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Cities Energy & Green Tech Sustainable Development Goals

Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

Exeter climate demo. Image credit: Creative Commons, Bill Boaden

Universities are essential to progress. They prepare our young people for careers, train the workforce of the future, and foster research that advances knowledge. Yet many universities turn their backs on the residents of cities and towns where they are located. It’s almost as if town and gown occupy separate universes.

But what if universities entered into collaborations with their host places with the goal of helping cities and towns become more resilient and sustainable? That idea is being tested in Exeter, England, where the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter has launched a pilot project aimed at bridging the gap between academics and townies.

In the midst of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Techonomy is highlighting new approaches to addressing the climate-change crisis in Scotland and the rest of the UK that might catch on elsewhere. (Earlier Dispatches dedicated to COP26 coverage are listed at bottom.)

The Exeter project is called Exeter Living Lab and it’s the brainchild of Peter Head, a climate activist and chairman of Resilience Brokers, a UK-based sustainability consulting organization. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, he co-founded an organization, Pivot Projects, with the goal of helping society and communities pivot to more sustainable trajectories. One element of his vision was that universities could combine forces with local government leaders to help communities achieve net-zero-carbon goals. He calls these partnerships living laboratories.

Pivot Projects is a global all-volunteer collaboration aimed as using collective intelligence, systems thinking and modeling, and AI-assisted research tools to help communities identify and launch sustainability projects. The organization originally approached City of Exeter government officials, but they were too busy dealing with the COVID-19 crisis to engage, so the project instead established a beachhead with The University of Exeter. It found a willing partner in Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute there. “We hope this will become a good convening place to bring different social actors together and create opportunities for positive thinking,” Lenton says.

Exeter City. (Credit: Creative Commons Bill Boaden)

The Exeter Living Lab began to take shape in the late winter of 2021 when Head and James Green, a recent graduate of a masters-of-sustainability program, convened Zoom meetings involving faculty members, students, and representatives of community organizations in Exeter. Green, who serves as community manager, was tasked with training participants in the use of Pivot Projects’ systems-mapping and research tools, which included SparkBeyond’s Research Studio, and guiding participants week to week. The group also joined Pivot Projects’ collaboration platform, which includes Slack, Trello, Google Docs, and Zoom. The first order of business was for the group to create a systems map of Exeter using the Kumu visualization tool—which included concepts related to sustainability, organizations, and initiatives.

Like Pivot Projects itself, the Exeter group was voluntary and largely self-organizing. Typically, dozens of people attended early meetings, among them 25 students who were enrolled in the university’s one-year master’s program in sustainable development. “My goal was to help foster a creative environment, not to dictate or check boxes on expected outcomes,” says Green. “That gave the group space to see how they wanted to collectively move forward.”

As time went on, attendance dwindled. Only three of the students opted to build their master’s thesis around work in the Living Lab. One early participant, Exeter City Futures, an organization that had been formed to help Exeter achieve its net-zero carbon goals, did not become as engaged as the organizers had hoped.

But the three master’s students and a small core of faculty members and people from the community carried on. One of the  students was David Bacon. His master’s thesis grew out of the early Kumu mapping exercise. He invited a handful of the Living Lab participants to help him create a systems map focused on the energy sector—which helped him explore the opportunities for collaboration between energy distributors and community organizations at the local, regional, and national levels. The exercise also connected him with Exeter Community Energy, which manages community-owned renewable energy projects in the city. He liked the organization so much that he’s now its volunteer operations and maintenance director while he looks for a paying job in the renewables field.

Another of the persistent attendees was David Pencheon, who before retiring had senior-executive roles in innovation and sustainability for the UK’s National Health System. He was drawn to the Living Lab after hearing from a friend that his 7-year-old son was terrified of climate change. The little boy had trouble sleeping at night. Pencheon thought the lab could start small but perhaps grow to have a substantial impact in the region. “Small collaborative actions are crucial. They give citizens agency and they can be steps to bigger system-wide changes,” he says.

Nicky Britten, a professor emerita at the University of Exeter Medical School, had hoped the lab would help her find sustainability projects in Exeter that she would want to join, but says that though the group conversations were often stimulating, her search hasn’t paid off yet.

But this is how self-organizing projects go, all three realize. They are sticking with the project for now. They hope that more of this year’s master’s students will use the organization as the basis for their thesis research. The three also say they will reach out to include more community organizations. “We need better connections to community groups in Exeter,” says Bacon. “This was academically led. Now it needs to be more community involved.”

University of Exeter’s Tim Lenton says he’s heartened by the first small wave of activities at the Living Lab. “It’s a worthy experiment, and it has yielded some encouraging results.” he says. “Now I have to find more resources to keep it flowing.” Meanwhile, the Pivot Projects team is reaching out to other universities to see if they want to try out the living lab model.

Not every seemingly good idea catches fire immediately. This one might need to smolder for a while. I live in the shadow of Yale University and have long believed that it should be much more active in the community—for the sake of students and residents alike. Maybe this is an idea whose time has not yet come, or it just has yet to find the right combination of place and people. Nonetheless, I’m convinced this sort of project is indispensable as the world seeks, in large ways and small, to prepare for and adapt to global warming.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, about the journey of Pivot Projects, was published in October by Columbia University Press. This is one of his dispatches from COP26.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

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