I’ve just come from the Library, having been invited to join colleagues in a day long strategy workshop, led by a nice bloke called Ken Chad. Throughout the day, we discussed library users’ needs, took a pragmatic view in assessing the work to be done, looked at the barriers we face and some potential solutions. One of the contributions I made was around the benefits of getting to know the users of our Library better and using that knowledge to further improve our library services. There’s nothing remarkable about that. What got me thinking throughout the day was a brief discussion about the role of surveys in soliciting feedback on the services we provide. It got me thinking about some reading I’ve been doing recently around ‘resilience theory’ and a key component of resilience theory is learning from feedback so as to adapt and survive. Resilience theory is a branch of the ecological sciences that “emphasizes non-linear dynamics, thresholds, uncertainty and surprise, how periods of gradual change interplay with periods of rapid change and how such dynamics interact across temporal and spatial scales” (Folke 2006). Folke lists the attributes of a resilient social-ecological system as:
the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still remain within the same state or domain of attraction,
the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization (versus lack of organization, or organization forced by external factors), and
the degree to which the system can build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.
It’s the last point that interests me here. That is, the degree to which something has the capacity to learn and adapt. So, resilience theory is a theory of learning, adaptation and change. It’s not a theory of preservation but rather one of sustainability. Hopkins (2008) has likewise summarised the ‘ingredients’ of resilient systems as:
Tightness of feedbacks
I think resilience theory is a theory which can be usefully applied to eco-systems, single organisms, individuals, even library systems. Anything that has an interest in longevity or sustainability in the face of inevitable change. So it seems to me that the use of surveys is an implicit admittance of failure in terms of knowing the people who you are surveying.
In our relationships we don’t issue quarterly or annual surveys to find out what people think about us. As I said in the workshop, I’ve never surveyed my wife. I listen to her, I get to know her as she changes and I change, adapt and respond to her needs. This is what it’s like to fall in love. In my experience, you meet someone and the first few months are a concentrated effort to get to know that person. Long days and late nights, talking to each other, discovering connections, sharing ideas and ideals, each person looking for a sense of surprise and delight as we unfold our lived experience in front of each other. In other words, we get to know that person and at the point or the period of falling in love, we commit ourselves to continually learning more about that person, listening to them, taking their feedback and adapting ourselves, growing old together. A relationship where neither or only one person takes on this commitment to listen, learn and adapt is, frankly, living hell.
And in a way, that’s what the most successful online services are engaging in. I’ve never been issued a survey from Google or Amazon. They don’t need to survey me, because they’ve been learning about me, with every click, every purchase, every email, every movement and decision they can track. ((I completely neglect to discuss privacy issues here. Needless to say, falling in love is quite different to being stalked.)) And using that feedback, that learning, they’ve adapted their services to respond to what they think are my needs. ((Sometimes they impose features on users and the technology can drive our actions and create artificial needs, and many of us recognise this manipulation or domination of the technology and begin to reject it, calling off the relationship. Sometimes people can become subservient in the relationship, too.)) The ‘tightness of feedbacks’, as Hopkins puts it, is essential to long-term friendships, marriages and, yes, the sustainability of library services. We need to get to the point where the feedback we receive from surveys is not necessarily perfect (what relationship is?), but is no longer of any use to us, because we already know what library users need, enjoy and are interested in. By creating a library system that learns from every person who uses it and adapts over time to the environment it is part of, we create a resilient and therefore a sustainable library system that its users fall in love with.
Open forms of HE are crucial in our overcoming of socio-economic disruption, and in framing spaces for personal and communal resilience. A key role for open curriculum development is the critique of hegemonic discourses and the contexts in which they emerge so that they can be challenged, and so that co-governance as well as co-production can be enabled and tested. A key role for technology, in a world of increasing uncertainty, where disruption threatens our approaches, is to enable individuals to engage in authentic partnerships, in mentoring and enquiry, and in the processes of community and social governance and action.
There is still a risk that the provision of frameworks for free associations between individuals will leave some people marginalised, and the creation of appropriate contexts that spark or forge opportunities for participation is pedagogically critical. Equally, the tensions evoked within institutions around, for instance: the ownership of technology; the openness of networks and practices; the structures of management data; engagement with communities at scale; and the validation/accreditation of curricula; need to be addressed. Despite these tensions, the capacity of technology to improve the opportunities for people to work together to shape and solve problems, and to further their critical understanding of themselves and of the world they live in, is significant.
Technology underpins the development of an open curriculum for resilience in three key areas.
I. The enhancement of student-agency, in producing both relationships within and across open communities, and open, socially-situated tasks is important. The student’s power-over the tools she uses and her power-to negotiate agreed socio-cultural norms is fundamental here, although issues to do with social anxiety, difference, self-conception and allegiance within closed groups, and the marginalisation of certain users, form potential risks. However, a modular approach to the use of technology for agreed tasks in meaningful networks is one aspect of defining resilience.
II. Re-framing HE experiences as open, in order to allow learners to test their self-concept is critical. Educational technologies offer an array of supportive networking contexts where learners can model practice and self-expression. Formative development is ongoing and demands a range of open engagements on a range of tasks with a range of roles in a range of networks. This diverse learning approach is a second aspect of defining resilience.
III. Feedback for learning from multiple perspectives underpins authentic personal development. Technologies facilitate near real-time feedback and enable the student to recognise the impact of her actions, which is a third aspect in the definition of resilience.
In this tripartite approach, the production and re-use of artefacts is of secondary importance to the social relationships that are re-defined by educators and students, and the focus on people and values that is in-turn assembled through open education (Lamb, 2010). In overcoming alienation and disruption, a resilient open education enables us to critique institutionalised forms of education. The challenge is to develop such a critique.
Following a few months of research and writing about energy, climate change and future scenarios for Higher Education, I’m pleased to write that Richard Hall and I have recently had two workshop proposals accepted based on the idea of ‘Resilient Education’. There are minor differences between the two workshops, based on the anticipated participants, but the outline below, accepted for the ALTC2010 conference, is broadly representative of both. We’re hoping that we’ll not only raise awareness about the possible impacts of Peak Oil and the recently introduced Climate Change Act on the form and provision of Higher Education, but also learn from participants about ways that the sector might become more resilient to the the legislative, economic, societal and technological impacts that we face.
Is Higher Education’s use of technology making it more ‘efficiently unsustainable’?
When we speak of ‘sustainability’, what is it that we wish to sustain? In a future of climate change, energy depletion and low or no economic growth, what will Higher Education look like? Will our institutions and the current form of educational provision survive? This workshop will encourage participants to imagine and work towards a more ‘resilient education’.
This session will provide an opportunity for both non-academic and academic staff to discuss Higher Education, its institutions, curricula and pedagogies, in the light of two external impacting factors: Climate Change and fossil fuel depletion. HEIs are significant energy consumers. Increasingly both pedagogy and the curriculum are aided and delivered through the use of ICT. University floor space is increasing to accommodate growing numbers of students. In a near-future scenario of energy scarcity, which impacts both the reliability and availability of affordable energy, as well as the need to radically shift to the use of renewable energy and extreme efficiencies, we ask: “How resilient are our educational institutions?”
The workshop facilitators (Joss Winn, Lincoln, Dr. Richard Hall, De Montfort) will explain a near-future scenario in which the impacts of climate change and energy depletion on Higher Education are apparent. After a Q & A session, clarifying the scenario for participants, small groups will be challenged to ‘Think the Unthinkable’ and develop responses relating to the business continuity of their institutions and the continued provision of quality research, teaching and learning in an environment where absolute emissions are reduced by 80%. Participants will be encouraged to consider the most radical solutions including massive reform of curricula and the disestablishment of the national institutional model.
“It is not an exaggeration to claim that the future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply. What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution.” (IEA World Energy Outlook 2008 http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/)
In retrospect, I think these slides are pretty incoherent. I tried to make up for this by adding notes and references and figured that when I gave the presentation, I’d smooth all the joins. Alas, I didn’t really get time to do that, either.
During the presentation, the slides which seemed to have the most impact were 2 & 3, which introduce the Jevons Paradox of ‘efficiencies’ and then the actual increase in global energy use. I should also add that despite efficiencies and taking population increases into account, per capita energy use is still increasing globally. You can see how individual countries compare here: http://j.mp/51IIId
The slide (16) where I ask ‘Why be Green?’ and say ‘Resilience’ is meant to refer to Green being about dematerialisation, energy efficiency, and a zero or planned negative growth economy. Each of these ‘green factors’ could contribute to reduce the impacts of energy depletion and climate change and therefore contribute to resilience. I don’t think they would mitigate the impacts, but individuals and organisations that understand the principles of ‘being green’, would be better placed and more resilient against those impacts.
What impact might the increasing cost of energy have on Higher Education? My interest is not simply about the impact on institutional spending, but rather the deeper and broader socio-economic effects that an energy crisis might have on the provision of Higher Education. To the extent that Universities are businesses, I am interested in ‘business continuity’, but equally I am interested in whether the current energy intensive model of HE will remain viable and whether an energy crisis might act as a catalyst to changes in the nature of Higher Education within society.
This forms part of an on-going series of blog posts/essays, which are being collected under the tag #resilienteducation (RSS feed). My thinking on these issues is by no means complete or even coherent at times but through sketching out these ideas and hopefully receiving feedback, we can all offer useful observations on and possible solutions for the future of Higher Education. You will see that Richard Hall has recently begun to address this too, questioning the relevancy of curricula, and how building resilience to the related impacts of an energy crisis and climate change might inform learning design and pedagogy.
I appreciate that a discussion about energy fundamentals is not part of the usual discourse around educational provision, but my proposal is that it should be and will be, just as there is already a discourse around the increasing role of educational technology, which is, from one point of view, merely leveraging affordable and abundant energy for the purposes of research, teaching and learning.
In fact, the discourse around energy has already begun under the guise of Climate Change and Sustainability. When we speak of sustainability with regards to Climate Change, we are referring to a transition from a society built on fossil-fuel energy to one that is not. If adhered to, this compelling transition will be more profound than anything we have experienced in our lifetimes and is likely to last our entire professional lives, too.
As the crucial issue of Climate Change begins to dominate all aspects of society, so I expect an interest in the fundamentals of energy policy, security, production and consumption to surface in discussions about the nature of our institutional provision of education, just as an interest in carbon emissions and sustainability is surfacing now.
During the period of 2007-8, GDP in the UK hovered somewhere between 2-3%:
Looking at the Consumer Price Index (CPI) between 2007-8, inflation rose from about 2% to 5%:
Individual earnings increased, on average, just under 4% each year during 2007-8:
Average household income in 2007-8 was about £30K:
Now, moving on to energy, consumer ‘dual fuel’ bills have more than doubled since 2004.
In 2006 (the latest figures I can find), household fuels made up, on average, 3.5% of household income. Though bear in mind that this is an average. For lower income households, it rose to 6.6%.
With the average household final income at just under £30K and the average annual household duel fuel bill at over £1200, the current percentage expenditure on household energy is more like 4%.
In October this year, Ofgem forecast that UK domestic energy bills could rise by up to 60% over the next ten years in a scenario where the economy recovered and there is a competitive ‘dash for energy’ between countries for energy resources. Specifically, they see a difficult period around 2016 due to the closure of domestic facilities and an increased reliance on imported fuels. ((For a good overview of energy security in the EU, see the recent Briefing Paper from Chatham House: Europe’s Energy Security After Copenhagen: Time for a Retrofit?)) However, last week, at a House of Commons Select Committee, Alistair Buchanan, the chief executive of Ofgem, said that following more recent discussions with energy suppliers and academics, the 60% figure is now seen as too optimistic. He didn’t offer a revised figure from 60%, but we might consider research by Ernst & Young (commissioned by uSwitch), that warns of up to a 400% increase in the costs of domestic fuel by 2020. That is, average annual domestic energy bills could increase from £1243/year to £4733/year. ((Household fuel bills to hit almost £5K in ten years time (PDF) )) This doesn’t mean very much until we compare it to increases in average household income which, looking at the individual income, GDP and inflation charts above, we might optimistically suggest will climb back to about 3-4% each year. The forecast isn’t quite as good as that in the medium term though, with GDP predicted to grow by 1.1% in 2010, 2% in 2011, 2.3% in 2012 and 2.7% in 2013. Inflation (CPI) is likewise forecast at 1.9%, 1.6%, 2% and 2.3% each year, respectively. Anyway, let’s be a bit optimistic and say that the average final household income will rise from about £29K to around £37K in 2020 (about +2.5%/year – my Union has just agreed to a 0.5% pay increase this year). The percentage of household income spent on the £4733 energy bill would rise from 4% to nearly 13% in 2020. That’s a significant chunk of household income that for many people would force ‘efficiencies’ in energy use, result in cuts in other household spending and contribute to further fuel poverty. In terms of the Jevons Paradox, it may be understood as a method of controlling the energy consumption of the average household.
The bigger picture
It’s useful to look at the bigger energy picture presented in my last post and consider the effect that the price of oil had on energy prices, inflation and GDP during the last few years. The prices of gas and electricity correlate closely to the price of oil:
Of course, not only does the price of electricity rise with oil, but the price of fuels for transportation rise, too, and when transportation costs rise, everything else, including food and consumer goods, rise. ((For 2008 average fuel prices, see The AA’s Fuel Prices 2008)) Look back to the inflation chart above and see how inflation peaked above 5% in September 2008 not long after the price of oil peaked at $147/barrel in July 2008. The effect is, unsurprisingly, that as living gets more expensive and results in sustained debts we cannot manage, we are forced to curtail consumption and GDP slows. I mentioned in my last post that there is a belief that oil price spikes lead to recessions. ((See James Hamilton’s paper, ‘Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08’. It’s worth starting from a discussion on The Oil Drum, where you can download the paper. For a more succinct summary, see the FT article here and a rebuke here. Still, even the rebuke recognises the impact oil can have on an economy: “It is through second-round effects that inflation can rise. For an oil importer, a rise in the price of oil means that the country is poorer as a whole. No matter what policy action they take, their terms of trade have deteriorated.”))
Look again at the chart below, which I used in my previous post and shows the price of oil over the last few years with a projection to 2012. The forecast of oil at around $175/barrel within the next two years, based on what we’ve just seen above, suggests the possibility of a sustained recession as economic growth is limited by the availability of affordable energy. Given the recent volatility of the oil market, we should be cautious of forecasting prices, but can, with more confidence, predict supply and demand, which prices are linked to. With oil production at a plateau, “chronic under-investment” in the oil industry (despite record income) and the additional price of carbon added to energy consumption, the retail price of energy to consumers is unlikely to go against the trend shown in this graph. Other sources confirm the likelihood of an ‘oil crunch’ before 2015. For example, see the interview with the IEA’s Chief Economist and a report from Chatham House, which warns of a crunch by 2013 and the possibility of prices topping $200 per barrel.
Finally, there is a whole other local issue of declining revenues from North Sea Oil, which was presented as a grave problem to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Oil and Gas, this week. If this post interests you, I highly recommend spending 30 minutes reading this paper which accompanied the presentation and discusses these issues in much greater depth and breadth. The paper concludes:
If we look forward, taking into account the biophysical restrictions, a major change in the nature of our economy is certain – if only because the reality of our situation dictates that it can’t stay the same. That is the political issue that British society must reconcile itself to. For the last two decades we have been living a lifestyle that has been sustained by the wealth and power created by indigenous energy resources. That cannot continue, and the process of moving from an economy that has no limits to one that must operate within more tightly constrained limits is going to be a difficult re-adjustment for many: For the political class it means redefining what it is society represents, and what its aspirations should be; for the business community it means redefining what the term “business as usual” really means; and for the public it means reassessing their own material aspirations, and perhaps a return to a far less energetic lifestyle that in terms of energy and material consumption is likely to be similar to the levels which existed in the 1950s or 1960s.
Perhaps at a later date, we might look at Higher Education in the 1950s and 60s in some detail…?
Universities are large consumers of energy
If oil and therefore energy prices are to continue to rise as both the chart above and the uSwitch research warns, what might be the cost to Higher Education? A 2008 paper estimated that UK Higher Education Institutions spent around £300m on energy in 2006, an increase of 0.5% since 2001 and representing 1.6% of total income. ((Ian Ward, Anthony Ogbonna, Hasim Altan, Sector review of UK higher education energy consumption, Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 8, August 2008, Pages 2939-2949, ISSN 0301-4215, DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2008.03.031.))
This review reveals that the energy consumption levels in UK HEIs increased by about 2.7% over the 6-year period between 2001 and 2006. The building energy-related CO2 emissions are estimated to have increased by approximately 4.3% between 2005 and 2006 alone. These trends run contrary to the national plans for emissions reductions in all sectors and are therefore a cause for action.
The Sustainable ICT project estimated that around £60m of the £300m (1/5th) was to power ICT. ((Sustainable ICT in Further and Higher Education: SusteIT Final Report, p. 97)) Since 2006, energy bills have risen by about 25% so we might expect HEIs annual electricity costs to currently be around £375m, with ICT use around £75m. The increase in the number of students in Higher Education has not resulted in a corresponding increase in energy use; closer correlations can be found between floor space and energy use and, interestingly, between research activity and energy consumption. The more research intensive universities use relatively more energy. ((Ian Ward, Anthony Ogbonna, Hasim Altan, Sector review of UK higher education energy consumption, Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 8, August 2008, Pages 2939-2949, ISSN 0301-4215, DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2008.03.031. Another interesting figure that the paper observes is that the ‘downstream’ energy use for the sector, which includes suppliers, business and student travel represents 1.5 times the direct energy consumption of the sector.)) But enough about energy prices. Annual income of HEIs increased by 10% to £23.4bn between 2007-8 and total expenditure likewise increased by 9%. ((HESA: Sources of income for UK HEIs 2006/07 and 2007/08)) How would an energy shock of +400% , increasing sector-wide energy costs from £375m to £1.5bn over the next ten years, be managed when income and spending appear to be so tightly coupled? On a more local level, my institution’s gas, electricity and oil bill is forecast to be £1.63m in 2009/10, up 6% on the last year. What would be the impact on us of an annual bill of £6.5m in 2020? (In 2007, our university had a budget surplus of £2.6m). ((University of Lincoln Financial Statements)) What areas of income are likely to accommodate an increased spend of up to 400% in ten years? Efficiencies in energy use can help, but even with planned cuts in consumption of around 5% next year, the annual cost of electricity, gas and oil at this university is still expected to rise by 0.8% under current energy prices.
Sustainability or resilience?
Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks. ((Although it requires more elaboration and consideration in terms of educational provision, this is the common definition of ‘resilience’ used by the Transition Town movement adopted from Brian Walker and David Salt, (2006) Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. See Rob Hopkins (2008) The Transition Handbook. From oil dependency to local resilience. For an academic critique of the Transition Town’s use of ‘resilience’, see Alex Haxeltine and Gill Seyfang, ‘Transitions for the People: Theory and Practice of ‘Transition’ and ‘Resilience’ in the UK’s Transition Movement’. A paper presented at the 1st European Conference on Sustainability Transitions, July 2009))
What actions can HEIs take to be resilient and therefore remain relevant as dramatic social changes occur in our use of energy and therefore material consumption and output?
Resilience, it seems to me, is a pre-requisite for sustainability if you accept the tangible and coupled threats of energy security and climate change enforcing long-term zero or negative growth. If oil production has peaked just prior to the worst economic crisis in living memory and faced with the need to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% in the next forty years, should we not first develop a more resilient model that we wish to sustain?
In terms of energy use, can efficiencies lead to sustainability? At what point does ‘efficiency’ actually mean conservation and rationing? At what point do we change our habits, our practices, our institutions instead of telling ourselves that we are being efficient, as we do today? How can we teach a relevant curricula with less money (due to funding cuts and higher costs) and less energy?
To what extent is Higher Education coupled to economic growth? Universities contribute2.3% of UK GDP but to what extent are universities dependent on economic growth? How would a university operate under a stable but zero growth economy? To what extent is educational participation dependent on economic growth?
Sorry, lots of questions but fewer answers right now.
The Sustainable Development Commission, “the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development”, published a report earlier this year called Prosperity without Growth, the transition to a sustainable economy. The publication (recently developed into a book), examines what ‘prosperity’ means and discussed education alongside other ‘basic entitlements’ such as health and employment. In particular, the author argues that these basic entitlements need not intrinsically be coupled with growth. He argues that growth itself is unsustainable and that high standards of health, education, life expectancy, etc. are not coupled with higher levels of income everywhere.
Interestingly, there is no hard and fast rule here on the relationship between income growth and improved flourishing. The poorest countries certainly suffer extraordinary deprivations in life expectancy, infant mortality and educational participation. But as incomes grow beyond about $15,000 per capita the returns to growth diminish substantially. Some countries achieve remarkable levels of flourishing with only a fraction of the income available to richer nations. [p. 43]
Chapter four of the publication includes a useful discussion on economic growth, technological efficiency and resilience concluding:
…the answer to the question of whether growth is functional for stability is this: in a growth-based economy, growth is functional for stability. The capitalist model has no easy route to a steady-state position. Its natural dynamics push it towards one of two states: expansion or collapse.
Put in its simplest form the ‘dilemma of growth’ can now be stated in terms of two propositions:
Growth is unsustainable – at least in its current form. Burgeoning resource consumption and rising environmental costs are compounding profound disparities in social wellbeing
‘De-growth’ is unstable – at least under present conditions. Declining consumer demand leads to rising unemployment, falling competitiveness and a spiral of recession.
This dilemma looks at first like an impossibility theorem for a lasting prosperity. But it cannot be avoided and has to be taken seriously. The failure to do so is the single biggest threat to sustainability that we face.
Decoupling participation in Higher Education from energy use and emissions
We can see from the chart above that Cuban citizens enjoy roughly the same level of educational participation as the UK, yet their GDP per capita is just a quarter of that of the UK. Participation in this case, is “the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrolment ratio.” ((What is the Human Development Index?)) Cuba’s energy use per capita is also just a quarter of the UK’s consumption, suggesting that while GDP and energy consumption are closely coupled, GDP and educational participation need not be.
In terms of UK HEI’s resilience, how can opportunities for participation in Higher Education remain widespread in a low energy, zero growth scenario? The Sector review of UK higher education energy consumption showed that energy consumption is not tightly coupled with student numbers, although close correlations between floor space, the number of research students and FTE staff can be seen. Does that mean that the smaller, less research intensive universities are better placed than the larger, research intensive institutions in an energy crisis scenario? Is a model of fewer universities with a higher staff-to-student ratio the answer? What other attributes, other than floor space and research activity could be used to measure resilience against the economic impact of an energy crisis?
Again, lots of questions, but fewer answers right now. Have you got any?