Facing the Future 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.

This post was written by Jade Cawthray-Syms

Jade is a PhD student working across Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD) and the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), at the University of Dundee, Scotland.  Jade’s PhD focuses on a the collaboration of scientists and citizens through a co-created process, to achieve action and change in the world.




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Octasynthesis as a systems approach to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals

Sam Poskitt, Cathel de Lima Hutchison, Tony Hodgson, Christopher Lyon,
Nandan Mukherjee, and Ioan Fazey

Following the 2016 Facing the Future conference in Aberdeen, the authors compiled a report explaining the Octasynthesis methodology, pulling together the recommendations we made for the sustainable development goals, and exploring participants’ critical reflections on the Octasynthesis process. The following is a summary of the report. To read the full version click here.

Facing the Future (FtF) is an annual conference for early-career researchers, held by the
University of Dundee’s Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), The James Hutton Institute and the University of Aberdeen. FtF explores transdisciplinary ways of addressing complex human-environmental problems.

FtF 2016 focused on the theme ‘Realising Resilience’ and involved taking a synergic approach to understanding resilience in diverse fields. In FtF 2016 participants engaged in an Octasynthesis exercise, facilitated by Tony Hodgson and David Beatty from the International Futures Forum and H3 University, respectively. The Octasynthesis used an octahedron as a geometric metaphor to help participants identify and explore synergies across six UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Octasynthesis enabled participants to develop eight recommendations for reformulated
SDGs that reflect a more synergic perspective. These were:

  • Design cities that enable people to take responsibility for consumption and energy
  • Cultivate nature-based well-being at the local level through the creation of
    community-led ‘healthscapes’ that place prevention at the forefront of economic,
    ecological, and climate action.
  • Reduce demand for healthcare services and reduce consumption through equitable
    and responsible access to improved social services and infrastructure.
  • Develop infrastructure that enables community-led, bottom-up actions, supported
    by top-down mechanisms to integrate energy and life in order address climate
  • Promote responsible consumption for healthy people and a healthy planet.
  • Design for proactive community ownership of energy, ensuring equitable
    distribution and support of multiple benefits to thrive not just survive.
  • Reinvent how we use our land, recognising our spatial limits: consume less energy
    and foster more life.
  • Design cities that support responsible households to reduce their ecological
    footprint; and foster healthy eating and mobility in cities.

Overall, the recommendations highlight the inadequacy of approaching the SDGs from a
‘siloed’ perspective, and point towards a need for a multi-perspective approach with a focus on collaborative action. The SDGs should be reformulated as mindful design principles that balance nature with the benign, aesthetic and creative aspects of society and culture, including careful consideration of intergenerational and spatial variations. They should emphasise the importance of smart, sustainable design for enhancing resilience, and should be underpinned by an ecological ethic to human-environmental interactions.  Approaches to meeting the SDGs should be collaborative, creative and care-based. Policy is therefore needed that acts as an enabler of collaborative action, rather than a controlling mechanism.

Participants were largely enthusiastic about the value of Octasynthesis as a tool for stepping out of disciplinary silos and exploring synergies across complex human and environmental issues. Participants were particularly enthusiastic about the focus on making ‘offers’ for collaboration. However, many participants felt the process failed to produce detailed recommendations for practical action.

To read the full report, click here.

Or for more information, contact Sam Poskitt: s.p.poskitt@pgr.reading.ac.uk

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FtF 2016 – Interdisciplinarity and the Sustainable Development Goals

In the very first blog post for the Facing the Future Community, I explored the complex nature of problems that link human and environmental systems. As I sit here, now, on the eve of the 2016 Facing the Future Conference, familiarising myself with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I am struck once again by the immense complexity faced by human-environmental systems now and in the immediate and long term future. The SDGs themselves cover an extensive range of topics, including: poverty, food and water security, health and nutrition, gender equality, energy, economics, climate change, conservation, conflict, resilience, to mention but a few.

As I’m so excited to engage with the wide range of interdisciplinary research at FtF 2016, I thought it would be great if we could use the blog to profile the research being done by FtF 2016 attendees. In this post, ahead of the conference, FtF Community members Nora Morocza and Sam Poskitt introduce their research, explore how it may be linked to the SDGs, and highlight interdisciplinary challenges and questions associated with their work.



There is a deepening understanding of climate change related health concerns. In recent years extreme weather events, infectious disease outbursts, or increasing level of air pollution, have all drawn attention to the serious possible impacts of environmental degradation. Policy initiatives and research therefore focus more and more on building adaptability and resilience of communities. Public awareness ideally includes both understanding the individual’s culpability for environmental degradation and its negative health effects, and understanding how health prevention and promotion can be supported by the natural environment.

I am interested in how people think about the connection between health and environment, and how exposure to the natural environment while exercising might have scope to challenge these views. In my Masters project I work with Paths for All, a large walking organization in Scotland. I interview individuals who have joined walking groups twice: once at the beginning of their walking experience and then a second time, six months later. I aim to explore how walking might affect their views on health and environment, and whether it poses any changes on a behavioural level.

One of the first times I felt my project fits into the current stream of thinking about climate change was when browsing the UN’s Sustainable Development Knowledge platform and reading about the SDGs. I feel that if my research has the scope to bring new understanding, it can help “to combat climate change and its impact” and promote health. But to be honest I think changing people’s environmental awareness could have a positive impact on nearly all of the SDGs.

Here in the Facing the Future Community we are aiming to work around climate change related “wicked problems” from an interdisciplinary perspective. My research lies somewhere at the intersect of the social sciences, health sciences and even biological sciences. I am concentrating on the individual choices people make, and views that drive these, which is just part of the whole picture. I believe if we will be able to combine with data from other scientific fields’ that gives us a more thorough understanding and tools to act on it.



As emphasised by SDG #17 tools and processes are needed that build the capacity of societies, around the world, to better manage complex and uncertain human-environmental problems. Participatory scenario planning (PSP) is often presented as such a tool by scholars and practitioners working in sustainable development as such an approach. PSP involves the creation of narratives that depict multiple plausible future situations and pathways by groups of stakeholders. Proponents suggest PSP can help manage complex problems by breaking down complex systems into manageable chunks, and can facilitate processes of learning by bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders from different disciplines, roles and perspectives.

My research explores the question of what, exactly, does learning in PSP involve? In in my first year I conducted a review 31 cases of PSP in the literature. The review demonstrated that, although learning is commonly expected and reported to occur in PSPs, there is a lack of explicit knowledge regarding what exactly is learned in PSPs, how learning in PSPs occurs, who learns what from whom. From an interdisciplinary perspective, the question of who learns what from whom is particularly salient. If complex human-environmental problems are to be tackled effectively, there is a need for knowledge to be applied to such management from across disciplines and at multiple levels. Domination of PSP processes may simply lead to reproduction of existing unsustainable, inequitable human-environmental systems.

In my research, I build upon the review of 31 PSP cases using interviews with PSP practitioners, and through two empirical case studies of ongoing PSP work. Initial results show PSP helps participants to learn the importance of a greater awareness of complexity and uncertainty in specific human-environmental systems, and the importance of planning for the future. The how and the who of learning in PSP require further analysis.

Looking forward to meeting you all at the conference!

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A Climate (in need) of Interdisciplinarity – Exploring interdisciplinary responses to the impacts of climate change in Southern Africa

It’s June 2013, I’m in a village in Zambia on fieldwork for my masters. The rainy season should have just passed, refreshing the soil, turning the mopani woodland from brown to green, filling up the river for the livestock to quench their thirst, replenishing the aquifer for the villagers to quench theirs, washing away the eggs of destructive army worms, nourishing the maize crop to feed the family for the year ahead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInstead, the rains came in a dribble, not a torrent: the mopani remains brown, the soil sandy and grey. The river (pictured right) is bone-dry, goats and cows loiter around the village borehole, licking in vain at the tap meant for human use. The maize is starved of water, the army worms have been rampant, their eggs spared by the drought. The crops are devastated, livelihoods are ruined.

Flash forward to March 2016, I’m in another village, this time in Malawi. This time it’s the opposite scenario, heavy, late rains have turned the local river into a torrent, just over a year after floods tore through the small, Southern African nation. The river cascades out of the hills, a chocolatey-brown colour, thick from all the sediment it has collected upstream. It speeds through a previously straightened meander before swinging round the subsequent, unnaturally tight corner further downstream and pounds into the outside bank. The torrent eats its way into invaluable agricultural land.

These two examples demonstrate just some of the incredibly complex array of processes and interactions that drive the impacts of climate change in Southern Africa. The impact doesn’t just stop with increasingly extreme droughts and floods, but includes land management practices, river management, agricultural practices, biological processes, health, hygiene, livelihoods, and, ultimately, people’s lives. Attempts to manage such complex challenges require the input of a wide range of different stakeholders from across different sectors. Over the next two months, the Facing the Future blog will explore the topic of interdisciplinarity in managing the impacts of climate change in Southern Africa. In next month’s post, we’ll feature insights from academics and practitioners working in this area, we’ll then open up the topic for comment and discussion. Then in June, we’ll put together a summary of what we’ve found on interdisciplinary action on the impacts of climate change in Southern Africa.

We’ll also be discussing interdisciplinary approaches to climate change adaptation at this year’s Facing the Future conference: Realising Resilience on 30th May – 1st June. Spaces are still available, so get yourself booked in at http://www.dundee.ac.uk/cechr/postgraduates/ftf16/

Thanks for reading and see you next month!


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A Journey in Interdisciplinarity

As a world, we face formidable ‘wicked’ problems that straddle human and environmental systems. Wicked problems are mired in immense complexity – involving eye watering networks of different drivers, all interacting with each other in diverse ways. Just as an illustration of this complexity, here is an attempt I made back in in 2013 to map all the nodes and links between the meanings society attributes to climate change and the responsibility for action on mitigating climate change impacts. Simple right?564911_10200292323373017_1546766600_n

So, as you can imagine, all of this complexity makes managing wicked problems immensely difficult, especially when we start to think about managing them in the future. It is simply impossible to accurately predict how such complex problems will evolve. Yet failure to act on current wicked problems will likely have severe, negative impacts for future generations.

So what is to be done? Are there any approaches that can help us to manage wicked problems? Last year’s Facing the Future conference focused on interdisciplinarity as an approach that could help us manage wicked problems. In fact my own PhD explores the use of scenario planning as an interdisciplinary tool for managing wicked problems. However, it wasn’t until I observed, first-hand, a Transmango-run scenario planning workshop on food security in Tanzania that I began to fully understand the potential value of interdisciplinary approaches.

Wicked problems like food insecurity are impossible for any single individual to understand in their entirety and to understand how they may evolve in the future. This leaves gaps in each individual’s knowledge, which can lead to potential challenges and opportunities being missed – to the detriment of effective management. However, every individual has expertise and experience in their own fields and in their own everyday lives. If this expertise is pooled in an effective and structured way and used for deliberation, as was the aim of the Transmango workshop in Tanzania, then the diversity of knowledge may help to fill in the gaps in each individual’s knowledge, thus improving the management of wicked problems like food insecurity.

At Facing the Future 2015 we were challenged to construct a remit for an imaginary research institute that aimed to tackle wicked problems in a interdisciplinary way. Afterwards, I thought “what if that research institute wasn’t imaginary, but we made it a reality?” The attendees at the conference all possessed expertise in particular fields and, of course, in their everyday life, so why not pool that expertise to tackle wicked problems in a interdisciplinary way?

Hence, after discussions with several other attendees, we decided to set up the Facing the Future Community. Our ideas don’t go quite as far as creating a brand new interdisciplinary research institute, but we have come up with some quite ambitious ideas. The initial plan is to build an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on managing wicked problems. Beyond that, we have a number of ideas including: maintaining a Facing the Future blog – featuring contributions from scholars in different fields, creating an online postgraduate journal, awarding prizes for postgraduates doing outstanding transdisciplinary work, and even running activity weekends designed to link interdisciplinary groups of students with people working in industry, agriculture, policy and NGO sectors.

So, if the idea of a Facing the Future Community captures your interest, why not come along to Facing the Future 2016 – Realising Resilience. The plan for the Community remains in its infancy, and we would love to hear new ideas and inject new inspiration at this year’s conference. So remember: Facing the Future 2016 – Realising Resilience, 30th May – 1st June 2016, University of Aberdeen. Early bird registration ends on 29th February!12189553_658425084294980_5181188221180105547_n

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