Heat, Greed and Human Need – Prof. Ian Gough

Yesterday as part of Maynooth University’s Social Justice week, Prof. Ian Gough from the London School of Economics spoke on his new book Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing.  Prof. Gough has been working on climate change for the last 10 years, looking at the issue through the lens of capitalism and the welfare state, and drawing on his earlier work on the theory of human need.

He began by explaining that the book focuses on the following questions:

  • What are the social impacts of climate change?
  • How is capitalism driving climate change?
  • How can we improve wellbeing?

Prof. Gough suggested that climate change research is dominated by scientists and economists, and now it is time to bring in the social sciences. His book explores the intersections between economy (Greed), Society (Need) and Environment (Heat). He suggested that social policy and climate policy often ignore each other, and that we need to look at “eco-social policies”.

He contrasted between the “moral economy” and “political economy” perspectives (below), and used Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model to expand the “moral economy” model. He then outlined the main points of each section of the book.



Prof. Gough briefly outlined the science of climate change, identifying three climate policy agendas – Mitigation, Geo-engineering and Adaptation – explaining that he only focuses on mitigation.


He then discussed capitalism and the concept of “legitimate greed” as the driving force of the economic system, stressing that economic growth is the key driver of emissions. He noted that eco-efficiency has improved but has been outpaced by growing output. Prof. Gough also highlighted the difference between production-based and consumption-based emissions, explaining that richer countries consume far more emissions than they produce, while the opposite is true of countries such as China and India. He argued that it is consumption-based, not production-based emissions that matter, and explained that consumption emissions in the UK are increasing. He also introduced us to the concept of the “Plutocene”, the world’s richest 10% who are responsible for 50% of consumption emissions (below).

M4365-GOUGH_9781785365102_t (Colour).indd

Prof. Gough also argued that along with the double injustice that poorer countries suffer more from the negative impacts of climate change, there is a “triple injustice” – reducing emissions can also harm poorer groups i.e. climate policy can cause rising inequality. Rising inequality drives excessive consumption, longer working hours and more debt, which drives up emissions. It also hinders collective action to control emissions, eroding trust and solidarity. He suggested that we must move beyond “green growth” for two reasons:

  • Pragmatically – eco-efficiency will not be enough
  • Morally – issues of equity and justice are sidelined


Moving on to human needs, Prof. Gough returned to the Brundtland Report, explaining that the famous definition of sustainable development, which references the “needs” of future and present generations, contains two key concepts: Needs and Limitations, but needs are not referred to during the rest of the report. Drawing on his earlier work, he proposed that humans have three core universal basic needs in order to act and to flourish: social participation, health and autonomy. He referenced this Lancet study from 2017 on the impact of climate change on human health. Prof. Gough explained that human needs are central to sustainable wellbeing because they are:

  • Universal
  • Objective – unlike happiness
  • Plural and non-substitutable
  • Satiable and sufficient – unlike wants or preferences
  • Cross-generational

He stated that because of these qualities, needs provide a moral metric to move beyond green growth.

What can be done?

Prof. Gough explained that welfare states still perform crucial roles in meeting human needs e.g. social services, income security, which strengthen security and resilience in the face of climate change. He then outlined the various climate policy instruments e.g. carbon taxing, UK climate change act. His thesis is that we need to join up these two areas – social policy ignores climate sustainability and climate policies can be inequitable e.g. carbon pricing hurts lower income households and current UK policies to retrofit housing exacerbate fuel poverty (Hills report).

He identified three strategies towards a sustainable future, to be developed consecutively in this order:

1. Equitable green growth

  • Green new deal to retrofit the housing stock
  • Invest in low carbon public transport
  • Social tariffs for electricity, gas and water
  • Stronger policies to reduce inequality

But he cautioned that this calls for active state-steering of markets, incompatible with neo-liberal capitalism… what Naomi Klein calls the “tragedy of bad timing”

2. Recompose consumption in rich countries

  • Bring human needs and “need satisfiers” centre-stage
  • Interrogate consumer preferences and consumer sovereignty
  • Distinguish necessities and luxuries
    • Consumer demand is driven by wants and incomes
    • Bring together citizens and experts
    • Citizens’ forums that are inclusive and empowering
    • “public engagement through reasoned deliberation”
    • Must be a problem-solving process, not a way of aggregating people’s preferences
    • This happens already with the calculation of the UK Minimum Income Standards (MIS) at Loughborough University – emissions would be reduced by 37%

Eco-social policies:

  • Promote and invest in co-benefits – cycling and walking, eating less meat
  • Tax high-carbon luxuries – smart VAT, remove incentives for frequent flyers
  • Control advertising and product placement
  • Trial carbon rationing – introduce carbon cards?
  • Expand and strengthen social provision e.g. Universal Basic services – water, energy, transport, housing – improves equity and sustainability
  • Decarbonise welfare states – shrink carbon footprint of public services, upstream prevention throughout public services

3. Degrowth/post-growth – reduce total demand in rich countries

  • Can we envision a transitional strategy to such a radical future?
  • A starting point – reduce paid work time
    • Share work and reduce consumption
    • Move away from 40 hours to release time to live more sustainably

In conclusion, he called for a “new social settlement”, with sustainability goals as a central feature of eco-social policies. He closed with four imperatives:

  1. We must stay “within the lifebelt” of ecological boundaries
  2. Greening capitalism is essential but not enough
  3. It is vital to change consumption patterns in the rich world
  4. We need to find alternatives to growth itself

Sheehy Skeffington School

The Sheehy Skeffington School is an annual conference on social justice and human rights and this year the focus was on human rights and migration. The conference aims to be a bridge between human rights, academia, and activism, and featured presentations and performances by academics, activists and artists on the theme of a humane approach to migration. As chair of the first session Carol Coulter noted, the theme is not just relevant on a global scale but in Ireland too; the 2016 Census revealed that 17.3% of the Irish population was not born in Ireland.

Prof Conor Gearty of London School of Economics gave a keynote address on human rights, migration and racism. He argued that until recently, racists felt that they had to hide behind intellectual arguments, but they no longer feel the need to. He suggested that the enduring legacy of Trump will be “a vulgarisation of politics”, and that Brexit was about a hatred of “the other”. Prof. Gearty argued that there is a dangerous idea that human rights is part of one culture but not another, that human rights does not apply to other cultures because “they’re not us”, citing the example of Israel claiming to be in favour of human rights but not signing any human rights treaties.

Prof. Gearty also discussed how the language of human rights can be a “fabulous activist tool”. He advised people seeking to make people aware of the human rights implications of particular situations to “find the issue that really matters to people locally and bring in human rights, because it builds the wider support and gives a strong sense of demand”. For example, pollution is a human rights issue, it is the right to be healthy.

An activist perspective came from Edel McGinley, Director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. She highlighted that there are currently 63 million displaced people in the world, 24 million of whom are refugees. She remarked that societies need immigrants, that migration brings economic stability, and that there is a disconnect between xenophobia and racism and the needs of society. She argued that conservative voices are now seen as the middle ground and they are starting to frame the debate around migration. Edel concluded by calling for a legal framework for migration in Ireland.

Prof. Siobhan Mulally, a Professor of Human Rights Law in NUI Galway, spoke on workers rights, and how international and Irish laws interact to mitigate workers rights. She highlighted the power imbalance when employers get visas for their workers and can then threaten deportation. Prof. Mulally also drew our attention to the work of the Council of Europe on human trafficking.

Sorley McCaughey of Christian Aid spoke on the relationship between climate change and violence, looking at the relationship from both sides. He began by explaining the concept of “climate security”, where climate change is seen as a threat to global security, citing a 2014 report by the Pentagon. He noted that while the Pentagon might be defenders of climate science, they are not defenders of climate justice, and suggested that climate security and climate justice may be incompatible. Sorley made a number of points on the relationship between climate change and violence:

Does violence effect climate change?

  • Violence weakens societal structures and traditional coping mechanisms don’t work e.g. in the case of the drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011 when Somalia was more affected than neighbouring countries.
  • Violence destroys evidence of weather patterns
  • Violence can mean that aid packages e.g. for drought, get diverted from people who need them
  • He noted that climate adaptation is an inherently political process, citing the example of the Jordan Valley, where aquifiers were used as a bargaining tool in the Israeli-Palestine conflict

Does climate change effect violence?

  • There is no direct causal link, but climate change is an aggravator of the drivers of conflict
  • A 2014 IPCC report suggests that climate change will increase displacement of people
  • Climate change leads to slow onset disasters like drought, so people move more slowly e.g. looking for work
  • For example, in Syria, microfinance had been stoppped and co-operatives shut down, leaving people vulnerable when drought occured

Sorley lastly discussed the Christian Aid approach to dealing with climate change and violence, which is to develop resilience in tandem with confronting human rights issues, land rights, governance etc. He stressed that conflict resolution work will increasingly need to consider the impact of climate change.


Jeffrey Sachs on the SDGs


Pre-lecture gathering at UCD’s O’Reilly Hall

Yesterday University College Dublin presented the Ulysses medal for outstanding global contribution to Prof Jeffrey Sachs, a leading development expert from Columbia University. Prof. Sachs then gave an inspirational lecture on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs), along with a short Q&A.

Prof. Sachs was introduced by Prof. Paul Walsh, UCD’s Professor of International Development, who stressed that academia must work in partnership with government, civil society and private sector to achieve the SDGs. He discussed Prof. Sachs’ work with the UN on development economics and highlighted a quote from his book The End of Poverty: “markets cannot meet the needs of the desperately poor”.


Personalised SDG seats in O’Reilly Hall

After a brief introduction in which he stressed the role of Universities in achieving the SDGs, Jeffrey Sachs discussed what he identified as two distinct perspectives on economics:

  1. Society has the potential to produce anything – it has choices. This enables us to ask the question – what are our possibilities? e.g. could we “produce” a low carbon energy system, could we “produce” the end of poverty
  2. The market view –  the supply-demand equilibrium is the outcome of the economy. What happens is what producers and consumers want to happen, and the “invisible hand” is how resources are allocated. However, resources can be allocated in ways which result in outcomes such as poverty and pollution.

Prof. Sachs argued that we must engage with the first perspective and “remember what is possible, not just accept what is. We must ask what we should be doing to make life better for humans on the planet”. He urged us all to engage with our moral agency and not “get stuck as spectators”, remembering that the “true end goal” is human well-being, not property rights.

Prof. Sachs went on to argue that the SDGs are readily economically achievable, and our inability to achieve them is a “moral, psychological problem” rather than an economic problem. He used the example of SDG4 – Quality Education: the cost of every child in the world receiving a secondary education would be US$40 billion per annum, ostensibly a large amount. But if we add up the GDP of all the OECD nations, the total comes to c. US$50 trillion, of which the 40billion is a tiny 0.08%. Prof. Sachs noted that “we are constantly spending money on things we don’t need and yet to achieve the SDGs it would not cost more than 3% of our economy”. He added that we have 1800 billionaires in the world, who between them have US$700 trillion; arguing that “this could be done with 2000 people”.


Jeffrey Sachs speaks on the Sustainable Development Goals

In the Q&A session Prof. Sachs was first asked what he had learned from working on the UN’s Millenium Development Goals, which preceded the SDGs. He answered that “it’s hard to get the world’s attention on anything like this. Are we aware of these issues? We’re competing with a lot of things, with a lot of basketball games on television, with Kim Kardashian”. He also noted that there is a public scepticism that development aid might all be lost or misspent, stressing that we need systems that resist corruption.

Asked what Ireland must do to achieve the SDGs, his advice, which he had also highlighted earlier in his talk, was to “ask someone who knows…mobilise expertise and use it effectively”. Citing the need for renewable energy, he urged us to get experts to understand the problem, analyse it, and ask: what are the choices here? Economists can then be brought in to suggest policy e.g. carbon tax, electric taxi fleets. He also criticised Ireland’s sustainable development strategy as generic and not focused on problem-solving. We can judge for ourselves here: http://www.housing.gov.ie/sites/default/files/migrated-files/en/Publications/Environment/Miscellaneous/FileDownLoad%2C30452%2Cen.pdf

Prior to the lecture UCD held an exhibition showcasing its development education courses, including the PhD in global development (http://www.ucd.ie/hdi/education/phdinglobalhumandevelopment/) and the joint Masters in Development Practice with Trinity college, a course facilitated by 40 different universities around the world (http://www.ucd.ie/hdi/education/summaryoftcd-ucdmastersindevelopmentpractice/).

The UCD Centre for Humanitarian Action also featured and now runs a 16 month MSc. It provided us with the Irish Consultation to last year’s World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), for which it was the Secretariat. The consultation discusses six thematic areas (see below) and offers recommendations for the WHS and for the Irish Humanitarian community in relation to each area. There’s lots of info on the Centre’s website at http://cha.ucd.ie/.


Irish Consultation to the World Humanitarian Summit 2015 – Contents


Visions 2100


Earlier this week the Dublin launch was held of Visions 2100, a book which brings together the visions of 80 people, including many environmental scientists, policy-makers and campaigners, imagining what the world might look like in the year 2100 (http://www.visions2100.com/).

The book’s editor John O’Brien, entrepreneur, author and MD of his own cleantech company, envisaged the book as a way of gathering ideas on how to address climate change. Everyone is invited to share their own vision on the book’s website. In the book contributors such as Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, and Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, outline their 2100 vision in (usually) less than 200 words.


At the launch four experts spoke on climate change and their vision for the future, while John O’Brien chaired a Q&A. John Gibbons, an Irish Times journalist who hosts his own blog on climate change (http://thinkorswim.ie/) entitled his vision “The Age of Madness”, featuring a look back at 2015 as a time when “everyone was competing with everyone else – for money, resources, status”. He stressed the importance of a clear vision and suggested that Ireland has shown a lack of vision in undermining the EU 2030 climate targets.

Next was Aideen O’Hora of Sustainable Nation Ireland (http://sustainablenation.ie/), who argued that we must have a global perspective on climate change and when creating a vision for the future, citing the example of migration of people around the world. She also mentioned the EU’s Climate-KIC initiative – http://www.climate-kic.org/ – and a couple of its programs, Climathon and Climate LaunchPad. Her message was that action starts with a conversation.

Academic and activist Dr Cara Augustenborg (http://www.caraaugustenborg.com/) highlighted the importance of localised environmental and social sustainability, using the example of local food production in Cuba. She suggested that “we need to replace the consumerist dream with wellbeing, equality and connectedness”. Dr Augustenborg also drew our attention to an excellent video by GOOD magazine – If the world were 100 people, which features this infographic:


Finally, barrister and former Minister Alex White spoke of how his most difficult job when in office was persuading colleagues of the urgency of what needed to be done on climate change. He suggested that “the argument doesn’t travel very far unless people see it close to them” and that the further away the target is e.g. the year 2030 or 2050, “the more alibis people have to do nothing”. He cited a lack of political leadership as a significant issue and argued that a “great national project” is needed.

In response to a question from the audience on what needs to change for the optimistic Visions 2100 to be realised, Mr White called for a national dialogue on climate action, a forum including everyone, especially farmers. Cara Augustenborg echoed that climate change must become a “doorstep issue”, where voters urge politicians to address it. She also stated that if she was in charge of the country for a day, she would take over the media and broadcast wall to wall climate science. On the same question, John Gibbons suggested that the national curriculum needs to be rewritten, bringing climate and sustainability education into every level.

So now it’s our turn… submit your 200 word vision at: http://www.visions2100.com/#!write-your-vision/rjqdl


Inspirefest Day 2

Day 2 of the Science, Technology and Arts Festival brought us another fascinating mix of keynotes, panels and Q&As on topics broadly related to STEAM. The day was all about challenging biases, discovering new ideas, and searching for solutions to the big problems.

The Collaborative Economy

The day kicked off on the theme of the “Collaborative/Sharing Economy”, featuring a keynote by Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase and a panel discussion with Jules Coleman of on-demand cleaning company Hassle.com and Nilofer Merchant, author of Onlyness.


The panel discuss “What now for the Collaborative/Sharing Economy”

Robin Chase gave a fascinating presentation on the collaborative economy, presenting her “Peers Inc” theory, based on bringing together individual strengths and industrial strengths. She explained that we all have different strengths and that we invented organisations to do things we can’t do. The collaborative economy exploits the opportunity of “excess capacity”, whereby people share assets that already exist and are paid for e.g. cars, houses. She suggested that there are three ways to gain added value from excess capacity:

  1. Slice it e.g. Zipcar and UpWork
  2. Aggregate it e.g. AirB&B and Waze
  3. Open it up e.g. through open data (see McKinsey open data report, 2013)

Robin argued that “people and platforms are inventing the collaborative economy and reinventing capitalism”, citing companies such as Ebay, Linux, Skype, Youtube and Wikipedia, and new forms of capital such as crowdfunding. She suggested that we are moving away from industrial capitalism to a collaborative economy where the lines are blurred between private and public assets and between employee and self-employed.

duolingo    waze    BeSJ3aet

She also explained persuasively how the collaborative economy can contribute to addressing climate change, an issue for which her passion came through. Leveraging excess capacity allows us to decouple economic growth from environmental impact; AirBnB is now larger than the Hilton hotel group, but without building any hotels. We can also tap exponential learning, as in the case of education organisation Duolingo, which can help people to learn a foreign language in just 34 hours (as opposed to the college standard of 130 hours). Robin also stressed that because the collaborative economy gives us access to a diversity of peers, “the right person will appear” and this also enables real-time adoption of services. She cited the example of AirB&B in Cuba, when 2,000 rentals appeared within 6 months of the relaxing of trade relations with the US.


AirBnB Cuba

Robin Chase closed with four principles of the collaborative economy:

  • Shared networked assets deliver more value than closed assets – they can be used more efficiently or more value can be extracted from them
  • More networked minds are greater than fewer proprietary minds
  • The benefits of shared open assets are greater than the problems associated with them
  • In the sharing economy we get more than we give e.g. we can post a small piece of information on Wikipedia and we get access to a huge database of knowledge

Reiterating her passion for addressing climate change, she declared that the collaborative economy is what we need to “speed the pace of evolution to prevent revolution, to tackle climate change and inequality”.

Social Enterprise

Today featured several inspiring female social entrepreneurs. Elena Rossini is a filmaker  who focuses her work on empowering women and girls. She has made a film about the Lottie doll (lottie.com), a doll that challenges stereotypical notions of “toys for girls”. The point of the Lottie doll is that it is about what the doll does, as opposed to how it looks.


We also heard from Mary Carty, who co-founded Outbox Incubator, a social enterprise which supports girls in STEM, with fellow entrepreneur, STEMettes founder Anne-Marie Imafidon (http://outboxincubator.com/). The organisation launched last July with a program for 115 girls from 6 countries. Mary commented that “in this society, we cap the ambition of our girls, and we do it unconsciously. We want safe careers for our daughters”. She argued that the new “safety” is skills, confidence and a network. Last year’s Outbox has launched 29 companies.

Mary’s presentation was followed by an Outbox Incubator graduate, Niamh Scanlon, who was named EU Digital Girl of the Year 2015. She has already created the Apps “Autojournalist” and “Please Charge my eCar” and also mentors on the nationwide CoderDojo program. Niamh was joined on stage for a Future Leaders Q&A by several equally impressive young female STEM entrepreneurs. Vanessa Greene, fed up with the proliferation of beauty vlogs on Youtube, has started her own STEM blog looking at music and technology, while Edel Browne has founded Free Feet, which helps Parkinsons’ sufferers with tremors.


Some very very young entrepreneurs on the Inspirefest stage

The story of a social enterprise in a very different setting came from Jamila Abass, who has co-founded MFarm to help farmers to get a fair price for their crops. She observed an information gap in the supply chain; farmers and buyers were existing in two different planes and could not talk to each other, there was no communication between the informal and the formal market. Her solution was to enable direct communication between small farmers and buyers. She told us that “the African Green revolution is happening at a time when even the poorest farmer has access to a mobile phone”. Through Mfarm farmers receive texts detailing up to date market prices. They can also communicate with each other, form a co-operative and combine what they are selling, along with getting text advice from agricultural experts. Jamila also outlined how Mfarm diversified and expanded to respond to the challenges of the distributing products in Africa. To do so it also became a logistics company, collecting, packing and marketing products.

MDG : Kenya tech firm tells farmers the real price of their produce : M-Farm market place  mfarm-kenya-afrikoin-nairobi-connected-agriculture-africa-agribusiness-martin-pasquier

How MFarm collates pricing information and passes it on to farmers

Finally, Liz Jackson is the founder of The Inclusive Fashion & Design Collective, the first fashion trade association for people with disabilities. Her advocacy organisation grew out of her frustration at the lack of products made for people with disabilities. Fashion and other designers practice “universal design”, but she has conceptualised “neo-universal design”, where “you design for the exception”. In her excellent speech, she stressed that neo-universal design needs to be adopted as a business model, “not as a CSR halo”.


A section of the morning focused on Design, including a panel discussion on “Designing Human-centric Products and Services for the 21st Century” with Alan Siegel of Siegelvision, Mark Curtis of Fjord, Lorna Ross, Director of Design at the Mayo Clinic and Lara Hanlon, a designer at IBM studios. Lara highlighted the role design can play in engaging people with climate change by explaining her work on edible insects. Inspired by the challenge of food security in the face of climate change, Lara designed an education platform on “entomo” (insects as food), incorporating infographics, videos and yes, recipes (http://www.entomoproject.eu/#entomo). The panel agreed that design is crucial in making tools like this appealing to the public.

entomo_package_905  entomo_food7

Gourmet insects with Entomo

Donal Holland also introduced us to his fascinating work with “soft robotics” i.e. robotics made with soft materials, which makes them easier for humans to interact with. Robotics like this have a wide range of health applications, from helping people with neurological injuries to move their arms and legs to supporting people with heart defects. He and his colleagues have also done some STEM outreach, such as the website http://softroboticstoolkit.com/, which has since been used by over 90,000 people. The website also provides open source designs which students can use to build their own robots. The research team are building moulds using paper and 3D printer templates and have been testing these designs with kids all over the world.

Venture Capital and Investment

One of the afternoon sessions was “The Investors”, incorporating several keynote speakers and a panel discussion. Adam Quinton, founder of Lucas Point Ventures, highlighted that only 6% of venture capitalists are women. He also drew our attention to sexism in Silicon Valley (http://www.elephantinthevalley.com/). Claudia Iannazzo of Pereg Ventures called for multinationals to be stronger on diversity, to set clear diversity targets and to be more thoughtful when organising events to attract and retain employees, e.g. replacing paintballing and golf outings with more universal activities.

A potential solution to the lack of women in venture capitalism was offered by Vicki Saunders from Canada, founder of SheEO, which supports and finances female entrepreneurs (http://www.sheeo.world/). She began her keynote by questioning the current system of investing and access to capital, explaining that the speculative economy is 50 times greater than the value creation economy, capital is aggregated into a small amount of hands, and SMEs, which make up 90% of the economy, are starved of capital. How SheEO works is that, in communities around the world, 1000 women come together through an online platform, pick 10 female-owned companies in their area and give them low-interest loans. The entrepreneurs also get access to networks, expertise and buying power.

The Fringe and some closing thoughts

Off to the Fringe again on Friday evening and to a highly anticipated festival event, Zoe Philpott’s play Ada.Ada.Ada. To a full house Ada Lovelace in her LED dress explained how she wrote the program for Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” aka the world’s first computer, based on Babbage’s 5000 drawings. The performance included an audience participation exercise which aimed to recreate a basic computer circuit with string, cards and simple mathematics. The play was followed by a beautiful performance from Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan and her band.


Zoe Philpott prepares before Ada.Ada.Ada.


Lisa Hannigan performs on the Fringe main stage

In summary, an appropriately inspiring two days. A few general thoughts looking back on the conference:

  • Every conference should have a Fringe. It was wonderful to see the technical ideas we heard about during the day interpreted in an alternative and artistic way.
  • Lunch each day was excellent, and showcased some Irish food companies (see below). But it came in a lot of packaging, with not a recycling bin in sight. Although everything is recycled off-site, and extra food donated to social enterprise FoodCloud, an event like this is a great opportunity for promoting recycling at source.
  • Where was the maths (Ada Lovelace excepted)? As one delegate noted, there was a lot of focus on STE, but little M. An opportunity to get some interesting speakers in this area next year.
  • Finally, after two great days at Inspirefest, I’m no longer worried about kids getting involved in STEM and STEAM, but what about the humanities? Surely there’s an opportunity for a tie in conference next year…hopefully called “Oh the Humanities”!

Photo0017 Photo0012

Hanging out at the Fringe bar (left) and lunch (right)

Inspirefest 2016 Day 1

Today was the first day of Inspirefest, a two day conference in Dublin which describes itself as an “international festival of technology, science, design and the arts” (http://inspirefest.com/). The format is similar to a TEDx but more interactive: one stage hosts keynotes throughout the day and there are also panels and Q&A sessions. Then at 6pm everyone bundles into buses to the Inspirefest Fringe in Merrion Square for music, theatre and the interactive expo tent.

The official theme of the conference is STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) with a focus on innovation and diversity. Most of the entrepreneurs, academics and executives speaking over the two days are women. Inspirefest is the brainchild of Ann O’Dea, founder of tech news website Silicon Republic (https://www.siliconrepublic.com/), who has championed women in technology, and the inagural festival was held last year. In opening the conference, she stressed the diversity of speakers – 70% are women and many are from very different backgrounds. She noted the richness and depth of conversation that diversity can bring, and encouraged attendees to look at the diversity on stage and think: “wouldn’t it be a good idea if that was the same in my organisation”.

Disclaimer: there were so many amazing speakers on the day and unfortunately I haven’t got the chance to mention them all, but hopefully the below gives an idea of what went on!


“The world needs curiosity, it needs understanding, it needs knowledge” – Enda Kenny opens Inspirefest

Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave the opening address, speaking of the importance of diversity and of supporting women in STEM. He stressed the role of the STEM careers program in secondary schools and noted that “the gendering of certain careers continues – STEM subjects are still seen by many girls as being for boys only”.


Education and diversity, and diversity in education, were the focus of much of the day, with speakers and panels on STEM and STEAM. In a panel discussion on “Building an Inclusive Education System in STEM”, Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland, raised the issue of quotas to increase the number of women applying for research funding. He and Chair Ann O’Dea agreed that without a level of positive discrimination, talented women will remain “hidden” in the system.  Good news came from Christine Loscher, Research Director at Dublin City University, who announced that DCU is renaming all of its buildings, and 50% will be named after women. She also highlighted that female students at third level need to see that other women hold key decision-making positions in the University, to know that “it’s possible”.

STEM career stereotypes also came up, with Mark Ferguson pointing to a survey which revealed that the number one factor for secondary school students when deciding what job they want is that they will “fit in”. Equally, parents want the same thing for their children. He suggested that we need to challenge the stereotype of a scientist as a man in a white coat with “slightly mad hair”, or, as Ann O’Dea pointed out, the idea many girls and young women have that they are “hopeless” at maths.


How do we get away from the “mad scientist” stereotype?

One woman who challenges those stereotypes is Zoe Philpott, who took the stage to talk about education in STEAM, and particularly her projects to link technology and the arts. Despite being told by a University tutor that she shouldn’t do coding because she was the “artistic type” and “a girl”, she immediately set up a dotcom on graduation. Since then she has worked in various creative ways to foster science education through technology and art, via projects including robots, crowd games and a collaborative event with the charity Girl Effect, which recreated for users the experience of a young women growing up living with poverty in Ethiopia. Her performance piece Ada.Ada.Ada., which takes its inspiration from Ada Lovelace, inventor of coding, will take place as part of the Inspirefest Fringe on the evening of Friday 1st July.

Adalovelace    Girl-Effect-Live-Walk-with-me

Ada.Ada.Ada. (left) and an installation from “Girl Effect live” (right)

Zoe also took part in a panel discussion on “STEAM: The Convergence of Tech and Arts”, along with Noel Murphy of Intel and Nora O’Murchu of the Interactive Design Centre in University of Limerick.  The panel considered the “productive convergence of Science, Technology and the Arts”, or what Ada Lovelace called “poetic science”. As Zoe Philpott explained, with the “triptych of arts, science and mathematics, you can come up with visions greater than what we see before us”. She also used the “stone soup” story (http://www.michaelppowers.com/prosperity/stonesoup.html) to illustrate that when working on interdisciplinary projects people can cut through discipline-specific jargon by concentrating on the task itself.

The panel also noted that, in Art-Industry collaborations, the artist must maintain authenticity within the corporate context. Nora O’Murchu gave a fascinating example of this in the form of the “Empathy Machine” created by artist Joanna Hopkins – http://www.joannahopkins.com/#!the-empathy-machine/c14u3. The artist created a pop-up booth with a virtual avatar that, in the style of a therapist, would ask anyone who entered how they were feeling. However, to illustrate that “technology is not the answer”, the Empathy Machine was deliberately flawed, the message being that what is most important is the well-being of society and the humane way we must look at the world. See more about Joanna Hopkins’ work here:


Throughout the day we heard from a number of social entrepreneurs and activists who are working to promote equality and diversity. Alexandra Bernadotte is the founder of Beyond 12 (http://www.beyond12.org/), an organisation which aims to increase the percentage of lower income students graduating from college in the US by supporting students at the intersection between school and college. She highlighted that in the US, only 8% of individuals from the lowest income quartile can expect to earn a Bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties, compared to 82% in highest income quartile. Based on her experience of growing up in Haiti and ultimately graduating from Dartmouth and Stanford, she observed a considerable gap in the standard required at school and at University; schools were producing students that were “college eligible, but not college-ready”. Beyond 12 works at three levels, Track, Connect and Coach (see below). Alexandra stressed the role of technology in supporting a social enterprise; it allows Beyond 12 to “amplify” the work it is doing.


Beyond 12’s approch to bridging the gap between school and University for low-income students

Mid-morning featured several fascinating keynotes on “Change Through the Power of Social Media”. Lian Bell of Waking the Feminists (http://www.wakingthefeminists.org/) shared how she used social media to gain support for her campaign for equality and economic parity for all people working in theatre. Sinéad Burke, blogger and PhD student, (http://minniemelange.com/) explained how social media enabled her to bypass people judgement of her physical appearance. Frustrated with the media’s tendency to define women according to what they wear or who their partner is, she began to interview inspirational women on her blog. Sinéad has secured interviews with many famous women by promising that “I won’t ask you about your husband, your children, how you achieve a work-life balance and what you wear to work”.

How women are portrayed in the media was a thread taken up by Judith Williams, Global Head of Diversity at Dropbox. She drew our attention to unconscious bias; when we see someone who is “like us”, for example when reviewing a job application, we immediately get a good feeling and are more likely to hire them. Judith pointed out that, as recently as 2013, 83% of Google doodles featured men, who were chosen as significant contributors to science. Now that they have broadened the criteria to include people who contribute to society, the ratio is 50:50. Furthermore, as Alexandra Bernadotte also pointed out, diversity is not just about women. Judith Williams illustrated this point using the example of Louboutin “nude shoes”, which were recently made in a variety of colours after an employee pointed out that her legs were not beige.Google-Doodle

A diverse Google doodle


Nude, not beige, Louboutin shoes

Diversity at work was one of the afternoon’s unofficial themes. In a panel discussion on “Workplace Diversity and Inclusion”, Ellyn Schook of Accenture implored delegates to not only use our own voices to create change in our organisation, but also to listen to other people’s voices. She outlined how an Accenture employee was the catalyst for the company’s new policy of allowing parents – both mothers and fathers – to work from home for a year after birth or adoption. Judith Williams urged that we need to “be allies to people who are different from us”

In a panel discussion on Board Participation and Executive Leadership, Lauren States, Harvard Leadership Fellow, stressed that diversity, in bringing different perspectives to a problem, boosts innovation and competitiveness. Raju Narisetti, a Senior VP at NewsCorp, stressed that female representation at Executive level is a significant issue: more companies in the S&P 1500 have CEOs called John than CEOs who are women. Diversity has also been a focus for Enterprise Ireland, and CEO Julie Sinnamon explained that through their work, 22% of start-ups are now founded by women, compared to 7% before this work began. The panel agreed that there are not enough women at middle and top management level.

The focus on business continued with Katherine von Jan of Salesforce, who spoke of how people can maximise their potential at work. She suggested that “retention tactics” e.g. yoga at lunchtime, foosball tables,  which have become popular, particularly in tech companies, and are often much lauded, actually “create a mousetrap that holds you in the job you’ve outgrown, to keep things more efficient for the organisation”. These retention tactics, she argued, limit the potential of employees. Monica Parker, founder of HATCH, also spoke of job satisfaction, using her company’s research to illustrate that “we have created a culture that worships at the altar of overwork”. She also highlighted that a sense of community with the people we work with is essential for job satisfaction.

Inspirefest Fringe

Turning to the evening program, the Fringe festival in Merrion Square kicked off with ResearchFest, supported by the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, where eight PhD students were given the opportunity/terrifying task of explaining their research in simple terms in three minutes, with (the caveat that strikes fear into the heart of every academic) NO SLIDES. All of the presentations were brilliant and the winner was Shauna Flynn of DCU, who used the analogy of lego blocks to explain how she is working on maximising the amount of transistors on a computer chip. Quite an achievement considering the actual title of her PhD is: “Plasma based surface nano-patterning of semiconductor materials using block copolymer lithography”.


The ResearchFest presenters – eventual winner Shauna Flynn fourth from right

This was followed by a performance by Echo Brown of her stunning play Black Virgins are not for Hispters (http://www.helloechobrown.com/). The play is far broader than the title suggests; it is a compelling story of race, gender, self-worth, inequality, and urban poverty, and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Finally, we were played out by  all-female Bray trio Wyvern Lingo. Come back tomorrow for Friday’s report, featuring Tech, Finance and more Fringe!


Wyvern Lingo on the Inspirefest Fringe stage


The bucolic surroundings of Dublin’s Merrion Square

Sustainability and Business in Costa Rica and Cuba

MSc Business students here in University College Dublin recently took a trip to Costa Rica and Cuba to study “Reputation, Business and Society” in these two very different countries. Today they presented their experience of “Eco-tourism in Costa Rica”, “Sustainability in Business” in Costa Rica, “State-owned companies in Cuba” and “Private Business and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Cuba”, wich revealed some fascinating insights.

Eco-tourism is a major industry in Costa Rica, which is the most biodiverse region in the world. 50% of all tourism in the country is eco-tourism and 25% of the country is a preserved area. Costa Rica uses its Certification for Sustainable Tourism programme as a benchmark for hotels and resorts (http://www.visitcostarica.com/ict/paginas/sostenibilidad.asp?tab=1). Some of the hotels the students visited included Eco Termales Fortuna, where the infrastructure is made of recycled waste and melted plastic, and El Faro, the world’s first “container hotel”, constructed from used shipping containers. The students highlighted that the focus on eco-tourism encouraged Costa Ricans to be environmentally conscious themselves, but noted the negative impact of the construction of hotels and resorts on the environment.

El Faro – the “container hotel”

El Faro under construction

To explore “Sustainability in Business”, students visited a number of sustainability-focused enterprises in Costa Rica. At Doka Estate Coffee (http://dokaestate.com/), which now supplies Starbucks, 25% of the land is planted with banana crops along with coffee, to encourage biodiversity. Villa Vanilla spice plantation (http://www.rainforestspices.com/) practices “biodynamic farming”, whereby a farm aims to operate as a “unified sustainable ecosystem” and the ingredients used must come directly from the farm. Reinventing Business For All (http://www.grupo-rba.com/) is a local business consulting firm which aims to bring together the public sector, private sector and communities. What the students did not look at, however, was the environmental implications of the vanilla and coffee products after they leave the plantations e.g. packaged, flown to Europe, disposable coffee cups. This highlights the importance of taking a life-cycle approach when considering the challenges of “sustainable business”, as this article (Lamberton, 2000) shows: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1045235499904756.

Doka Coffee Estate

Spices drying at Villa Vanilla

On to state-run business in Cuba, where the students spoke of Cubana Airlines, Havana Club and La Corona cigar factory. They began with some basic facts: 75% of economic activity in Cuba is generated by state-owned enterprises or government investments and spending. This is a decrease from 95% in 1990. As of 2013 there were 73% of Cubans working in the public sector, down from 83% in 2005. The average basic salary is 20-25CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) per month, roughly equivalent to US$20-25, and healthcare and education is free. The students noted, however, that workers in the La Corona cigar factory can earned up to 90CUC per month. A dual currency system is in operation in Cuba, with 1CUC equivalent to 24CUP (Cuban Pesos). Locals use CUP, but this is very difficult for foreigners to get hold of, and they usually use CUC.

Preparing tobacco leaf at La Corona cigar factory

The students concluded that not all of the state companies were run in the same way, with employees more empowered to make decisions in La Corona and Havana Club than Cubana Airlines. In relation to the latter, no figures on revenue or employees were available, but the airline does state that it aims to achieve profitability not in excess of its competitors, but “at the same level of our competitors”, a goal which struck the MSc student presenting as “very strange”. (He could do with reading this: https://www.amazon.com/Prosperity-without-Growth-Economics-Finite/dp/1849713235). On that note the students did point out in their summary that among the Cubans they encountered, they observed that “relationships and happiness are more important than money”.

Private Cuban taxi

Benetton shop in Havana

Finally, we learned of private business and FDI in Cuba, with a particular focus on the restaurant and taxi industries. Both industries were reformed shortly after Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl came into power in 2008 and Havana in 2016 has over 2000 private restaurants, as opposed to just 75 in 2010. Only state-run taxis are allowed to transport foreigners, but private taxis frequently risk the fines to do so. Transporting foreigners contributes to making taxi driving a lucrative profession, with some taxi drivers earning up to US$60 per day. FDI in Cuba is still strictly regulated, despite 2014’s Foreign Investment Act. This act provides for joint ventures and Full Foreign Ownership. In the case of the former, generous tax breaks are given i.e. no tax for the first 8 years of operation, while in the case of the latter, there are taxes of 15-50%. Havana Club was given as an example of a joint venture and Benetton as Full Foreign Ownership. Since 25th May 2016, private SMEs have been legalised, but what an SME is or the terms under which it operates have not yet been defined. Interesting times ahead for this man:

Raúl Castro


Food Cloud and technology for good

Here’s some good news about how technology can be a force for social good, in the form of some case studies on apps “solving local problems”. It features an app that reunites refugees with their family, one that supports farmers in Botswana, and, amazingly, an app invented by 12-13 year old (yes!) schoolgirls in India that notifies neighbours when it’s their turn to collect water, thus avoiding time-consuming queues and allowing them to focus on their education


The article also features Irish social enterprise FoodCloud, which connects businesses with extra food to charities that need it. FoodCloud is currently competing in Virgin’s VOOM contest to win funding to grow its business; vote for it to win here:


Creating the UN SDGs – Prof. Paul Walsh UCD

Last week was Sustainable Development Goals Awareness week at UCD, an initiative of the college of Health Sciences. While most of the presentations were health-focused, with strong input from the UCD School of Medicine, the week was launched with a fascinating presentation by Prof. Paul Walsh, Professor of International Development Studies, who spoke on the role of UCD in contributing to the SDGs.

Prof. Walsh, senior advisor at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), had an active role in the SDG development process, and was able to give us a fascinating insight into how the goals were generated.

Prof. Walsh suggested that, while the preceding Millenium Development Goals were top-down, the SDGs were a joint effort by developed and developing countries. Many different groups were involved in the process, including civil society, academics, NGOs and the private sector. The major groups involved are listed at sustainabledevelopment.un.org/majorgroups.

Everything was up for grabs in the creation of the goals, from the name of each goal to the target dates. For example, a proposed goal entitled “Family” was not included as people could not agree on the defintion of a “family”. Prof. Walsh also expressed his disappointment with the target date of 2030, which he felt removed a much-needed sense of urgency. In total, there are 17 goals and 169 targets, summarised in the above gif and also the below, which he noted was a marketing tactic, as people were struggling to remember the 17 goals.

Finally, Prof. Walsh spoke of the role of Universities in supporting the SDGs. He highlighted UCD’s work in developing countries and spoke of the need for private sector involvement and multi-stakeholder partnerships. He also had a last, valuable, piece of advice for any academics eager to move in policy circles: “people don’t like the word ‘academic’… ‘science’ is OK”.

Prof. Walsh’s recent TED talk on the SDGs is available here: http://www.tedxfulbrightdublin.ie/speakers/patrick-paul-walsh/