Facing the Future 2015

After a busy few weeks in the office dealing with PhD affairs, I decided to head to another science conference to increase my networks and connections. However, this one was of a very different nature to those that I’ve previously attended.

I was heading to the University of Dundee for a two day conference entitled ‘Facing the Future: Tackling the Wicked Problems of Environmental Change’. The event was being run in connection with the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) at the University of Dundee and the James Hutton Institute. The conference was primarily aimed at Masters, PhD and early-career researchers.


I was excited to attend an event which had an apparent open-minded view to it. As PhD students, I always feel we are being tasked to hone in on our specific area of research but often forget about the bigger picture and the need to make sure that our studies are being applied positively and that people can connect with our science.

The primary aim of the conference was to equip new researchers, from both the natural and social sciences as well as humanities, to address the ‘wicked problems’ of environmental change from an interdisciplinary perspective. Problems such as climate change and water scarcity are complex issues that cannot be addressed, at least successfully, by a single discipline alone. In today’s world, researchers are faced with addressing these problems head on but can greatly benefit from learning how to develop interdisciplinary thinking. These skills can prove crucial in addressing these major global challenges.

Anyway, what I bring you here is a summary of the events that took place over the course of the two days.

Day 1

Before arriving at the conference, I managed to get myself a little bit lost trying to find where I was meant to be heading to. Luckily, the great folks at CECHR rescued me via Twitter. As you can see from the tweet below, I was heading round the corner to a wrong part of the University. Cheers to CECHR who re-directed me!


Once all the attendees had arrived, we went through an ice-breaker bingo style game which proved to be good fun. We then sat down to an interesting discussion by keynote speaker Sue Black from the University of Dundee on the subject of multidisciplinarity of Disaster Victim Identification (DVI). Sue gave us a captivating presentation on the subject, arguing that we must work together to effectively solve these major issues. Sue gave us an in-depth discussion on the London bombings in 2005 and this picture below portrays the diversity of people involved in the process.


Sue further highlighted that effective communication is key along with thinking on your feet and assessing the situation before diving straight into a problem. Each scenario will be different and it is paramount that no decision is made in isolation.

Following a short break, we were split up into two separate groups and whisked off to our respective rooms to discuss our upcoming ‘Turbo Talks‘. Conference attendees were encouraged to showcase their own research through short 5-minute presentations. This proved to be a useful exercise in making connections and learning how to appreciate different disciplinary perspectives. My presentation (see it on Slideshare) was on soil information and its value for a range of stakeholders and user groups for specific applications. The Turbo Talks were split into three sessions and after 5 or 6 of them were completed, speakers went to different positions across the room and invited the other attendees to pass round the room and speak to them to learn some more about their respective research. I thought this was a very interesting approach, which worked well. I got a few people coming to speak to me about the importance of soil which I class as a win. To which my fellow Cranfield University colleague, Jack Hannam agreed….


The day ended with a session from Graham Leicester and Tony Hodgson. They introduced us to the Three Horizons chart of interdisciplinary research, where: H1 in red indicates the dominant system as it currently stands, the ‘business as usual’ situation if you like; H2 represents a point of disruption which needed to be addressed; and H3 indicates the best case scenario. More information on this can be found here.


The Three Horizons chart of interdisciplinary research

In groups, we discussed some of the situations we feel our Earth is facing and pictured below is what we came up with. It looked like we were playing a game of Blockbusters. All that was missing was Bob Holness… (Can I have a P please, Bob?)


Bob would’ve been proud!

The day ended with the delegates being invited onto the HMS Frigate Unicorn for the conference dinner and following music which was great fun and highly entertaining. The tour of the frigate was also very good, if slightly straining on the neck! After a great evening it was time to head home to recharge and get ready for what Day 2 had in store.

Frig1 Frig2

Day 2

Day 2 kicked off with our second key note speaker, SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) Chairman Professor David Sigsworth, who provided an in depth discussion on the work SEPA are doing to try and make their research more interdisciplinary focussed. I was particularly impressed with the video that he added into his presentation from Al Gore on the need for action to our climate. David’s main theme was that, to date, there has been a lack of current, creative solutions to the global problems which we face. I put to David the question of where soils fitted into water connections and with it being the International Year of Soils for 2015 should this be further addressed? He responded by suggesting that SEPA should be doing even more to address soil as an important component of the Earth system and feels that we as humans have underestimated the importance of soils and the functions and services that soil provides us. I agree!


SEPA Chairman David Sigsworth gives his talk

Afterwards, both Graham and Tony came back to explain to us more about the International Futures Forum (IFF) and introduced us to the World Game that we were going to take part in for the rest of the conference. Graham and Tony told us that it is best practice to engage with the World System Model through experience and interaction. The World Game provides a way in which people can get involved with the complexity of global problems in a fun, interactive and creative way. Players can be in groups and in a range of settings, including a business setting, community groups, students or individuals seeking to broaden their capacities.

There are many variations to the game but the main rules are as follows:

Act 1 – The World of Concerns
The group is split into smaller teams to discuss their brief (one brief per world node). The teams are asked to define the most relevant trend for their node (see picture below), the worrying problem or tipping point, and the main concern that they wish to put on the group’s agenda relevant to the game.

The World of Concerns

The World of Concerns

Act 2 – The Possible Futures
Round 2 requires the members representing the different nodes to be split into groups consisting of three nodes (these are of equilateral triangles so worldview, energy and habitat would be a group for e.g.). The groups are asked to explain connections between their individual groups and what we might have to prepare for in consequence.  The picture below showcases the backlash of scenario between issues of community (my group!), trade and water.


Act 3 – The Wisdom Council Speaks
The final round of the game invites all players back into a circle to reflect on the experience of the session as a whole. The closing session is played under a ‘wisdom council’ format.  This is an exercise to see how far the group can tune into a collective intelligence.


The game is drawn to a close once all sectors of the ‘clock face’ have had a say on their selected issue. For more information, follow this link.

All in all, it really was a terrific 2 day conference in which I learnt a lot of new things and new perspectives about the way science is talked about and viewed. I would recommend conferences like this to all students as I believe that we are moving into a inter-disciplinary way of undertaking science research. Furthermore, we need to understand and respect the different views in different situations so that we can face up to the threat of major global challenges.


Author: Grant Campbell

Feature image: Cannons onboard HMS Frigate Unicorn