Laurence Menhinick gets lost into academia-land for a day at the Sustainable Consumption Institute’s “Urban Waste Transitions Workshop.”
Today was hardly about real waste. Or transition. Actually, what’s a workshop again? According to the welcome pack, over 55 people registered… 40 turned up and by 2pm only 18 remained. It was around mid-morning that I eventually realized that, once again, I was not the target audience, as I am not in the academic industry; still it was nice that I was allowed to attend anyway (this was a free event with generous tea and lunch provided, with very clever and articulate people, in a pleasant environment with stunning views of Manchester all round). The declared aim was to promote interaction between different university departments and researchers (and some external agencies which were allowed 3 minutes each at the end) so that they may benefit from each other’s expertise and possibly encourage a coherent narrative between them in the field of urban infrastructure etc…. In practice this the usual lecturer + powerpoint format, followed by questions-thinly-disguised-as-“comments-in-my-field”-from-the-floor (they all seemed to know each other by name already anyway).
So for many hours and the perceived benefits of MCFly’s readers, I listened and can reveal the contents were actually:
- an introduction to socio-technical transitions to sustainability – which was most interesting actually, commenting on the need for a multi-level approach ( economy+ technology+ neo-institutional); the reasons for inertia (economic, social, political); the need for a new system to allow transition to happen; the role of the city as primary actor or location for projects; the need to promote niche innovations at bottom level as well as facilitation from top-down incumbents so that a homogeneous alignment is eventually reached ( told you it was academic).. and related useful stuff from Frank Geels of the SCI. (1)
- a conceptual framework and comparative analysis on the intermediary organisation of low carbon cities, by Mike Hodson ( Salford Uni) and Simon Marvin ( Durham Uni), which dealt with the legislating of the CO2 issue, the conflicts of vested interests, the delivery of the promotion ( ie. project or system focused and externally or context specific ), a comparison of intermediaries, vision and delivery in London and Manchester – ( aka : Manchester’s approach is too piecemeal without vision or statutory responsibilities)
- a talk on new infrastructure development, how projects evolve in time and process, who the participants of decisions and actions are at each level, whether an infrastructure can be considered and treated as a “Commons” with multiple agents ( Nuno Gil, MBS)
- a presentation of a new research paper ( I think) from Nicky Gregson ( Durham Uni) on economizing municipal waste: UK resource recovery as marketisation which dealt with the overall values placed on the recycled waste, both economic and environmental. She explained that economic value is calculated with two costing tools, the Kerbside Analysis Tool and the the MRF Costing Tool which place difference emphasis on waste categories and levels; also that mixed collecting ( when everything is in the same bin) pauses problems at sorting and even demand levels since contamination – of paper by glass shards for instance– lowers the quality of the waste.
All in all though, the event was very disappointing to me, primarily because there was no discussion at all, although this was scheduled in the afternoon (this event’s time keeping was creative to say the least). It was about waste, but not as we know it: more of a concept for policy-making argument. I expected debates on evidence of opportunities and challenges in waste management, concrete ideas on reduction and re-use, and who knows, new urban models or even debate on the acceptability of high waste levels and built-in obsolescence in the first place. The most interesting and useful interventions by John Bland of Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority and Tom Quested of WRAP ( an agency promoting waste reduction and better resource management ) were rushed and disappointingly stuck on at the very end.
When, 4 minutes before leaving, I finally found the opportunity to make a comment, I mentioned the lack of discussion or research (after all this was an academic exercise here!) around new economic models such as the circular economy, and the idea of not generating waste in the first place, this was dismissed by an attendee ( who was not a speaker) as an unfeasible model as… we shouldn’t forget that there is money to be made from waste, and it would be a loss to the local authority! So there we are again, and it is the reality of the problem: the need to generate more, consume more and waste enough in order to sustain the whole economic process whilst simultaneously preaching restraint. I wish I had spoken to WRAP longer, but after close to 7hrs I must say I had had enough
Laurence Menhinick, who wants it noted that it was quite an effort not to make any waste-related puns in her write-up!
(1) MCFly co-editor Marc Hudson writes; Prof Geels, a very big name indeed in the field of “Transitions” is now at the University of Manchester. MCFly will be making a youtube video about his recent article (see below), and hopefully getting an interview too.
A socio-technical analysis of low-carbon transitions: Introducing the multi-level perspective into transport studies
Geels, F W. Journal of Transport Geography, 24, 471-482.
Climate change and deep cuts in CO2 emissions require transitions to new kinds of transport systems. To understand the dynamics of these transitions, this paper introduces a socio-technical approach which goes beyond technology fix or behaviour change. Systemic transitions entail co-evolution and multi-dimensional interactions between industry, technology, markets, policy, culture and civil society. A multi-level perspective (MLP) is presented as a heuristic framework to analyze these interactions. The paper aims to introduce the MLP into transport studies and to show its usefulness through an application to the auto-mobility system in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. This application aims to assess the drivers, barriers and possible pathways for low-carbon transitions.