Theory, policy and practice perspectives from Royal Holloway

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Exchanging notes on participation


Participants discussing the community-owned solutions approach

Last week I took part in the Geographical Perspectives on “Development” summer school at the University of Bonn, Germany. Taking advantage of an Erasmus link between the Geography departments of Royal Holloway and University of Bonn, I was invited to contribute to the teaching of the summer school and use the opportunity to showcase my research and network with researchers based in Germany. The objective of the four day event was to engage in critically examining conventional approaches and supposedly well-established truths within the field of development geography using current research findings and approaches. Aimed at Masters and PhD students, as well as early career researchers, the summer school focused on providing space to exchange views on a variety of topics linked to “development” and/or research in the “Global South”. This included global chain governance, nature and capitalism, migration, economic entanglements, decolonisation, risk and disasters and ICT for development, with overarching questions on what constitutes this area of research, what theoretical approaches are suitable to generate meaningful results, and how research in this field can be conducted in both a critical and constructive way.


Storyboard for a community-owned solution participatory film


My main contributions to the summer school involved two workshops centred on the topic of participation. The first was on ‘community owned solutions for sustainability’, an emerging approach for engaging communities in identifying and sharing their own solutions to sustainability challenges such as climate change adaptation, naturalresource management, governance, health emergencies and cultural loss. Sharing results and approaches tested in a recent EU-funded project, Project Cobra, the workshop began by asking the thirty participants to reflect on the concept of community owned solutions from a theoretical and experiential perspective. We then discussed the use of participatory visual methods, such as participatory video, for local people to themselves identify and share local solutions, to reflect on their situation, learn from others and engender action. Participants then had the challenge to develop a two minute film of a community owned solution within the timeframe of one hour! Tablets were used to film and edit, and role playing and local props (one group went to the nearby botanical gardens to the use the lake to represent Lake Naivasha in Kenya, another used one participant’s crutches to depict farmers hoeing fields), provided a good dose of fun and laughter. The discussion following the screening of the films highlighted the potential positive outcomes of using participatory video for strengthening community owned solutions as well as concerns about participant selection, data ownership and facilitator influence, amongst others.


Some thoughts from participants on participation and empowerment

The second workshop, entitled “Participation in times of/for societal transformation – socio-political and methodological challenges intertwined!”, aimed to question the assumed power stabilising effects of participatory toolboxes such as Participatory Rural Appraisal, and thus to discuss to what extent participatory methods can facilitate transformative impacts of ‘empowerment’. Two examples were provided to encourage discussion: the different forms of relationships set up in participatory work, their power structures and impacts; and a critique of the use of ‘committees’ by governments and NGOs to channel participation in supposed predictable and positive ways. Participants were given the opportunity to discuss what empowerment through participation involved, and how a ‘radical democracy’ perspective might better respect community heterogeneity and the power of discourse.

bonn-groupwork-2016All in all, the summer school was a great learning experience. As well as sharing my experiences of participatory work, I was able to exchange with others working in diverse Global South and Global North contexts on methods and approaches. The many conversations had in both the workshops and in the communal spaces gave me a fresh perspective on participation, whilst making new friends and enhancing opportunities for collaboration.

Jay Mistry

Professor of Geography, RHUL


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Community Energy Projects & Sustainability

As part of the ‘Community Volunteer Project’ of the Sustainability and Management MSc programme, I was lucky enough to intern at Forum for the Future, an international sustainability NGO, and work on key community energy projects.

Now, I must make a guilty admission (or two): before my internship, I didn’t have a clue who Forum for the Future were. But this all changed from August 2014. After accepting the role as the ‘energy intern’ at Forum, I was able to focus on an area that hugely interested me – sustainable energy. But during my time there, I was introduced to so many unique and inspiring themes around sustainable energy, including the nationwide phenomenon of grassroots, localised community energy projects.


Shehab explaining his time at Forum at the annual MSc volunteer project poster event. Picture credit: Katie Willis

Now for my other shameful confession: I didn’t even realise that community energy was an actual ‘thing’. But it is a thing! And a very good thing. A thing that is occurring across this country, and further afield. ‘Community Energy’ refers to how local communities can work together to implement grassroots energy projects that provide low-carbon solutions to their energy needs. Some academics and policy makers highlight this as a potential avenue to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels; currently 87% of global energy is sourced from oil, gas, or coal, a characteristic that prominent environmental commentators, such as Naomi Klein, argue must change.

At Forum, I was fortunate enough to help manage their flagship sustainable energy project: Continue reading

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Volunteer Projects Highlight the Complexities of Sustainability

All students taking the RHUL MSc in Sustainability and Management conduct a volunteer project which requires at least 20 hours of volunteering in a community or civil society organisation. This provides students with an opportunity to consider how sustainability is understood and practised in a particular organisation, as well as recognising the challenges and limitations which organisations may face in implementing policies which promote sustainability.


MSc Sustainability & Management Staff & Students

Students present their key findings and reflections on their volunteering experience through posters and presentations. This year’s event demonstrated very explicitly the diversity of sustainability as a concept and how significant the obstacles to achieving sustainability often are.

While much is said about the three pillars of sustainability – environment, society and economy – it is frequently the environmental element which is prioritised. Some of the students worked for organisations which focused specifically on environmental issues at both a local and a global scale. These included TCV (The Conservation Volunteers), Thames 21, Forum for the Future, Continue reading

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Landscape Surgery

Think of radical changes in the ways humans have been mobile throughout history. How did those changes happen, how did they influence every sphere of life, how did they reshape societies or reinforced already existing identities, classes and norms? What probably comes to one’s mind first is a series of inventions: from a wheel to a car. Then one may think beyond innovative vehicles: both daily and global mobilities have been entangled into a variety of (geo-)political processes, societal transformations and development of new technologies in other spheres, for instance, ICT.

Now as the societal awareness of the consequences of the climate change grows and new policies are adopted by states and local governments, will that induce a series of changes in the way we move, amobility transition?1-другое соотношение сторон

The two year project “Living in the Mobility Transition” aims to identify policies, visions, organizational forms, technologies and practices that develop…

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Low & Zero Carbon (LZC) Energy Technologies & New-Build Housing: The Importance of Including Householders

Recent and forthcoming amendments to the Building Regulations in England and Wales will necessitate an increasing reliance on low and zero carbon (LZC) energy technologies in new homes to meet tougher carbon dioxide (CO2) emission standards; this will have an impact on those that design, build, regulate and live in new homes. Given the shifts in domestic energy technology configurations that this will lead to, it is prudent to consider how interactions between householders and LZC technology develop, as this will influence the success of this shift in terms of the CO2 reductions achieved. Continue reading

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Working Conditions and Global Supply Chains

Despite the expansion of international trade and advancements in global monitoring systems, poor working conditions remain a serious problem in small supplier facilities in developing countries. As part of my PhD, I conducted extensive empirical research on small Indian Knitwear suppliers in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu to understand the reasons behind limited improvements in working conditions in such supplier facilities. The results tend to shake numerous assumptions drawn largely from a deve Continue reading

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Communicating Sustainability: social media uses and abuses

“We need a Facebook page.”

This is a statement no doubt heard in many social media strategy meetings up and down the country. Be it a Facebook page, a Twitter handle or a Pinterest site, we have an inherent tendency to jump to thinking about the tools of social media when planning our communications approaches, rather than the purposes for communication in these ‘new’ media contexts. Continue reading