What does it mean to declare climate emergency?

By Professor Martin Parker, Lead for Bristol Inclusive Economy Initiative

Does it make any difference that Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol and hundreds of other organisations have declared a climate emergency? Is it all just hot air? On the 12th March, the Inclusive Economy Initiative and the Law School at Bristol University organised an event to discuss what it meant for an organisation to do something about their carbon emissions and wider impact on society and the economy. Over 260 people signed up, and despite the coronavirus bearing down on us all, about 70 turned up to hear some fantastic discussions.

Last year saw a rash of climate emergency declarations from local and national governments, academic institutions across the globe, representative bodies of numerous professions and industries and many individual businesses. Why is making a climate declaration important? Has anything changed for those that have? What else can be done to address the emergency? In a context of Extinction Rebellion protests and clear evidence of climate change, what can organisations actually do?

Martin Wiles (Head of Sustainability for University of Bristol), Nina Boeger (Law School, University of Bristol) and Chris Dunford (Head of Sustainable Futures, We The Curious)
Martin Wiles (Head of Sustainability for University of Bristol), Nina Boeger (Law School, University of Bristol) and Chris Dunford (Head of Sustainable Futures, We The Curious)

After an introduction from myself, we had two panel discussions followed by some sparkling questions from the audience. The first panel was chaired by Nina Boeger from the University’s Law School in discussion with Martin Wiles, the Head of Sustainability at the university, and Chris Dunford, the Head of Sustainable Futures at ‘We The Curious’, Bristol’s science museum. They are both ‘educational’ institutions with a particular responsibility for disseminating knowledge about climate change and both agreed that ‘declaring’ was the easy part. The problem was what to do next.

There were some clear similarities. Both were keen to stress the importance of a plan for carbon reduction with clear goals that can be audited. If the declaration is not to be seen as a PR exercise, then people inside and outside the organisation have to see things changing. This means keeping on top of many small but important decisions about procurement, everyday practice and messaging. It means doing most things differently, and perhaps cancelling other projects, such as the ‘We the Curious’s xmas ice skating rink, or encouraging academics not to go to international conferences.

Apart from the operational stuff, the biggest taboo that needs to be addressed is often the business model itself. Whether students flying from China or tourists driving to Bristol, some of the core assumptions about the way that the bills are paid might need to change. A declaration doesn’t solve these problems, but it allows them to be discussed. It allows things to become thinkable which were previously too difficult to approach.

We then moved on to the second panel, chaired by Fiona Ellis, a director of the network Business Declares. She was in conversation with Dave Hunter, a Consulting Solicitor at the b-corp law firm Bates Wells, and Ben Tolhurst, the Head of UK Property Asset Management at JLL, the world’s biggest property management company.

Ben talked about what it was like being an ‘employee activist’ within a large corporation, but began by noting that a declaration needs to be supported at the highest levels of the business. For virtually all organisations, climate change will destroy their existing business models, so there is an element of enlightened self-interest that needs to be recognised and exploited. Policies on travel, food, energy, single-use plastic and so on need to be changed, but no organisation can change the world on its own. This means that Ben and JLL are now trying to influence clients through their training and hence providing legitimacy for other organisations to change too. His key question is ‘how do you make people want to change’, and that means changing yourself too.

Dave echoed this in a smaller organisation and a different context in beginning by asking ‘how do you take the staff with you?’ Employees and clients need to understand why Bates Wells is changing, and that has meant conversations with a wide variety of people and organisations about different aspects of carbon neutrality. For example, the organisation is now default vegetarian: people are not served meat unless they explicitly ask for it. Again, the organisation is also trying to influence its sector, to be an example for what other law firms might do, seeking to use law proactively as a force for good, not just a passive tool to interpret regulations. Just like the umbrella organisation Business Declares, the idea is to show other people what can be done, to demonstrate a new way of doing business.

What did we learn?

There were lots of questions covering a wide variety of topics. What does an ‘emergency’ response look like, and how might the climate emergency be compared with the covid emergency? How do we deal with sceptics, with people who aren’t engaged? How do we tell different stories about what it means not to be able to do what we used to do? How do we get the trillions of dollars moving out of carbon and into renewables? Can capitalism be reformed to be less destructive?

In all of this, there was frequent mention of the importance of not polarising the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. If an organisation declares support for Extinction Rebellion, will that alienate people who find their tactics annoying and mean that the messages won’t get through? On the other hand, maybe we have no time to worry about people’s feelings, and simply need to explain the science. If we have a position of influence, then we need to use it, with our friends, co-workers and whatever sector of the economy we work in.

We agreed that we needed more events like this, discussing particular aspects of what it means to prepare the groundwork for an appropriate business response to a societal and environmental, global emergency. The language of emergency must not lose its energy, but it must also turn into routines and policies, as all these speakers have elegantly demonstrated.

It has been interesting to see in the fortnight since the event, how quickly some steps which seemed impossibly radical just a few days ago have been implemented without resistance – almost feeling like a dry run for the changes we were discussing. It would be nice to think we might be able to come together again to review how things have progressed before the year is out. If you want more information, get in touch with us at iei-enquiries@bristol.ac.uk.

Women who inspire us: The value of education

As part of International Women’s Day (8 March 2020), we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the great women working on the Temple Quarter programme. In a series of blogs, we’ve asked them to write about the women that inspire them to challenge stereotypes and promote equality

Third in our series, this piece is by Nicola Key, Head of Programme Delivery for Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus.

Nicola Key making the #EachforEqual sign
Nicola Key making the #EachforEqual sign

Jacqueline Mary Blomfield

Jacqueline Mary Blomfield was born during World War 2. By the age of 14 she had moved repeatedly around the country with her Mother (wherever work could be found) leading to her attend 14 different schools in 9 years. Her education was so disrupted she ended up failing her 11+ compulsory examination which meant that she went on to attend a Secondary Modern School, missing out on a grammar school education. She started full time employment at 14 years old and soon became a Post Office worker at the GPO as a telephony operator. She went on to work at British Telecom for the rest of her working life and became a union representative to fight for workers’ rights.

She vowed that when she had a family she would do everything she could to send her children to University and to enable them to have the education they deserved. Hence she worked every hour imaginable to afford to send all three of her children to University. Her belief was that education opened many doors and allowed people to lead the lives they wanted.

Jacqueline has enabled me to lead the life that I want and to fulfil many ambitions. She was my mother whom I take inspiration from every single day. I can only imagine the smile on her face if she’d known that I’d go on to lead the programme to deliver a new University campus in Bristol, a city that she loved.

Read other blogs in this series for International Women’s Day.

Women who inspire us: changing the face of the music industry

As part of International Women’s Day (8 March 2020), we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the great women working on the Temple Quarter programme. In a series of blogs, we’ve asked them to write about the women that inspire them to challenge stereotypes and promote equality.

Second in the series is this piece by Jessica Sharratt, Engagement and Enterprise Associate for Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus.

Jessica Sharratt making the #EachForEqual sign
Jessica Sharratt making the #EachForEqual sign

Georgia Maq, Sarah Thompson and Kelly-Dawn Helmrich

Outside of work, I am a musician. Playing trombone since I was 8, I’ve been in many different groups – from orchestras and brass bands to ska punk and rock. The under-representation of women in any genre involving an amplifier is well known. In 2015, posters of music festival line-ups edited to remove all-male bands appeared, highlighting how few women were being booked. Despite increasing awareness of the issue, it’s still a problem – of the 92 acts announced so far for Reading and Leeds this year, just 20 are women.

This affects how women in music are treated. Even in my limited experience, I’ve come across the assumption that rock musicians are men more times than I can count. Once, sat with my instrument in a well-known Bristol venue, a very polite member of staff came over to inform me only band members were allowed in before doors opened and that girlfriends would have to wait outside. Another time, laden with equipment, a member of door staff stopped me and my bandmate Tash on our way into a venue. Our male bandmates had all been allowed to walk straight through and we weren’t let in until one of them came back to vouch for us. There are also the times I’ve been patronised or objectified on account of my gender – each incident on its own perhaps insignificant but amounting to something bigger.

Camp cope band members
Camp Cope. Image creator: Gabriela Barbieri, Credit: WXPN

Three women determined to hold the music industry to account are Georgia Maq, Sarah Thompson and Kelly-Dawn Helmrich of Camp Cope – a three-piece alternative rock band from Melbourne. Since forming in 2015 they’ve made their voices heard as artists and as advocates for women and minorities. Georgia Maq sings about her own experience of sexual assault in ‘The Face of God’, and ‘The Opener’ is a furious takedown of sexism in the music industry. In 2016 they led a campaign focused on making festivals safer called ‘It Takes One’, developing new reporting mechanisms that better support victims. Many artists have since been seen wearing T-shirts that read ‘The person wearing this shirt stands against sexual assault and demands a change’ in support. In 2017 they risked their careers publicly criticising the Falls Festival for only booking nine women, including themselves. The festival is not only Australia’s largest touring festival but is owned by Live Nation, the largest promotor in the world. Camp Cope hasn’t shied away from fighting sexism wherever it sees it, even when it poses a risk to their own careers.

Camp Cope’s lyrics often hold a mirror to female experiences that are almost universal, but rarely acknowledged. In ‘Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams’ they rail against catcallers and mention carrying ‘keys between your knuckles when you walk alone at night’. Fellow Australian Courtney Barnett also references this in ‘Nameless, Faceless’. Before these two songs, I’d never heard this self-defence tactic discussed – it was just something my Mum told me to do when was about 14 and has made me feel slightly safer many times since. The first time I heard these lyrics I was simultaneously saddened that this is so common and relieved to hear it acknowledged. I’ve had conversations with male friends who said they weren’t aware this was something women did until they heard these songs. We learn more when we hear from people whose experiences are not the same as our own. The focus here is on International Women’s Day, but we would equally benefit from hearing from more musicians who are non-binary, people of colour, LGBTQ+ and working class.

Like all good role models, Camp Cope makes me reconsider my own behaviour. I’ve spent plenty of time swapping war stories with other musicians but can’t claim to have done much to try and change things. This is a band that’s determined to make the music industry safer, diverse and more inclusive. They also write great songs – check them out, and I’ll see you at their next Bristol show!

Read other blogs in this series for International Women’s Day.

Women who inspire us: a fighter, teacher and explorer

As part of International Women’s Day (8 March 2020), we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the great women working on the Temple Quarter programme. In a series of blogs, we’ve asked them to write about the women that inspire them to challenge stereotypes and promote equality.

This first piece is by Gemma Stock, Operations Manager for Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus.

Gemma Stock making an equals sign with her arms
Gemma Stock making the #EachforEqual sign

Edwina Whitwell: a fighter for children’s rights to education, explorer and champion of resilience

The eldest of four girls, Edwina Whitwell (nee Enefer) was born in 1952. Labelled as a daydreamer at school, she married at the age of 18 – as was the expectation of the time – and worked a variety of administrative roles until she left to start a family. Despite the lack of encouragement or support from her (somewhat Victorian) husband, she returned to education in her mid-30s and became a teacher at the age of 42 after completing her GCSEs, A Levels and degree. To support her husband’s salary and to ensure her children wanted for nothing, Edwina worked on weekends and in holidays during her return to education – she also opened her family home to exchange students.

Despite her late arrival to the world of education, Edwina has left an extraordinary mark on children’s lives in the North Somerset area. She worked tirelessly to ensure children with special needs were treated as individuals and received the education they were entitled. She took the time needed to explain a child’s requirements to their parents. She listened to family’s frustrations with the situation and with the “system”. She fought local government for money to ensure a deaf boy went to the right school. She supported parents on applications to make sure their children got into the right educational establishments. She fought to keep kids in school when they would otherwise have been excluded.

Ignoring protests from her husband, Edwina started to travel… alone! She trekked mountains in Romania, walking for part of the time with horrendous food poisoning. In an attempt to avoid further upset, she did a real-life Shirley Valentine. Edwina left a note on the fridge for her husband and flew to Kathmandu to trek the foothills of the Himalayas, where she admitted she thought she’d die when cowering under a piece of Perspex while “hail the size of bricks” fell.

Edwina Whitwell camping in the desert in Oman
Edwina Whitwell camping in the desert in Oman

Since losing her husband who – despite his shortcomings as a forward-thinking husband – was the love of her life, Edwina has travelled extensively. She’s visited America, Oman, Egypt, India, Jordan, Thailand (where she fell off a barge and almost drowned in the River Kwai), Vietnam, Russia, Cambodia, Laos, Morocco, Egypt, Europe and Rwanda where she taught English to children. And in two weeks’ time, she will travel to Antarctica.

Now retired, Edwina’s investment in children’s future is not yet over – she teaches life-skills to year 6 students in the Bristol area on a voluntary basis.

She is the epitome of resilience. Every time she was knocked down or someone said she couldn’t do something, she looked them straight in the eye and did it anyway. She instils this trait in her children, her students and her granddaughters. Edwina is a massive inspiration to women. I know this because she’s my mum and I want to be like her. My friends (who are all in their 40s) and my young nieces all want to be like her – but as hard as we try, I don’t think any of us will ever reach her level of awesomeness!

Read other blogs in this series for International Women’s Day.

Swallowed by a tiny giant

by Vanessa Kisuule, Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus artist in residence and Bristol City Poet

What follows is a strange and erratic collection of thoughts to accompany a poem I have written in response to a bot generated poem ‘written’ by Tiny Giant. The bot had the entirety of my last poetry collection A Recipe for Sorcery, a few of my favourite poems from other writers and some tech related writing provided by the University. The result was somewhat like looking at myself with all my body parts in the wrong place, toes on my forehead, elbows and knees swapped round. It was confusing, slightly sinister and endlessly fascinating.

The echoes of my work were immediately clear. They were not distorted enough to be unrecognisable, but there was enough deviation to intrigue and unsettle me. Some of the imagery jarred. Some of it occasionally touched on the profound. It was impossible not to wince at my own stylistic tropes: imagine having a friend write a parody of your work and reading it back to you, but with none of the tact that a human might offer! I’d recommend this process to any poet, but it would be remiss for me not to acknowledge the existential crisis it may cause.

Poetry is an artistic hinterland where abstraction and ambiguity can live more comfortably than in other forms. Linear narrative and logical coherence do not matter in this context as they would for a novel or a screen play. Poetry, then, may be the medium that AI could find the most ‘success’. Moments of incidental brilliance in the poem were not frequent, but there were enough to make me sit up. Some images genuinely moved and excited me; there was even the occasional jolt of envy at a particularly evocative turn of phrase.

It was hard to know what to do with these mixed feelings of admiration and disquietude. It’s rather foolish, and pointless, to be envious of an algorithm. It has simply done what was asked of it, deducing an end goal through its encrypted set of logical rules. Surely art is as much about intention and communication as the end product? Unlike you or I, it is unmotivated by a desire to connect with others or even a compulsion to sound clever, original or superior. And yet….

It’s a small comfort that it cannot produce anything without the initial input of words, but could the same not be said for us? Aren’t all the years of education, reading, talking and listening we do not our own form of data collection? The methodical approach of the bot may seem antithetical to the elusive creative process we purport to undertake, but this project has forced me to reconsider how we talk about the mechanics of art.

A huge amount of art has been produced through formulas for centuries, culminating in what we may loosely call ‘popular culture’. There are the four chord progressions and seven story formats that recur again and again in music, literature, film and theatre.  More often than not, we pull from a series of long-established methods which we may copy or use as a spring board to ‘new’ ideas. Though we’re loathe to admit it, we, too, are algorithmic machines. AI may be the impetus we need to push ourselves out of our own tropes, or at least be more aware of how much we rely on them.

Marcus Du Sautoy’s timely new book The Creativity Code details how the new innovations in algorithmic learning are expanding our notions of whether a computer can ‘think creatively’. He talks about ‘bottom up’ code: algorithms that learn through data input and continually adjusting its methods for better results. In this way, the AI bot Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparov having played millions of iterations of the game, learned from its mistakes and developed creative strategies to ensure a higher chance of winning. The bot can even make choices that have not been explicitly programmed by the writers of the code. It’s hard to overstate what a game changer this is: the potential for AI to innovate rather than regurgitate is ever more plausible.

The neural network used to create my poem also exhumes ghosts. In PLaiTH, Tiny Giant worked with other agencies to not only produce work in Sylvia Plath’s style but in her handwriting. This detail pushes at new level of invasive imitation, an unwitting mockery of penmanship and its implied intimacy. The project demonstrates how easily this can be learnt, aped and mass produced. Plath’s death is mired in controversy and the seductive myth of a genius’ life cut short. It’s natural to wonder what she may have produced had she lived longer. The Plath Project could be framed as a respectful homage, a creative continuation of legacy forming an ellipsis where once there was a full stop. Still, there is a difficult conversation to be had around assumption and ownership, on how we justify the use of intellectual copyright after death.

There is an online quiz called Bot or Not with fifteen poems in it which asks you to guess which were written by humans and which by bots. I got eight out of fifteen. It’s safe to say that the ‘humanity’ we assume is inherent in human writing is not at all obvious. Many people feel cheated when they learn that a piece of art that moved them was not made by a fellow human. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to admonish ourselves, or demonise the AI. Our minds are built to create meaning and relevance in everything we consume. It’s why we anthropomorphise animals, why we tell stories and build religion. In a world where bot generated art is an ever increasing part of our reality, would it not be a natural extension of our survival instinct to engage with it? Ultimately, if the end result stirs you, does it matter who or what made it? I still don’t know if it does, but I’m sure our morality and imagination will expand to fit around this brave new world.

Can AI write poetry?

For National Storytelling Week, we investigated the boundary between human and technology in the creative arts. We worked with Tiny Giant to train a recurrent neural network on Bristol City Poet Vanessa Kisuule’s poetry and a selection of technology-related pieces. The lines below are an extract of what the neural network produced and the poem below that is Vanessa’s reaction to the process. Read more about Vanessa’s response to the experience.

a goddess of the space bar
my brain, stretching
a recipe for answers.
cut and filed
to fit to technology

her isles of know
through the dirt on her own rivers
digital darkness
jeopardising my own name

then that alexa
she remembers gush and implosion
not a boy
gotta love us , girls
I’ve said to stop

we are blinded by the first of things
go beyond the height
it is easy !
give us dynamite drills
i cut the country

like they think
this or phone?
hand me love anxious
I’ll wait
and when we fight , not a ring

except in the world wide web
we just print and weave heat
write rules out
give them stumps for hands

my brain stretching
i watch my end
fleeting footnote on a final page
you are not enough to be written

living in virtual reality
angel dilated beautiful on the plazas
you niggling
coded numbers flashing light
that’s gold

like something boneless, seeping seeping
eyes wearied so so as deep
please no tweets
affecting our content
trigger my thumb, i dare not!

it is our right to a back up
i don’t hear it
once everybody had the place
all the stories we have ever been
just a spark you you?
we are the thing to your real

my private face
youtube my heart
every single tongue, like the hope one
make a picture of steel

 

A Tiny Giant Looms

by Vanessa Kisuule

 

I hereby acknowledge the long legacy of algorithms in the scattered art of poetry.

Long before upstart bots birthed Frankenstein verse,

Shakespeare took mangled beasts of sentiment and squeezed them into the boning of sonnets,

laced them in until every implication stood taut and ready for inspection.

*

You know what’s interesting? I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. 

I mean, I’m not limited.

I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body 

that’s inevitably gonna die.

From the 2013 film Her

*

I hereby acknowledge we are not sacred.

Adorned as we are by glittering myths, they sadly cannot endure.

Our ghosts of inspiration are soft willed, quick to wilt.

The rigour of language made machine gave poetry its rib and muscle.

In rhyme, in meter, in ancient ghazal we find formulaic dogma.

Our slow work this tiny giant does in minutes,

unsaddled by anxiety, coffee shakes or misplaced hopes of profundity.

It’s simply a task unpacked, sifted then neutered like a dog.

*

Once you learn to think, (in) 

Algorithms, 

the (programming) language is secondary. 

(Sure) it kicks and drags its feet (a little). 

(But) in the end(…)

From a 2017 Medium article entitled When you finish reading this, you’ll know how to code

*

I hereby acknowledge the false god of originality.

How we’ve romanticised this thirst for theft,

past thoughts reheated then declared fresh.

Words cluster like boiled sweets in my mouth and

Tiny giant surveys them.

A singular, stoic criteria.

No pretence, reverence or preference encoded.

A thick plagiarist porridge, served cool.

Spirals of thought revealed as affectation,

heavy with the effort to please or reveal.

I am humbled and furious.

We were drunk on us-ness, our inimitable humanhood.

Look at how we hold a thought up to the light,

scallop its edges until it dances in the wind.

*

Computers expect you to declare your variables. 

A variable declaration is like 

a birth certificate for a piece of data.

From aforementioned Medium article

*

I hereby acknowledge a shift in the hierarchy.

Whoever won a fight with the tide?

Whoever punched a wall of code and still kept their knuckles, their pride or slovenly mind?

They have not come for our jobs, they have come for our salt flaked egos,

our rotted fallacy of divine purpose.

Tiny Giant ‘speaks’ of things beyond our young puddle of reality.

In this new frontier we will not lead, but chase the future off the cliff face of our own limits.

Will you be there, your heavy foot quivering as if a glitch in the matrix?

Your last words before the sweep of oblivion

already predicted?

 

Read more about Vanessa’s experience of seeing her own work interpreted by artificial intelligence in her commentary ‘Swallowed by a tiny giant’.

Is digital technology undermining our democracy?

By Professor Stephan Lewandowsky

Democracy is debate. But unfortunately access to the “free marketplace of ideas” where citizens see all sides of the debate isn’t equal.

The internet was going to fix that.

Instead, we now live in an era of democratic backsliding, with at least 80 countries having become less democratic during the last decade. And much of that decline is being blamed on the internet, which facilitates the spread of disinformation, hate speech, incitement, and foreign interference in elections.

This is exactly why universities around the world, including the University of Bristol’s Digital Futures Institute, are working with tech giants, governments and the third sector to examine how this happened and what we can do about it.

Targeting the problem

Much criticism has been directed at the social media giants, in particular Facebook – it was recently labelled “digital gangsters” by a UK Parliamentary committee.

There’s a basic incompatibility between democracy and Facebook’s business model of “microtargeting”. We know from psychological research that 300 “Likes” are sufficient to infer someone’s personality with greater accuracy than their spouse.

Facebook patented this idea and enabled advertisers – including politicians – to segment their audience and target their messages more effectively. However much of the highly personal information used for microtargeting is inferred by Facebook rather than explicitly given by users.

If you use Facebook, it’s already building a profile of who you are – if you want to know what Facebook knows about you, download your data. Prepare to be amazed.

When politicians know their messages are confined to a partisan audience, there’s no pressure for moderation and extremism becomes politically rewarding. It’s also a recipe for disinformation. Politicians can get away with sending false information to a carefully selected group of potential sympathisers who are unlikely to object, even if they detect they’re being misled.

What are the solutions?

Rising social concern about the use of digital data and AI technologies in the political process is prompting big tech companies to do something about this. Google announced it’ll no longer permit microtargeting of political messages – applicable in the forthcoming British election and rolled out globally in 2020.

Although political campaigns reacted with outrage against the move, it’s a step in the right direction. It forces campaigns to be more palatable to a broader audience – making extremism less rewarding and opening the door to rebuttals. Facebook has also taken several steps to help safeguard the 2020 US election, including the clear labelling of misinformation and additional transparency measures. Thus far, Facebook has not addressed the problems arising from microtargeting.

Self-regulation within the online ad-serving industry is important, but isn’t enough to address the challenges. Research is being done in universities around the world to understand these practices, to examine their effects on citizens – and their voting behaviour – and to develop technologies that track and block the trackers or seek to expose systematic biases in ads.

The University of Bristol’s Digital Futures Institute recently received £100m of funding from Research England and 27 organisations keen to collaborate in shaping digital futures, including BT, BBC, Watershed, Knowle West Media Centre and Black South West Network.

Bristol Digital Futures Institute, which will be based at the planned Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, will work with partners to challenge the traditional, linear model of technical innovation. When technologies are developed without in-depth consideration of social questions, they abdicate responsibility for the future worlds they may be creating. By bringing social scientists and engineers together, the new Institute aims to pioneer a new way of creating digital technologies, with future societies at its heart.

Digital technologies are transforming our world. Instead of wondering what on earth will come next, Bristol Digital Futures Institute will work to democratise the future, driving inclusive and innovative technologies that benefit all of us.

Sharing experiences across borders

Professor Guy Orpen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for New Campus Development

An aerial view of Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus

The past six weeks or so have seen the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus on tour, featuring in debates in Bristol, Brussels and the Netherlands – and visiting comparable university sites in London.

Placemaking was the theme of a session at a recent Built Environment Networking conference in the Passenger Shed at Temple Meads. Given how underused the site and the streets around the new campus are currently, it’s clear we’ll need to make a big effort to create a sense of place and belonging for all who use and visit it. This implies a major emphasis on the way the public spaces on the campus are designed and used so everyone can enjoy them and feel welcome.

This issue was discussed in the session on “The Bristol Transformation: Creating Great Places” at the Watershed during the recent Festival of the Future City. The role of public art and cultural activity in and around the campus was highlighted by Mike Keys, the campus lead architect, and Fabienne Nicholas of Contemporary Art Society, leading on public art strategy for the campus and University more widely. Elsewhere in the Festival, Tom Sperlinger, Joanna Holmes and John Goddard, the guru of civic universities, led a discussion on the role universities should play in their places. It was striking how impressed John was with the pace and quality of progress in Bristol.

Meanwhile on the continent, the University took some of its leading lights in research to Brussels to meet members of the Commission, European funders and research organisation leaders, as well as the UK’s representatives there. Our message was simple: there may be confusion over national EU policy, but Bristol is open for partnership and investment and is making progress in Temple Quarter and elsewhere. It’s clear we need to crack on and make that progress for the benefit of all.

I took a similar message to Dutch colleagues grappling with the role that universities can play in their cities at a conference in Den Bosch – ironically it was held on the day after Brexit was supposed happen. They were keen to hear about how our University had declared a Climate Emergency, was working with our city on the One City Plan and is building partnerships to create value for all. Their invitation followed a major delegation visit to Bristol in February – they clearly feel something interesting and important is happening here.

Since then, we have been to see our university peers’ major developments in London – Imperial College’s White City Campus, UAL’s Central Saint Martin’s college and UCL’s at Here East and the Olympic Park. While these are impressive, we sensed we had something both distinctive and highly competitive to offer in Temple Quarter. Combining real local community participation in research, innovation and education, the world-leading capabilities the University brings and the powerful commitment of government and industry is special and potent – and is great to see happening in Bristol.

Why students need an innovative mindset

By Professor Kirsten Cater, Academic Director Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Students at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

With 5.7 million small business in the UK and more than 1,000 new start-ups every single day, it’s critical that our students are prepared for this competitive environment. And this doesn’t mean starting the conversation when they graduate – students should be in this frame of mind from day one and build the skills needed for the ever-changing workplace.

Many employers argue that graduates’ skills don’t always match the ones they’re looking for, and this gap can be an intimidating barrier for those leaving university. Education should be a pathway that naturally leads students into the workplace. Aligning courses with longer-term skills, including having an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset, is critical to the success of our graduates and the organisations they work for or the enterprises they create.

Mindset + knowledge = innovation

Our multi-award-winning Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s mission is to graduate the next generation with the adaptability, agility, interdisciplinary and innovative thinking to reflect the changing world of employment and modern society. They’ll be equipped to tackle complex problems by collaborating across traditional boundaries and disciplines. Our first-of-their-kind degrees bring students together from 14 different disciplines (including computer science, anthropology, history, geography and theatre) to study innovation and entrepreneurship alongside their subject specialism.

At the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship we also do things differently, we need to be innovative and entrepreneurial ourselves – living and breathing what we teach. We’re not teaching “traditional” subjects, so we can’t teach in a “traditional” way – we deliver innovative pedagogical approaches. We hold sessions in a studio-based learning environment and give our students real-world inter-disciplinary challenges. Our centre encourages students to be creative, be innovative, take risks, work in teams and share ideas openly with each other – learning how to take those ideas forward together into start-up enterprises.

“I was intrigued and excited by the University of Bristol’s own innovative thinking in establishing these degree courses. Having spent a day immersed with the staff and students, and after giving a lecture and workshop, I’m hugely impressed by the potential to inspire and encourage world change makers to think new thoughts; to fail, learn and iterate and to develop the people with the creativity and resilience our 21st century society and economy cries out for. It shows Bristol continues to lead in the relevance, variety and application of its courses and support.” Paul Lindley, founder of Ella’s Kitchen

Collaboration is key and we don’t just empower students to work with their peers. The centre is host to many of our external partners and a network of investors ready to support ideas – and these relationships are at the heart of what we do.

Successful innovation doesn’t stop here

World number one university business incubator SETsquared and enterprise hub Engine Shed are already driving new ways of thinking in business and inclusive growth across the region. And University of Bristol spin-out Ziylo was recently bought by a global healthcare company in a deal worth around $800million. Our students can see this success firsthand and learn from others’ experiences.

Vassilis Seferedis, CEO and Founder of Zetta Networks says, “My advice to an entrepreneur, especially a technology entrepreneur, is to focus on understanding and communicating the business problem that you’re solving. There can be a temptation, particularly for academics, to be distracted by interesting technology rather than the application of technology to solve problems. If you can understand the business problem you are solving, can explain that to the end-user and quantify the value of what you do, you will stand out from your peers.”

This culture of collaboration and innovation will form the core of our new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, which will be home to the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. At the new campus, enterprise and community partners will come together under the same roof as our students and researchers to work to build a better future.

“It’s imperative that young people are given access to the skills and experiences to help raise awareness of future opportunities and to engage them with the workplace at a young age. In collaboration with Engine Shed’s Diverse Workforce for the Future project, SETsquared Bristol has provided educational sessions with the most innovative tech start-ups that are growing their businesses at SETsquared. We look forward to being involved with new opportunities that the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus will provide, linking enterprise, learning and community in Bristol.” Monika Radclyffe, Centre Director of SETsquared Bristol

Professor Kirsten Cater is speaking at Bristol Technology Showcase on Friday 8 November about Technology, People and Change – Building the workforce for the Future.

Use or be used: Skills, technology and the future of work

By Dr Frederick Harry Pitts, Lecturer in Management at University of Bristol

When people imagine the future of work, their minds often jump to AI replacing jobs and machines taking over the world – leaving humans in an age of widespread unemployment. But in reality, automation is more likely to replace individual tasks within jobs than the jobs themselves.

Indeed, we already coexist with machine learning in the workplace using everyday processes like predictive text. This shows the future of work lies more in the augmentation of human labour with technology than its replacement by it.

This augmentation could alienate workers, rendering them what Marx called the mere ‘appendages of machines’. But it could also liberate and empower them to apply their skills and knowledge to the active control and mastery of technology.

Far from something that arises naturally and automatically, technology is a human creation subject to the social and political conditions in which it’s developed. But, without workers’ freedom to wield power over the tools and devices they use in their work, these conditions often mean new technologies can take on a life of their own.

Whilst policymakers and commentators get caught up in grand schemes to adapt to robotised worklessness or fully automated luxury, a more urgent imperative goes overlooked. This is the need to regulate and organise the world of work as it stands now, in order to bend technology to our will rather than the reverse.

Empower, not dominate

This centres on skill. We might think of skill as the capacity to control and shape the world around us. Whilst it’s popular to speak of skill as ‘talent’, this isn’t true – as the term might suggest, it’s not something innate, but something learned.

Economic, social, political and cultural contextual factors can impact the learning conditions necessary to attain skill. And just as technology adoption and implementation is influenced by these factors, so too is investment in the skills to use it.

Several factors impact employers’ and governments’ decisions to invest in the skills needed to thrive in a technological world of work. From wages and contractual conditions to wider political-economic, regulatory and legal structures, these environments often add to the challenge.

Where precarious, low-pay work arrangements are the norm, as they are in the UK today, there’s little incentive for employers to invest in the technology to make that work better and more productive. Specifically, developing the skills necessary for workers to experience technology as an empowering rather than dominating force.

Whether a warehouse, an office or an Uber, new technology being imposed to manage workers in a workplace often goes hand in hand with a ‘wild west’ regulatory regime. And this is unlikely to have any sense of longevity or commitment on the part of employers or employees.

This culture leaves little basis around which workers and employers can share in the gains of greater productivity – whether that’s through skills, training, better pay or terms and conditions.

Somewhere in the augmentation of human labour by technology, there’s a real opportunity for a new mission of skilful mastery that turns technology to human purposes. This can’t be achieved through the supply of skills in education alone. There are wider political-economic constraints on the capacity to innovate and develop that need addressing at other levels.

What’s the solution?

Increases in minimum wages may help. This would force employers to seek more from workers at the bottom end of the labour market and invest in productivity-raising technologies and the skills to use them. But this could have unintended consequences. Although employers might gain in profits, workers won’t necessarily have an equal gain in skills – or a fair share in the benefits of greater productivity.

Rather than tweaks to pay alone, the best solutions rest in the legal and regulatory environment of work. Increase in trade union membership and collective bargaining would help grant workers the voice to protect themselves against rapid change. This could also drive wages upwards and incentivise investment by employers at the same time.

By forcing employers’ hands to the fire with increases in wages and bargaining power, this could help replicate some of the gains of the twentieth-century industrial compromise. This was when managers and workers had a shared interest in increasing levels of productivity in workplaces.

At the time, the interest was much more likely to be based on skilled, secure and fulfilling work where humans used technology to their ends. It is, however, the reverse that’s the reality of work for too many today.

It’s too often the case that the human power to shape the world around us slips by the wayside in discussions of technology. The latter is commonly presented as developing autonomously, with skills shifting passively in response.

We are constrained by conditions that are ever-changing – and not always of our choosing. But skill is the measure of our ability to bend technology and the wider world to our purposes and determine the direction it takes. It is up to us to use it – or be used ourselves.

Dr Harry Pitts is speaking at RSA Bristol: Future of Work on Thursday 7 November. The text is based on a talk given at Millennifest Bristol. Millennifest’s organisers, the thinktank Common Vision, will also be publishing a version of this blog.