To Shanghai and Back: Running a Pilot Course on Design for Sustainability Transitions

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Shanghai, view from The Bund 

Aalto University and TongJi University in Shanghai are in the process of materialising their collaborative partnership in education discussions for which started few years ago. I’ve been one of the lucky professors who were given the duty to run a pilot course in TongJi. The main aim of these pilot courses are to familiarise ourselves with the working culture, facilities and students of TongJi and to identify logistical as well as pedagogical requirements together with TongJi staff we need to take into consideration when further developing the curriculum. In line with this aim, I went to Shanghai on March 4th and came back yesterday, on March 18th. I delivered a masters course entitled Creative Sustainability: Socio-technical Transitions to Sustainability. Before my departure, I was on one hand very excited with the prospect but on the other hand very nervous as I felt like I was facing several unknowns that I needed to manage: First, I had no idea about the school’s facilities, in what kind of a room I’d be teaching and weather it’d be suitable for the purposes of the course. Second, although I always had a couple of Chinese students in all my classes in New Zealand, having a class full of Chinese students was new for me and I was worried whether I’d be able to understand and work in accordance with the cultural differences between me and the students to give them a good learning experience. Third, due to logistical difficulties I wouldn’t be able to invite any of my Aalto colleagues as guest lecturers and decided to try to invite colleagues from TongJi but I practically knew no one except from an Italian colleague who had been working there for several years. I invited her for a guest lecture but she couldn’t commit until very close to my departure date as she her teaching schedule was not ready. Fourth, I was going to teach theories which were essentially about radical, structural changes that had predominantly been developed in Europe and therefore are based on certain cultural assumptions that are not yet tested in Chinese context. So, I wasn’t sure how the students would react to what I was about to teach them. Fifth, as I have little understanding of Chinese culture I was worried to somehow make a big mistake that would strain Aalto-TongJi relationships. Upon reflection, now I know that all I needed was actually to prepare my lectures (which I did) and not worry about the rest (which I didn’t).

Muumi and Sauna and the Funkiest Elevator in the World

My class was to be held at the Sino-Finnish Centre, which was outside of the main university campus, ten to fifteen minutes from my hotel. At the airport in Helsinki I bought a box of Muumi biscuits to give to my students in the first class as an icebreaker and to introduce something “Finnish” to them. But first 4 levels needed to be climbed for which I took the world’s slowest yet funkiest elevator. To compensate for the pace of the journey, there’re couches to rest on and many photos with familiar faces from Aalto to look at. I learned that every now and then the elevator stops and traps people in but it was a relief that there were people I could call in case I were in such trouble.

When I finally arrived at the fourth floor, I realised that there is already a lot of Finnish presence in the centre -Muumi and sauna meeting rooms, Finnish-Chinese hugging point, Marimekko design couches, etc- and so my Muumi biscuits would break the ice but wouldn’t be a cultural exposure hit after all. I had 17 students in my class, all female, and five of them were exchange students from Italy, Sweden and Germany. The background of students covered industrial design, environmental design and architecture.

I designed my teaching to consist of two parallel running tracks: one on theories of sustainability transitions and the other a group project through which the students would get a chance to implement the theories as they learned about them on a step-by-step basis by doing the front-end work for a mini-scale transition experiment. We had classes everyday except for Mondays for two weeks and the final presentations of the group project was on March 17th.

 

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Lecture Plan

The students engaged enthusiastically with the lecture content and the project from the beginning and worked incredibly hard within the short time period allocated for the course. The first day was probably the most challenging for the students as they were introduced to several new concepts and models including systems thinking, multi-level model of system innovations and multi-phase model of transitions. The second day compensated for this by being a day allocated to initial project framing, site selection and data collection. Together we discussed what is feasible within the limited time and went over the data collected to develop actionable insights. Then the rest of the first week went by alternating days of lectures and project activities. The second week started with a lecture on strategic niche management and a guest lecture on open design which the students enjoyed immensely. In the rest of the week I introduced students to backcasting from a desired vision. The students developed timelines to show how their vision can be achieved in fifteen years time and who should be involved based on the stakeholder analysis they undertook in the first week. Then they ideated for an initial ‘acupuncture’, a small, scalable project that can start today to trigger the transition. On the last day before the presentations the students spent all day in the studio and I made myself available to them for feedback and final critiques.

On Friday morning I was rather excited. One, because the day before the Dean Lou Yongqi had invited me for a short mIMG_7147eeting in the morning. Two, because my students were going to present in the afternoon and the course would come to an end. My meeting with the Dean was short and sweet; he had a mini tea ceremony set in his office from which he poured tea in tiny cups. Not knowing how to appropriately receive the serving I felt a bit clumsy, but Dean Lou made feel comfortable by creating a light conversational atmosphere. We talked about the Väre building in Aalto campus which is going to be the home of School of Art, Design and Architecture once it is completed in 2018.We exchanged few jokes as well as good wishes. Following my meeting with the Dean, I went to the studio to find all of the groups working hard to finish their presentations.

The presentations started at 2 pm. Apart from me as the main assessor, there were three colleagues from Tongji to provide comments and give marks for moderation purposes. Following the presentations we left the class to discuss and reflect while students completed feedback forms. We all shared the opinion that the students did a good job within the given the timeframe although their work could be pushed further with certain arrangements we may try in the next round. Following this discussion and after students finished filling in the feedback forms I went back to the class to celebrate completion of the course and to farewell. Then I rushed back to my hotel room to read the feedback forms as I was very curious what the students thought of the course.  IMG_7161

In general the overall feedback was very positive. The students thought the course added to their knowledge and skill set and listed several specific things they learned and thought to be valuable learnings. Two main improvement suggestions stood out as being mentioned by the majority of students: 1. The short duration of the course made it difficult for them to reflect on and digest all of the learnings and the pace was trying, 2. Some of them struggled with English and stated that it’d be good to have a Chinese course assistant. I have a list of things I thought could improve in how I designed the course and I will incorporate these in the second running of the course. I have also noted down several improvements needed about the practical arrangements and logistics which I’ll share with Aalto and TongJi colleagues to together work on.

I arrived back to Helsinki yesterday, on 18th, in a state of happy exhaustion. The past two weeks have been intense and tiring but yielded to many learnings and rewards. Collaborating across oceans and cultures is not the easiest of undertakings, nevertheless, it opens new doors, creates new perspectives and inspires new projects. I feel very lucky having had a chance to run a course in China on a topic that has been my primary research focus since I started my PhD in 2006. What a privilege to look at my work from others’ cultural paradigm as it’s reflected in their practice. Also, what a great chance and learning opportunity to put to test my teaching style and pedagogical assumptions. And on top of this, having the opportunity to shortly glimpse at a dazzling city I never had been before.

 

 

 

“Self-centred” strategies to facilitate collaboration in research groups

I am a little bit drained as a result of having to go through several learning curves some of which have been steep and “lonely” since I started to work on a new project at a new workplace in a new country. Therefore I decided to stop; stop and reflect on my thoughts and feelings about this “initiation” process. I have three other blog posts I’m working on but this seems to be the most pressing one to “blurt out”.

System innovation, if not reduced to new technologies and organisational models which will accommodate them, is closely related to the “self”. Self both as “collective self” of humanity and how it relates to whatever is not perceived as humanity but also as individual self which is essentially the most important “operational level” for intervention. Us academics, those who’re most abundant in quantity at least, don’t talk about “self” much, in fact we don’t talk about it ever. If we have a “voice”, it’s raised in the passive form in writing, or referred to as “we” even if “I” is the sole author.

I reject this “delegitimisation”. I am is I am (although at times and for poetical reasons “I is an other” too) and I do bring values, a worldview, a vision and a knowledge base into my work which is bound and limited by my intellectual depth. As I explicitly state in some of my online profiles, “I am a researcher with a change agenda”. On the other hand, I am not solely a researcher; I am also a person proudly “owning” other identity signifiers such as “photographer”, “facilitator”, “friend”, “wanna be potter”, etc. When I do work, it’s the work of my life; there’s a continuum of but not a seperation between the distinguishable signifiers of my identity, which is ever evolving, developing, transforming. When I “friend” someone (I use friend in the grammatically non-existing verb form) it is from a position of “I want to make this world a better place by my thoughts, feelings and actions”. When I research I operate from the exact same position. Techne and telos have never been mutually exclusive although treated increasingly as such throughout Western intellectual and technological development. If a day came in which I acted from a different values set in my personal life than I did in my professional life (boundaries of which are obscure but “forced upon” me) I wouldn’t be able to find reasons to continue the work I do; for me “the work” is a whole.

In this regard, I find the culture of academia and government especially excruciating as they enforce “politics” onto people that they don’t necessarily own themselves in rather disempowering ways. For example, I am being forced to “compete” against my colleagues so that when the day of promotion applications come, I can be the one who gets it, or, in the next round of funding my application is the “winner”. I find this to be a patriarchal model for acknowledging accomplishment; my feminine instincts know that collaboration is in fact more effective and beneficial for the whole community but especially for those “emergent” elements; i.e. children, young researchers, niche innovations, etc., which are essentially “the future”.

In order to address the challenge that is created by traditional, harshly competitive academic culture in a project that requires radical collaboration both academically but also with a wide spectrum of present -i.e. those who will make decisions and create new systems- and future -i.e. those who will be influenced by those decisions and created systems- stakeholders, I am trying to tap into my facilitation skills. Facilitation is all about helping groups to achieve their goals. The keyword here is “group”; for facilitation to work, there needs to be a “group”, even if in “draft” form; i.e. a willingness of individuals involved to become part of a “group”, to collaborate, to co-create. In trying to do so, I hit my head against walls of personalities and hierarchies that are all created in an old paradigm that we’re in fact trying to replace in “system innovation” in broadest sense. Nevertheless, one of the fundamental learnings of my facilitation training was that “facilitating self” before even attempting to facilitate others is essential for generating fruitful collaboration and designing powerful, generative conversations. A facilitator who’s not “present” to the group for this or that reason is an ineffective facilitator. What will I do to facilitate myself, i.e. to become and remain present to myself then?

Here’re some quick mid-course resolutions:

1. I will stay true to myself – I will protect my values regardless of what the systems I have to operate in impose upon me. This involves modelling the behaviour I’d like to see emerge in my research team: never compete, never social-poach, never blame, never scapegoat, help others achieve their individual goals and demonstrate how this can be done by holding “running a successful project” as a group purpose. I will always empathise and exercise compassion when I relate to members of my research team, my colleagues, and everyone else who participate in the project in some capacity;

2. I will question – Regardless of the hierarchies forced upon me I will question the integrity of behaviour demonstrated and validity of theoretical/methodological frameworks “imposed” by those who’re in power positions. In short, I will have no fear of being seen as “apolitical” at times and “loud” at others;

3. I will transform – I will remain open to challenges to the project, its epistemological/political/theoretical/methodological groundings as a means of carrying the project “forward” in intellectual depth as well as practical relevance;

4. I will mentor and seek for mentoring – I will keep on sharing my experiences, knowledge, insights with researchers/colleagues/peers without fear of losing “ownership”; I do not own anything I know or am capable of. I owe all my knowledge, skills as well as “unique” ideas to everyone else who intellectually “touched” me including my students. I will also keep on seeking mentoring in places that are available for me. I will not pretend that I know everything and can be anything. This will also help me being patient with and kind to myself.

In order to achieve these, here’re some practical things I will do:

1. I will design and facilitate processes to form, develop and perform a collaborative research team. I’ll be ever inviting but not forcing upon “participation”. I will seek for alternative structures, systems, platforms to achieve collaboration and will not assume validity of only one form. This will also enable me to learn and develop as a facilitator. I may assign for next level of my facilitation training; i.e. get into a one-to-one coaching contract with my trainers (I need to think about this more);

2. I will stop not expressing myself due to any kind of fear rising from “professional” worries including impostor syndrome and losing “intellectual property”. I will write in my blog more often as a way of sharing and interacting without furious editing of content. I will also publish academically all those papers waiting in my folder because they’re just not yet “perfect”. There’s a need for scholarly dialogue now more than ever.

3. I will exercise good communication skills; listen attentively and respond to every point. Just because majority of people have poor listening/conversational skills does not create an excuse for me to follow suit;

4. I will meditate and create opportunities to connect with nature despite access is not as readily available as it was in New Zealand. There’s nothing more grounding for me than interacting with the elements in their pure(st possible) form. I will also reflect on nature of “nature” and what it means in regards to “system innovation”. I will change my views if any refreshing insight emerges. I will actively try to hold conversations about this.

5. I will reengage with photography or find another creative outlet which feels right to shift from my mind to my whole body; best is if I make something with my hands and find “flow” in such engagement. Mind is an important asset for a researcher, nevertheless, is also a trap for the spirit.

6. I will put more effort in developing my social circle in Melbourne. I will “set myself on fire and find those who fan my flames”. People are crucial for intellectual and creative development but also for “feeling at home”.

7. I will also put more effort in maintaining and developing my international research network. I will try to collaborate with those whose work influence mine.

8. I will know who to let to go of and when to let go. Not all seeds will flower and sometimes a rock drowns all “potential” of a seed. I will accept when I fail and I’ll try to “fail better” next time. 🙂

9. I will bring “lightness” into my interactions and I will not take myself too seriously.