The Highs and Lows of Leveraging Change – Part 3

Starting at the personal level and ‘Just bloody well do it!’

From 6th to 8th February 2019, 500 people gathered together at Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany, for the Leverage Points conference.  The conference was focused on sustainability science and framed around the Donella Meadows concept of Leveraging Points.  The conference aimed to inspire us to identifying the critical leverage points at which we need to put our efforts to trigger and catalyse the change needed to deliver a sustainable future.

Taking a vibrant, creative and dynamic format, the conference was a really exciting and stimulating experience and one that had quite a significant impact on me in a number of ways, both positive and negatively.  The third of three blog posts presenting a set of reflections from the conference, this post describes some of the inspiration I drew from the conference.

The conference had a very significant impact on me, but not in the way that I expected it to.  I had expected that I would gain lots of new ideas and theories and references to follow-up with regards my academic work.  But actually the impact of the conference resonated at a much more personal level and really created quite a shift in the way I think about the endeavour to deliver a sustainable future.  These new and very personal insights were triggered right at the beginning of the conference in the first keynote speeches.

I’m not going to share the whole of the inside of my brain in terms of how I now feel about sustainable futures.  But I will share two pointers that appeared as particularly important to me in terms of how we deliver action for a sustainable world.

The personal sphere as the first frontier.

One of the criticisms that arose in the conference from some of the delegates was a sense of a lack of actual actionable outputs from the vast amount of knowledge and work that academia had been producing over the last couple of decades.  There was a sense for many people in the room that actually a lot of the solutions are already known and yet they are not being delivered.  And as I looked around the room of 500 delegates I started to reflect on this at a more personal level.  The criticism regarding society’s inability to simply deliver the solutions we already had, could also be transferred onto our failure at the individual level too.  To what extent were we as a group of 500 sustainability professionals, academics and activists actually adopting all the personal and individual behaviours that we know/feel need to be adopted to deliver a sustainable future?  How much were we as a community, living the reality of our dreams of a sustainable future today?  There are so many things we can do right now.  Simple little things that nudge society towards a sustainable future, even in the current structure of the systems.  Were we as part of that sustainable movement really committed and embracing those things where they were possible for us?  Re-usable coffee cup, water bottles, bicycles and public transport not cars, environmentally friendly cleaning products, low meat and dairy consumption, reducing food waster, reducing plastic packaging.  To what extent were we adopting these types of practices? And could we do more?

These are all relatively simple and tangible things that are possible within the current system that we live.  But what about some of the more radical things we believe to be solutions for a sustainable future?  Things that are more about the way our culture operates in our vision of a sustainable future.  To what extent were we committed and able to seize those to make a sustainable future part of the reality of today? Things like reducing the length of our working day or working week so that we have more time for self-care, our families, sustainable living practices and our communities.  Things like adopting ‘Slow food’ practices so that we spend more time enjoying, savouring and nurturing one of the most essential parts of daily lives.  Things like spending some time with an elderly neighbour, or a neighbour who lives alone.  Things like making self-care the priority above and beyond our work.

Now of course, not everyone will agree with me that the above behaviour and culture changes are helpful, useful, or even possible, whether individually or more broadly across society.  And I by no means am suggesting here that any of the delegates of the conference that do not adopt, or even aspire to adopt, any of the above are bad people.  I believe that our personal lives are private and it’s only for us to decide, as individuals, the way in which we live our lives.  But equally on that merit I would also suggest that it is only ourselves who are responsible for delivering and living the life we believe in.  And that we should challenge and push ourselves to deliver on that dream.  We should ask ourselves whether we are making excuses and we should be more creative and braver about making those dreams a reality.

And that leads me on to my final point of reflection from the ‘Leverage Points’ conference.

‘Just bloody well do it.’

Where we know there are things we can do.  Where we find creative ways to deliver the future we believe in.  Where we see opportunities for change.  Don’t let fear, doubt, excuses or a not fully formulated plan get in the way.  “Just bloody well do it.”  Do it out of a place of inspiration, happiness and magic.  And do it in a way that is compassionate to yourself.


And to finish, some inspiration from one of the grassroots movements that is putting sustainable futures into practice today.

The Power of Just Doing Stuff – Rob Hopkins.

The Highs and Lows of Leveraging Change – Part 2

The paradox of slow urgency.  And generating creativity and magic.  

From 6th to 8th February 2019, 500 people gathered together at Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany, for the Leverage Points conference.  The conference was focused on sustainability science and framed around the Donella Meadows concept of Leveraging Points.  The conference aimed to inspire us to identifying the critical leverage points at which we need to put our efforts to trigger and catalyse the change needed to deliver a sustainable future.

Taking a vibrant, creative and dynamic format the conference was a really exciting and stimulating experience and one that had quite a significant impact on me in a number of ways, both positive and negatively.  The second of three blog posts this contribution presents a set of reflections about the key challenges and weaknesses of this sustainability science movement, as revealed to me through my engagement in the conference, as well as some of the exciting opportunities and inspirations that I drew from it.


The paradox of approaching Urgency Slowly.

One of the important ideas that arose in the conference was that the types of processes that we believe will create action and change for a sustainable future, actually need to be given lots of time and need to be carried out really slowly.  They often require a larger commitment than can be offered by a typical funding bid and in many cases can actually take decades and generations to provide results because they are embedded in complex social processes and conflicts.  This need to work at a slower pace than we are currently used to, is actually felt much more broadly in society as is evidenced by a growing interest in the “Slow” movement, which advocates for taking more time over the the things we engage with, so that we can experience them more fully and implement them with more quality.  Slow food is probably the most famous example from this philosophy.  More and more people are looking to shift away from the fast-paced, competitive, quantity over quality approach to life that pervades western society and for which much of our environmental and social degradation can be attributed to.

But unfortunately this need and desire to take things more slowly is in tension with the stark urgency that global challenges, such as Climate Change, present us with.  With global temperatures rising and more and more frequent signs of the consequences of climate change, we need to be delivering action and change now. We (those of us who are concerned and empowered) rush to find the answers and solutions and we rush to engage and bring more people into the movement for change, and our minds rush around the fear and frustration that we still haven’t made the changes we need to make and we are/have run out of time.

I would like to argue here, however, that maybe Slow Urgency, or delivering Urgency Slowly, is the perfect paradox.  Whilst it seems contradictory, it may be that by approaching the urgency of the situation more slowly, more carefully and more conscientiously, we may be more likely to have success.  That, in the way that we rush into things and try to do things quickly and with mass engagement and maximised impact, (a mindset of the industrialised, capitalist culture that contributed to the issues we are trying to resolve) we actually don’t deliver the necessary outcomes and the change that we need.  But by giving ourselves more time, more freedom, less obsession with scale and more careful and responsive practices, it may be that we could actually deliver the change we need.  To repair and resolve the global problems that we have created, we need to use a different approach and culture than the one that delivered us to these problems in the first place.  That’s not to say that we spend the next 100 years working out what to do, it’s imperative that we start now and that we start with action.  But we need to give ourselves more time and space to make that action possible.

Let’s never forget the fable of the “Tortoise and the Hare”.  I’d suggest it’s more relevant now than ever before.


Seizing creativity and magic.

Creativity and magic were too central themes present in the Leverage Points conference.  Firstly in the way that the conference was designed and facilitated.  The space was built as a creative and beautiful space to inspire and relax.  Many different methods for encouraging dialogue, discussion and communication were provided including a ‘Transformation Timeline’, ‘Conversation Corners’ and ‘Knowledge Harvesting Wall’ at which a group of graphic harvesters created beautiful and creative representations of the conversations and discussions that had been taking place throughout the programme.  In addition to this music, theatre and dancing were included as tools not just for inspiration and vitality, but also as different forms of expression and exploration of ideas and concept.  These spaces and tools inspired me personally to think about, organise, and approach my work in a more multi-faceted and creative way, thinking outside of the box of traditional modes of academic research and publication process.  In fact it went as far as to renew my commitment to ensure that my PhD research produces something more tangible and engaging to share with the participatory research community, than just peer-reviewed publications.  What was particularly nice about all of this was that the atmosphere of the conference was very different to any I’ve been to before.  It felt less academic, less formal and less corporate, and more community-building, more friendly, more supportive.  It felt different.

But what really brought this idea of creativity and magic to the conference was the keynote speech by Prof. Ioan Fazey on the morning of the first day of the conference.  Ioan encouraged us to reflect on Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ in which a sorcerer leaves his apprentice to tidy up the castle.  In order to save time the apprentice tries using some of the sorcerer’s magic to do the job for him.  The apprentice successfully gets the spells working only to find they become out of control and he doesn’t have the wisdom to stop them.  The poem was epitomized by Disney’s film Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse features as the apprentice.  Ioan likened our present day situation to that in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where we’ve been trying out all the different spells that we’ve learnt, but they are out of control and we don’t know how to bring them back to order.  Ioan expressed that we have the knowledge and theory for what needs to change to deliver a sustainable world, but we don’t have the wisdom and the understanding of ‘how to’ make these changes.  This wisdom and ‘how to’ knowledge, Ioan argued, doesn’t come from a place of academic knowledge and theory-making but from a place of practice, experience and creativity.  He encouraged us to unleash our creativity and ask the really difficult questions, critiquing the approaches we’ve taken so far, and being prepared to try out and experiment with doing things completely different, and in doing so, we might just release some magic.


The above reflections are just a brain dump of my reflection after participating in the Leverage Points conference.  The comments are not water tight arguments and reflect a lot of personal experience I had at the conference.  They are therefore open to debate and I welcome further challenges and critique in the comments below.

The Highs and Lows of Leveraging Change – Part 1

“Where’s the action?” and “Getting to know your ‘tribe.’” 

From 6th to 8th February 2019, 500 people gathered together at Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany, for the Leverage Points conference.  The conference was focused on sustainability science and framed around the Donella Meadows concept of Leverage Points.  The conference aimed to inspire us to identifying the critical leverage points at which we need to put our efforts to trigger and catalyse the change needed to deliver a sustainable future.

Taking a vibrant, creative and dynamic format the conference was a really exciting and stimulating experience and one that had quite a significant impact on me in a number of ways, both positive and negatively.  This blog posts presents a set of reflections about the key challenges and weaknesses of this sustainability science movement, as revealed to me through my engagement in the conference, as well as some of the exciting opportunities and inspirations that I drew from it.


Theory. Theory. Theory.  Where’s the action?

The conference gave a lot of opportunities to meet different people and discuss and reflect collectively, and one thing that struck me after day one, was some of the feelings of frustration expressed by the younger students of the conference.  To paraphrase – ‘This is just a whole bunch of people that know each other, and have been having the same conversation for years, and it’s all theory, there’s no action here, no-one is actually creating any action or change.’  This really struck me at the time, because I’d had a really great day, including a number of personal revelations, and a feeling that it was great to find a whole community of professionals who were working in the same area and tackling the same problems as me.  But their comments reminded me of how I felt engaging with the ecosystem services community when I was an undergraduate; exacerbated at the lack of solutions, hearing the same conversations and debates every time, with a seeming lack of progress for moving beyond those, and no sign of action!  And suddenly I was stood in the shoes of the undergraduate again, passionate, driven, enthusiastic and empowered to make change and create a positive future, and wondering why decades of sustainability research hadn’t helped us make significant paradigm shifts in society yet.  Why were we still discussing the same issues, and splitting the same hairs and still theorising every little minutiae of the subject?  Why weren’t we all taking action and creating change? Why wasn’t there more ‘how to’ knowledge represented? And how had I become one of the academics obsessed with theorising to try to find an ultimate solution?

I’ve been running this through the back of my mind for the last week and a number of thoughts have emerged.  Firstly research is a predominantly a place for knowledge creation, not action.  Research at it’s most fundamental is intended to create new understanding and not to create change.  We need to recognise and honour the role that research plays in society.  That being said as researchers we want to have impact and we should be stepping back more regularly to gain a greater perspective of our work in the context of these global challenges, to critically ask ourselves whether our work is really delivering the impact we want and intend it to have.  We need to ask ourselves “Is my work delivering action and change?”

Secondly, building on from that point, we need to also ask ourselves “Should my work be delivering action and change?”  Ioan Fazey made a really important point in his keynote speech on day 1 describing how people often talk about the knowledge: action gap, and criticise and push the sciences to work harder to reduce this gap, but actually this is misdirected thinking, because action itself needs a different type of knowledge, not produced in the sciences, a more experiential, practical and intuitive knowledge that comes from a place of practice not research.  We need to consider whether research really has a place in delivering action, and if it does whether there is a limit to the amount and types of action that research can deliver.  Where there are limits we need to acknowledge and accept them and not try to make research deliver things that a very different type of practice is better able to deliver.  Many of us at the conference were talking about research processes that are intended and designed to create action, but equally we need to continue to take a critical view regarding the extent to which we are actually managing to achieve this and where.

Thirdly, it is important for me to mention that I am not suggesting that research has no role to play in supporting practice, of course there are many examples where it does, particularly in feeding into the theories that practitioners can use in their work.  But there was a general sense at the conference that practitioners weren’t widely represented.  We need to support and encourage practitioners to attend these conferences so that we can create opportunities for mutual learning, creating a more reflexive culture of learning and action.  Isabel Carlisle, an activist from the UK, read a letter to the conference on 8th February imploring researchers to take their knowledge into the place of practice (see blog post of letter here).  To bring their knowledge to the activists and the practitioners so that it can be used and implemented and benefited from.  Isabel also challenged comments that we should invite practitioners and grassroots movements to the conference, by explaining that they can’t attend conferences because they are working.  Let’s hold conferences at time, locations and prices that make them accessible to a broader range of people.


‘You feel like you’ve found your tribe!’

One of the interesting things that emerged over the three days was the realisation that whilst there was a sort of sense within the room that we were all one community, on the same page, heading in the same direction, with the same politics and the same professions, this wasn’t actually the case.  This poses three important problems.

Firstly, by generally assuming we were all ‘of the same tribe’ and a generally homogeneous group, a number of delegates who didn’t identify with ‘the tribe’ felt excluded, isolated, and like they weren’t able to honestly express their opinions. For some delegates the extent to which they didn’t feel a part of ‘the tribe’ meant they actually felt like ‘the tribe’ were ‘out of touch with reality’ and in a ‘crazy bubble’.  Part of the irony of some of this is that a strong theme in discussions throughout the conference was that differing opinions and perspectives and conflict actually are fertile places for creativity and innovation.

Secondly, the culture of ‘the tribe’ appeared to be strongly “Left wing”.  It was a culture that speaks in terms of ‘ethics of care’, ‘love and compassion’ and one that directly and explicitly challenges discourses of militarisation, mechanisation and concepts of oppression.  This particular strain of politics and ethics means that it would discourage a wider group of people, with different perspectives from engaging and participating it the movement towards sustainability that we are trying to create.  I certainly felt that the conversations we were having were heavily politicised in a particular frame of what’s right and what’s wrong.  Now some people may argue that we don’t want to engage with people who do support ideas of militarisation, competition and capitalist progress, because these ideas are damaging and wrong (not my point of view, but the view of some).  But to deliver a sustainable future we need to have everyone involved and so engaging with the whole patchwork of politics, values, views and opinions is essential for uniting to create the change that’s needed.

What is particularly ironic about the two points that I have just made is that much of the discussions we were having during the conference were about being able and willing to bring a much wider and greater range of perspectives into the conversation.  But by assuming we were all cut from the same cloth and by being so strongly politicised in our comments and the way we spoke to one another, we actually isolated those within the delegates who did not identify themselves with the mass.  And we certainly make it hard for other people to come and get involved and join the conversation.  We need to be much more careful about the types of language we use and the way we present ourselves when discussing our work and engaging with other groups of people, if we do indeed want to draw together a broader and more diverse network of people.

A final point on the matter of being ‘part of a tribe’.  Kathryn Andrews made the point that we need as a community to have a really explicit conversation about where we think we are heading, when we talk about delivering a sustainable future.  This struck me as a really important point because we are not a homogeneous group of people and so we inevitably have a whole range of ideas about what a sustainable future looks like, and it’s very likely that we don’t all agree with each other’s dreams of the future.  This creates a really difficult tension when we know that we need to be united in delivering a sustainable future, but we may not agree on the ‘Where to’ and ‘How’ questions behind that move.  Do we need to work to build a consensus to work together?  Do we have time for that?  Or is it okay if we all work in our own way and in our own direction?  Can the delivery of a nuanced range of sustainable futures, still bring a safer, more equitable planet for future generations?


The above reflections are just an emerging brain dump of my considerations and challenges to what I experienced and witnessed at the Leverage Points conference.  The comments are not water tight arguments and reflect a lot of personal experience I had at the conference.  They are therefore open to debate and I welcome further challenges and critique in the comments below.

‘Empowering Civil Society through Participatory Investigation’ – Workshop, Paris, 1-2 February 2019

Which types of knowledge empower civil society? Does empowerment of one person, require another to relinquish some of their power? Are participatory processes a means or an ends? These are some of the challenging and most poignant questions that emerged out of the discussions and debate that took place at the ‘Empowering Civil Society through Participatory Investigation’ workshop, in Paris, over 1 & 2 February, 2019.

Around 35 people from across Europe gathered together for a two-day workshop entitled ‘Empowering Civil Society through Participatory Investigation’, organised by the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) , Doing It Together Science (DITOs), Institut francilien rechereche, innovation, société (IFRIS), Pour une alliance science sociétés (ALLISS), Laboratoire interdisciplinaire sciences innovations sociétés (LISIS) and Living Knowledge Network (LKN).  The workshop brought together a very diverse range of professionals from NGOs, universities and freelancers, working in participatory research, citizen science, science participatives and social innovation.  The purpose of the workshop was to explore what role NGOs played in these participatory investigative processes, and how their involvement in these processes could help deliver empowerment.  The workshop was organised around keynote speeches, panel discussions and three parallel workshops that ran across the two days, addressing different aspects of the empowerment question; ‘Governance of spaces and places’, ‘Trajectories of participatory investigation’, and ‘Empowerment of civil society through research cooperation.’

Discussions over the course of the two days raised a number of important questions and debates, which I share here for you to raise as discussion points with other colleagues and peers working around these issues.


They say “Knowledge is power”, but are all types of knowledge powerful?

There are a growing number of examples, certainly within citizen science, which are demonstrating the empowering impact that enabling citizens to collect their own data can have on addressing issues that matter to them.  The case of lead water poisoning in Flint, Michigan, is one of those examples, where scientists supported citizens in collecting data that they could then use as evidence against government, regarding the quality and safety of their water supplies.  In the case of Flint, Michigan, this data collected from across the community, by citizens and scientists alike, provided evidence in court, that led to legal rulings that the water supply and infrastructure should be changed. But the reason that this data was empowering was because it was collected to standards that were considered scientifically legitimate, and because the involvement of professional scientists in the process created a sense of credibility around the data.

This is a curious point when we consider the interest of including and valuing different types of knowledge through participatory research processes.  They say “Knowledge is power” but traditional knowledge, local knowledge, lay knowledge, intuitive knowledge, experiential knowledge (and many others), are not considered to be legitimate forms of knowledge within the very public forums that communities need to be influencing to create change.  So whilst empowering communities through the generation and access of knowledge is something that citizen science and participatory research processes can offer, unfortunately this is largely limited to empirical knowledge.

And because empirical knowledge has the most power and recognition in westernised societies, currently, we should be careful when we work to try to increase the value and legitimacy of these other types of knowledge not to lean towards using empirical knowledge to validate these other forms of knowledge.  By doing so (I would suggest) we will simply perpetuate the hierarchy of empirical knowledge as the ultimate and superior form.  I can’t however, right now, offer examples of how to validate and increase the value of these other types of knowledge – comments and suggestions from yourselves are welcome below.

But we must also recognise that in some circumstances (some people might argue, many circumstances) scientific knowledge has limited power.  It won’t take you long to think of an example of a situation where scientific evidence collected and verified in a scientifically legitimate way has been ignored or disregarded within the policy-making process, in order to fulfil other economic or political agendas.  This means that whilst citizens can gain some power through access to empirical evidence, giving them the power to engage in dialogue with policy-makers, there is not guarantee that that knowledge and power will be transformed into action and change that the citizens may be looking for.  The action and change part of the process is something much more social rather than empirical, and requires a complex negotiation of motivations, drivers, resources, politics, time and place and many other social factors.


Does empowerment of people, require other people to give up their power?

One interesting debate that emerged in the workshop was whether the empowerment of citizens requires scientists and policy-makers to relinquish some of their own power.  Some delegates argued that empowerment only came from the powerful relinquishing their power over situations, giving some of their power to the less-powerful.  This case is argued on the basis that the powerful hold access and control over decision-making processes and are therefore in the position of deciding not only what people can and can’t do, but also who can and can’t influence decision-making processes.  Those powerful individuals are the ones that get to make the decisions and choose who to let in and who to exclude from policy-processes.  The argument goes that in these scenarios the only way in which the dis-empowered can engage in these processes is if the powerful, firstly allow the dis-empowered to participate and secondly, give up their sole control over the decision-making processes, giving some of their control and influence to those who are dis-empowered.  The matter or empowerment is therefore in the hands of the powerful.

However, other delegates argued against this case, discussing power in terms of an infinite resource where more and more can be generated, and where the powerful don’t need to give up their power, but the dis-empowered can gain more power.  In this case the dis-empowered gain power through education, the development of infrastructures and resources, and the building of social networks, through which they can start to have influence.  This empowerment therefore comes from the structure of society and the individual citizens and communities capacities to galvanise and build social structures that enable them to influence processes.

Where do your thoughts lie in relation to this two sides of the argument and what influence does this have on the way in which you work in participatory processes and in civil empowerment?


Are participatory processes a means or an ends?

Another interesting idea that emerged, which is worth raising, is the matter of whether a participatory process should be considered as a means or an ends?  One delegate raised the point that whilst participatory processes are really valuable, we don’t want to be ‘just having nice experiences’, what we actually want is to be able to create change.  And that the value and purpose of these processes should be to create change and positive action in the world.

Of course being able to deliver action and change through these processes is a brilliant achievement, but it’s also worth considering the value of participatory processes as an ends in its own right.  Because by simply working to see more participatory processes taking place, you work to create a scenario where participatory processes are a more normalised form of social organisation and dialogue. By achieving this goal you have ultimately created action and change by creating a more citizen engaged and democratic culture, which is a significant achievement in itself.  A caveat here, however, is that this is only really of value if the processes are genuinely participatory and that all actors that are involved have an influence on the process and the dialogue.

We need to be clear when working in participatory processes whether that process is a means or an ends, and be clear to those who we are engaging what we intend the outcomes of the processes to be.


These represent just a couple of the tensions and challenges that were raised in the workshop on ‘Civil empowerment through participatory investigation,’ and demonstrate that even as a professional community engaged in this type of work there is not one agreed mindset or approach to this type of work.  But I don’t think that we necessarily need to ‘resolve’ these tensions and come to an ultimate and ‘correct’ conclusion on any of these matters.  This diversity of perspectives leads to a heterogeneity of practices which brings strength and resilience to the way in which we work and the impacts that we can have as a collective.  But also this diversity of perspectives leads to tensions and debate within the community which ensures that we don’t become complacent and dogmatic in our thinking, but also creates a fertile forum for creativity and innovation.


I’d like to a say a big thank you to all the partner organisations for organising this workshop and providing the opportunity to engage in very rich and thought-provoking discussions, with such a diverse group of people.

Our New Book Has Arrived!!! – Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy.

I’m excited to announce that the latest Citizen Science book has been published this week. Including some contributions from yours truly (see Chapter 2). 

Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy is a 580 page volume, compiled by 121 co-authors, from across the world.. The book discusses the role that citizen science plays in the wider agenda for a culture of open science and open society and pushes us to think about how we are contributing to the realisation of responsible research and innovation.

The book explores these issues across five parts, addressing:

  1. Innovation in Citizen Science
  2. Innovation in Science with and for Society
  3. Innovation at the Science-Policy Interface
  4. Innovation in Technology and Environmental Monitoring
  5. Innovation in Science Communication and Education

And also includes a section dedicated to case studies.

The book is rightly open access.  You can download a pdf for free here.

citizen_science book cover

I’m looking forward to receiving my own copy in the post, so I can dive into it with a cup of tea and a piece of cake to celebrate.

I hope you enjoy it!

Let us know what you think on Twitter using the handle @UCLpress and the hashtag #citizenscience.

Jade (@JadeLaurenCawth)


Citizen Science Relationships, Scientific Standards and Change Making – key insights from the ‘Advancing Citizen Science in Alberta’ workshop.

This blog summarises some of the key thoughts and themes that emerged from a two-day workshop organised and hosted by Alberta Environment and Parks and the Miistakis Institute, called ‘Advancing Citizen Science in Alberta’.  The workshop took place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada from Wednesday 26th September to Thursday 27th September.

With a growing network of citizen science activity taking place across Alberta, Alberta Environment and Parks and the Miistakis Institute decided to help further incubate and foster this participatory research activity, by bringing together practitioners, researchers and citizens to share knowledge and best practice in order to identify priority actions for advancing practice in the province.

I was privileged to be invited to speak on the opening panel session ‘Origins, Evolution and Where We Are Today’ alongside Jennifer Shirk (Citizen Science Association and Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and Lea Shanley (US South Big Data Innovation Hub).  The rest of the programme explored data standards and credibility, place-based practice, the link between citizen science and environmental decision-making, and showcased a wide range of active projects.  The two days culminated in three workshop sessions.  The first looked to further develop principles and a memorandum on Citizen Science that would guide and encourage the adoption of citizen science in Alberta Environment and Parks.  The second workshop looked to identify priority outcomes for developing data credibility in citizen science, within the province.  And the third workshop drew on the expertise within the room to support the development of new and emerging citizen science projects.

Over the two days I found myself having some of the most enlightening conversations about citizen science that I have ever had in my five years of working in the field and attending international citizen science conferences.  Three key themes emerged from the conference that strike me as having a critical influence on how citizen science moves forward in the future.

  • Citizen Science, Science and Environmental Decision-making are all social processes as much as they are technical processes.
  • Citizen science has approached a crux; its holds significant promise, but high standards of practice must be maintained.
  • Citizen science is just one part of the process of making change. It is not a silver bullet.

Citizen Science, Science and Environmental Decision-making are all social processes as much as they are technical processes.

A key idea I tried to instil through my presentation was that ‘Citizen science is as much a social process as it is a scientific process’.  This was echoed and then expanded upon by Gwendolyn Blue (University of Calgary) in her keynote speech, who added that not only was citizen science a social process, but so too was science and environmental decision-making.  What’s key about this argument is that often when we examine and approach citizen science, science and environmental decision-making processes we focus on the technical aspects of these processes.  We concern ourselves with the structure and shape of the scientific and decision-making process.  What we forget to pay attention to is that all of these processes involve significant social interaction and negotiation that play a huge role in shaping the outcomes.  Citizen Science is not just about the design of methods and tools that enable citizens to participate, but it is also about the dynamics of the relationship and the engagement between citizens and scientists.  Creating an open, trusting, respectful environment that acknowledges and works with the values and assumptions of everyone involved and works to build genuine and mutual understanding is as important to realising citizen science outcomes as developing a data collection method suitable for the audience.  As scientists and citizen science practitioners we need to be more reflexive about how our values and assumptions play out when we are developing and managing citizen science projects.  We also need to be honest about the extent to which we are actually willing to open up the scientific process to different ‘publics’.

Citizen science has approached a crux: it holds significant promise, but high standards of practice must be maintained.

Jennifer Shirk, during the opening panel of the workshop, drew our attention to the possibility that we have arrived at a crux in the evolution of citizen science.  Citizen science risks becoming a buzz word.  As the concept is becoming increasingly popular the risk is that it will be adopted as lip service without true fulfilment of the core principles of delivering high quality scientific research with genuine citizen participation.  However, as this community and practice grows, we need to be careful that any steps to define principles or standards in order to maintain high standards, don’t unintentionally stifle the field by discouraging experimentation.  We need to reflect carefully on the nature of the principles and standards that we are developing, and on the way they are being utilised, to ensure that they allow for the evolution and innovation of new practices.

Citizen science is just one part of the process of making change.  It is not a silver bullet.

Increasing interest has grown around the role that citizen science can play in influencing policy and creating change and action in the world.  Indeed, it is the potential of co-created participatory research approaches to empower communities and support them in realising change that inspired me to take on my PhD research.  A prominent line of discussion and exploration in the workshop was around how we can use citizen science to influence environmental decision-making.  And whilst there are a number of fabulous examples of how citizen science can create positive change (eg. Flint Michigan), we have to recognise that citizen science is simply one tool among many for achieving change, and is in many cases not enough on its own.  Like policy, citizen science is not always capable of creating the necessary transformation on its own, often a significant cultural shift is required.  Reasons why citizen science can be limited in its ability to create change include the issue raised by Liz Hendriks (WWF- Canada) that decisions are often not evidence based but are made on a social, cultural and political basis.  In addition, citizen science still faces significant challenges to being respected as a valid and credible method of knowledge generation.  Where we accept that citizen science can only be one part of the process of change making Tracy Lee (Miistakis Institute) then made the valuable point that we need to understand what role citizen science does play in that process so that we can enhance the impact and influence we have through our projects.


These three themes, raised at the ‘Advancing Citizen Science in Alberta’ workshop, hit on some really fundamental challenges and considerations that the citizen science community need to address in order to support progression of the field.  And all three themes call on us as a community, and as individuals, to be more reflective and reflexive about our practice, our assumptions, our attitudes and our values.  The more that we take the opportunity to invest in our community of practice and to engage opening in dialogue around these issues, that more that the practice of citizen science will thrive and have a positive influence in the world.  Why not invest some time in your institution to start a citizen science discussion group, to start teasing out some of these issues, to ensure that your organisation is heading in a positive direction with citizen science.  


The views expressed above include my own but cannot be solely attributed to me.  The content above is my reflection of two days of dialogue with the whole delegation of the ‘Advancing Citizen Science in Alberta’ workshop programme.  I thank them all for their challenging and stimulating discussions.  

Engaging Scientists in Citizen Science

Much of the conversation and focus of research in the field of citizen science is about:

  • How do we engage more citizens in science research?
  • How do we motivate them to participate?
  • How do we retain their engagement throughout the whole lifecycle of a project and beyond?

These are really critical questions of central importance to the development of the field and for which much attention must to be continuously paid, particularly as the concept increases in popularity and the types of participants diversify in their character.  But after attending the Australian Citizen Science Conference in Adelaide, in February of this year (2018), I found myself asking whether, in focusing on the how to engage citizens we had neglected to pay attention to how we engage scientists?

Understanding what motivates, engages and retains citizens in citizen science projects is utterly essential to the practice of citizen science.  You can’t have citizen science, without citizens.  And the conference revealed and shared some effective and sometimes overlooked ideas such as:

  • Rather than asking potential participants to come to you, go to where they are already engaged and active.  K Mills & Simon Branigan (The Nature Conservancy, Australia) working with shell fish reefs, found that approaching dive clubs was the highly effective for them, as divers are already engaged and enthusiastic about the marine environment.
  • Operate at the time scale of your participants. Emilie Ens (Macquarie University) who works with indigenous communities in the Northern Territories of Australia, found that operating on indigenous time scales led to successful engagement with this group.
  • Make it a social opportunity. Erin Roger, Geetha Ortac (New South Wales Office of Environment & Heritage) & Ingrid Garland (EnviroComm Connections)  , both highlighted the power and importance of offering social opportunities, either by having BBQs and parties to reward, celebrate and bond as a group, or simply by holding meetings and engaging in social media communications.

But at the beginning of Day 1 of the Conference in a workshop entitled ‘New Visions for Citizen Science and Public Policy in Australia’ a couple of little snapshots of conversations suddenly highlighted to me how little of my attention had considered the need to engage, motivate and retain scientists as much as the need to do so with citizens.

Whilst of course scientists are already engaged in citizen science (the majority of citizen science projects are run and/or developed by scientists), the extensive literature directly addressing the validity of citizen science as an approach shows there is still much work to be done to convince the wider scientific community of the legitimacy of such an approach.  Through my few years as a citizen science practitioner and researcher I have certainly met many scientists (and some citizens for that matter) who are sceptical about the idea that citizens should and can be involved in the scientific process, without undermining scientific rigour.

It was a statement from Lea Shanley (Co-Executive Director, US South Big Data Innovation Hub) that really brought to my mind the idea that we need to pay more attention to engaging scientists, when she explained that when her and her colleagues are trying to advocate the concept of citizen science to the scientists in their institution they often start by saying:

               “’If you could have a 100,000 people to help you with your science what would you do?”

What it made me realise was that in the same way that we look to generate ideas about new and powerful ways of advocating the concept to citizens and convincing them that citizen science might be something they’d like to participate in, we also need to think of new and powerful ways of advocating citizen science to scientists.

We often talk about the need to make citizen science relevant to citizens so that they are motivated to participate.  And what the statement that Lea offered us in Adelaide, cleverly does, is pose that relevance back to the scientists.  Instead of saying to them, citizen science will help you to collect more data distributed across a bigger area, which can often raise a number of questions around validity and quality from the scientists.  The statement presents the resource potential to the scientist and asks them to consider the relevance of that potential to them, on their terms – “What would you do?”  What is also very clever about the statement is that by being hypothetical it frames the concept of citizen science as an opportunity without limits.  It invites the scientist to dream and explore the potential for their research of having access to a huge human resource that their funding streams could never support.

It seems to me that by piquing the interest of scientists by framing citizen science as a human resource opportunity that they can approach within their own boundaries, you can then open up a conversation about a variety of different success stories already evidenced in the literature and practice, presenting scientists with a suite of tools and methods to use to suit their needs.  And from here open up a conversation about best practice, and what we so far know works and not.  Having framed the conversation around “what would you do?” dialogue may even draw out some new suggestions and innovations for practice, having brought a new perspective to the approach.  But what Lea also mentioned which seems highly important, is that these conversations were most effective when taking place between two scientists, particularly if the citizen science advocate in the conversation is a high-profile scientist.

So far, this is the first step for me in considering and exploring how we approach and discuss citizen science with other scientists, and in considering them as much an audience, as we consider citizens.  My work as a researcher and practitioner, so far, has been very much focused on citizens as an audience, and how we meet their needs.  And in my PhD research I am focused on collecting and expressing the voice of the citizens involved in projects, to address to what extent we are serving their needs as communities, when we practice citizen science.  On the flip side, we also need to consider these questions with regards to the scientists involved, to understand their motivations and barriers to adopting and participating in citizen science.  At the end of the day, which ever approach to citizen science that you take it is a partnership and collaboration between both citizens and scientists, and so we need to understand the experiences of both.

For anyone interested in reading a bit more on this topic, I’d recommend: RIESCH, H. & POTTER, C. 2014. Citizen science as seen by scientists: methodological, epistemological and ethical dimensions. Public Understanding of Science, 23, 107-120. ( Having interviewed scientists who participated in the OPAL citizen science programme, in the UK, the authors present the scientist’s perspectives on the methodological and ethical issues of such an approach.

My attendance at the conference was generously sponsored by three different organisations, the Australian Citizen Science Association who granted me a travel scholarship, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design with whom I am studying for my PhD, and finally the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) who fund my PhD.  I am sincerely grateful to all three parties for supporting me in this opportunity.



Learning to look after Orchards

Surrounding the Food Growing Hub, at Dundee Botanic Garden, there is a small orchard of apple, plum, pear and cherry trees donated by and planted by the Dundee Urban Orchard.  Last year the Hub members enjoyed watching the fruits appear and swell through the summer, and were keen to learn how to care for orchards, so offered to take responsibility for its care.  To help us on our way to becoming master orchard keepers we decided to invite Andrew Lear (also known as AppleTreeMan) to come to the gardens to teach us what on earth we should be doing to make the best, and most, of the fruit trees. And we decided to offer the opportunity to other members of the public and members of the Botanic Gardens staff too.

The Food Growing Hub is a small food growing space at Dundee Botanic Gardens, providing local residents with an opportunity to grow their own food.


So on a cold, snowy and rainy Monday morning, (the Monday after we’d been hit by the Beast from the East), sixteen of us gathered together in the warmth of the Education Centre, to soak up the knowledge Andrew has built over 30 years as a horticulturalist, working with fruit trees and orchards.

Folk travelled to garner Andrew’s wisdom from Aberdeen, West Lothian, Perth and Montrose, and whilst some people were starting out with orchards in their gardens or community projects, and wanted to know how best to care for them and train them.  Others had very mature and large trees that they were finding unmanageable and wanted to know how to bring them back under control.

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Andrew started by talking us through how an apple tree grows, as understanding this is critical for being able to make the right decisions about where and how to prune the tree.  He impressed upon us that cultivated apple trees are artificial plants, engineered by humans (a variety of apple is grafted onto an apple root stock that will control how much the tree grows), and so for the best fruit crop apple trees need to be managed and controlled, rather than allowed to grow wild and natural.  Andrew then talked us through how the choices about which branches and stems you cut, and how and where you cut them, affects the continued growth and shape of the plant and the amount of fruit you yield.  A couple of key principles included; wanting to encourage horizontal stems and branching, as here the tree puts more energy into producing fruit, than vertical stems and branches which put energy into making the tree grow tall; And LIGHT, LIGHT, LIGHT, as an all-important factor, trying to maximise the amount of light reaching each part of the tree, by making careful decisions about which branches to keep and which to remove.

Andrew took us out to the orchard to demonstrate the principles and talk us through the decisions he would make to prune the trees there, before getting us to have a go at practicing reading the trees and making those decisions ourselves.  Being a member of the Food Growing Hub, Andrew asked me to dive in and have a go, and as I started to put the ideas into practice, with some support from the rest of the group, I started to be able to see more clearly which branches were good to keep and which to remove.

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Apples trees need to be pruned yearly, to maintain and manage the first, second and third year growth that is taking place, and this pruning needs to be done in the winter, when the energy of the tree has been drawn down to the roots and branch growth isn’t taking place.  Having received the ‘Beast from the East’ last week, spring will be delayed for a few weeks longer, which gives us at the Food Growing Hub more chance to prune a couple of remaining trees at the orchard.  I certainly can’t wait to see how our pruning decisions influence the trees through the spring and summer of this year.

Andrew Lear runs a nursery growing fruit and nut trees, as well as working as a consultant and offering workshops on a variety of orchard topics.  For more information please visit:

Dundee Botanic Garden have an extensive programme of events and workshops throughout 2018 from practical horticulture through to botanical sciences. For more information please visit:

Welcome to the Food Growing Hub – Dundee Botanic Garden


Celebrating 2017

“We all have a passion for growing our own food, whether this is to save money, have a healthier diet, because we love being outside and caring for plants, or because we want to ‘save the world’.  As a Food Growing Hub, we are a community food growing space based at the University of Dundee Botanic Garden, in Dundee, Scotland.”

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Bumble bees busy away on the thyme

“This food growing space is comprised of raised beds and ground level food growing spaces – comprising 14 plots in total! There is also a seating area, a shed, and an orchard of apples, plums, pears and cherries planted by the Dundee Urban Orchard project.”

“We, the individuals at The Food Growing Hub, are a wide mix of local residents. We are aged from the 20s to the 70s; some of us are retired, and some working or studying. The Hub is also enjoyed by garden visitors who come to explore, enjoy, and be inspired by the food that is being grown.  Garden staff also take an interest in what is being grown, offering us some of their spare plants and knowledge, as well as sharing in some of the produce.”

“In the Spring of 2017, Jade Cawthray-Syms approached the garden with the offer of co-ordinating some community activities, including starting to run some food growing experiments in the Hub as part of the GROW Observatory. Very soon Jade was joined by a GROW staff member Alice Ambler and the two forged forward in a bid to bring us all together to share knowledge, skills, experiences, resources, and fun.”

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Alice weeding in Summer 2017

“Looking back on 2017 we have been amazed and delighted to see how much we have achieved together in just a 6 month period.  Here are our highlights:”

We Got New Members

“Interest in the Food Growing Hub and the demand for spaces has been consistent throughout the year, leading to two new members joining the Hub and growing our community to 11 individuals.”

Food, Glorious Food

“We have grown sooo much wonderful, fresh, and incredibly tasty food this year:  Potatoes, carrots, parsnips, squash, peas, beans, courgettes, beetroot, cabbages, broccoli, pak choi, spinach, salads, radishes, onions, herbs, strawberries, and raspberries!  It’s been an absolute delight.”

Lots of Support from the Botanic Gardens staff

“We’re getting to know the Botanic Garden staff really well! They have been consistently open and generous, leading to a number of improvements at the Hub.”

New Composting Area

“Prior to this year, we used the Garden’s composting area, which was a fair walk from the Hub. We did have a composting container, but it was not fit for purpose. We now, thanks to Alasdair (the Garden curator) have our very own composting area, built by the garden staff.  The composting area has three spaces:  one for compostable material; one for compost brought from the gardens supply for our usage, and one for stony and woody rubbish that needs disposing of. Because we do not produce enough garden waste for composting, the garden staff remove our composting material, and add it to their composting piles.  Dan, one of the garden staff members, took the time to talk us through the composting system and what types of materials we should and shouldn’t be composting.”


“The shed at the Hub was well overdue a coat of paint and starting to look at bit shabby.  Alasdair agreed to buy us some wood stain and equipment. Ray, Mhairi and Jade spent a September afternoon painting the shed.  The colour is quite different and the coating not as thick as we’d hoped, but it looks a lot brighter than before and will keep the wood in good condition through the winter.  The next job is to get the inside of the shed tidied up.”

Building friendships

“Before Jade and Alice arrived the Hub members didn’t really know each other, but since then we’ve started to have regular meetings and friendships have started to blossom.  We’ve had three group meetings across the Summer and Autumn where we’ve got to know each other and discussed how we might work together.  Now when we bump into each other at the plots we stop to chat and share our stories of food growing experimental successes and failures.  Ann even started a Facebook page so that we can share photos from the allotments, and relevant events.”

Jade and Mhairi planning 2018 over tea and biscuits.

Developing our knowledge

“During this summer at the Hub many of us were challenged by Potato Blight. With the guidance of Dave B we took measures to protect our potato crop and prevent the spread of the disease. We then realised that, beyond it being bad, we didn’t really know what potato blight was, or if we had managed it correctly. With the James Hutton Institute on our doorstep, we decided to invite a Potato Blight expert to come and talk to us about what they know of the problem.  David Cooke joined us and gave an absolutely fascinating presentation on what potato blight was, and how it is managed at the industrial farming scale. He was fantastic at answering our persistent and eager questions. We discussed how the knowledge developed for large-scale farms could be applied to our own practices in the Hub.  Cutting off the infected shaws as early as possible and keeping the leaves of our potatoes dry during warm humid summer weather was the best option.”

Late Night Opening

“Throughout July, August and September we had late night opening. This meant that we could stay at the garden late on Wednesday evenings approximately every fortnight. This provided the group with a well needed opportunity to visit the Hub after work hours through the week. It was certainly a lovely way to spend the end of a Wednesday, especially with the long, sunny, Dundee evenings.”

Applying for Funding

“There are a few things the Hub would like to buy, to make life that little bit easier.  We would like to have a greenhouse so that members can start plants off earlier than the Dundee growing season allows.  We’d also like to get some equipment to support our members with physical challenges, to help them with gardening tasks.  We need new tools to replace old ones and books to help us improve our gardening practices.  The Hub discussed funding applications to raise a little bit of money for these ambitions. After a sadly unsuccessful application to a community fund, we’re keen to try again this year.”

Hosting other food growers

“At the end of the summer, the Food Growing Hub, along with the Garden, hosted a group of families from Discoverin’ Families – a Dundee based charitable project which helps families to improve their quality of life and be involved in the community. The group had decided to start food growing to provide their families with fresh, healthy, and low cost food.  They were visiting different food growing projects to see how they had set themselves up, and to try and learn some tips and tricks. Clare, from the Garden staff, showed the group the edible foods in the greenhouse. Jade and Ray showed them the Food Growing Hub, helping them to identify the vegetables, and even taste a few.  Lastly, the children planted radish, spring onion, and spinach seeds in pots to grow at home.”

Experimental Science

“The Food Growing Hub is supporting the GROW Observatory – a European Commission funded citizen science project.  This observatory spreads across the whole of Europe, working with food growers like us to conduct experiments that will help us to learn about and develop regenerative practices – practices that protect and enhance the soil, rather than degrade it. The Hub has been supporting the GROW Observatory in the development of informational materials that go to the project participants. As well as providing a space for filming and photography, we have been testing out their scientific protocols.”

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GROW Observatory volunteers harvesting veg at the Food Growing Hub


An even bigger, better 2018

“After a really successful 2017 for the Hub, we have now built some strong relationships and lots of enthusiasm and momentum to do more in 2018.  Watch this space for regular updates on all our veg and fruit growing antics.”

Jade and Alice



Facing the Future Conference 2017 – Collaborative Working for a Sustainable Future

This year Esther Carmen and myself, as part of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), were asked to organise the annual Facing the Future conference, in partnership with AdaptationCONNECTS from the University of Oslo and the International Futures Forum.

Facing the Future is an annual two-day postgraduate conference for Masters, PhD and early career researchers from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, organised through the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), at the University of Dundee, and James Hutton Institute.  It’s purpose is to promote interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations around the WICKED problems of the 21st Century.

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The conference took place on 28th & 29th August 2017, at the James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, and brought together 55 delegates, speakers and facilitators from across more than 15 disciplines including, natural science, anthropology, social science, arts, finance, psychology, law, and planning arts, and representing 15 different countries from all continents except Antarctica!!

On day one Professor Karen O’Brien of University of Oslo kicked the conference off with a collaborative ice breaker, that asked groups of delegates to lower a helium stick to the ground, without anyone taking their fingers off.  Turns out this takes a LONG time, and the key to success is communication and shared decision-taking. She then provided a keynote speech that impressed on us the importance of being able to wear other people’s perspectives of the world, like putting on different pairs of glasses.

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We then broke out into three groups and ran a Turbo Talks session, which gave all delegates the opportunity to introduce themselves and their work, and then have a chance to network with each other on shared topics and visions.

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After lunch Anthony Hodgson and Ian Kendrick then introduced us to the Three Horizons process and got delegates to start to map out what collaborative practice looks like in present day.

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On the evening of the first night the whole conference party gathered for dinner at the HMS Frigate Unicorn, a historic warship of nearly 200 years of age.  After drinks and an utterly delicious vegetarian and home grown dinner from Falkland Kitchen Farm of the Falkland Estate, delegates threw themselves, quite literally, into a traditional Scottish Ceilidh, led by the brilliant Canongate Cadjers Ceilidh Band.  Hot, sweaty and out of breadth, this certainly made sure we all knew each other really well and meant that when we kicked off Day Two, we were like old friends.

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Professor Bruce Goldstein led day two with a keynote exploring the unexpected turns and failures in our careers and how his career led him to exploring learning networks and the way in which small scale learning and innovation can feed its way up to mainstream practice. He then introduced us to the Netweavers Network, a network to support those who run networks.

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Tony and Ian then picked the Three Horizons work back up and delegates worked their way through identifying the core features of Horizon 3 and Horizon 2, for transforming collaboration for a more sustainable future.

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We finished the conference with a reflection circle, that unexpectedly led to a group discussion and exploration of the personal dimension of the transformative work that we are all striving to do.  And we celebrated the need to take care of ourselves, in order to achieve these goals.

On behalf of Esther and myself, I’d like to thank Karen, Bruce, Tony, Ian, Adrienne, Stephan and all the delegates, for a wonderful two day conference.  It was such a privilege to spend two days with such an international and discipline rich group of people, who brought much laughter and fun into the discussions and debates of the conference.

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Here’s to more Collaboration.