic conceptual manner the question of why, through whom, how, and when conflicts over the use of the environment may take an active role in shaping transitions toward sustainability. It presents a conceptual framework that schematically maps out the linkages between (a) patterns of (unsustainable) social metabolism, (b) the emergence of ecological distribution conflicts, (c) the rise of environmental justice movements, and (d) their potential contributions for sustainability transitions. The ways how these four processes can influence each other are multi-faceted and often not a foretold story. Yet, ecological distribution conflicts can have an important role for sustainability, because they relentlessly bring to light conflicting values over the environment as well as unsustainable resource uses affecting people and the planet. Environmental justice movements, born out of such conflicts, become key actors in politicizing such unsustainable resource uses, but moreover, they take sometimes also radical actions to stop them. By drawing on creative forms of mobilizations and diverse repertoires of action to effectively reduce unsustainabilities, they can turn from ‘victims’ of environmental injustices into ‘warriors’ for sustainability. But when will improvements in sustainability be lasting? By looking at the overall dynamics between the four processes, we aim to foster a more systematic understanding of the dynamics and roles of ecological distribution conflicts within sustainability processes.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11625-017-0519-0

 

“City, Street and Citizen The Measure of the Ordinary” by Suzanne Hall

How can we learn from a multicultural society if we don’t know how to recognise it? The contemporary city is more than ever a space for the intense convergence of diverse individuals who shift in and out of its urban terrains. The city street is perhaps the most prosaic of the city’s public parts, allowing us a view of the very ordinary practices of life and livelihoods. By attending to the expressions of conviviality and contestation, ‘City, Street and Citizen’ offers an alternative notion of ‘multiculturalism’ away from the ideological frame of nation, and away from the moral imperative of community. This book offers to the reader an account of the lived realities of allegiance, participation and belonging from the base of a multi-ethnic street in south London.

‘City, Street and Citizen’ focuses on the question of whether local life is significant for how individuals develop skills to live with urban change and cultural and ethnic diversity. To animate this question, Hall has turned to a city street and its dimensions of regularity and propinquity to explore interactions in the small shop spaces along the Walworth Road. The city street constitutes exchange, and as such it provides us with a useful space to consider the broader social and political significance of contact in the day-to-day life of multicultural cities.

Grounded in an ethnographic approach, this book will be of interest to academics and students in the fields of sociology, global urbanisation, migration and ethnicity as well as being relevant to politicians, policy makers, urban designers and architects involved in cultural diversity, public space and street based economies.

Source: https://www.routledge.com/City-Street-and-Citizen-The-Measure-of-the-Ordinary/Hall/p/book/9780415688659

The Photographer of highly impacted landscapes by human intervention


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/261502643″>Tom Hegen: The Salt Series</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/1854media”>1854 Media</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

France Plans an Extreme Makeover for Struggling Small Cities

FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN MAY 2, 2018                        Source: CityLab
Action Coeur de Ville aims to undo the damage of urban sprawl in more than 200 city centers across the country.

France’s city centers are about to get one of the biggest makeovers in their history. Following an announcement last month, the country is launching a vast €5 billion ($6.1 billion) plan called Action Coeur de Ville (Action: Heart of the City) intended to revamp 222 city cores over the next five years with new stores, offices, co-working spaces, and renovated housing.

The amount of money and the sheer number of cities involved in the plan are impressive, and they reveal something little discussed outside France. Despite the country’s justified reputation for urban charm, many French city cores are in a bad state. They got that way through a string of mistakes that will seem eerily familiar to North Americans.

The idea that many French cities are struggling might seem jarring to many people. Walk around the heart of Paris—or major cities such as Nantes or Strasbourg—and you’ll be struck by their apparent success. The streets bustle and are well peppered with small businesses and markets, while housing stock is attractive and in largely good condition.

Go further down the population scale to what the French call Villes Moyennes—“average cities” with populations between 15,000 and 100,000—and that’s where you’ll find failure in the French urban core. These cities are demographically significant and economically vital. They contain 23 percent of France’s population and 26 percent of its jobs. Right now, however, they’re not doing well. Taken together, they report poverty and vacancy rates higher than the national average, lower rates of young graduates, and an unemployment rate that’s a worrying 82 percent higher than France’s as a whole.

Map of the cities participating in Action Coeur de Villes, viewable in larger format here. (Ministère de la Cohésion des territoires)
Some of these problems can be explained by deindustrialization. Many of these medium-sized cities are in France’s now-beleaguered former industrial heartland in the Northeast. Much blame must still be laid at the door of France’s longstanding attitudes to planning. Smaller cities have been laid low partly by an extremely relaxed attitude to urban sprawl, one that has sucked life out of city cores and left many key activities out on the periphery, only really accessible by car. This might not seem a classically French phenomenon, but France isn’t just reflecting a trend to sprawl that’s common across the West. In smaller cities, it has arguably exceeded its neighbors.

That’s because when France moved toward classic 20th century car-friendly infrastructure planning, it moved early and it moved hard. With a large domestic car industry, post-war France was a European trailblazer in creating a nationwide network of out of town malls and retail parks, all well connected to what was then considered an exemplary new highway network.

The country (along with Belgium) was a pioneer of the big-box store, rolling out huge shopping complexes called Hypermarchés that sold everything from clothes to croissants since the 1960s—a phenomenon that didn’t emerge in Britain or Germany until the 1980s or later. It wasn’t just retail that left town centers. Amenities like sports centers and employment agencies—and in cases such as Besançon, even railway stations—also moved out by municipal decree toward the new beltways, creating a situation where the first announcement of arrival in any French city today is not a city wall or fringe of villas but a rampart of parking lots and home improvement stores.

 

The southwestern city of Bayonne, pictured here, will receive funds from Action Coeur de Ville. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)
So why did France’s smaller cities develop such an appetite for sprawl? According to Oliver Razemon, author of Comment La France a Tué Ses Villes (“How France Killed Its Towns”), the driving forces are a combination of France’s late urbanization and cultural assumptions pushed through the education system.

“100 years ago, most French people were still living in the countryside,” Razemon told CityLab. “This creates a very different attitude in France to, say, Germany or Italy, where the cities are often far older than the recently founded nation state. In France, by contrast, there is not much attachment to towns as elsewhere.” France’s political system may also have contributed to this attitude. When the country was divided into new units called départements after the revolution, it was partly a process of rationalization and partly an attempt to break down historic regional ties between districts and replace them with a structure governed by appointees from central government. This wasn’t a process designed to create closer affiliation to smaller cities.

“The last government thought it was just about shops. This current government at least realizes it is about amenities and housing, too.”
The French, Razemon says, have also been taught that their country has an overflowing bounty of spare room. “French people have long had the feeling that theirs is a big country, and that therefore there is a lot of space to do whatever you want. Certainly that’s what was being taught 40 years ago, that France was a very big, extremely geographically diverse place.”

There’s some justification to this attitude. Compared to the non-coastal U.S., France may seem heavily populated, but by Western European standards it has a remarkable spaciousness. The comparison of Metropolitan France (that is, subtracting the country’s overseas territories) with the U.K. is instructive. Both countries have a similar population—65.6 million in the U.K. versus 65 million in Metro France—but France’s land area is more than two-and-a-half times greater. As France’s direct self-comparisons are mainly with the neighboring, densely populated Low Countries, Southern England, and Western Germany, it’s understandable that the French have felt that they had a bit of developmental wriggle room. France’s now egregious-seeming tendency to sprawl also had an optimistic bent to it 50 years ago. The country was moving away from a rather grim, poverty-stricken early 20th century and wanted to acquire the best trappings of modernity, which in the 1960s and ‘70s was commonly felt to mean more cars and more car-tailored conveniences.

The effects of unchecked development have still been clearly detrimental in smaller cities. The smaller businesses that France is famous for—and often still thrive in major cities—have closed wholesale, as jobs move to the urban periphery away from the restaurants and cafés they would have sustained if they worked in city centers. As a result, Razemon notes, butchers and bakers have been shuttered in many city centers, replaced by tattoo parlors or pawn shops, or simply left empty. In places such as the far-northern city of Arras (included in the new action plan) vacancy rates have hit 20 percent of all real estate. And while historic buildings are still kept in largely good condition, public squares have been taken over by parking lots. Meanwhile 19th and early 20th century structures are often rundown, leaving parts of even rather beautiful old quarters (such as Perpignan’s) with a reputation as undesirable, low-quality places to live.

The city of Auxerre, about 100 miles southeast of Paris, also stands to receive money from the scheme. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
What makes this process more striking is that France has made a sow’s ear out of a silk purse—its urban treasure chest is still rich in beauty. Away from the world war battlefields, traveling from one town to another feels like running down a thread of jewels in which each stone is distinctive and delightful. When it comes to sheer consistency of charm, only Portugal’s smaller cities can really match France’s trove within Europe, and only Italy’s can surpass it.

A look at the cities included in the action plan bears this out. Look at this improbably grand square plonked in the middle of humdrum Angoulême (population 42,000), the Germanic half-timbered houses along the riverside in the Alsatian city of Colmar (68,000), the dramatic hillside setting of Laon (25,000) or the grid-planned orderliness of late-medieval Villefranche de Rouergue (12,000). Even cities in regions less commonly thought to be picturesque, such as far northern Bethune (26,000) turn out to be rich in character and variety.

Not all of these cities are struggling, of course. Towns that have a large flow of tourists do well, as do very remote cities (where people have stayed downtown) and places where mountains or lakes hem in the potential for sprawl. But many still need a reboot.