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Monday, 23 November 2015

Resilience is inside every one of you – you just have to know where to find it…

Bizarre objects covering the workshop tables. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
Fourthland came to the Cabot Institute from London to give a workshop which would help us look into how resilience forms an important part of our research across all disciplines. Walking into the room with weird objects laid out and the sound of an Irish choir repeating a hypnotic chant, I instantly knew this would be a very different kind of exploration of our academic research.

A resilient performance

Fourthland started their artistic performance by holding a rope and folding it up…cue lots of confused looks around the room and people shifting uneasily in their seats.  I couldn’t help thinking what on earth have I signed myself up to?!  Asking everyone to close their eyes, Fourthland continue to set up the room with props.
Folding of rope. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
Upon opening of eyes, everyone was asked to communicate through gestures and not use their voice. A volunteer was plucked from the room to randomly play a piano whilst participants took hay, eggshells, string and a big dish of what looked like the biggest poppadum I had ever seen - it was actually a flat bowl made from wax.  Manipulating all these ‘ingredients’ separately in small groups by making straw bundles, ‘moving mountains’ with eggshells, and weaving string in and out and around the room, binding the room together, there was a sense that this had meaning in a way that could not be explained verbally.  This is where writing about the experience is tough.  What on earth was happening, what did it all mean and where was the relevance to resilience?  I couldn’t quite see it at that point…

Fourthland continued and read from a scroll rolled up in a rolling pin.  The scroll contained all the thoughts of the researchers that had contributed to our resilience programme over the last few weeks.  Contributions came from social science, engineering, arts, and the sciences.  After all the noise and manipulating of simple materials subsided, a group of volunteers sat at the front of the room (named the ‘keepers of culture’) reflected on what they thought had just happened.  
The Resilience Workshop at Cabot Institute. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Digesting the workshop

Taking the time to digest what had just happened was critically important at this point.  We had spent 20 minutes inside this weird bubble of wax and string and sound and eggshells and straw and a whole load of visual and aural bombardments.  How was the room making sense of it all? I was intrigued.

First reactions were that lots had happened without actually seeing it.  Everyone was so engrossed in their little task with their simple material that they didn’t feel like they saw everything that was going on but everyone seemed to sense most stuff that was happening around them, regardless of whether they saw it or not. It wasn’t until everyone stopped and looked around at the transformation of the room that we all realised just how much we had changed our simple materials and our presence in the room.

Cycling and circles were prominent, connecting everyone – whether it was a circular straw wreath, circles in the eggshells or circles of string around the room.
The creation of a circular straw wreath by Cabot Institute academic during
Resilience Workshop. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
The  people sat around the large wax dish, were told to deconstruct it but ended up remoulding it and building something up instead which demonstrated how resilient we can be. Even if we destroy something, we can still make something out of what remains.  The group reflecting on the deconstruction of the wax bowl felt destructive to change it but then this feeling reversed once they realised that the wax warmed in their hands and became quite malleable. The wax group described resilience through beeswax in that it can be remoulded if you hold it in your hand long enough but you can also snap it causing a shock. The snapping led to a remoulding of the wax which seemed like a natural process.

Workshop participants breaking up a wax bowl.
Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
The group who had the straw (four male academics) weren't quite sure why they were creating bundles of straw or where they were going with it but they quickly and quietly started a production line to build a big nest. It felt meaningless to them whilst making the straw bundles but reflecting on it afterwards, they felt that they were creating something new, creating new life, and undertaking the basic processes of being human.
Making straw bundles and a nest. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
The string group, with a bundle of string and no scissors started by miming cats cradles to each other but then realised that not having scissors meant they had to think more creatively about what they were doing with the string…so they connected everyone in the room up. Once everyone in the room was connected they then turned to making the string look more attractive, embellishing it with knots and some borrowed straw.  The string group felt that this process made them question permission e.g. who they could tie up with string, were they allowed to go around the room with the string in the first place? They noticed that there was a bit of risk-taking involved in tying around people and creating trip hazards. In the space of boredom they associated their permissions. No one had said they couldn't do what they were doing, so they just assumed that they could. Thinking about resilience it was interesting to see what permission allows you to do but also where it restricts your resilience.
Tying the room up with string and embellishing with straw.
Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
The eggshell groups were told to ‘move mountains’. They got into a rhythm of piling up the eggshells to be ‘something’ and moving them around in a collective action without collective words. One eggshell group found that they had both been working on the same creation but that once they spoke to each other - one was working on creating an ‘island’ and the other a ‘sun’.  They had the same collective result even though they weren’t working with the same idea.  An important lesson – collaboration with people whose ideas or beliefs we don’t hold or understand is vitally important for being resilient to whatever life throws at us. It seemed that order was created out of the chaos of those eggshells.
Two people worked on this pile of eggshells in silence. One thought he was
creating an island, the other the sun. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Artistic interpretations of resilience

After hearing peoples general reactions to the performance, Fourthland started to explain the artistic meaning behind the performance.  Each of the resources on the table (straw, eggshells, wax, string) were ‘scarce’ and Fourthland wanted to see how people would be creative whilst the items on the table were running out. The room worked across their academic disciplines by not speaking but creating new things.  

Fourthland asked how people would describe the process if we were to tell it again. A silence ensued whilst participants gathered their thoughts.  Someone said it was ‘child-like’, others said it was ‘different’ and there was audible pleasure in the room emanating from ‘giggles’.  There was uncertainty about what was being created and people wondered what the story was and what their part was in it.

Fourthland discussed how long the process should have taken. Usually they go for forty minutes and interrupt half way through. This time they went for twenty minutes to see what happened when people knew they had limited time.  Reflecting back, knowing that we had limited time to create something from nothing seemed to really kickstart the academics.  Knowing that the Cabot Institute academics have it within themselves to work together on issues of resilience around future cities and societies, climate change and sustainable engineering, it made me realise how important this whole process had been.  In a way it was life affirming because the work they do now has much more meaning and importance, and allowing creativity of ideas through a collective consciousness is invaluable to the future of humanity.

Academic interpretations

Below are some of the academic interpretations of the resilience workshop, all meaningful and thought provoking:
  • One scientist thought the workshop was about the individual stories and that life was precious. 
  • “It was less about looking for someone else in the room who knew what was happening and more about what I knew”.
  • “We took away our human stuff e.g. language and knowledge, and sought an older part of ourselves, like making eye contact in order to make and do and continue”. 
  • A social scientist asked about cooperation and what happens if something happens that is malign like external shocks? What happens to that group cooperation?  If the shock came you would need to know that you can all come together to get over that shock. 
  • Another point well-made was that there was a whole load of people who weren't in the room. “Every time we try to be resilient we are excluding certain groups”.

Future thoughts on resilience

Fourthland said that the process was all about stories and myths in stories. However one academic counteracted this and said that these myths already exist, for example, in cultures such as Native American Indians and Aborigines. These cultures have passed down ‘myths’ and ‘stories’ generation to generation that will get us through our important global situation. The academic said we shouldn't necessarily create new stories but “listen to the stories that already exist”.

I don't know about anyone else in the room but Fourthland totally blew my mind and I feel rather differently about life and the future of life. It is looking increasingly likely that ours and future generations will have to cope with a more uncertain world as global governments are not pulling their weight with regards to environmental policies and regulations around emissions, climate change, environmental degradation and more. But the resilience that lies inside every one of us and the innate capacity that we have to work together even when we have nothing in common gives me much hope for the future.

This blog has been written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Coordinator at the Cabot Institute.  Follow @Enviro_Mand.
Amanda Woodman-Hardy
To find out more about Fourthland visit

Fourthland will be holding a resilience exhibition at the Arnolfini in Bristol 26-29 November 2015. More details, all welcome.

If you fancy experiencing what we experienced, they are also holding a conference on 28 November 2015 to explore resilience further. Please contact for more information.

For another perspective on this resilience workshop, read Cabot Institute Manager Hayley Shaw’s blog Resilience: The power of being bored and mindless  

Fourthland conference and workshops 26 November - 29 November 2015, bookings open:

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Delivering the ‘Future City’: our economy and the nature of ‘growth’

In Bristol’s European Green Capital year, the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute have been working with the Bristol Green Capital Partnership and its members to convene a series of four conversations between Bristol academics and city ‘thinkers’ from across public, private and civil society exploring how Bristol delivers the ‘future city’ –  what capacities it needs to be resilient, sustainable and successful and how it can start to develop these in times of changing governance and tightened finances. The conversations will be reflected in a series of four blogs (the fourth below) and then brought together as a policy report as well as discussing at the Festival of the Future City in November.  You can connect to the other blogs from this series at the bottom of this blog.
Wordle of what we thought we'd talk about...
Cities such as Bristol are increasingly prominent in national growth strategies. The economic growth that Bristol helps to drive plays a fundamental role in shaping many aspects of life within the city. Different sectors, areas and social groups participate in and feel the impacts of growth in different ways. For some, the need for growth is unquestionable, particularly in an era of austerity, with the assumption that growth somehow underpins the pursuit of all other objectives. But for others, the pre-eminent growth logic is divisive socially and unsustainable environmentally. Growth therefore needs to be at least managed and possibly challenged more fundamentally. In this fourth conversation we considered what economic models make sense for the city and what capacity the city has to make changes in the context of a national and international economic system.

Growth – the elephant in the room?

In considering the future economy of the city, growth is the dominant idea but does this have to be economic growth with the associated ongoing increase of resource consumption? As we saw when discussing austerity, GDP growth is not contributing to long term stability environmentally or societally.   This debate was an opportunity to further explore growth and other measures of prosperity and how much is within the city’s control.

One participant drew an analogy with the natural environment and the way that living organisms are born, develop, mature and die – there isn’t enough space for everything to grow indefinitely. If we only talk about growth then we are only talking about half of life and missing the bit where some things die in order to make space to develop and nurture other life or something new.

There are two big reasons for needing growth, one is to service (interest bearing) debt – to pay back more than was borrowed needs growth. The second reason that growth is the mantra, particularly internationally, is that if a population is growing, you need economic growth otherwise by definition living standards are declining - and population growth is something else that is difficult to talk about. There is a common perception of growth as meaning success, an investment for your children.
What are the alternatives and how to we get to something that is more about leading happier, more fulfilled, healthier lives, something about development rather than growth?

International vs. local 

One of the problems is that we are part of a global system, but there are things that a city controls and can change. The more business that is done locally or regionally, the more that power and funds move away from big corporations to something more transparent and locally based, where the organisations have a direct interest in the populations that they serve.

If the current systems seem too embedded and talk of developing alternative frames and narratives too difficult to achieve then don’t talk, just do things differently. The idea of ‘everyday making’ is that individuals just start behaving differently day-to-day, it has a cumulative effect and the end product is change. It’s an idea in academic literatures but it can be seen in real life too. Examples include buying food from local suppliers, ethically sourced clothing, and saving in green investment funds. In Bristol, the Bristol Pound is a manifestation of this idea - that by having a local currency people can gradually make more conscious consumption decisions. The new ‘Real Economy’ network has been developed through the Bristol Pound in an attempt to challenge the dominance of big business supermarkets. In the Real Economy, buying groups source food from local producers to start to create a food system that is fairer to all.

The Bristol Pound currency. Image credit Bristol Pound.

Talking about economics

Another issue is that many people feel disempowered when there is talk of economics, they feel that they don’t know enough, that somehow only the experts understand and can manage the system. It’s not really a conversation for the pub or at the school gates and that plays into the hands of the vested interests. The dominant free market right have captured the narrative with the idea that only growth can support ‘hard working families’.
There is such a dominance of growth as being the necessary outcome that it’s easy to portray everyone outside as excluded or naïve. In this narrative, growth translates as success and anything else is irresponsible.

Is it really a free market?

Could a true free market take account of climate change and value natural capital and social capital? These issues are not even really in the (mainstream) discussion yet whilst government subsidies support some industries and don’t let them die or change when they should. For example, banking; or the petroleum industry, which perhaps should be dying because of its costs – even before taking into account the environmental cost. Subsidies skew these markets.

There’s also a simplistic perception that everybody who is in the private sector (or at least the big business, multi-national part of it) must be bad but there are many entrepreneurs who act ethically and responsibly, who want to create good (local) businesses that employ people on fair wages and give back to their communities.

Part of the problem is that we’re all part of a very complex, interdependent system. This interdependency allows risk to be shared. For example if a city loses core industries, employment and income, shared resources from central government are there to help out. These interdependencies are highly complex which is why cities and businesses are not allowed to fail – for now at least, we’re all tied together in a global monetary system.

Politics, power and change

Our current political system draws some of its power from big business, paying taxes and providing employment, but also with the power to lobby to maintain the status quo. The powers in the system not only prevent things from dying but prevent change too and, although of course we need employment and tax receipts, there needs to be a mechanism whereby changes can happen more quickly. At a personal level, change is uncomfortable, so people vote for what is familiar, even if they don’t really like it, because it feels safer. It was suggested that the neo-liberal movement has succeeded in making all of us resistant to change. It’s scary, change takes us into the unknown and that feels risky, especially when we’re feeling vulnerable.

The constant growth narrative feels to some like a form of oppression. Individuals feel disempowered and that no-one else feels like they do, that they are all alone in being the good guy, all alone in arguing against the current system and narrative. There are many groups and conversations reflecting this view but they are fragmented and weak against the established power structures. Can a city bring its dissenting voices together into a more powerful collective? What is within its power to change?
...Wordle of what we talked about during the debate.

New approaches

This conversation started feeling a bit gloomy, that all the wrong people have the power, that we’re all alone in trying to make changes, that anyway we’re a bit powerless in such a globalised system and that the two big reasons for needing growth seemed unarguable.

A few good examples from around the world got us thinking about what could be done at the scale of Bristol. The examples from elsewhere included Ecuador which has legislation for the rights for nature, Sweden is experimenting with six-hour working days and Bhutan has a measure for gross national happiness. What could be the different ways of measuring economic welfare in the city – and which are not trying to put a monetary value on non-monetary issues such as quality of life or care for the natural environment?

The shift from growth to development or other forms of prosperity could involve a major change in how we see the economy and what we want from it. Rather than seeing growth as the end in itself, the economy should be seen as a means to achieve different development goals such as better public services, improved housing, increased inclusion, reduced inequality and greater levels of sustainability.  This would take a cultural and structural shift - overcoming the vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

What about Bristol?

There are already many parts of Bristol that are taking on big business and creating their own alternative economies with flourishing local enterprises and community-led prosperity coming out of them. The people of Bedminster are fighting against supermarkets and pawn shops, Knowle West are looking at pop up manufacturing and 3D printing, Lawrence Weston and Southmead have great momentum and visions for the future. Neighbourhood partnerships are working really well in some of the areas that need them most, and there are great social enterprises in many areas. BUT, there is still the dark side and, unlike some parts of the North, people across the city don’t feel like they’re all in it together, more like ‘us and them’. As we have observed before in these debates, there is significant racial tension and inequality in the city, high levels of child poverty and differences in life expectancy of 10 years between different areas – and, even more shocking, a 20 year difference in healthy years lived.

With these problems in the city it feels really important that we make efforts to work together better, to learn from the good examples and to join up this conversation outside the university and across the city. The big organisations in the city, such as the health sector, universities, council and businesses, have an important civic role in contributing to the wellbeing of the city. They have the resources and potential in their workforces, customers and supply chains to create new partnerships and city-wide change.

A new economic future?

When we talk about the allocation of limited resources there is no shared theory of value and no broader plan against which to share resources. So, for example in the health service, the budgets are boundaried and it’s easier to measure success of spending on cardiac surgery than it is to allocate resources to preventing heart disease with less predictable results somewhere in the future (that short-termism again). People across organisations collaborate in multi-agency partnerships but much of the actual resource allocation comes back to core service delivery. We need to understand where the power lies that can unlock these behaviours and allow longer term decisions to be made.

Again in this debate we talked about reducing inequality and creating a fairer system. The aim of the Bristol Pound was to support a green and fair economy - more equality and a more sustainable way of using resources. There is a wider role for business in contributing to life in the city, to have a positive impact. Local businesses and social enterprises are more connected with their communities and larger organisations have a civic role.

In the future we need to think more about what the economy is for - how to help pay for public services and improve housing, increased inclusion and greater levels of sustainability. We need to understand how to measure the real cost of environmental damage and that growth in itself is not the aim.

And sometimes we just need to do it, to make changes locally, to work together and to act on our beliefs in a way that supports the new economic system that we want to see.

This blog is written by Caroline Bird, Future Cities and Communities Knowledge Exchange Manager at the Cabot Institute.
Caroline Bird

Other blogs in this series
Blog 1: Delivering the ‘Future City’: does Bristol have the governance capacities it needs?
Blog 2: Delivering the ‘Future City’: collaborating with or colluding in austerity?
Blog 3: Delivering the 'Future City': engaging or persuading?

Friday, 13 November 2015

What happened when students handed in a divestment petition to the University of Bristol

Students handing in a divestment petition to Hugh Brady, Vice Chancellor of
the University of Bristol
On 9 November 2015, Fossil Free Bristol University handed over their petition asking for fossil fuel divestment to the Vice Chancellor, Hugh Brady. The petition has been open since March and collected over 2,200 signatures. It was presented along with a Student Union motion and letter in support of the campaign, as well as a report on the case for divestment to be presented to the Pro Vice Chancellor at a follow-up meeting.

Students are hoping that the University of Bristol will capitalise on the city's status as Bristol Green Capital and show subsequent Green Capital cities and universities what an important role universities can play in public climate change discourse. They are also keen that the university take positive moves towards divestment in the run up to COP21, and demonstrate to governmental leaders that they support strong action on climate change targets and regulation of the fossil fuel industry.

Students are keen that the university take positive moves towards divestment in
the run up to COP21, and demonstrate to governmental leaders that they support
strong action on climate change targets and regulation of the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil Free Bristol University was joined outside Senate House by Bristol University Sustainability Team (BUST), the Friends of the Earth Society, Bristol Energy Network, the local Fossil Free Bristol campaign and Bristol Left student society. It was a really positive and colourful event with loads of students turning up to show their support. As well as decorating their stalls with placards and banners created at the local arts centre the People's Republic of Stokes Croft the students ran interactive information stalls and fun and games including pin the nose on the climate change sceptic.

The Vice Chancellor gave the campaign a fairly positive response, he talked about sustainability areas that the university was working on and said divestment was one area being investigated, and that we can expect a policy announcement in January. Fossil Free Bristol University will be keeping up the pressure on the University in the mean time.

This blog is written by University of Bristol student, Rachel Simon from Fossil Free Bristol University.

Related links

Students in Bristol Uni divestment demands - Bristol 24/7

Open letter to the University of Bristol requesting divestment from fossil fuels

Read more about the petition hand in to Vice Chancellor Hugh Brady.

Watch the divestment petition hand in on Made In Bristol TV at minutes 5 - 7 of 'The 6 09.11.15 Part 1' News.

Read the Bristol Green Capital post.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Thoughts on passing 400 ppm

In the next few days, the Mauna Loa atmospheric CO2 record will pass 400 ppm. This isn’t the first time that’s happened – we first crossed the 400 ppm threshold in May 2013, but the annual, saw-tooth variation in levels as the Northern hemisphere boreal forest breathes in and out has dipped us below 400 a couple of times since. This crossing is likely to be special however, as it is probably going to be the last time anybody alive today will experience an atmosphere with LESS than 400 ppm CO2.

Human emissions have been pushing up atmospheric levels by about 2.2 ppm every year in recent years, so normally we would expect the annual monthly minimum to increase to beyond 400 ppm from this year’s September minimum of 397.1 ppm, however we are in the midst of one of the largest El Nino years for over a decade, and the drought in the tropics during El Nino years slow the growth of trees relative to normal years, and increases fires. Previous strong El Nino years (like 1997) have helped to push the annual CO2 increase to a massive 3.7 ppm, and this year’s strong El Nino, coupled with increased forest burning in Indonesia, along with fossil fuel burning, have led Ralph Keeling to predict the annual rise could be as much as 4.4 ppm this year.

So why does it matter? 400 is in truth a fairly arbitrary value to get excited about, a neat quirk of our counting system and no more important as a value to the atmosphere than your car odometer ticking from 99,999 to 100,000. It doesn't mean the car is going to collapse, but it certainly catches your attention. It’s the same with the atmosphere – it gives us pause to consider what we’ve done, and what it might mean for the climate system. For me, the most outrageous thing is that we, an insignificant population of carbon based life forms, have managed to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere! And not just by a little – by a lot! And let’s not forget that the atmosphere is big – really big!

To me, as an Earth Scientist that leads me to think about when in Earth history the planet has experienced such high levels of CO2 before. Measuring atmospheric CO2 in the geological past is tricky – for the past  ~800 thousand years we have a fantastic archive of trapped atmospheric gas bubbles in ice cores, and for the whole of that record CO2 never peaked above 300 ppm. Beyond the time for which we have the ice cores, we rely on geochemical proxies in marine and terrestrial sediments to estimate CO2 and that is the heart of my research. In a paper we published last year we showed that we have to go back to more than 2.3 Million years ago, to the very earliest Pleistocene and Pliocene to find atmospheric CO2 levels as high as we are about to permanently experience. What does that mean? Well the Pliocene was a similar world to today – the continents were in much the same place, the vegetation mix across this Earth was the same, except global temperatures were 2-3 degrees C higher than now, driven primarily by those high levels of CO2.

Another thing that strikes me today is how rapidly we've managed to change the atmosphere. In a little over 150 years since we started to burn fossil fuels with alacrity, we've gone from 280 ppm to 400 ppm. It’s hard to find geological records with the temporal precision to see changes that quick, but for sure we don’t know any time in Earth history when CO2 has changed so much, so quickly.

With COP21 in Paris just around the corner, perhaps saying goodbye to sub 400 ppm will focus minds to come up with a solution. I don’t know whether it will, or what a global solution would look like, but I hope beyond anything that we don’t do nothing.
Cabot Institute member Dr Marcus Badger is a Research Associate in the Organic Geochemistry Group in the School of Chemistry. His research involves using biomolecules and climate models to better understand the Earth system.
Marcus Badger

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Uncertain World Summit from my perspective (without any uncertainty)

In October we held our Uncertain World Summit, with a host of events and interactions to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  You can read the other blogs covered in 'Our Uncertain World' at the bottom of this blog. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  

(Note to the reader: I’d like to mention that, from this point forward, I shall try not to use the word ‘uncertainty’. Not because it isn't important to talk about, but because I didn't want this blog to be absorbed by recognising it. There were many things that came out of the Uncertain World Summit that I felt were rather certain and I’ll try to focus on those for a change).

The Uncertain World whiteboard - full of notes and ideas!
The two-day event was replete with bite sized chunks of climate science and policy making, washed down with group discussions and (at the end) Somerset wine.  The attendee list was a vibrant jumble of scientists, philosophers, policy makers and industry leaders gathered together to discuss climate change. To do justice to the wealth of talks would be impossible in a short blog; there were contributions from a range of sectors including health, defence and agriculture as well as from climate researchers on topics such as sea level rise and land use change. Instead of reporting on the presentations, I thought I would focus on some of the recurring themes I noted from the discussions.

The first discussion I want to chalk up on the blogging-blackboard is the issue of science falling into the void between the scientific community and policy makers. The chain of decisions that propels a scientific revelation out of the lab and into the lives of ordinary people is convoluted and confused. How can we expect the world to save itself when the world doesn't know what it needs saving from? The methodical production of scientific progress wrapped up in a safety blanket of statistical error is hard to chew on for the policy makers and even harder to digest by the general public. This became somewhat of a theme as I moved through the discussion groups (and now I see also in Adam Corner’s blog - it is clearly something that needs to be addressed at the base level).

The second issue to make it onto my summit-summary was how to best assimilate the objectives of climate change prevention into the everyday lives of the population. There was a unanimous resolution that, in order to elicit any modifications in people’s everyday routines, the impetus should be positive rather than negative: Employing threatening forecasts of apocalyptic temperature rise (however true they may be) simply isn't an effective motivation when the effects aren't yet tangible to the majority of the population. Instead, communicators should be painting the picture of the switch to green as a platform for economic growth facilitating more job prospects and greater social equality.

Reviving and utilising national (and international) pride is essential
to stimulating a universal response to climate change.
The mechanisms to power this change were harder to isolate. There was recognition that, in order to stimulate a universal response, reviving and utilising national (and international) pride is essential. The argument drew from examples of past regional and global cooperation particularly the World Wars and the first man on the moon. If, as occurred in these examples, a country unites with a mutual aim it can transcend social divisions to become a more efficient machine. Of course, the challenge lies in putting climate change prevention on a sufficiently glamorous pedestal as to evoke such a response. To achieve this there were a host of creative solutions including setting up community food schemes and mobilisation the Woman’s Institute to the cause.

More generally, the discussion wavered around the best ways to implement the outcomes of the discussion, whether through legislation or communication. In a problem so laden with political and economic bias it is unsurprising the current global responses are flavoured with self-interest. Overcoming this, in my opinion, will be the biggest challenge of all. On a brighter note, I found the summit an amazing experience that broadened my thinking on climate change. Despite the gloominess of the situation, I went away from the event feeling that problem-solving had triumphed over defeatism and that there are several paths we can take that can lead us towards a greener future. We just need to persuade everyone to take one.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Other blogs in the Uncertain World series

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue
The Uncertain World: Question Time

The Uncertain World: Reflections
The Uncertain World: Is uncertainty used as a stick with which to beat climate change?

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Uncertain World: Is uncertainty used as a stick with which to beat climate change?

The Cabot Institute is focussing on our Uncertain World this year, with a host of events to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  We are posting blogs during November on 'Our Uncertain World'. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  Read other blogs in the series by visiting the weblinks at the bottom of this blog.
Uncertainty runs through climate science like the lettering in a stick of rock. It will never 'go away' and no communication strategy should ever aim for this. But it does seem as if somehow, uncertainty has become a stick with which to beat climate change in a way that it has not for other areas of science (or perhaps more to the point, in other areas of life). So it is worth asking why this is the case, and what we can do to address this...

My background is in psychology, and there is a rich literature on the psychology of risks perceptions that is certainly relevant to communicating uncertainty in the context of climate change. We know that people discount certain risks and inflate others, given the chance many will lean towards 'wishful thinking' rather than a cold, rational assessment of the probabilities.

But to my mind, the challenge of communicating uncertainty in climate change goes beyond presenting information in a way that will 'beat the biases' of the human mind - although there is an important role for this. To me it is more about 'going with the grain' of public engagement with climate change, starting from 'where people are' and working backwards from there, rather than starting with the science...and this tends to be the approach we take at Climate Outreach, the organisation I work for

For example, its now well-established that some of the most important and consistent drivers of public engagement with climate risks are peoples values, worldviews and political orientation. Scepticism is essentially unjustified levels of uncertainty about climate risks...but what drives this perception is people's ideas about the implications of climate risks for their lives. People work backwards from an outcome that they don't like the sound of, or feel threatened by, and assess the underlying risks accordingly. So starting with those 'implications' is crucial, and why the focus of the second day of the Cabot Institute's Uncertain World conference is so important.

Where will people live? What impact is climate change having on Civil Society and the voluntary sector? These are crucial questions covered in Day 2, and help to join the dots between the underlying science and the 'social reality'  of climate change for non-scientists and specialists. Once people are more engaged with 'solutions' to climate change that they endorse or can identify with - when people hear a story about climate change that sounds like it was written about them - they are much more likely to be open to the science that defines and describes the underlying problem.

My sense is that the biggest step we could take (as a community of people from very different background and disciplinary perspectives) would be to develop much greater strategic capacity to 'join the dots' between the science and the stories that people engage with. At the moment, sustained public engagement with climate change does not happen in a co-ordinated way, but events like the Uncertainty Summit are important ways of bridging the gap between different disciplines and professions. If the expertise and diversity of perspectives represented at this meeting could be marshalled on a permanent basis, to provide a new type of institution explicitly tasked with full-time public engagement on climate change (from the science through to the social reality of the issue), we would have a level of public engagement proportionate to the scale of the challenge we face.

Adam Corner
This guest blog was written by Adam Corner, Research Director at Climate Outreach.  Dr Adam Corner is Climate Outreach's Research Director, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University. Adam manages Climate Outreach's research portfolio, oversees the 'Talking Climate' project website, and directs Climate Outreach's collaborations with academic partners. He writes regularly for the national media, including The Guardian and New Scientist magazine.

Climate Outreach recently published a 'Handbook' on communicating uncertainty with Steve Lewandowsky and Mary Phillips at University of Bristol. Download the handbook.

Other blogs in the Uncertain World series

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue
The Uncertain World: Question Time
The Uncertain World: Reflections

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Delivering the ‘Future City’: engaging or persuading?

In Bristol’s European Green Capital year, the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute have been working with the Bristol Green Capital Partnership and its members to convene a series of four conversations between Bristol academics and city ‘thinkers’ from across public, private and civil society exploring how Bristol delivers the ‘future city’ –  what capacities it needs to be resilient, sustainable and successful and how it can start to develop these in times of changing governance and tightened finances. The conversations will be reflected in a series of four blogs (the third below) and then brought together as a policy report for the Festival of the Future City in November.  You can read the other blogs from this series at the bottom of this post.


In this third conversation we considered how the range of civil society in the city is or could be effectively engaged in the future of the city. Our earlier debates (on governance and austerity) have suggested that a limited range of the spectrum of thought in the city is really engaged in shaping the future so how can engagement be widened in a way that brings people in because they want to be involved. But first, are we asking the right question in seeking new forms of engagement when maybe we don’t sufficiently value what is already happening? After all, isn't everyone engaged in some way? What would be different in Bristol if the contribution of every individual, group and community was celebrated, connected and valued? If they felt they had both a stake and a role and were already part of delivering a better future? Would there be different questions asked, or different projects, processes and policies designed for the future?

Utopia and dystopia

A strand of discussion that captured the collective imagination was the idea of utopias – not as an impossible goal but rather as a method to help us move beyond the immediate issues of what we know now. Particularly in the current economic and environmental crises, the use of visions of utopia as a method for imagining a better world and alternative futures is a great tool - although we can also imagine the opposite, the dystopian vision of social disruption in an overcrowded, overheated world fighting for limited resources. 

Dystopia. Image taken from PlayBuzz.
We have set an important, ambitious target for combatting climate change: that by 2050 we must have an 80% reduction in our carbon emissions; and we've been talking about the profound inequality in the city and the lack of social mobility for years – neither of these will change with incremental efforts. The Utopian approach allows us to imagine beyond what we know now, to think further ahead. Continuing to work in 5 year cycles is only tweaking when what is needed is system change – we can wait for the ruptures or be bold in addressing the big problems. We know that the city will be very different in the future, that the potential is there for dystopia if we don’t act.

‘We need to start thinking about how we best plan for the type of world we want, because if we just carry on the way the current narrative is playing out, it feels more like dystopia than utopia’. 
Could we try to imagine out of that dystopia what the possibilities are? To use a great phrase from Seamus Heaney, we need to ‘make space for the marvellous as well as the murderous’, the utopian vision coming out of crisis. But of course there are tension between what we think will happen and an imagined ideal future and we need to work with the first to get the second – and work out what will make the difference in what we end up with.
‘We need to start thinking about how we best plan for the type of world we want, because if we just carry on the way the current narrative is playing out, it feels more like dystopia than utopia’. 
Could we try to imagine out of that dystopia what the possibilities are? To use a great phrase from Seamus Heaney, we need to ‘make space for the marvellous as well as the murderous’, the utopian vision coming out of crisis. But of course there are tension between what we think will happen and an imagined ideal future and we need to work with the first to get the second – and work out what will make the difference in what we end up with.
Utopias are liberating: an imagined goal to work to
Visions are constraining: just limiting variations of now 

Spaces of encounter and trust

Living in cities allows us to collaborate and survive better. But cities also allow anonymity (for better and worse) and non-participation, creating boundaries between different communities and the segregation that many perceive, generationally and culturally and within and across communities. How could the infrastructure be changed to allow the creation and connection of neutral spaces in order to facilitate interaction? Could a city be designed to actively help people to get to know each other? A city designed to break down barriers between differences, and that values and perceives diversity in all its guises to be a ‘fantastically wonderful, magical, absolutely life-enhancing, collaborative opportunity’. 

We do know how to do some of this this, but it’s not happening and more needs to be done if a city’s infrastructure, services and technologies are to make positive contributions to building trust across communities, cultures and generational groups. Infrastructure could then be an enabler of bringing people together, creating spaces for encounter and reasons for interaction and discovery, celebrating and sharing stories and creating connections.

In overcoming intergenerational barriers, there are great examples from around Europe: ante-natal care in old peoples’ homes in Switzerland or co-housing students and older people in Amsterdam. The class and ethnicity barriers seem to be harder to crack – children in schools work together but increasing segregation occurs after age 16, so understanding why and what could be done to build trust and communication between communities is needed.

Trust came up strongly in the conversation, the need to build networks of trust to start to erode boundaries, having conversations to build lasting relationships, finding and using ways for neighbours to know each other. Across Bristol, neighbourly gatherings are building local encounter - like street parties and Playing Out

Playing Out grew out of discussions amongst friends and neighbours with
young children, living in a built-up, residential area of south Bristol.
Image taken from Playing Out.
Looking further ahead, should we start with envisioning how would we all want to be with each other and treat each other in 50 years' time in order to have society that works? Can this help to create a Utopian image of human relationships and forms of engagement to work towards?

Who are 'we' and are we right?

There’s a danger with all these good intentions that what we really think is that all that needs to happen is everyone else should think like ‘us’. Is there therefore a risk that engagement is really more about persuasion? There are many forms of engagement and many people are engaged in different ways. It is important that we celebrate and value different contributions so that everyone feels like they have a role. For example, surely someone supporting a kid’s after-school basketball club in Southmead is engaged - they’re helping young people to learn leadership and team working skills. They’re encouraging low-carbon, high-community activity (rather than playing sedentary electronic games or engaging in other more antisocial behaviour). They are actively and directly community building and, although they might not use these words, they’re engaged in Future Cities too.

Are certain types of engagement the only valid ones? What about the new political engagement that the Scottish referendum brought about for example, through harnessing new places and by engaging young people more successfully. Riots are also a form of engagement, bringing people together and making something happen – in Bristol, the St Pauls Riots of 1982 resulted in change – this type of engagement is more profound than elections but it’s also messy and disruptive. Mob engagement, civil disobedience, communities collaborating to be exclusive, these are all forms of engagement… are we then talking about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ engagement? 

So perhaps everyone can coalesce around the common human aim of having a better future for us and ones we love with human (and environmental) flourishing at the core of everything, tackling issues of equity and justice and not forgetting the climate imperative that might force us to act more decisively together. 

Politics, democracy and big institutions

We talked in previous debates about who has the power. Here we also discussed democracy and the democratic mandate of the big organisations that have power in the city. The city council of course has a democratic mandate through its elected councillors and mayor but other major ‘anchor’ organisations do not. These still have the ability to shape and influence policy – organisations such as the universities, health services, travel providers and big businesses in the city. 

However, even where there is a democratic potential, not everyone exercises their rights to participate in democracy. For example in the last mayoral election, around 12% voted in parts of south Bristol, compared to over 55% in the more affluent northern areas, leading to a huge democratic deficit which demonstrates that current forms of engagement in the running of the city are not working. There is something about the current idea of politics which is not engaging so, as we've reflected above, new engagements which address building trust, inclusion and the embracing of diversity are necessary.
The large institutions in the city do have power but they are seen as impenetrable, unaccountable and not good at democracy and yet they have the resources to do much good where the city council is constrained by its bureaucratic processes and lack of resources. Grassroots activities should also have a role in the formal democratic processes, allowing power to be diffused and giving more communities agency, influence and a voice.

People involved in Green Capital have been described as the ‘emerald city’ and they are just a small group within the overall population of over 400,000. But how many ‘degrees of separation’ are there to reach the whole city? How can we, as a future city, build on the levels of engagement and ambition for resilience and sustainability started in this Green Capital year, working through all the networks and across the separations?

In conclusion

In this third session we talked about engagement through the ideas of Utopia (and dystopia), spaces to facilitate encounter, and the necessary building of trust. We questioned what is meant by ‘engagement’ – whether we’re missing valuable contributions by holding onto a narrow definition and that what ‘we’ might really mean is more akin to persuasion. Some forms of engagement are messy and disruptive but sometimes ruptures are needed to force the radical change that isn’t happening through the routine tweaking of the familiar. The exercise of imagining the future opens up a conversation about what to do tomorrow in seeking a better future for us all, making ‘space for the marvellous as well as the murderous’. It should be less ‘we engaging them’ and more ‘us all co-creating’ a thriving city for now and in the future.

This blog is written by Caroline Bird, Future Cities and Communities Knowledge Exchange Manager at the Cabot Institute.
Caroline Bird

Other blogs in this series
Blog 1: Delivering the ‘Future City’: does Bristol have the governance capacities it needs?
Blog 2: Delivering the ‘Future City’: collaborating with or colluding in austerity?

Monday, 26 October 2015

Uncertain World: Reflections

This last week we have been focussing on our Uncertain World, with a host of events and interactions to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  You can read the other blogs covered in 'Our Uncertain World' at the bottom of this blog. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  
Over the past year, the Cabot Institute have been exploring this Uncertain World. I have been lucky enough to have attended, and written about, two events that have occurred this week - a public dialogue event and a Question Time event. This last blog is a way for me to reflect on the event and my thoughts on moving forward in a time of uncertainty.

At the events, I was particularly struck by how differently we perceive this uncertainty: both in our lived experience and our understandings of climate change. From concerns surrounding health to the criticism of how climate change is taught at school – every person I encountered or listened to saw something different and added new concerns. Particularly notable was the wide divergence in understandings of climate change, resilience and uncertainty between two of the generations present at these events. It is these perceptions that have guided my thoughts.

Out of fear of insulting you readers – I will refrain from labelling these generational conclusions in terms of ‘elderly’ and  ‘young’, or ‘mature’ and ‘naïve’. Instead, I will simplify them slightly – naming them after two people in my life: Maggie (my Nan); and Mary (my goddaughter). Maggie is 77 and enjoying retirement; Mary is four months old and doing a good job at avoiding colic.


Many lack concern for climate change because they feel that they will remain unaffected. There is a greater concern in episodes of more-traditional conflict. Aside from Atlantis, there is no historical reference for the fate of Tuvalu in a world of rising sea levels. We fear armed conflict because of popular memory but how can we conceptualise climate change when we have no reference point to refer to?

Generation Maggie remembers the Second World War and much of their understandings were guided by their memories of the uncertainty generated by the conflict and the communal responses to this danger. This provides an important window into understanding uncertainty - the traditional perception of an existential threat, and how climate change often exists outside of this framing.
The uncertainty generated by the conflict of World War II led to
communal responses to this danger. Image credit: Wikipedia.
With age often painted as a contributory factor in scepticism towards climate change, it is important to understand that this may not be borne out of a lack of belief. Instead, it is driven by the conflict between the uncertain nature of climate change and the tangible, real threat that traditional conflict has posed in the past.

This problem is very different from the Blitzkrieg that transformed our cities into rubble during World War II; and, rather than labelling these sceptics “idiots” (George Ferguson’s words, not mine), we need to seek to engage with those who perceive climate change as uncertain and empower them to understand its role as a greater risk than we have ever experienced. World War Two may be a scar on this nation, but climactic shocks provide a threat that will be even harder to resist.

This experience also points to an important case of pooling of risk. Risks and resources were shared, community spirit was emphasised and everybody played their part. Food insecurity created rationing which, in turn, led to personal innovation and better diets than today. This may be rose tinted glasses but, as discussions uncovered, it is this form of community engagement, support and joint-adaptation that might provide the most effective routes to tacking climate-induced uncertainty in the future. Some still hark back for a return to these times; perhaps we should also look back and look to this community-resilience for inspiration.


As Bristol Youth Mayor, Neha Mehta said at the Question Time panel, young people care. They have enthusiasm and empathy and, importantly, the desire for change. At the Question Time event, I found myself lucky enough to be sat behind Bristol's Youth Council. For the hour and a half, their heads did not drop. In fact, it was one of their numbers that asked the most challenging, and perhaps most pressing question of the evening: just how compatible are meaningful steps towards climate mitigation and a capitalist system based in corporate profit? A question that many have tried to find the answer to and I will not dare not elaborate on.

Neha Mehta, Youth Mayor (left) at the Cabot Institute Uncertain World Question
Time event in October 2015.
This generation will suffer from a greater degree of uncertainty in employment, finance and fulfilment of fundamental needs than the generation that has come before. Significantly, this increased instability will occur at a time when climate change will become more evident and the need for adaptation more extreme. This is not a cry of defeat, perhaps this increased uncertainty in all parts of life shall result in an increased innovation, creativity and passion in meeting these challenges and fulfilling the necessary transformations. Evidence of this can be found in the fossil fuel divestment movements that are sweeping across the education institutions of the globe.

According to even medium projections, future generations will inherit a very different world to the one that you and I inhabit. This raises an important need to expand these discussions to younger generations. The solution to these problems cannot just come from the leaders of today, but also the stewards of tomorrow. The young must be inspired to see that change and strive for it.  For Neha, the answer must lie in education. Climate change can no longer be simplified and taught as just one aspect of a wider syllabus. Lessons must seek to inspire and advocate the individual and social change necessary to combat climate change. It is only through this engagement that today's young people can become the future leaders that the climate change regime really needs. 

At the Question Time event, Leo Hickman posed a thought-experiment: 
"Has one generation ever done anything selflessly for the next?" 
But, why must the need to act lie in one generation? Successful mitigation and adaptation cannot only involve the empowerment of the young. There is no monopoly on change. It must occur at every level and embrace every member of the community – empowering them to make the behavioural changes that are necessary for resilience. 

The framing of climate change as an issue of the selflessness of one (future) generation transfers the need to act from one generation to the next, whilst neglecting the role that the past may play in the present. The climate change regime cannot only look forward; it must also look back to older and previous generations for inspiration. It is not a question of one generation sacrificing all for the future – it is a necessity for generations to work together to ensure the future is empowered and a better world is left.  

This must not be selfless sacrifice by a saviour generation, this needs to be a communal pooling to ensure resilience – and the precedents for this are there. 

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict.

Ed Atkins

Other blogs in the Uncertain World series:

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue
The Uncertain World: Question Time