The Urban Transitions Hub was born in 2018 on the initiative of a relatively small group of ICS researchers (from the research group Environment, Territory, and Society, now the research group SHIFT-ATS) who shared an interest in the urban, both as a theoretical object, and as a site for the investigation of social phenomena – our topics range from housing policy to participatory governance, from urban planning to demography and security.
Since then, UTH’s membership has expanded, becoming more heterogeneous, and its activity has intensified – check out some interesting events and publications. That’s why last year we thought that it would be a good idea to reflect together on the trajectory of the UTH.
How did we do that? Over the period of a couple of months (May-June 2021) the UTH conveners conducted some interviews (N=16, one hour each, not recorded) and many more informal chats with group members. These conversations resulted in a short report that was discussed during the last UTH meeting before the summer. As of today, we are still mumbling on the report, and plan to organize a UTH retreat in January to continue doing that.
The basic idea of this post is to offer some glimpses of the process of collective discussion at UTH, and of what we think we have learnt from that.
What is the UTH?
Producing the report has entailed reflecting on what the UTH really is – its membership, mission, organizing logic, collective routines, etc.
To begin with, the UTH is a loose, flexible, and informal group of some 20-25 members (give or take, and depending on how you count them); it is potentially open to all researchers, whatever their institutional affiliation or career stage; finally, the role of UTH’s conveners is simply to coordinate the workflow and ease the collective discussion.
The UTH was born out of the initiative of mid-career, ICS-based scholars, and affiliation to ICS has been so far the main “entry point” into the UTH; however, early-career scholars and researchers affiliated to other institutions represent a growing portion of UTH’s membership. Addressing this new reality was one of our key goals. This has pushed us to acknowledge that the increased diversity in terms of academic backgrounds and career stages requires streamlining our workflow in order to maintain some important characteristics of the way the UTH works.
How does the UTH work?
Through our conversations, UTH members identified some key features that constitute for them the ultimate appeal of the group. In particular, old and new members have found in the UTH:
- an environment where it is possible to work together in a democratic fashion, assuming direct responsibilities for what’s going on;
- an environment where relationships between members are generally quite close, informal, friendly, and open;
- (especially for those coming from abroad) a good channel to be introduced to ICS and the local academic environment in general;
- a good level of transdisciplinary intellectual discussion, which for some has been a helpful introduction to “the urban” as a research topic.
These elements (informality, horizontal organization, personal involvement) represent in many ways UTH’s “identity”, as well as a spur to participation. Our little exercise in self-analysis at UTH was therefore also the occasion to systematize and make explicit some broad principles and methodologies which have emerged from our working together:
- A principle of parsimony (“do we really want to do it?”): the UTH does what its members want to do, because the UTH has no resources that can be mobilized apart from the time and energy of its members.
- A principle for assessing the added value of UTH projects (“who can profit from it?”): UTH members should always get something in return from their involvement in UTH activities, be it intellectual growth, the revision of an application, or even generic positive vibes.
- A principle of democratic decision-making (“how are we going to do it?”): any group of UTH members can propose and develop a project and use the UTH label, provided that they assume responsibility for it.
What does the UTH do – or plan to do?
Our discussion was also the occasion to streamline existing UTH’s activities – and plan new ones. What follows is not so much a complete list of activities, but rather something we have been focusing on while building and discussing the report.
- Our monthly reading group is something UTH members look at as both a vehicle of peer learning, and a generally pleasant experience. We are currently trying to add more structure to the (so far) rather random choice of the texts. The idea is to create a sort of self-thought academic course with its own syllabus – this year we’ll be testing the idea with the topic of “urban imaginaries”.
- Last year we started a first experiment of peer review. Each UTH member presenting an application to FCT calls (projects and individual contracts) has been paired with a small panel of 2-3 other members of the group, whose job was to provide comments on the text. The feedback from participants has been very good, so we’ll be repeating the experience this year.
- Many of UTH’s junior scholars (including PhD students) have noted the lack of any UTH activity specifically dedicated to early career scholars, so they’re discussing a project for an Oficína de Investigação – an informal forum in which young researchers can discuss and share their experiences (there is another similar project taking shape in the research group SHIFT-ATS, the PhDShiftHub, so eventually the two things might develop some synergies).
- The UTH is involved in various activities of post-graduate training – for example, in a PhD programme in Development Studies, and in the Lisbon Early-Career Workshop in Urban Studies (co-organized with AESOP). In general, this is the sort of thing we would like to do more of – we are also in the planning stage of a future summer school on “Housing Policy and Urban Change”, but it’s too early to say anything about that.
We discussed many other things (is our website good enough? Are we doing enough outreach? And what “internationalization” really means?), but that’s it for this brief post.
The most important thing that we haven’t said so far, is that all the interviewees seemed happy that the UTH existed – which is perhaps the best proof that we are not doing it all wrong.
The Urban Transitions Hub (UTH) is a group of researchers interested in exploring the urban dimension of the Anthropocene and its crises: theorising and shaping more equitable and sustainable urbanisation. The UTH is based at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon.
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