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Institute of Advanced Study

New Storylines for Living with Environmental Change: Citizens' Perspectives

Professor Sarah Banks (School of Applied Social Sciences)

Dr Lorraine Coghill (NETpark Science Outreach Coordinator)

Professor Jon Gluyas (Earth Sciences)

Dr Mieko Kanno (Music)

Professor Phil Macnaghten (Geography)


Following the analysis report 'Long-term opportunities and challenges for the UK', produced by the Treasury to inform the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, there has been a consolidated shift of rhetoric within Government towards the funding of directed research, strategically targeted to 'equip Britain for the long-term challenges that lie ahead'. Central to this move is the setting up of seven cross-research council priority themes, designed - at least for the purposes of research council negotiations with Treasury - as the mechanism to tackle the 'grand challenges' of the 21st Century. As of mid-2010 these are: (1) Sustainable energy systems, (2) Digital economy, (3) Living with environmental change (LWEC), (4) Global uncertainties: security for all in a changing world, (5) Ageing: Lifelong health and wellbeing, (6) Global Food Security, and (7) Connected Communities. The Living with Environmental Change (or LWEC) theme is perhaps the best developed theme, led out of NERC and charged with two broad objectives: to consolidate the UK research base as no.1 in climate science, and to provide 'government, business and society with the foresight, knowledge and tools to mitigate, adapt to and capitalize on environmental change'.

Such a move towards targeted research, framed by grand societal challenges, and informed by long-term public policy priorities, represents a considerable shift in UK science policy and one whose long-term consequences will only clarify in the coming years. Nevertheless, it is already clear that the processes through which priority themes come to be selected and framed has yet to be researched and theorized. What are the processes through which priority themes emerge? How are the societal challenges characterized? Do they constitute particular and normative framings of the challenges we collectively face? What technological options do they open up and close down? How do we differentially assess these technological options in terms of public acceptability? And, most critically for the purposes of this research, what happens when they are subjected to public deliberation?

Developing novel and imaginative responses to these questions will place Durham at the cutting-edge of science policy and democracy debates. Working in a spirit of co-inquiry with academics, policymakers and publics, with the aim of making societal challenges more socially robust, and developing a more nuanced understanding of the appropriate role of technology in developing solutions, is the big idea, around which a genuinely new and exciting centre of excellence can be built and sustained. Such debates matter. LWEC alone currently clusters research activities worth in excess of £550M, with a target of £1B by 2015, and is presented within Government as a key strategic priority.

The overall aim of the project is to develop a public engagement methodology designed to frame and articulate a grand societal challenge, from the bottom-up, on the theme of 'living with environmental change', and focused to explore the social and ethical implications of different emerging and potentially contested technological responses.


The focus of our engagement on the co-production of research distinguishes our approach from the more popular educational programmes associated with science outreach or public understanding of science, and from those programmes whose focus is entirely about public consultation on or participation in the development of policies to regulate use of contested technologies (such as genetically modified crops or in vitro fertilisation).  The co-production of research is designed with a variety of techniques and means including an artistic project. This approach provides opportunities to develop and strengthen links between the university and local communities whilst developing knowledge of the practical application and potential benefits of a co-production approach.

Using the language of Science and Technology Studies, our goal is to develop a 'research ensemble' (arrangement of materials, methods, instruments, established practices and enabling theories) that engage in 'real-time technology assessment' (integration of social science and policy research with natural science and engineering investigations from the outset) to enable better 'anticipatory governance' of new technologies (exploring ethical and social implications at an early stage). The overarching theme that will provide a focus for the research deliberations is that of 'the reinvention of nature'.

The objectives are:

  1. To experiment with novel public engagement techniques and processes aimed at developing publicly-robust societal grand challenges;
  2. To explore the role of the concept (or concepts) of nature in deliberations on the appropriate role of technology in responding to environmental change;
  3. To build a dynamic and sustainable research network comprising Durham University staff, postgraduate researchers and members of the public, through holding a series of facilitated, recorded dialogue events;
  4. To develop a research programme, building on the findings of the dialogue events, incorporating the range of perspectives, interests and expertise identified above, with a focus on co-producing new scientific, social-scientific and artistic knowledge;
  5. To strengthen links between the university and local communities and develop the capacity for public engagement at Durham;
  6. Ultimately, to develop a centre of excellence at Durham for public engagement with emerging technologies.

The 'publics' to which we will extend an invitation to work in partnership will be drawn from places in County Durham from which participation in university activities (seminars, concerts, public lectures) is not traditionally high. We have in mind targeting the small towns and villages of rural east and west Durham and using the specific cultural, economic and environmental heritages of the places (e.g. mineral extraction and food production) to link with particular chosen technological responses (e.g. such as low carbon energy, biofuels, geoengineering, nanotechnology, nuclear technology, environmental remediation). We will work with Durham Rural Community Council to target communities and generate interest. We will specifically include young people and will work with Investing in Children in Durham who have a long track record in promoting and developing youth participation.

Theoretical resources

The academic literature on technology assessment suggests that technology has an ambivalent historical role in relation to global environmental change, responsible equally both for manufacture, and for the resolution, of many of our most serious environmental problems. 'Living with environmental change' is a paradigm case. The history of environmental problems is replete with examples of technological failure, from the barely imaginable dangers of nuclear catastrophe to the unforeseen consequences of climate change. Yet, at the same time, technology, of a more benign kind, is required to tackle and clean up the perilous state we are in, notably climate change. Understanding the conditions under which technology can be a force for good must constitute one of the most significant societal challenges we face today.

The concept of nature, and its reinvention in public culture, will be a core intellectual resource for the project and for three reasons:

  • Firstly, because notwithstanding the tremendous moves towards artificiality brought about by advances in science and technology, the concept of nature, coupled with the appeal of naturalness, remains a resilient and enduring trope in public culture. Evidence can be witnessed across a host of cultural practices, from cooking to gardening, from trekking to hunting, from new forms of spirituality to the popularity of natural childbirth.
  • Secondly, because that the appeal to nature and naturalness remains perhaps the dominant lay concept to articulate - and modulate - what is 'at stake' in new science and technology, not least in terms of how it is used in public talk as a resource to interrogate the far-reaching effects of technoscience to modify, design, engineer and re-work molecules, matter, life, bodies, animals, environments, systems, relationships, futures and so on.
  • Thirdly, because whilst academic scholarship has explored in detail the complex interpenetrations of nature and culture (sometimes called a socio-nature) in everyday artifacts and practices, alongside recognition of the contested and at times confused and confusing status of the concept, there is as yet little work on what might be called the 'public culture of nature' - that is the ways in which notions of naturalness and nature circulate through culture in response to technoscientific innovation and their threats to established social and moral orders.

The aim of the intellectual engagement is to explore whether the concept (or concepts) of nature, subjected to philosophical analysis and public engagement, can provide new intellectual resources for negotiating the societal challenge of 'living with environmental change', and for deliberating the social and ethical implications of different emerging and potentially contested technological responses.

Interactive Sound-Installation Artwork

One distinctive and novel element of the project involves the commissioning of an interactive sound-installation artwork, designed to give artistic expression to the ideas explored during the project and, most importantly, to the creative processes through which our participating publics understand, discuss, reflect upon, deliberate and evaluate their own discussions on living with environmental change and on the structure of feeling of different technological options.

The artwork will:

  • Assist the 'co-production of research' as discussed above
  • Develop the process of understanding publics through artistic expression
  • Contribute to a cross-disciplinary understanding of creativity
  • Help evaluate the potential for new forms of public engagement.

The manner in which the Arts contributes to the research methodology of this project gives this project - and the IAS - a level of originality that is seldom seen in the UK.

The appointed artist will be actively involved in the project throughout its duration and will be present at all of the public engagement discussion meetings. In engaging the artist in this way, we ensure that his or her creative practice will add value not only to the project's outcomes but also to its processes; in particular it will add texture and vibrancy to the articulation of issues that emerge from public engagement discussions, their understanding and their relationship with each other. The publics, on the other hand, will experience a sense of empowerment and agency through encountering the making of an artwork as a direct outcome of their thoughts, feelings and discussions. The methodology of production makes the artwork both a product and outcome of co-research.

One key aspect of the installation artwork is that it is interactive. It is an artistic form that provides an alternative to the standard model of one-way communication. Our plan is to commission a 'soundscape' or 'sound-sculpture' type of installation, with or without electronics: a room or space is set up with objects that produce sound, and people will make movements/ sounds freely or under instructions. It can be for one person, as well as for a group of people (either coordinated or uncoordinated). An artistic conversation between the participants and the work may emerge as one possible outcome of such interaction.  

The most significant legacy of a sound-art work is its impact on the publics as innovative cultural (though transient) work that directly enacts the project's co-production process. The work may be audio-visually recorded for archive purposes; reference material for re-production (such as scores and instructions) may be produced. This commissioning is linked to Musicon's long-term program to create a series of musical works that represent Durham's cutting-edge ideas over the next ten years. Another legacy is the methodology: through the involvement of the other faculties, the sound-art work may suggest new forms of collaboration, which will be part of future development for this project.


Societal Challenge Definition

Agenda setting event: Living with environmental change

This initial event, which will take the form of a 'Future Worlds Café', will involve 50-100 people. The aim would be to subject the grand challenge of 'living with environmental change' to public deliberation. What are people's 'grand challenges' or key issues on environmental change in the medium and long term? How does this relate to how the grand challenge of 'living with environmental change' is being framed by the research councils? What technological solutions are being proposed? How are the social and ethical issues being configured? What does this mean locally? We will explore the concepts of nature at stake in these deliberations, and will prioritise the specific emerging technologies that could form the focus of further joint work. This will involve detailed discussion of technological options using biotechnology, nanotechnology and geoengineering. This event will use a variety of engagement approaches and techniques (eg world café, whole systems, consensus conferences). It will involve a range of Durham academics engaging in dialogue with participants on the science and implications of a variety of new technologies; recording of the event; an installation artist working alongside participants; modelling using cloud computing techniques.

Citizens' panel meeting

Following the initial event, a citizens' panel of 10-15 interested people will be formed, which will meet, discuss and refine its own grand societal challenge on 'living with environmental change', in particular exploring the idea of nature as an intellectual resource in negotiating the promises and threats of different technological options.  

Intellectual Encounters and Refinements

The citizens' panel will meet on further occasions to take forward the issues previously identified and to refine their grand challenge through two encounters with academics, one focusing on the role of myth, narrative and ancient wisdoms as providing cultural resources to resist technological triumphalism, the other focusing on academic discussions on the important of place and locality in discussions on environmental change. The form of the events will be a one day academic workshop, involving Durham and selected invited academics, around a set of prepared papers, following by an evening, interactive session where academics and lay publics can work together to advance understanding.

Workshop on myth, narrative and ancient wisdoms

This workshop will examine the ways in which public responses to new and emerging technology are resourced through narrative and myth, often drawing on arche stories that can be seen to belong to 'ancient' as well as 'modern' styles of thought: that we need to take care not to 'mess with nature' (the ancient concern with the sacred), that technological advance could 'get out' and release a host of evils that would be impossible to retrieve (the ancient story of Pandora's Box and hubris), and that when envisioning innovation we need to 'be careful what we wish for' (the ancient preoccupation with desire and false promise). Engaging scholars from theology to classics, from philosophy to history - alongside social scientists - we will be examining the role and relevance of ancient and classical narratives as providing ways of conceptualizing the dilemmas posed by advanced science and technology and the conditions under which they can contribute towards environmental solutions and sustainable lives. The workshop will counterpoise, for example, the problem of modern and pre-modern conceptions of nature, comparing, for example, the problem of 'alienation' with that of 'evil', the problem of the 'wild' with that of the 'hubris'. 

Workshop on everyday natures

In this workshop we will examine the proposition that long-range policy prescriptions on environmental change are likely to be successful when they resonate with the ways in which people experience locality, nature and everyday life. This more avowedly 'cultural' approach will focus on the everyday practices and meanings associated with nature, such as people's enthusiasms for wildlife, walking and hiking, botany and gardening. The naturalist and author, Richard Mabey, recently described by The Times as Britain's 'Greatest living nature writer', has kindly agreed to lead the seminar. This event will take place in March 2012.

Citizens' panel meeting

Following the two workshops, the citizens' panel will reconvene to deliberate and finalise its grand societal challenge on 'living with environmental change', setting out a set of recommendations for policymakers and for the 'Living with Environmental Change' research programme. Durham scientists and social scientists will be 'on tap' to help guide the discussion, to answer and respond to queries and to refine the challenge.  

Dissemination and Science Policy Activities

Responsible science and policy seminar

There is a rapidly growing debate, pioneered in the UK and following recommendations made in recent years by the Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, on the need for assessment approaches that can be enacted early on (upstream) in the innovation process to promote the responsible emergence of novel science and technology. Yet while initiatives aimed at promoting a more responsible - and reflexive - scientific culture are to be welcomed, to date, there has been little to no attempt to explore, with scientists and policymakers, how public deliberation might feature, normatively, in socio-technical responses to environmental change and in the framing of new research. What might innovation practices look like, informed by public perceptions of the ambivalent role of technology in driving environmental solutions; how might regulatory paradigms be adapted, more self-consciously aware of the dangers of the release of entities that are emergent and potentially irreversible; what does 'messing' or 'tinkering' with nature look like in relation to technologies that are ever-more able to fundamentally alter life, bodies, climate systems and so on. These questions will be examined through a multi-stakeholder process, involving policymakers and regulators alongside our citizen panel, and following an explicit discussion on the recommendations of the citizens panel and their implications for public policy and research. Selected members of EPSRC's Societal Issues Panel, on which Phil Macnaghten sits, will be invited to participate, such as Robert Winston, Richard Jones and Paul Younger, but also including Richard Owen (NERC), LWEC personnel, and PVC Research Tom McLeish.

Musicon event

In June 2012 we will host a Musicon event at which musical performances/artworks will be presented and exhibited in a style that is distinct from the standard 'performer-and-audience' format.

Proposal writing

Finally, in September 2012 we will write and submit a large inter-disciplinary research bid for a programme of research based on ideas and networks developed during the project.