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Looking back at Seminar Series 7

18 Aug 2011 | Andrew Lyon

In establishing the GCPH and International Futures Forum Seminar Series back in 2004 our hope was to bring fresh, interesting perspectives to our thinking about health and wellbeing 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 Glasgow 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 audiences already well versed in the challenges which the city faces, as well as being committed to addressing them.

The context which we have tried to create is perhaps best summarised in Maureen O’Hara’s contributions to Seminar Series 1 and 5 when she characterised the global context in which Glaswegians 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, what are the appropriate actions for a city like Glasgow?  How does it orientate itself towards a future which is unknowable so that more of its citizens may thrive, rather than simply survive?  This question is not as 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.  For each lecture we produce a range of resources – summaries, slides and podcasts – so that anyone can look back, follow up or send materials on to others.  This year for the first time we 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 contribution from Max Boisot. Max has 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.

Working together on the Atlas detector are thousands of scientists from hundreds of institutions based in many countries around the world. 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 the 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 the city’s welfare can gather in forms of organisation which make innovation 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 lights 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 Series 7. In his contribution, Phil Hanlon 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 views to such an extent that we find it too difficult to remember that much of what we, as humans, do in the social and economic world is constructed by us. Science 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 echoed in Hazel Henderson’s webcast from Florida. For almost forty years now, Hazel 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 is pursued in ways which benefit all of humankind while enabling 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 within 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 version of reality in which Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the measure of choice, even though it does not distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ 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. So what actions might be needed in Glasgow in order to ensure that our measures of success reasonably reflect what we want?

This thread was picked up in Tony Hodgson's lecture 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 equips systems with the ability to not only bounce back from challenges but bounce beyond the status quo to a new form more in keeping with the City’s highest aspirations for its citizens.”

Timo Hämäläinen 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. I was simply amazed that a small nation in northern Europe had an innovation system and was interested in changing it to reflect emergent realities of the 21st Century – lessons which not only Glasgow but Scotland might do well to consider, because as Peter Gianaros 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. Don’t take my word for it check out what he and all the other contributors said during this year’s Seminar Series here on

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