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A look back at Seminar Series 7

1 Sep 2011

Web, United Kingdom

This overview originally appeared on the International Futures Forum blog in September 2011.

In establishing the GCPH/IFF seminar series back in 2004 our hope was to bring fresh, interesting perspectives to our thinking about health and well being in the City. 

The series has taken as its starting point an idea which lies at the heart of the Centre’s mission. Why in spite of our best attempts over fifty years of trying does health in Glasgow, remain stubbornly poor, why does it lag behind other similar places, why does it improve more slowly and why are there such wide inequalities in mortality, morbidity and life experience in a city which prides itself on its egalitarian spirit?

In pursuit of understanding, we have tried to introduce a wide range of relevant perspectives, otherwise unlikely to be heard in the city and to create a context for thinking about these challenges which is up to the scale of the job. The series is not based upon telling people how to think, but rather about exposing interested participants to  ideas and perspectives which are engaging enough  to be useful to an audience which is by and large already well versed in the challenges which the city faces and committed to addressing these.

The context which we have tried to create is perhaps best summarised in Maureen O’Hara’s contributions in series one (listen/see here) and again in series five (listen/see here) when she characterises the global context in which Glasgwegians must thrive as rapidly changing, complex and uncertain. In these circumstances what we know how to do is not what needs to be done. 

If we are living through a change of age, rather than simply living in an age of change, what are the appropriate actions for a city like Glasgow in such times?  How does it orientate itself towards a future which is unknowable such that  more of its citizens may thrive, rather than simply survive?  This question is not so easily answered as some like to think!

Over previous series we have covered a wide range of issues including, history, psychology, economics, happiness, climate change and biology to name.  For each lecture we produce a range of resources – a summary,  slides and a podcast  - so that anyone who is interested can follow up or send materials on to others who might be interested.  This year for the first time we have added video material to the list of resources in the hope that the visual dimension of the lectures will make each more readily accessible and understood.  

We began the seventh series in November 2010 with a thought provoking input from Max Boisot.  (see/hear) Since Max’s untimely death, I have come to think of series seven as having been defined by him.  Hi when he came to speak, Max had been observing the work of scientists working on the large hadron collider (LHC) in Geneva as they search for the Higgs Boson Particle.   His research relates mostly to forms of organisation and motivation around the Atlas detector – one of four detectors, each the size of a large building on the LHC tunnel ring.  On the Atlas detector there are thousands of scientists from hundreds of institutions based in many countries working together on this project.   Yet inside the experiment, there is no boss scientist.   How then is the experiment organisationally possible?  

Drawing on complexity theory and his own work about learning cycle, max suggested that the LHC is like a boundary object around which scientists can gather to make sense of complexity.   What could a boundary object for Glasgow be?  Something around which all those interested in City’s welfare can gather in forms of organisation which make innovative and exploration possible.    Max’s lecture was full of interesting perspectives on questions of organisation and learning (rather than planning )what to do.   However one of my abiding images from his lecture is his description of walking through the Atlas detector at three in the morning and finding half the light on as intrinsically motivated scientists engage in the project – not because someone tells them to but because they want to. 

This theme of intrinsic motivation popped up in other lectures in the series this year.  Phil Hanlon, in his contribution described the intrinsic motivations of pilgrims, scientists and others as they search for meaning and understanding  or truth, good and beauty as he phrased it.  His key point was that we have placed a great deal of emphasis on science as the form of truth in modern life, even when a scientific perspective is not helpful.   This tends to skew our view  to such an extent that we find to it difficult to remember that much of what we as humans do in the social and economic world is constructed by us. It comes to be seen and experienced as objective to such an extent that we find it difficult to imagine alternatives which might emerge from human interactions and activity. 

This approach was also reflected in the contribution of Hazel Henderson, (see/hear) who for almost forty years now has pioneered the idea of a different kind of economics in which finance is seen as a common (rather than a private) good and economic activity pursued in ways which benefit all of humankind and enable our species to thrive in harmony with the natural world.  The outstanding image of this presentation for me was the portrayal of the global economy as a sponge cake in which the private sector is but a thin layer of icing resting upon public and voluntary effort.  Much of what makes life worth living is generated in this public and voluntary effort and most of that is not even counted when we come to value economic activity. 

This creates a false and unhelpful (to most people) version of reality in which  Gross Domestic Product is the measure of choice, even though it does not distinguish between goods and bads  in terms of economic activity  (for example a crime wave would increase GDP as it has economic activity associated with it as goods are replaced and the police respond etc).  So what actions might be needed in Glasgow in order to ensure that our measure of success reasonably reflect what we want? 

This thread was picked up in Tony Hodgson’s lecture (see/hear) on resilience in which he suggested that the focus on conventional measures (like GDP) tends to make systems (like cities) brittle and therefore more vulnerable to the shifts and changes associated with complexity.  He raised a range of relevant questions for the City chief among which was what can be done to encourage Resilience 2.0 the kind of resilience which not only bounces back from challenges but bounces beyond the status quo to a new form more in keeping with the City’s highest aspirations for its citizens. 

Tim Hamaleinen from the Finnish Innovation Fund continued this theme by suggesting that new forms of pressure on health and wellbeing are arising from the tempo and complexity of everyday life (see/hear). 

I was simply amazed that a small nation in the North of Europe had an innovation system and was interested in changing it to reflect emergent realities of the 21st century – a lesson which not only Glasgow but Scotland might do well to consider, because as Peter Gianaros (see/hear) reminded us in the final lecture of the series, everyday life has way of getting under our skin and showing up in our stress response, but don’t take my word for it check  out what he (and all the other contributors ) said this years on the GCPH website

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