Reflecting on 2014 at the Blurred Boundary of Personal and Academic Experiences

It’s mid-December; a summer day in Melbourne, beginning of the final week before the holidays. 2014 has been a challenging year for me more than it was rewarding. The challenges mostly stemmed from steep learning curves I encountered associated with the “newness”; adapting to life in a new city, adapting to a “research only” academic position after three years of juggling lecturing, research and program leadership, finding my own feet (or not) in a new project in a new area (the urban) focusing on a new context (Australia). Time for a reflective account at the blurry boundary of personal and academic life in 2014.

A New City

I have completed one year living in Melbourne in August. This city where I came knowing absolutely no one has treated me very nicely by offering many creative and intellectual stimuli which kept me and my mind occupied and content despite the difficulties associated with the absence of an established social network. Being born into a city is an entirely different experience than acquiring it as home later in life as a mature person, even if temporarily but for an extended period of time. Currently I know many things about Melbourne that born-here Melbournians do not such as the mysterious Cave Clan thanks to Sophie Cunningham’s delectable book “Melbourne” which enabled me to bond with this city as a result of developing a historical and contextual understanding of it. The stories of how different migrant communities came here are full of fascinating details as well as the early colonial history of the city. Melbourne has never been boring for me in this year and there’re still many to discover about its history, culture, architecture and diverse communities. Nevertheless, experience of place is closely associated with experience with the people of the place. I have been lucky to meet with some people through my Turkish and New Zealand networks so now I have a few people to hang out with and enjoy several attractions the city has to offer. Nevertheless, I still have not build deep enough relationships with anyone. Whenever I think of a potential emergency, I cannot think of a person whom I’d call for help. An unsettling and a first ever occurrence in my life. Relationships take time to mature and require a lot of mutual effort. I know this is not a unique experience of mine but many others, some of whom being close friends scattered across the world by choosing to be mobile members of the global labour force for we follow positions that suit our unique expertise, financial expectations and lifestyle choices rather than choosing a place to settle and making the most of what’s available there for our ever insatiable intellectual and emotional needs. What we rejoice in and suffer from have a lot of commonalities no matter where we are in the world: missing family, friends, connections that are in fact sustained offline, in cinemas, cafes, beaches, museums, and around our own dinner table instead of on Skype or on Viber. We are an emerging sociological phenomenon: rootless white collars of the global urban. In an internet connected world where traditional office space is becoming redundant for many professions this is a contradiction. Just like Buckminster Fuller had to stop being a polyphasic sleeper because his business partners found his work patterns disruptive, we are expected to be “working” at the same time as our immediate colleagues. Although displays the importance and influence of local economic interactions in individuals’ lives, I find this requirement archaic and I’m dreaming of a time when I can work from anywhere I please for anyone in the world who’d like to receive my services. As much as I love living in Melbourne, if I could do the work I’m doing from anywhere I wouldn’t choose to live here. This has been one of the revelations of this year. The following question is of course revolves around the relative importance of the work I’m doing in the big picture of my life. This is something I’ll reflect on in 2015. One thing that clearly occurred to me is that I don’t want to move to yet another new city, ever again. My wanderlust has settled, at least seems to be for the time being.

Here’s a piece of research related reflection stemming from my experience of having recently moved to a new city: In envisioning futures of cities, we mostly assume those futures are for permanent inhabitants. How would a desirable, sustainable, resilient city look like, feel like, be like if more than half of its population were temporarily but for extended periods of time residing there. System innovation work involves strategising for the transformation of socio-technical systems meeting societal needs or “functions”. We assume the need to be met in similar ways or function to be fulfilled to carry the same characteristics, but what if it all changed? For example the need for shelter is met by housing development although property ownership is not anymore merely for meeting a basic need but also for investing. So some people own more than one residential property while increasingly more (but not yet many) people in big cities opt out from the option of buying a house and commit to renting throughout their life for this or that reason one of which is “being mobile” like myself. What are the economic, cultural and social implications of a potential mass movement of not buying but renting in cities? What institutional, organisational, social innovations would be needed to make a city functional, desirable and liveable in such a scenario?

A “Research Only” Position

One thing I can say: I miss teaching. I miss teaching not only because I see teaching as a great way of intervening in the systems I’d like to see change but also because managing time and measuring performance is much easier when there’re set short-term commitments to fulfil. I thoroughly enjoyed the few experiences of guest lecturing this year. In teaching you know that you touched someone’s intellectual buttons almost immediately but in research your influence is spread over longer term and is indirect most of the times. I think I am a short-term interventionist although my research is about the long-term changes. This personal characteristic, which seems like a dilemma in the first place, is resolved through my research ambition-i.e. linking micro-level changes with macro-level transformation. Nevertheless, my work in this has remained dormant throughout this year. I’ve been feeling that I’ve been fulfilling project tasks without any creative license so I took the initiative to start developing two small projects I can do with project partners which I can frame, design and run. I need to be strategic in how I manage these as the only way I will be green light by my manager is if I demonstrate direct relevance and importance of these projects to the main project I’m employed for. The whole phenomenon of having a “manager” has been challenging for one I chose to be an academic in order not to have a manager as such. I miss being my own research boss. In this process, I also reflected on what I’d like to achieve with my work and many questions arose if academic career is still the best option for this. These questions gave birth to other questions on the most suitable base for my academic work and a potential of mixing of academic work with consultancy. I don’t yet feel ready to make any major changes in my current set-up. All I can conclude from this year is that transdisciplinary research doesn’t go down well in traditional research universities no matter how niche the immediate base of the researcher is; same performance criteria applies to all researchers at central level and disciplinary researchers always have the advantage in an institutional set-up that is still predominantly disciplinary. But all of this is irrelevant if I don’t aspire a faculty position where I’m currently working at the end of my contract.

A New Area of Research in a New Context

I find the urban as a research area fascinating for it is a highly complex system and increasingly a focus in sustainability transitions and system innovations research as a key intervention context. On the other hand, I was hired for the project I’m working on because of my expertise integrating sustainability science, system innovation/transitions theories and design research, at least this was my understanding. When I pointed out at the time when I was offered the position that I don’t have in-depth knowledge of urban theories, I was reassured that there were other researchers in the project with this expertise and so my shortcoming in this area was not an issue. My hope was to continue developing my expertise in integrating design research with system innovations/transitions and sustainability science. However, this hasn’t been the case so far. The first year of the project passed by fuzzy front end work involving engaging with stakeholders, organising workshops, writing foreground papers with no academic novelty, and trying to adapt to being a member of a collaborative team which, after fifteen months still struggling to collaborate effectively. The roles and how we will bring in knowledge and expertise from our respective domains has not been clarified. I struggled with finding my feet, framing my own contribution and positioning design research in the project. I cannot say that I have succeeded in this yet. It is unclear to me how design research fits into the project as it is mostly focusing on policy. Although there are several opportunities to bring in design research into the project, including policy making, design research focuses on the micro level and the project focus remains very large-scale. The kind of design research I’m interested in is about people and practices more than it is about artefacts and technologies; the project focuses more on the technologies and physical elements of the urban. Although there is emphasis on the requirement of socio-cultural change and organisational transformation, and that design research can offer a lot in this regard, as a result of running a highly ambitious project, in a politically challenging time of Australian history in relation to climate change, with a small team with only one member having an interest in and knowledge of design research and a relatively small budget compared to similar projects undertaken elsewhere I am not sure if there will be opportunities for me to use my expertise effectively and build on it through this project. This is also another reason why I started developing small side projects with partners; so that I can directly work with the “users” of the project to make project learnings immediately relevant for their organisation through different methods of design research. This is also aligned with my desire to build on my specific research interest of linking micro level with macro level in system innovations and transitions. But as I stated above, I am uncertain if my time allocated to these small projects will be seen justified. I am learning to negotiate my way to meet my needs as a researcher while meeting the needs of the overall project.

Besides navigating my way through these challenges, I managed to squeeze in trips to New Zealand and Turkey in June and September respectively. I wrote about my New Zealand trip in the previous post but I didn’t get a chance to report on my Turkey trip. Although it was officially a holiday, I met with very interesting people who are working in sustainability, futures and social entrepreneurship fields which gave me the insight that the discourse and practice in sustainability, strategic design, futures inquiry and entrepreneurship has come a long way since I left the country in 2005. I could observe this in my annual visits looking at the steadily increasing number of people attending the lectures I gave and workshops I held. Nevertheless, during the time I spent in Istanbul this year, I had the chance to interact with professionals in addition to academics and became aware of a few exciting initiatives including Studio X Istanbul (Istanbul base of global urban think tank), Gelecekhane (futures think tank), Kadikoy Council’s design thinking initiative and S360 (an international sustainable business consultancy). One of the highlights of my time in Istanbul was having to -thanks to a sweet-talking friend- give a “lecture” about my experiences of Gezi Park protests to Danish sociology students right in the heart of Gezi Park with only two hours notice. I tried to frame this on-the-spot-spontaneous-lecture in the context of global urban based social movements focusing on the right to environment to make it somewhat academically relevant to my work although the students were more interested in hearing about first hand anecdotes about the events.

I think Turkey is currently a very interesting context to look at through system innovations / transitions lens. On one hand policies and practices that are completely counter any understanding of social, cultural, environmental sustainability at the central government level, on the other hand, a wide variety of niche innovations initiated by some local governments and a young urban entrepreneurial population which is no less informed, knowledgable, creative than its global counterparts but perhaps with fewer resources and less empowerment than some.

 

 

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