The liveable and learning city

Outside the hotel in Copenhagen where I stayed last week there was an ”outdoor gym”, basically three multi-function installations. They could be used – for free – in different ways. At one time there was a small group of Chinese, probably on some kind of business visit, sitting on them; the next my seven year-old daughter were climbing, hanging and testing their functions.

Such outdoor gyms have become quite popular in many urban surroundings, not least at coastal cities’ beaches or in parks where runners can add some exercises to the jogging routine. They form a kind of what Jan Gehl, renowned Danish architect, calls ”invitations”, that are important for every policy-maker that wants to support a particular behavior. The amazing number of bikers in Copenhagen – people who choose bike rather than cars or public transport – is partly a result of the city’s wish to actually support biking, by building bicycle lanes and making it easier and safer to use a bike.

The liveable city was discussed during a well visited and appreciated session at the ESOF conference in Copenhagen last week, arranged by Julie Sommerlund at the University of Copenhagen. Jan Gehl was accompanied in the panel of speakers by David Page, Carl-Johan Sundberg and Martha Karrebæk.

Urban Liveability Panei at ESOF: left to right Jan Gehl, Martha Sif Karrebæk, Carl Johan Sundberg and David Page.

Bikes and exercise are also kind of invitations to learning, to get the idea that this is probably good for you. I have no idea if it works, and if it can be measured — but it would be interesting to explore the learning opportunities that may be built into urban planning and design.

Can we design for gender equality, tolerance and and an open society? Can planning contribute to learning and interest in health, science or climate change?

The discussion in Copenhagen added some clues to these questions, including David Page’s concerns that planning tends to be more focussed on creating cities that look like each other, and Martha Karrebæk‘s observations of how people’s dialects tend to change years before they actually move (to Copenhagen) as well as Carl Johan Sundberg‘s thoughts about culturally supported health effects.

I left the session with a feeling that this was an important session. As I understood it, many others felt the same way.


Akademgorodok and the Silicon Taiga

In May 2014, I had the opportunity to visit Siberia, and Novosibirsk to participate in the Novosibirsk Science Festival. It all took place in Akademgorodok, the scientific city embedded in the Siberian forest, some 30 kilometers south of Novosbirsk.

Founded in 1957 it has been the home to tens of thousands of Soviet and Russian scientists, covering a wide range of disciplines.

The Siberian Branch of the Academy of Science was formed at the same time, and its first chairman was Mikhail Lavrentyev, who also was the driving force behind the Akademgorodok. It was necessary to form a scientific centre in Siberia, not least for the industry and the exploitation of the vast natural resources.

L V Kantorovich, who received the Prize in Ecnomic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1975, came to Novosibirsk in 1960, and mentioned in his Nobel speech that ”conditions for new scientific directions were especially favourable

The 1990′s brought many changes and challenges; to adapt to a situation where the state funding decreased or disappeared, and trying to create a more market-oriented profile. However, with a fortunate focus on high tech and communication technology, many IT companies were founded or decided to set up branch offices in Akademgorodok. And the ”Silicon Taiga” is now a reality.

On the bottom floor in one of the many worn out residential buildings from the 1960′s and 70′s, Anastasia Blizniuk has created her own home museum. Her parents – both scientists – were two of the first members of the local scientists’ club in Akademgorodok. Ms Blizniuk, herself an employee of IBM, has collected a large number of things and memories of the USSR in the 50′s. 60′s, 70′s and 80′s, including the club’s banner and first membership cards, and other things from her parents lives.


From Anastasia Blizniuk’s home museum. Below: Siberia Botanical Garden

Towards the Competent Rebel

I have been asked to participate in a panel of speakers at the upcoming Ecsite conference in the Hague 22-24 May, to talk about Social Inclusion and Innovation in Science Communication.

There are some important words in the presentation of this session.

In particular these ones: “Allow under-served audiences to invent their own approach to science”.

But first of all some words about “inclusion”, what it is, what it could be and what it is not.

In Urban Planning, the participation of citizens may actually be something that is in the law. However, sometimes this participation has turned out to be little more than having the opportunity to see an exhibition or some posters, or take part in a meeting – at the end of the planning process.

Arnstein's Ladder

Sherry Arnstein published as early as 1969 an often quoted article about the “Ladder of Citizen Participation”. The bottom rungs represent some kind of “non-participation”, i.e. activities that have been designed in order to “teach” or manipulate. In the middle are events that allow citizens’ voices to be heard, but without any real influence. At the top are rungs illustrating contexts where power actually is shared with citizens.

To some extent, a similar process and development may be seen in communicating science. It used to be a knowledge gap that was supposed to be filled by relevant information, and is now part of the Responsible Research and Innovation context where communication and dialogue are key words.

All of this is fine. Things are going in the desired direction. Urban planners and researchers are aware of the need to involve the public, however with varying degrees of enthusiasm. And people like us are doing our best to be visible, also in “under-privileged” areas.

The question is this: are we unintentionally doing our audience a disservice by excluding the option to invent their own approach  to science?

There is some support for this thought.

John Falk: organizing the learning experience is not only the responsibility of the museum; it has to be shared with the visitor. Or as Yuri Castelfranchi put it at the recent PCST conference: Science museums BY the indigenous, not FOR or ABOUT.

Vaike Fors, a Swedish researcher, writes in her doctoral thesis called “The Missing Link”: It is a myth that teenagers lack an interest in science; it is the design of the exhibits that fails to provide a creative environment for learning.

And more important: Vaike Fors points at the risk of being too adapted; the exhibition leaves no room for the visitors to decide for themselves what it is about, and what it can be used to. As some comfort – it was not the content the teenagers found uninteresting – it was the presentation.

(This thesis was presented a few years ago, and as far as I remember, Vaike was invited to several conferences at that time to talk about it – so you may have heard it before).

EU/Social inclusion of youth: “—internalisation of these rights comes a sense of empowerment that can help young people to realise their potential”. This is being implemented in recommendations for policy making; to empower and improve self-esteem by various measures – not specifically defined.

I guess all of us have anecdotes about seeing or experiencing how people – kids, students, young people, older people – approach an exhibit or an event. I have spent hours observing, and from those random observations, the references above seem to be correct or at least on the right track. We need, however, more data. More studies, more people saying this in a confident way. But this conclusion is also true:

The fact that we are part of the solution does not mean that we are not also a  part of the problem.

That brings us quickly to the second question:  what can we do about it?

I think there are at least two or three things we can do. First we need to understand what it is that research says about this, are they right or are they wrong? Do their results make sense and compare to our own experiences and observations? And at the same time, we need to draw attention to the situation – through panel discussions, newsletters and other forums to share our thoughts, ideas, initiatives, experiences and plans.

Within Eusea, European Science Events Association we’re planning for a series of sessions and workshops, starting at the Annual Conference this year in Copenhagen, 21-22 June 2014, in connection with ESOF 2014.


Citizen Science

Citizens who initiate, participate in or actually do the research are all engaged in citizen science, a little bit depending on which definition is used. However, the term can also mean that scientists participate in societal issues or citizens that work with policy makers to influence the research agenda.

This makes it somewhat complicated to understand the idea of citizen science. The only common characteristic is that citizens somehow are involved, as initiators, producers or just recipients of new knowledge. Or of the benefits of new knowledge.

First, there are a some uses of ”citizen science” that just may be characterized as a top-down approach. It is about inviting, encouraging, asking, people to take part in research projects in their own capacity as observers and/or owners of computing resources (i.e. a laptop). Starting with the search for intelligent life in space, members of the public have been asked to participate in quite a few projects. Scientific American published an extensive list of projects that in one way or another have been using external support from citizens.

However, there are also some encouraging support for a more bottom-up version of citizen science; the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States offers grants for community initiatives concerning e.g. air and water quality studies.

The science shop movement may be useful as a starting point. Science shops may be different in the way they work, but there is something, as far as I understand, that has to do with tools – tools for citizens to understand and use science, and tools that researchers have, that can be used to work on the questions from the public. The recently held Living Knowledge conference in Copenhagen emphasized the need to recognize civil society organizations as producers of knowledge and partners in research and innovation.

In one sense, the shops provide the tools, in the other they represent the public concerns so the research tools can be used. The Science Shop in Bonn, Germany, is one good example.

Citizens who initiate research activities can also do it their own way. L’Atelier des Jours a Venir, in Paris, France, tells the story of how young people in Barcelona rather quickly gets the agenda together, and with a little support in terms of research tools and protocols can get started on projects and research questions that are relevant to them.

These are all stories worth telling, and reflecting upon. When the first generation of ”Responsible Research and Innovation” and ”Science with and for Society” projects are going to be reviewed and possibly funded, the citizen participation perspective should not be forgotten.


From Liquid Nitrogen to Social Inclusion, Scientific Culture and Reflection

The European Science Events Association was formed in 2001 by a group of science festival organizers from different European countries. Today, the association has about 100 members in almost 40 countries, including some outside Europe, like Israel, Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Georgia.

The 100 members constitute quite a diverse community. Festivals and events organisations, universities, science centres and museums, NGO’s private companies and other institutions together form a network of people dedicated to events, engagement and communication between public, science and policy-makers.

Looking back at the 13 years, there are some characteristics of a few different periods.

The first 3-4 years were spent on “mapping”, finding out what similarities and differences that could be seen among the members. The “white book” was published in 2005, describing some 20 festivals and events around Europe, regarding objectives, stakeholders, content, marketing, organisation, funding, media and other criteria.

This was a useful exercise and it gained a lot of interest. The book can still be downloaded from the Eusea website, even though the need for updates is becoming more and more urgent.

The work on the white book also brought an interest from the participating events to exchange events and activities between them, not least to get a wider European participation in the local events.

The WONDERS project was accepted and funded by the European Commission for two years, 2006 and 2007. The second year 31 members participated by sending their “best events” to another event, and by receiving an event from another member, to be included in the local programme. All of these activities were presented under the WONDERS signature, and all of them were presented at final events at Heureka, Finland, in 2006 and at the Pavilion of Knowledge in Lisbon in 2007.

This was all very good, and created strong links between members all over Europe. However, at a closer look, it turned out that some of the “best events” are based on the same knowledge, e.g. DNA extraction. Or the potential use of liquid nitrogen.

The 2WAYS project, 2008-2010, thus added a dimension of actually developing new presentations of on-going life science research, and a series of completely new activities were produced, including games, plays, and interactive experiments.

The same project also introduced the Young Europeans Science Parliament, thus adding the dialogue and participation into the events. Young people from 30 cities took part in local parliaments, discussing life science issues such as stem cells and access to genetic information, in committees and hearings, with a resolution handed over to local policy-makers in the end. A final parliament was organised for representatives from all countries in the European Parliament in Brussels.

The most recent step in this development from “mapping” to “networking” and “new formats” is the “participation” and “policy-making” dimensions.

In 2010, the PLACES project started as a 4-year project, coordinated by Ecsite, the science center and museums network, with Eusea and ERRIN, the European Regions’ Research and Innovation Network, as main consortium partners.

The primary objective has been to develop the network and understanding between policy-makers, science and the public. 65 cities and regions have taken part, forming local “City Partnerships” to develop policies for science communication and promoting the “City of Scientific Culture”. The final conference, in Bremen in March this year, brought almost 150 cities together. Mayors and other leaders from 40 cities have signed the PLACES declaration, thus acknowledging the importance of evidence-based policies and public access to science, in order to promote a successful development of the city or region.

Social inclusion is one of the issues that has been discussed the most, not only in the PLACES project, but also among members of Eusea. Interesting projects have been carried out in the suburbs of Paris, in former Yugoslavia, in Palestine and other places where conflicts between people are part of their everyday lives. And it turns out that science – with different opinions and challenging the authorities are parts of the context – may be a valuable contribution to building capacities and citizenship.

Finally, the PLACES project has made it visible to many of us in the science communication community that “reflection” is necessary. We need to think about how to improve the communication, the inclusion, and the engagement – the activities of the project point at needs to understand each other better: what works and what doesn’t?

This was basically the content of a presentation at the Science Center World Summit at Technopolis in Mechelen, Belgium, 18 March 2014


Research doping

This week the names of the Nobel Laureates 2012 have been published, immediately followed by storms of congratulations, interviews and invitations. The attention is of course well deserved. But imagine if the first caller were the anti-doping authorities, wanting to make sure that no drugs had been used to do all the creative research work.

By coincidence, this happens the same days as the US Anti-doping agency claims Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories as at least partly the result of a professional and most sophisticated doping program, involving a large number of people, including other team members. (Washington Post)

Making the brain work better through the use of drugs is nothing new. It seems that a surprising number of people in research actually use various drugs to improve their cognitive capacities.  Medications that are developed for persons with sleeping problems or with difficulties to focus and concentrate, such as ADHD patients, seem to be the most common. As many as one in five may have taken drugs for ”non-medical purposes”, according to an informal Nature survey from 2008. Wired magazine asked their readers about their habits, as a follow up.

Also younger students, tempted to boost their capacities before an exam, are among the users. This places the ethical discussion in focus: should it be prohibited, allowed or even encouraged? I don’t know, but I instinctively dislike the idea of using medications if they are not really needed.

Luckily, there are also less dangerous, completely legal and very cheap ways to better brain performance. Swedish research teams at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg have studied the effects of diets, exercise and social activities on brain health. Turns out that workouts, a diet including fish, cultural activities and a rich social life are great for the brain. Young adults who exercise tend to have an higher IQ and are more likely to go on to university studies than their less fit friends, according to an article by Maria Åberg and colleagues in PNAS in 2009. (The University of Gothenburg wrote about it in its magazine, GU-spegeln – in Swedish)

And of course, I am NOT, absolutely NOT, saying that I suspect the distinguished laureates of anything. It just happened to be this week, and the analogy with the sports world came to my mind.

So let’s invite some friends for a salmon dinner, have some fun, and celebrate them all, including of course also Mo Yan, the literature laureate.

Onsala, 11 October 2012