Listening Carefully

August 10, 2016

Dr. Colin Potts,  the vice provost for undergraduate education at Georgia Tech oversees offices and programs affecting undergraduate education including the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain, the Center for Career Discovery and Development, the Honors Program, the Center for Academic Enrichment and the Center for Academic Success.

This summer, Georgia Tech served as a site for the annual Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) Conference, co-hosted by the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain, the College of Engineering, and the College of Design.  The aim of the conference was to bring together a broad group of researchers, faculty, practitioners, partners, and professional association representatives to craft a Southeast Regional agenda for more in-depth coordinated research, teaching, and action on social sustainability.  The Conference supported the Center’s goal of integrating sustainability and community engagement into research and curricula across the Georgia Tech campus.

I was one of the “keynote listeners” at the INSS conference in Atlanta in June. My job was to pay attention, take notes, and summarize several take-away messages relevant to higher education about the first day and a half of presentations and experiences. Having been instrumental in selecting Serve-Learn-Sustain as Georgia Tech’s five-year “quality improvement plan,” I had a genuine interest in the topics discussed, but because I am not a sustainability professional I had to approach the conference with what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” And having slipped into late-career, device-enabled distractibility, being forced to pay attention so diligently was both a challenge and a blessing. To me everything came down to four pairs of insights and one deafening silence. Here they are.

It’s seductive to think about “grand challenges” at an abstract and planetary level. And yet the greatest insights often start from epiphanies and encounters with little things that stick in our minds and only later spawn great ideas. This was the idea behind the first afternoon’s community field site visit of the Proctor Creek watershed, organized by the Westside Community Alliance. Proctor Creek is one of Atlanta’s Chattahoochee river tributaries. Now polluted by industrial and domestic runoff, it was once a creek that children swam in and where families baptized their babies. Near the planned Beltline, and a new park that will be over twice the area of Piedmont Park, is a disused warehouse and factory district where several cars lie unclaimed and unrecovered in the creek, having been swept there by heavy rains earlier this year. Almost covered in kudzu they are a visual parable of neglect. I left the area uplifted by the future plans we had heard about, yet chastising myself that for 24 years I had lived and worked so close to the Westside without knowing much about it.

Teachers involved in service learning and community organizers alike are suspicious of shallow engagement experiences in which students and academics swoop into a community, treat them as a “site” for some project of redemption, and then depart, feeling good but leaving their erstwhile partners to pick up the pieces. This has given eco-tourism a bad name. But low-cost, drive-by familiarization is a good place to start. SLS director, Jenny Hirsch, remarked to me that new faculty and students during their orientation to Georgia Tech should have the opportunity to explore their immediate neighborhood and let the epiphanies take hold.

Take-away message: You can learn a lot looking out of a bus window, but only if you actually look, and only if you catch the bus.

Georgia Tech has a STEM focus. It’s what we do best.  But we should beware what philosopher Des Gasper, in the shared session from London, described as “cyclopean vision” – that is, the belief that we can approach sociotechnical issues as if they were purely technical. Gasper says that ethical thinking (in the broadest sense of that word) needs to pervade the students’ classes – in technical discussions of landfill reclamation, transportation policy, and drainage, for example. To stretch the metaphor to breaking point, having a separate ethics course is just an “eye-patch.”

During this and other discussions at the conference, I was reminded of two recent prize-winning Georgia Tech student innovation projects. One was a robot dog toy. It was cool. The students were bright and engaging and had a good business plan. But was this the best we could do? And if the toy lasted only a few minutes in the company of a reasonably tenacious house pet before succumbing to its teeth and saliva, were the owners who could put up with this the people we should be encouraging our very best students to help? In contrast, the following year’s InVenture Prize winners developed a sanitary field toilet to help eradicate bacterial infections. They analyzed East African refugee camps as the most viable site for their intervention, and this caused them not only to integrate hydrology, manufacturability, and chemistry into their design, but Muslim feminine hygiene practices, too.

It’s this need to appreciate social and cultural context that separates the architectural design tradition from engineering. In engineering, we assume that students have to learn fundamentals in calculus, physics, and general chemistry before they slowly work up to real engineering problems. Architects and designers, in contrast, work on authentic studio projects right from the start and are critiqued rigorously by working professionals in their first college term. In some disciplines at Tech we’ve made great progress in narrowing this gulf and getting all students involved in the kinds of problems where culture is an issue early on. But we could do more, and the conference surfaced so many examples that made this seem an urgent need.

Take-away message: To get beyond “cyclopean vision” we need to develop engineers who have “cultural depth perception” from the very beginning.

 Westside Community leaders like Gail Mapp speak of their community with pride and a sense of belonging. She reminded us that there was a time less than four decades ago when these neighborhoods were not spoken of as targets of rejuvenation. They were relatively happy and safe. But as businesses and jobs have left, so has much of that sense of safety and community.

Social justice often gets translated into economics. To rejuvenate a community requires economic investment. But during the conference there was extensive discussion of human flourishing, and how we promote and assess it. Civil engineer Richard Wright reminded us of the “triple bottom line” and also introduced the new (to me) concept of the five forms of capital, only two of which were directly economic.

I was ambivalent about this. It’s easy for someone to look down and lecture those with more basic nutritional and safety needs that money isn’t everything. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that money is never just needed; it’s always needed for something, and it’s those somethings and the forms of wellbeing that they promote that we should be concentrating on when we think about building sustainable communities.

Take-away message: The goal is a community where people want to live. Money is just a tool to get there.

I was more surprised than perhaps I should have been by all the references to resilience and the contrasts to sustainability. I had been thinking of sustainability as the ideal that a community should persist in a steady state and that shocks should be resisted. Resilience is the more realistic concept that a community can’t repel all shocks but should be able to absorb them and bounce back or morph into something better.

There’s a more scientific language that we use when we talk about these ideas: it’s called systems theory. It was a language that got employed quite a lot during the conference. Neutral scientific language can never capture the immediacy of political and social events, and I sensed some indulgent headshaking from the more practical community members of the audience when the discussion went off into the occasional technical flight of fancy. Communities aren’t just systems, they seemed to be saying.

But there seems to be more at work than this. The problem is not just that systems theory sounds too technical and arid for real-world applications. I don’t think that that is entirely fair. It’s that for the INSS conference it was a language out of time. Systems theory came of age in the fifties and sixties, and grew out of those decades’ enormous Cold War and space race projects. That was a time of optimism, faith in scientific expertise, a commitment to the progress agenda, and fear focused on a single, common enemy. Fast-forward fifty years, and we live in a very different world. Today’s worldview is one of precariousness, skepticism about expertise and progress, fear of guerilla enemies everywhere, and the looming concern of environmental collapse. Where systems theory is clean, resilience requires a language in which messiness is a first-class phenomenon.

Take-away message: Systems language crystallizes Dr. Strangelove’s worldview. To make progress in the area of resilience we need a language that crystallizes Mark Watney’s.

In my capacity as listener there was one final thing that I heard loudly: silence. I am involved in some ongoing professional discussions about the future of higher education, and one strand of those discussions concerns the learning needs of current and future students and how they are different from Millennials, Generation X and the Boomers. Beyond stereotyping, we have to acknowledge that this generation’s pursuit of meaning in their lives, and their engagement in politics (usually on single issues, not through party machinery) marks them apart from their predecessors. They’re not slackers.

There were several exemplary students attending the conference, and I listened carefully to the discussions expecting to hear about the ways in which sustainability and resilience could be meaning-making themes in their educational programs. There was indeed much discussion about the role of higher education, but it was all faculty-led and faculty-directed: how to integrate community engagement into publishable research, for example, or how to reward professors who engage in community practice. These are not unimportant topics in the right time and place, but they are rather self-serving, tangential, and not very inspiring.

Take-away message: We academics need, metaphorically at least, occasionally to doff our academic regalia and strap guitars on our backs.

So there we have it: some take-away messages from an excellent three days. Without the trappings of experience, one can sometimes see that the emperor is naked, the elephant is back in the room, and the mountain is really a molehill. I look forward to what community members with greater experience have to say.

For additional conference materials and articles, please see our Conference Resources page.