INTREPID Knowledge – reflecting on our final conference and the future of universities

By Olivia Bina

INTREPID – the network of scholars and practitioners from 32 countries, funded by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST), has been celebrating its four-year journey at a final conference: ‘INTREPID Knowledge’, in Lisbon, where it all began in May 2015. The main aim of the COST Action is to better understand how to achieve more efficient and effective inter and transdisciplinary research in Europe so as to strengthen our ability to address contemporary global challenges characterised by increasing complexity and uncertainty. The added value of INTREPID’s network has been to explore the potential of inter and transdisciplinary knowledge, inspiring change and build leadership, at the level of policy for research funding, within universities/Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), and crucially among the youngest researchers who choose to promote interdisciplinary inquiries despite the many challenges (and oftentimes risks) that this entails. The Action achieved its main aim targeting three challenges, which were explored over the three days:

  • 27th March – Focus on Inter &Trans-Disciplinary facilitation and implementation
  • 28th March – Focus on Inter &Trans-Disciplinary urban research enablers & changes in curricula
  • 29th March – Focus on INTREPID Knowledge & the future of university.
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INTREPID Knowledge. Source: Jakob Kohibrenner

The event was hosted by Marta Varanda, the Action’s Vice Chair, at the Lisbon School of Economics & Management of the University of Lisbon. You can download presentations, watch the videos, and enjoy the graphic recordings by Jakob Kohlbrenner here (http://intrepid-cost.ics.ulisboa.pt/lisbon-final-conference/).

The final day is the focus of this note, as we engaged with the central question about what future for universities as places of knowledge and learning. A question that arose half way through our four-year journey, when we realised that the original focus on the funding of research for new knowledge raised deep questions about the responsibility (and potential solutions therein) of universities: their culture, practices and ethos all mattered when it came to what knowledge would be legitimised and promoted. Thus, we launched an INTREPID Futures Initiative, designed to target the growing gap in preparedness between lofty science policy objectives promoting inter and transdisciplinarity and the actual capacity of universities to deliver on this. But we also felt we needed to go further and to explore the purpose(s) of higher education institutions in a century of rapid change, technologisation and digitalization, of growing divides and inequalities, of decolonization and reconlonisation of the domains of knowledge. Examples of how we sought to impact and shape the debate include the involvement of high profile speakers:

  • SCHOLARS ON SCIENCE POLICY – The keynotes by Felicity Callard (Durham University) and Immanuel Wallerstein (Yale University), at our 1st Action Conference, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon;
  • EU HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS – The keynote by Maes (of the League of European Research Universities – LERU) in Lisbon;
  • EU RESEARCH FOUNDATIONS – The keynote by Igor Campillo (the Director of Euskampus Foundation) at our 3rd INTREPID Training School – Donostia;
  • GLOBAL SCIENCE NETWORKS – The keynote by Garry Jacobs (the Chief Executive of the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS)) and by Heather Campbell (then University of Sheffield) at the TD Net Conference, Leuphana University;
  • CIVIC UNIVERSITY CONCEPT – the Keynote by John Goddard (Newcastle University) at our Workshop on Space and Place of knowledge.
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Source: Igor Campillo.

Overall, the picture that arises from the debates initiated by INTREPID confirms the views expressed by scholars dedicated to rethinking higher education, including Raewyn Connell (‘The Good University`, 2019), who finds that universities remain a ‘tremendous social asset’ which risk being overwhelmed by ‘outdated pedagogy, exploitation of young staff, distorted and even faked research, outrageous fees, outrageous pay for top managers, corporate rip-offs, corruption, sexism, racism, and mickey-mouse degrees’ – Connell, R. (2019).

Within INTREPID we also sought to promote initiatives targeting students, early career practitioners and scholars to help contribute towards re-imagining the role of universities and the kind of knowledge (inter and transdisciplinary) needed into the future. Two of our training schools explored how universities can be a positive force for transformation and change towards more sustainable futures. Participants explored specific challenges of inter and transdisciplinary knowledge; reflected on skills and dispositions required to cross boundaries, sectors and paradigms. We framed ‘The problem’ (after Otto Scharmer) as a disconnect between our collective consciousness and our collective actions, amplified by the silo structure of our key institutions and the mind-set of the decision makers that operate inside them.

We involved young practitioners and scholars in our quest to rethink the space and place of knowledge and learning, and joined forces with the NON-Architecture team (a digital platform run by young architects seeking to ‘enlarge and change the boundaries of Architecture permanently’) in a groundbreaking global, digital competition on this theme, resulting in an open access publication published here.

At our Final Conference, we invited four scholars and practitioners to share with us their thoughts on the Future of Universities. I opened the day’s proceedings with a reflection on ‘INTREPID Knowledge for the Present and Future’ (Olivia Bina, Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon – Video link), where I offered six steps for universities to start their journey from ‘being part of the problem to being part of the solution’. I argue that the role and contribution of universities to a fair and sustainable future ‘shows a very mixed record, and an overall unsatisfactory one judging from UNESCO’s [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] reviews over the past decades’, and warn that few institutions have shown to be capable of learning about themselves, and reimagining their present and future. The first of my six steps is about ‘questioning and exposing’ our assumptions, unconscious or un-assumed biases, paradigms or frames of reference. This includes the underlying biases, points of view, ideas and paradigms that are applied to education, research and producing new knowledge. I suggested the James Baldwin’s quote – “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – should be affixed to every door and wall of today’s universities.

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Graphic recording of ‘INTREPID Knowledge for the Present and Future’ – morning session on the future of universities during the final conference “INTREPID Knowledge”, 29th March 2019.  Source: Jakob Kohlbrenner

I was followed by the exciting presentation on inspiring examples around the world, led by Isa Molewijk, Tim Jantoss, Thomas Jansen & Konstantin Delbrück, all students from Windesheim College (video link).

The afternoon discussions were shaped by the following interventions:

  • Inner Transformation for 21st Century Futures:The Missing Dimension in Higher EducationChristoph Woiwode (Bath Spa University and Indo German Center for Sustainability) – video link
  • When Tomorrow Comes: Imagining the Future of Knowledge and Education Paola Bonini (Rai Digital) – video link
  • Leadership in Higher Education Garry Jacobs (World Academy of Art and Science) – video link
  • The Future of University and Sustainability Timothy O’Riordan (University of East Anglia) – video link
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Panelists (from left to right) Tim O’Riordan, Garry Jacobs, Paola Bonini, Christoph Woiwode and Igor Campillo, discussing the future of universities during the final conference “INTREPID Knowledge”, 29th March 2019.  Source: Olivia Bina.

The day closed with a panel discussion involving all keynotes, chaired by Igor Campillo, who began by asking the overarching question:

Which are the current underlying higher education community perceptions (narratives) and belief systems (values) that are preventing universities from delivering the kind of leadership needed to create sustainable futures?

Igor then invited our four speakers to consider universities’ futures through the lens of global megatrends:

  • Which role do you envision for universities in an increased interconnected globe, with two contradictory tendencies, one of breaking down the geographical barriers, but at the same time another of rising local identities?
  • How do you imagine universities in a world of virtual, augmented or mixed reali4es? How will universities change their curricula as well as the way they teach in this high-tech scenario?
  • What will learning and employability mean for universities in a world dominated by artificial intelligence?
  • Which changes must universities introduce in order to respond to a population with increased life-spans and longer, and at the same time fast-changing, careers?

Linking to INTREPID’s recent inquiry, led by Olivia Bina and Prue Chiles, into the ‘space and place of future knowledge and learning’, Igor Campillo also asked:

Why do you think we may still need physical universities in the future?

Overall, we can confirm that many examples of innovative practices can be found, both amongst our network members’ institutions (notably, Leuphana University and Windsheim College), and across continents.  As we explored at the Newcastle University workshop, conceptions of the civic university and demands for decolonizing knowledge are contributing to re-ignite demands for change. Persistent tension between the historically established ways of knowledge production through disciplines, and the urgent need to widen, and often change, both the production of knowledge and its organisations, suggests that continuing to build universities according to disciplinary divides may be unwise. This explains the wide and rising interest in inter and transdisciplinary research, both within and outside universities, and yet today, embarking on such research requires significant courage, and entails risks as well as opportunities, for one’s career progression. Compared to the lofty promises and acknowledgements of how important, urgent and even essential inter and transdisciplinary knowledge production is supposed to be today, the state of such research, training and career options seem to fall well short of aspirations.

What we find is that, increasingly, the answers to the challenges of higher education institutions are known, even widely understood, and yet – in order for universities to become a stronghold of solutions for sustainable futures, rather than a more or less complicit part of the problem of un-sustainability, courageous and radical change -both in universities and beyond- is needed now.


Olivia Bina is Principal Researcher and Coordinator of the Urban Transitions Hub at ICS-ULisboa. She was Chair of the COST Action INTREPID (TD1408) from 2016 to 2019.

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