Transdisciplinarity, me and my anchors

It is the time of the year for our UWAS course ‘Film, Work and Labour’. It is a University-wide Art Studies course we run for the second time with two of my colleagues. The approach is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary or ‘post-disciplinary’ as the UWAS slogan states. UWAS courses can have a good mix of students from all six Aalto schools and there should be no one discipline that is considered better than the other. In this sense, UWAS courses aim at transdisciplinarity. 

Our course this year has made me reflect my take-aways from such an environment, let it be teaching, research or activism. I feel that me reaching a truly multi-voiced dialogue takes time and energy because it requires me to become aware of  my preferred ways of thinking and working. However, my and others’ disciplinary anchors are not ‘bad’ for transdisciplinarity, quite the contrary. When things get complicated, it is useful to hold on to something familiar.

Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

I present you some of my (disciplinary) anchors based on my observations during this winter and early spring: 

  1. I’m inspired by people’s experiences about what they do. As a working life researcher I’m always excited to learn what people do for work, let it be waged work or non-waged work. For example, when I meet people, I often end up hearing stories about their work, for example subcontracting for a construction site, speech therapy or running a citizen cooperative for local food. As a result, I learn from various ways to understand and work around phenomena. But what really matters for an equal discussion and what cannot be overcome is valuing people’s own perspectives. People are experts when it comes to their own labour or work. This approach has also been referred to as the practice approach or lens, with an emphasis on practitioners’ knowledge. 
  2. This is something I learn every time I spend less time with others: My creativity is truly sparked off by others’ projects. As a result, my anchor is to spend (enough) time with others. I might get inspired by something I hear just briefly on a walk to a caféteria or it might be something I have followed for years. In February, I spoke with a UWAS colleague who works on a project with plants. It is truly remarkable in terms of artistic and scientific work. Another colleague has been studying young female scholars for years, and every time I hear or read about it, I’m so inspired. 
  3. Although at times I’m impatient (ask my family for evidence), transdisciplinary interactions take time. This doesn’t mean that it would be always difficult to grasp others perspectives (although it can be) but it is not straight-forward to find a common vocabulary, let alone trust someone who has a different vocabulary. Do I get them and do they get me? Therefore, it is important for me to meet others half way and try to adopt their language, bodily movements and ways of thinking. By learning about their perspectives it is then more likely that I can come across experiences that resonate with something I might be able to link to. And vice versa, I appreciate this approach from others.

Having written all this, transdisciplinary engagements reminds me of ethnographic work. Indeed, in ethnography I (and others) have an experience of ‘working within hyphen-spaces’, ie. working between certain clear positions, such as outsider, insider, same or different. Rather, we glide between the poles of, for example, outsider-insider or sameness-difference, during a project and within single moments during a project. Such a slide – or sometimes it feels like a strain – could be common in transdisciplinary projects as well.

Our course ‘Film, Work and Labour’ takes place again in early 2020. If you are an Aalto University student, you can register in late 2019. You are warmly welcomed to join us and experience some inter/transdisciplinary interactions!

Open letter and petition: Europe, it’s time to end the growth dependency

Nine years ago I attended the first high profile degrowth seminar in Finland. While I was new to the topic, the argumentation made sense and I became increasingly involved with the degrowth movement that debates and advocates for giving up on our cultural and political dependency on economic growth.

In September 2018, there was a historical conference held at the European Parliament focusing on post-growth. In relation to that, a group of academics put together an open letter to European institutions and its member states. The letter was signed by over 200 researchers in social and natural science, including myself. In the momentum, there is now a petition open to everyone to sign demanding Europe to stop its growth dependency. If you feel that this is a direction Europe should take, please sign the petition.

The open letter arguments for reconsidering economic growth as a primary policy goal and replacing it with maximising wellbeing for humans, nonhuman animals and the planet as a whole. The letter also includes four powerful policy recommendations for European Union, its institutions and its member states:

  1. “Constitute a special commission on Post-Growth Futures in the EU Parliament. This commission should actively debate the future of growth, devise policy alternatives for post-growth futures, and reconsider the pursuit of growth as an overarching policy goal.
  2. Incorporate alternative indicators into the macroeconomic framework of the EU and its member states. Economic policies should be evaluated in terms of their impact on human wellbeing, resource use, inequality, and the provision of decent work. These indicators should be given higher priority than GDP in decision-making.
  3. Turn the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) into a Stability and Wellbeing Pact. The SGP is a set of rules aimed at limiting government deficits and national debt. It should be revised to ensure member states meet the basic needs of their citizens, while reducing resource use and waste emissions to a sustainable level.
  4. Establish a Ministry for Economic Transition in each member state. A new economy that focuses directly on human and ecological wellbeing could offer a much better future than one that is structurally dependent on economic growth.”

The open letter has been published also by several major newspapers, including the Guardian in English and Liberation in French. Maailma.net published the open letter in Finnish.

Browsing through books: ‘Doughnut economics – Seven ways to think like a 21st century economist’ by Kate Raworth

I had come across Kate Raworths’ doughnut economics in a couple of instances, which for me is a sign to read a book in question. In addition, I had gathered that the book deals with the role and nature of economics, which in turn relate to my postdoc project on post-growth work. After all, the need for continuous economic growth stems from the institutions, such as economics departments, practicing economists, and political decision-makers.

What really kicked me into finally reading the book was the fact that Kate Raworth visited Helsinki in May. The organisers of the events encouraged people to familiarise with her thoughts, for example via a recent TED talk. I took the advice quite literally and browsed through her book, finally reading most of it.

The book is well written, flows beautifully, and has a compelling argument. It is organised around the idea that images have a lot of power. The simple supply-demand curve has influenced a countless number of people in universities’ economics basic courses. In fact, I have been influenced myself as a business school graduate in international business (for my undergraduate studies). So she knows what she is talking about. Moreover, that curve is not the only image that affects students, but many other uncontested “truths” are taught over and over again, although they were developed in the 19th or the 20th century and can be criticised heavily.

The power of images

She points out that we live in the 21st century so we have 21st century issues, which I shortcut here in words ‘wicked socio-ecological problems.’ So why should we rely on old thinking that was not developed knowing contemporary issues and, moreover, has proven to be flawed in many ways? In the spirit of powerful images, Raworth introduces the doughnut: when keeping on the ring of a doughnut, we respect the social needs and the ecological ceiling.

The doughnut

Sadly, the ‘selfie of our time’, as she refers to it in her recent TED talk linked above, is not flattering.

The unflattering selfie of our times

Most of the book is devoted to providing evidence for her argument on why we need to shift our thinking to become more doughnut-like, instead of previously developed (neoclassical) economics. This is understandable, since the dominant thinking in many public institutions support economics that is not suitable for the 21st century. She backs up her arguments by examples that already try to respect the doughnut and bring on change. Some of the examples I know from before, and it was fascinating to see how she links them to the idea of 21st economics.

The book gets really interesting in the end, when she talks about regenerative economics and being agnostic about growth. As an avid reader of post-growth and degrowth literature, I was challenged by her idea to invite economic growth back to the negotiation table after we have cleared the hurdle of making socio-ecological well-being our top priority. She argues that growth could be possible and needed in some places, but it would need to respect the priority of keeping within the doughnut and not causing to fall to the empty centre nor to rise above its outer ring. This type of message seems wise, when engaging in dialogues with decision-makers in power at the moment. Any message is easier to communicate when not seeming too fundamental.

In Helsinki, she mentioned a couple if interesting things that I want to share. First, she said has no time to knock on shut doors. In short, she follows good energies. Not surprisingly economics departments have not been keen to invite her. Yet, critical (economics) students have been in touch with her. In addition, cities and urban planners have contacted her. Also designers have been interested in her ideas as well as some businesses and (progressive) business schools. Finally, political parties hungry for new economics have engaged in a dialogue with her, which is very promising.

Second, someone always comments to her that “this is nothing new”. She replies that yes, this is right. In fact, usually this is the case beyond this book or idea. But it is not enough to say things once, when we want change, here end the dominance of continuous economic growth. Indeed, her work is to serve as a communicator of ideas that resonate widely. For some this may seem like a celebrity cult, which is emphasised in our times by TED talks and alike. However, she (and many others) use the medium available to reach people so that she can reach open doors and follow good energies.

Third, Kate Raworth emphasised that the book may seem like an easy thing to write, but it was a struggle. She was about to give up before she came up with the leading idea of the power of images. I appreciate her honesty, since many books seem effortless, although they are a result of sweat and tears, sometimes even facing one’s deepest fears. But perhaps that is why they are so compelling.

DIY video editing during the postdoc project

As you might know, I’m working on a sensory ethnography during 2017-2020 funded by Nessling Foundation and Kone Foundation. The focus is on post-growth work and I use video among other things. And let me tell you, using video requires learning a whole new set of skills.

Despite some well meaning advice, I have insisted on doing video editing myself. And let me tell you another thing, it is hard. I chose Adobe Premiere Pro CC due to an access to the licence via my affiliation with Aalto University, Department of Design. It is an editing program developed for professionals. I’m a beginner, although I have taken a (short) course. As a result, I have done many imaginable and unimaginable mistakes. I’ve spent many moments just trying to figure out how to frame my problem in order to find some answers over the internet. Yes, thank you for the suggestion, I need to take another course. But I also need to to this basic work of familiarising with the program while working on an actual project. By the way, this project is my first short ethnopgraphic film for a virtual conference Displacaments 2018. Very cool and exciting!

Why I insist on doing video editing myself? For one, I don’t have a budget to hire anyone. But most improtantly, I think it is worthwhile for my postdoc project. After all, I have promised to generate public videos during my research under some of the Creative Commons licences. At this point, I feel lucky that I have time until 2020. But already by now, doing video editing has thought me already a number of important lessons.

First, considering the publicly available videos (in the future), I don’t know what kind of material I should generate unless I know what is doable to do with the chosen editing program. Mind due, that I’m also a beginner in generating video materials. What kinds of angles, framings, durations, actions etc. work? What about the sound, how is the quality of audio from a particular setting? I’ve been told that a good camera person edits while shooting. Apparently, they can produce interesting images for the editing phase so that editor’s work flows smoothly. That’s my goal, in some years. Naturally, the same goes for sound.

Second, I don’t want to gloss over my interpretations from the field. Someone with more video editing experience would most likely make choices that seem more professional. But then again would that respect what I have experienced while doing fieldwork? Perhaps another video editor would, for example, increase the tempo by cuts or the choice of music. But that might not be how I experienced and sensed the field. For example, my stay with one household was a very calm one, although I worked every day. The calmness came from staying put on the estate and focusing on tasks at hand related to gardening, animal care, and food. It was not like a movie or a music video with things happening all the time, yet there was good work being done. That’s the feeling I hope to communicate with my on-going editing project.

Third, being the only person in the production team, I do everything myself for generating video materials. I don’t have a camera person. I don’t have an audio technician. I don’t have anyone carrying my gear. And I don’t have a person who I do not even know I miss if I would be used to their expertise. So it’s me and the field. As a result, the process of generating video materials and editing is slow, but then again I feel it respects my research topic, which deals with questioning exponential ecnomic growth.

These issues dealing with shooting techniques, contenct, and process have made me realise that I’m learning a whole new set of skills. No wonder it seems slow and difficult at times! Then I remind myself that about eight years ago I started to learn how to write academic publications. I’m still learning the skills required for developing an interesting journal article or a book chapter – let alone a whole book, which I have not done yet (if a compilation doctoral dissertation is not counted).

So one step at a time, because that’s what DIY processes are about.

The importance of reading

When I was 8 years old, my primary school substitute teacher hinted that I might have faked my reading diary. For two weeks I marked two books read per week. I assure you I wasn’t. There was absolutely no incentive for faking anything since it was a pro reading campaign detached from grades. Simply, I just loved reading and felt that finally I got to share all the fun things I had found.

This unfortunate story has a happy ending: others’ opinions didn’t make me lose my interest in reading. In fact, I’ve kept my hobby and made it into a profession as a researcher. Now, imagine if I had kept a reading diary since I learned how to read. Not meaning to brag – or seem like a fraud – but that list would be massive.

But in research one can never read enough so I’m definitely in the right business. I plough through smaller or bigger piles of books and (digitalised) articles every week. Be assured that my pile includes more than two pieces per week. I’m loving it! My sincerest thanks to great library services.

I’ve also learned to stop reading something if it has not attracted my attention for long enough. In diplomatic terms, that’s called skimming.

My favourite reading meme
My favourite reading meme

Partying is reading. Reading is learning. And there’s no research without learning. There’s no living without learning. Someone would say there’s no living without partying, which is practically the same thing as proven in the quote above. So let’s keep on reading and learning.