Doing things differently for sustainability

The event explored areas where intercultural research can support learning for sustainability in a wide range of spheres.

Culture and ecology are increasingly seen as mutually dependent, and indeed inseparable in achieving sustainability. Perceptions of what we can or cannot do are shaped by deeply held cultural attitudes - as a social class, a circle of friends, an ethnic group or an academic discipline. Culture is as much a part of our search for sustainable futures as the natural sciences and technological innovation.

Learning for sustainability

With these concerns in mind, researchers and practitioners from across Scotland and Ireland, representing a range of disciplinary and institutional backgrounds, from art practice to theology, marketing and marine science, gathered at Heriot-Watt last week to explore areas where intercultural research, taking place between and across different cultures, can support learning for sustainability in a wide range of spheres - from the natural and built environment to social and economic issues.

The seminar, organized jointly by Heriot-Watt's Intercultural Research Centre (IRC) and Learning for Sustainability Scotland (LfSS), attracted participants from the British Council Scotland, British Geological Survey, Central Scotland Regional Equality Council, Croich, Edinburgh College, Falkirk Council, Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Hurrel Visual Arts, ISTE, Let's Liberate Diversity, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Holywell Trust and University of Ulster, Rural Connect, SRUC Oatridge, SAMS, the Scottish Government, the Glasgow School of Art, New Earth Works, UNESCO Scotland Committee, and Vie (for life) Ltd, as well as the four local universities.

The Head of the School of Management and Languages, Professor Robert MacIntosh, welcomed the participants to the event, followed by Professor Ullrich Kockel, associate director of the IRC and a member of the LfSS Steering Group, who briefly introduced the research cluster 'Culture as Economy & Human Ecology', which was launched with this workshop.

The event showcased Heriot-Watt successfully as a place where joined-up thinking outside disciplinary boxes is happening

Professor Máiréad Nic Craith, Director Heriot-Watt's Intercultural Research Centre

Provocative perspectives

The idea of 'doing things differently' was given concrete practical expression in the format of the workshop, which did not follow the usual pattern of sets of papers followed by a brief discussion. Instead, a number of participants had been invited to offer five-minute "snapshots" of an aspect of their work. The keynote thinker, Alastair McIntosh, drawing on these 'snapshots', offered provocative perspectives in the light of the workshop's theme. Instead of a coffee break, the second part of the workshop commenced with the 'Café of Ideas'. 

Discussing, writing and drawing at small tables of four to six participants engaged with the ideas and issues presented in the first part of the workshop. A rapporteur from each table then presented the outcome of his or her group's activities, and the workshop concluded with a plenary discussion that identified priority concerns, focusing in particular on the role of researchers in the communities where they research, raising issues around the purpose and means of data collection, and highlighting an ethic of mutuality - giving back to, or otherwise involving, the community. Potential projects for joint research were suggested, and some of these are already being followed up.

Broad spectrum

Speaking after the event, Professor Máiréad Nic Craith, Director of the IRC, said: "This workshop was a great way to introduce the inter- and trans-disciplinary ethos that guides the research programme of the IRC. It also showcased Heriot-Watt successfully as a place where joined-up thinking outside disciplinary boxes is happening, not just within cognate areas but right across a broad spectrum."

Feedback was unanimously enthusiastic, and the experimental format clearly was a success, as one participant wrote: "When I first saw the programme I really wondered how it was going to work, that machine-gun fire of snapshots. However, it worked so well that I found myself last night recommending the same pattern of programme for an event."