Re-imagining universities

What if university campuses were designed around central allotments?

In a previous post, I provided some glimpses of the conclusion of my book. Here, I want to expand on this, as I am finalizing my book manuscript. A second round of reviews was very positive, with the conclusion described as ‘a delightful little chapter that contains a wealth of interesting ideas.’ So I want to present a few more of these ideas here and hope that you enjoy reading them, while I get my book ready for production! I should also have a final cover soon and will begin presenting ideas from the book on April 20, at the online Global Festival of Active Learning.

In higher education, capstone projects are final projects undertaken by students as the crowning accomplishments of their learning journeys. I use them as potential spaces for students to imagine and work towards radical alternatives to current challenges. In this spirit, the conclusion to Creative Universities is presented as a series of experimental capstone projects, as prototypes of potential future uses of a critical-creative pedagogy. They are conceived as open-ended action research, carried out within universities that become experimental spaces supported by adequate spaces, materials and funding.

The project teams would encompass student members from as many different disciplinary backgrounds as possible, supported by staff and PhD researchers from at least three faculties. They guide students in identifying, researching and addressing challenges that affect universities – effectively asking students to dig where they stand – but have further-reaching impacts. Project work begins with collectively formulating a challenge, researching it from a decolonial perspective, iteratively designing possible responses to the challenge and then implementing one of them. During this process, students work with research groups and student societies on campus, as well as with community organisations, activist collectives or other institutions that advocate for alternative futures. These diverse groups become active collaborators rather than just placeholders for internships; they engage with students in collective labor from projects’ inception to their implementation. Below are some examples:

Opening up learning: decolonizing field trips and global classrooms

The emphasis of the first theme is on connecting universities, and learning within them, to both their immediate surroundings and wider worlds. It takes inspirations from the Remaking Academic Identities and Prefiguring Alternatives chapters. For the first project, students would design and undertake a decolonized field module. They begin by thinking about the pedagogical foundations of a field trip that would not replicate development tourism or nature edu-tainment but enable collective learning about social, ecological and other transformations through collaborative experiments with partner organizations. Students would consider questions such as

  • what is to be learned, where, by whom, in what ways and toward what ends?
  • How can field engagements can be opened up to epistemic diversity and enact whole-person learning?
  • How do students position themselves as learners rather than helpers, decentre themselves, unlearn their certainties and become open to being challenged?
  • How can they ask questions and listen deeply before suggesting actions, if any?
  • How can decolonial field engagements be imagined, created and enacted in theory and practice, in praxis?
How can field trips and global classrooms be decolonized? Photocredit: Raquel Duran

A second, related project would focus on designing a global classroom around a current challenge. Aiming for stationary connectivity and experimenting with multiple technological possibilities, students would agree on a challenge with their international co-learners, research how it has been addressed in their own locations and then explore questions including:

  • To what extent can local responses could be transplanted and global initiatives be incorporated into local responses?
  • What is the potential to connect and amplify local responses, through pluriversal modes of engagement that work with multiple ways of being, learning and making in diverse worlds?
  • How can these different modes of learning be maintained rather than flattened or homogenised?
  • How can epistemic diversity be ensured in global classrooms?
  • How can writing be decentered?
  • How best to govern collaborative learning platforms and spaces to ensure equitable participation?

Sustain-able campuses: mobilities and food

This theme takes its inspiration from the Repairing Ecologies chapter, which focuses on students developing deep ecology, sustain-ability and systems-approaches, and extends it to university campuses and their surroundings, and the multiple and diverse labors and lives that take place on them. The first project is the food project described here. The second calls on students to prototype an integrated mobility plan, with mobility being conceived as a transdisciplinary issue with far-reaching effects that impact human and non-human campus inhabitants in interconnected ways. Students begin by thinking about different means of transportation and their effects on the natural and human environments of campuses and their environs, and then extend these to design in elements of accessibility and safety, physical and mental health, creative and community aspects. This process can be guided by design questions:

  • What if commuting to university could itself become a learning experience?
  • What if mobility was not merely an instrumental necessity but became an enriching, convivial experience?
  • What if diverse means of mobility were generous, not only not polluting the environment but instead releasing clean air or water into it? 

Re-imaging universities

In this third theme, student groups would experiment with radically rethinking universities through the lens of economic and social justice. Drawing on insights especially from Remaking Academic Identities and Reclaiming Economies chapter, the projects in this theme challenge students to reflect on their personal and institutional identities and locations, and to imagine different ways of being students and engaging with universities.

How did the construction of Sussex campus in the middle of what
later became the South Downs National Park alter its surroundings? Photo credit:

For the first project student groups generate a comprehensive history of the present of their university and its connections to the world. In the case of Sussex, for example, research would go beyond its radical past that is a frequent reference point, and include the university’s impact on its immediate surroundings, given that was built in the vicinity of a small village and the middle of the South Downs National Park.

  • How has this building activity and the resulting mini-city of several thousand residents altered the landscape, ecological systems and human-non-human relations?
  • How has the continuous growth of universities impacted neighboring towns and affected urban dynamics, house prices and gentrification?
  • How have universities helped shape creative environments, through collaborations with other local universities or international networks?
  • How have universities engaged with community groups and local governments and to what purposes and effects?

To answer these questions, student groups conduct primary and secondary research, and then creatively present their universities as long-standing neighbours to many different communities, human and non-human. From such a historically-grounded perspective, students then develop future scenarios that might not involve the usual growth ambitions, but rather focus on the quality of relationships and the meaningful contributions universities can make, while also being honest about their detrimental effects. Ultimately, this project challenges students to interrogate what it means to be a student in multiple, often ambiguous, ways.

Last but certainly not least, a project could explore what radically inclusive universities would look like. Starting with the question of what does that mean and what does it take to make them so, students consider a wide variety of intersecting elements.

  • What if university education were to become free again?
  • How would it be funded? How has HE been funded in the UK in the past and what are funding models in other countries where universities remain much more accessible?
  • What alternative governance modes would that enable?
  • How might existing experiments such as popular universities around the world, cooperative universities like the Mondragon University and the Free Universities that have been established in some cities such as Brighton be expanded?
  • What would the effects of non-commodified HE be?
  • What are its potentials to address and abolish structural hierarchies and exclusions, based on race, gender, abilities?
  • What else needs to happen to make universities radically inclusive?

This would help students develop an understanding of how government policies are made and interlink with broader regimes such as neoliberalism. One possibility could be for groups to experiment with campus-wide basic income schemes that ensure all students and staff the financial means to cover their basic needs. Such schemes could work with alternative campus currencies, taking their inspiration from the local currency schemes that are in existence in many towns. 

Through such multi-faceted projects, student groups address pragmatic, political and philosophical questions of responsibility, equality and justice. Public presentations of the outcomes of these projects can become manifestations of critical-creative learning and showcases for the heterodox possibilities and pluriversal alternatives that can be created within universities and above all serve as a celebration of critical hope.  

Teaching activism?

Frack you - poster
The cover image of my Activism module handbook

After sending my manuscript to Bristol UP, I have been spending the last week covid-izing my teaching for next term. No easy task, since all of my teaching is very interactive and hands-on. This is especially the case for an MA module on Activism for Development and Social Change I have been teaching for the last five years. The module features prominently in the last chapter of my book on Prefiguring Alternatives, where I explore the possibilities of teaching activism in the classroom and what such teaching can contribute to students imaging alternative responses to global challenges. This post is a shorter version of what’s in the book, plus some material that did not make it into the draft.

A controversial topic

When I was assigned the module upon joining Sussex in 2014, with the freedom to redesign it, I used the opportunity to realize a long-held vision of a module that would equally combine theory and practice. In the course of researching how best to do that, I came across several reflective accounts by other educators who have been teaching activism: Robert Huish’s undergraduate classes at Dalhousie University in Canada have included students organizing their own public demonstrations and working with an organization helping North Koreans escape. (Colleagues who read a draft of my chapter thought especially the latter was quite extreme and potentially unethical – having fled a communist country myself in 1989 I saw less problems). An MA in Activism and Social Change ran for nine years at Leeds University in the UK. What was most interesting in these accounts was the reactions these programs had received from different corners.

Remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall | Financial Times
My own escape from East Germany happened a few months before these dramatic events.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is a great example of change brought about by citizen action.
(Photo credit

At Dalhousie, some professors and administrators worried that such programs could be high-jacked by radical elements and result in violence. Others were concerned about reputational implications for the university. Huish’s protest classes did get some (mostly negative) media attentions, leading to newspaper comments such as ‘here we go, another commie course taught by some washed out hippie. Why are students paying tuition to take this crap?’ Not surprisingly, these perceptions were influenced by what was happening in the streets: in 2010, the first year the module was taught, riots took place in Toronto against the G20 meetings. A year later, Time Magazine made ‘the protestor’ the Person of the Year in response to a wave of non-violent uprisings around the world, most notably the Arab Spring and Occupy, and helped to convince university administrators of the value of Huish’ class.

Most thought-provoking for me were reactions by activists, who questioned whether activism can actually be taught, especially from within the privileged spaces of universities. As Stuart Hodkinson, one of the co-founders of the Leeds MA wrote: A common reaction is that the very essence of an elite-level university degree in ‘radical activism’ is a contradiction in terms as universities are “part of the problem” and the course will inevitably be exclusive to white middle class kids who will go on to become ‘professional elite’ or ‘career activists’ and ‘social movement managers’. By placing activist education within the constraints of the universities, the course will “quash the radical spirit of activism” and “divert energies” from real movement building. The argument goes that activism cannot be taught; it can only be experienced. . . Others argue that the university will not like such courses and will eventually shut them down, or force compromises to course content that render the whole exercise meaningless. There is also some hostility to us, the course tutors, for seemingly “making a career” on the backs of “real activists.” It seemed to me that teaching activism was seen as either too radical or too conformist.

Combining theory and practice

In my own module, I wanted to combine theory and practice, to enact praxis in the classroom – introducing students to theories, methods and strategies of activist movements, illustrated with historical and contemporary examples and giving them the opportunity to apply their learning by working in groups to design activist campaigns on their own topics. Through such learning by doing, I wanted students to explore their own agency to engage structures of power and to experience activism ‘as a process of challenges and moral dilemmas more than as an experience that brings clear answers and solutions to social problems,’ as Huish has put it. This practical learning has been new for most students who have taken the module, who have usually not done much campaign work before and certainly not in a university context. When I do get experienced activists taking the module, it is an extra treat for all of us as we learn from their experiences. In addition, because the campaign design involves intense group work with students from lots of different disciplinary, professional and geographical backgrounds (since the module is offered to MA students from different degrees), this aspect of the module provides personal learning opportunities as well.

The groups produce a campaign report for assessment, and over the years I have received over thirty reports of amazing quality and variety, showing how deeply and intensely students engage with the campaigns. An overview of these reports reveals a commonality of themes and a localization of issues that show students’ interests and passions:

  • projects addressing issues relevant to Sussex university, including housing, sexism on campus, the commodification of education and campus spaces, digital dependency and the use of slave labor
  • projects advocating for changes in how the British public, and especially Brighton residents, learn about and interact with refugees and migrants, ranging from setting up a community cooking club, childrens’ play classes and awareness-raising events
  • campaigns focusing on work-place related discrimination, such as the gender pay gap, mental health stigmatization and sexism at work
  • projects targeting homelessness in Brighton, through providing better services, advocating for the council to fulfil its legal commitments and educating people about the complexities of homelessness
  • 4 campaigns on environmental sustainability and 4 focused on changing education

In the book, I look at several examples in-depth, especially those that engage artistic methods and those that focus on education in particular. Here I just want to highlight two of these campaigns.

Active Empathy Collective

Kenyan woman to appeal over isolation in detention centre | The Times
Protestors at the Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre have long focused on its inhumane conditions and the UK’s policy of indefinite detentions (photo credit

Artistic creation was central to a student group that constituted itself as the Active Empathy Collective and proposed a campaign called Yarl’s Wood Speaks. In response to a hunger strike of women detainees at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, the campaign aimed to raise public awareness of the UK immigration system through an interactive art exhibition on the theme of home, belonging and freedom. Its central focus was the use of testimony by former detainees, participants in a detainee befriending program and visitors of the exhibit. Using a feminist approach, the campaign conceived of testimony as an active process of meaning-making, a personal and political platform for enacting change, and a catalyst for generating self-reflection, empathy and a critical collective consciousness towards immigration injustices. The campaign’s objective was to make these experiences actionable by connecting people to advocacy organizations and urging them to contact their MPs to pressure Parliament to extent legal protections for refugees and terminate indefinite detentions. The campaign report included a mock-up of the gallery space, throughout which exhibition items had been thoughtfully placed to enhance visceral audience engagement and participation.

Teach British Colonialism

The campaign Teach British Colonialism advocated against the current ‘white-washing’ in the UK’s secondary school history curriculum, which makes minimal reference to slavery, colonialism and empire. Proposing a pilot project with two Brighton secondary schools, the campaign aimed to combat institutional racism and privileged ignorance and also bring about structural change through a petition to Parliament to review the national history curriculum. The group also planned a social media outreach campaign, and its campaign report included sample social media posts, showing non-White activists and historical figures, such as Sophie Duleep Singh, a suffragette, and Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiographical account of slavery I talk about in my economics chapter.

The Story of Sophia Duleep Singh and why the right to vote remains critical  | by Navjot Pal Kaur | Medium
Photo credit:

From student evaluations and personal reflections that students write as part of their assessment, I know that the module and especially the campaign design component, teaches students about activism, themselves and their abilities to enact change in the world. They often comment that ‘not just reading about activism but enacting it in practice’ brings the topic to life and shows them the often invisible work undertaken by activists before their actions become public. I am looking forward to teaching the module again next spring, I just have to figure out how to make this all work under COVID conditions. Any tips?

International Development – My Voyage Through Uncharted Waters

This is a guest post by Lydia Bennett-Li, who graduated from Sussex this summer and was a participant in the research for my book. In this post, Lydia reflects how her year-long placement at an Indian research organization has shaped her post-university journey and better understanding of the challenges of international development research. Thank you Lydia!

My journey as a student of International Development (ID), as I am sure every ID student would agree, was and continues to be a voyage through uncharted waters.

I decided to apply to ID fairly last minute. Like many prospective students I have met over the years being a Global Studies Ambassador, I was drawn to study ID as a result of reading, watching and learning about issues in the developing world. I must admit, I was naive in this sense. My understanding of ID at the time was limited to rather stark issues, such as education, hunger and inequality. It was only after commencing the course and learning from experts in the field, that I truly began to understand the complexities and contradictions of the developing world. While learning in this way opened my mind and broadened my understanding of ID, it also led me to become increasingly confused as to what I should do with myself post-university.

A photo taken during my time working in Goa, India

I knew by the middle of my second year, that I no longer wanted to work for a charity, or as an academic, or as an ID practitioner. I decided to take a year out and work for a mental health research organisation in Goa, India. I worked within a large substance-use disorder project, that was designing a mobile-based intervention for hazardous drinking among Goan youth. During my time in this project I learnt an incredible amount. From core research skills, to project-based management, I was able to gain some genuine, practical skills that I knew would put me in good stead for a career in ID research. However, I just did not enjoy working in research. I loved my team, and I loved that our work was aiming to have a positive impact on youth in the area, but I struggled to enjoy the bureaucracy that came with the project. I was shocked at just how important the funders of the project were in the decision-making processes, and was unsettled by just how much finance seemed to impact our work, sometimes with considerable ethical implications. I decided to do some research into the finance side of research projects, and other charity-based programs, and came across the huge world of audit. 

Learning about how charities, corporations and other organisations are obliged to report on their finances, and in some cases their social activity appealed to me hugely, and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand just how it all worked. I learnt about financial reporting, fraud, social audits, ISO standards and more. Over time developed a keen interest in pursuing a career within which I could create positive change both globally and locally, through ensuring that the financing of development projects, international aid, CSR and other such things, is both ethically sourced, and ethically spent. I applied for a number of graduate programs in financial audit, and accepted an offer with a Big-4 Accountancy firm in London. I am somewhat unsure as to how I will fit in within a global corporation such as my new employer, especially given my background in ID and understanding of the impact that these such corporations can have in the developing world. However, I feel that the best way to make change is from within.

A visit to Mumbai with friends during my time in India

I am excited to now be starting this new chapter of my career. Although I feel I will be diverging from a career directly working within the field of ID for now, I think that spending the next 3 years qualifying as an Auditor, will put me in a good position to effectuate change within the field of ID in years to come. I am lucky though, as I will be able to continue to exercise my passion for development through the non-profit organisation I co-founded while I was working in India. Generation Mental Health was created out of the recognition of two gaps. The first being a significant gap in representation of the diverse mental health needs of different communities worldwide. That is to say that leadership in the field of global health is heavily skewed to the global north, making policy, treatment and more often culturally inappropriate. The second gap we recognised was the gap in opportunities for young people from these diverse communities to undertake capacity building opportunities necessary in order to make change at the broader level. Myself and my fellow Founder and Co-Founder realised after reflecting on our own positions, that it was only because of our western educational backgrounds, and our families financial statuses that we were able to embark on international placements at such a young age. Without the reputational support of our universities, and the financial support from our families, it would have been impossible for us to take a year out of our lives to work and learn in India. As such, we created Generation Mental Health, whose mission is to build the next generation of leaders in global mental health through providing funded capacity-building opportunities to young community leaders, especially those from low-resource settings. 

From left: Jackee Schess, GenMH Founder; Sonali Kumar, GenMH Co-Founder; Myself, GenMH Co-Founder

Although Generation Mental Health is just over a year old, we have achieved an incredible amount since our conception. Our team and advisory boards now span over 5 continents, our campus chapters have fully launched and are expanding across campuses in the US, and our Michigan Campus Chapter will be hosting our very first conference this November (2020). I am proud to be a part of this wonderful and exciting organisation, not only does it bring me closer to my passion for development and mental health, but it allows me to learn new things every day. 

Studying International Development, for me, has been a challenging yet career-moulding experience. While I now will embark on the first step of my career in an industry outside of ID, I hold close to my heart the knowledge, ethics and critical eye that I have gained through my studies. International Development is, as far as I am concerned, not a degree with the sole purpose to get you a job at the end of it. Instead it is a process of learning, critiquing and learning more, which I will keep with me for the rest of my life. 

Lydia Bennett-Li


Academia and activism: a student’s story

“I studied International Development with Spanish”. The sentence that often requires a deep inhale prior to saying it and tends to lead to blank faces and a polite smile. Admittedly, I had no idea that my degree existed before I found it a few months before applying. I also had no idea that I would graduate with this degree let alone with a concept of myself being an activist. This thought bubble is a journey through my 3 years of studying, campaigning and volunteering. I suppose having just graduated my thoughts have turned to reflections on how my degree was taught, what activism means and the links and contrasts between academia and activism. I’ll write a bit about these reflections and my experiences and will hopefully convey why the question “What did you do at uni?” could have a sentence long, or day long, answer. 

University of Sussex campus, the place where a lot of these thoughts and reflections started

I left school with the thought that university wasn’t for me as I hadn’t come across a course that I thought would interest me for 3 years and I didn’t like the idea of getting in debt for the sake of it. I was, and still am, interested in so many different things and did not want to narrow down and focus on one subject. When I found International Development at Sussex it seemed to be a varied option that would suit me. I remember looking at the module list choices for the course and thinking that each one of them looked so interesting I wouldn’t know how to choose (I now always would advise to-be students to do the ‘does the module list look exciting’ test before applying to anything). Broadly speaking, I studied anything related to how the world has changed, is changing, and could be changed. And since it is called International Development, different aspects of the course could be related to anywhere on the planet and any of its inhabitants. Critical thinking and taking a holistic approach was a theme throughout most modules but each module had multiple different contexts, opinions, theories, examples and angles to consider the content from. My modules have included studying the history and legacy of colonialism, environmental perspectives of development, theories of race and ethnicity, international education, research methods and development economics. Due to this wonderful buffet of options, I think the course and its mix of topics about people and places could be used in so many scenarios. Recently, I have come to realise how well matched studying International Development is with involvement in activism.

Alongside the course, I joined the Sweatshop Free Campaign which aimed to raise awareness of workers’ rights abuses in the electronics industry and get Sussex to affiliate to a worker led monitoring organisation called Electronics Watch (which they did-yay!). I also co-founded SEASALT Housing Co-operative, the first student housing co-operative in the South, and have gained a lot of skills and knowledge in the housing sector, particularly community led housing. These activities have been referred to as activism and I’ve come to see them as such.  Before University I had always been active in writing to my MP, joining initiatives and voicing concerns but had never thought of the word activism to describe this. I think all too often the word activism is overshadowed by radical activism or direct action and stereotypes take over. This certainly is a respectable type of activism but I sometimes feel like it dominates people’s minds about what activism is and sometimes even scares people off. To me, activism is simply being active and acting about things that matter to you no matter how you do it. I suppose I have reached this conclusion since being called an activist and these voluntary roles being called activism. If I were to say to people that I was involved with activism at university, I doubt the emailing and formal meetings necessary for the Sweatshop Free campaign and planning application proof reading necessary for the Housing Co-operative would spring to mind. Without going too much on a tangent about activism, the point I’m trying to get across is that I feel the term itself is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Acknowledging the wider umbrella of what falls under activism is really important and activism should be used as an inclusive term for active actions that may not be action packed- but still create an impact.

SEASALT Housing Co-operative banner at an event

So for me, being at university wasn’t just the course, it was also these activist activities, extra lecture series, and societies. It was having the space to think about, talk about and read about the world and people around us. I joined the campaign and the Housing Co-operative primarily to gain some new skills and meet new people. Only during the last few months have I come to appreciate quite how much I learnt from them and quite how relevant they have been for studying International Development and vice versa. To go back to the analogy of the International Development course being like a buffet, I suppose the involvement in the activist areas feel like the crockery and cutlery. They help the food-the thoughts, knowledge, analysis, critical thinking, be used and organised. And just like a buffet without food, my experiences and knowledge gained in the activist roles would be less wholesome without the course. This analogy is perhaps a slight exaggeration but the sentiment is there. Now that I’m applying to jobs I really see that the academic side of university and the activist side complement each other. 

When thinking about how this has occurred, sometimes it is a chicken-or-the-egg situation- I can’t discern which came first, academia or activism. And other times it’s a scrambled egg situation- I can’t discern whether the ingredients were academia or activism. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the clarity is lost on the details because the mutual usefulness and value is clear. For example, during academic studies, I have been particularly interested and passionate about participatory development as an approach and have enjoyed it when modules have touched on this. Outside of campus, as part of SEASALT Housing Co-operative, I have received training in, and participated in, community engagement and consensus decision making. I feel that this practical, hands on involvement has given me some tools to implement and visualise how participatory development approaches could be enacted, but this is closely entwined with the knowledge and understanding gained from the lecture theatre and readings. In fact, my interest in participatory development and autonomous grassroots organisations sparked from academic study may be why the co-operative sector particularly caught my curiosity in the first place.

Another example is that during the Sweatshop Free campaign I sometimes took a step back to question if what we were doing was the best approach and had appropriate, targeted outcomes. Pre-University me would have probably got on board with a campaign for workers’ rights without really thinking about the impacts or complexities of the issue and just assuming it to be ‘right’. I was slightly naïve and lacked a lot of insight about what lies under the world’s surface- I had never properly studied colonialism before for example (which as a British citizen, I am still shocked that up until the age of 20 I could name more famous Tudors than Countries in the former British empire). Student and graduate me sees these issues with a more nuanced and critical mind-set. The passion for issues related to workers’ rights has remained, but what has changed is my realisation that nothing is as obvious as it may seem and most issues don’t have quick, easy fixes. Studying International Development therefore encouraged me to look at the campaign from different angles and step back to ask questions. My involvement in the campaign later also influenced me to write a dissertation about Electronics Watch in a 3rd year module called Business, Development and Corporate social responsibility. That dissertation was the first time in the course I had linked activism and academia and it was a really interesting piece of work to write and I would argue that academic knowledge is valuable in activism. I analysed the Electronics Watch model using academic literature but also touched on aspects of the campaigns and activism to encourage affiliation.  

Sussex Sweatshop Free banner at freshers’ fair

International Development as a course was therefore successful in increasing understanding, awareness and knowledge about an array of topics, people, places, ideas and theories. It engaged with case studies and made students think critically. However, I think there were some missed opportunities to integrate practical, creative skills and alternatives to teaching and learning. As the above examples from my experiences hopefully suggest, academia and activism go well together and influence each other. Seminars often revolved closely around discussing readings and the contents of the lecture which is interesting, but moving beyond gaining knowledge to learning how to apply it would make some modules far more relevant to the world beyond academia. I always enjoyed learning about case studies where the norm was broken and the unexpected happened, and learning in situations where the norm was broken. Within practical and creative activities, I think it is important to relate academia with lived experiences of students to make it feel relevant and to avoid perpetuating issues sometimes found in development. For example, we were once asked in seminar to write what we would include in an educational curriculum for a country that most of us had never been to. Although the activity was arguably practical and creative, it would have been far more appropriate to talk about countries we had some familiarity with. This would have applied academic knowledge to lived experiences and avoided a subconscious sense that knowledge gained at a Western institution is more important than hearing the lived experiences of people in the country in question. I recognised and appreciated when modules were taught in creative ways, going further than just discussing academic literature with a list of questions and pushing us to be creative in our responses too. The idea of creative universities and taking a good look at how social sciences are taught at universities is overdue and will only improve what and how students learn.

Learning about such examples and in innovative ways also plays into the idea of ‘critical hope’, which I think is essential in International Development. Critical thinking is really important but sometimes it is easy to criticise, evaluate and overthink to a point where you feel you’re verging on entering a pit of despair and having an existential crisis. By learning that there are alternatives, innovative models and approaches and learning some tools to see how these could work is vital. With a focus on hope, being critical is conducive to finding an outcome rather than being critical for critique’s sake. My involvement in activist work has hugely helped with learning tangible techniques and gaining experience relevant to the course but also the course has helped me engage better with activism. I leave Sussex with optimism about the future and an appreciation of the different aspects of my education. I leave with an identity as both an activist and a graduate and will carry my critical thinking glasses wherever I go. And these glasses are probably the reason why I think there is scope to improve and broaden the societal concept of activism, the joining of activism and academia and the course itself. I also leave Sussex with a potentially lengthy answer to “What did you do at Uni?” which often leads to blank face and polite smiles.

Care in the time of COVID-19

A sign in a neighbor’s garden offering help to those who have to self-isolate

I can’t believe that my last two blog posts from Germany were written only a month ago – it seems like a lifetime has passed and the world is a very different place to what it was in early March. As well as adjusting to working from a home and keeping up with feeding two teenage boys, I have been trying to come to grips with what the COVID crisis means for my book, which after all focuses on the contributions of creative teaching to better prepare students to address global challenges. After initially being overwhelmed by the huge amount of information available, I am slowly beginning to make some sense of some of it. In this, somewhat meandering, unfocused and tentative post in keeping with the general uncertainty of the situation, I explore what some aspects of design, particularly the concept of wicked problems and the emphasis on care and empathy, can contribute to an understanding of COVID-19. This draws on the design chapter of my book (which is building on longer-standing research on the role of design in development) I am currently writing. This is the first of several COVID reflection posts, with the second one focusing on economic implications.

Wicked problem were first defined by Horst Rittel as ‘social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’ (as quoted in Richard Buchanan’s useful overview article of design). In contrast to clearly delimited problems that follow linear processes to a precise solutions, wicked problems are indeterminate because they have no clearly defined limits and more than one possible explanation and are symptomatic of higher-level problems. Many contemporary challenges are wicked problems because of their complexity and interconnectedness, and the COVID crisis is no exception. While medical at its core, it affects many other areas of social, economic and political life. Wicked problems call for different disciplines to work together to understand them and formulate responses; for COVID-19 that has encompassed medical (treatment and public health campaigns), economic (eg. various government wage and business support schemes), social (spatial distancing) and political (closing of borders) responses. According to Buchanan, design as an inherently integrative discipline can enable this cross-cutting approach because it offers an expanded imagination that is not directed towards quick, technological fixes but ‘toward new integrations of signs, things, actions and environments that address the concrete needs and values of human beings in diverse circumstances.’

The Estonian government’s proposal to hack the wicked problem of COVID-19

Another relevant concept is that of care, which is by no means unique to design; Ana Agostino, a Uruguayan feminist academic has written here about the importance of re-asserting care for each other in this collective crisis. In making the design connection, I draw on Bruno Latour’s keynote address to the 2008 International Conference of the UK’s Design History Society. For Latour, ‘designing is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings and radical departures.’ Design is more humble, modest and cautious because its practitioners realize the complexities of current challenges and the unintended consequences of possible solutions. Design turns objects into matters of concern and care, as the fragility and interconnectedness of humans and the world in which they are entangled become urgently apparent. Latour draws on German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and his notion of spheres into which humans are enveloped from birth to death, on a personal and collective scale. References to life support systems seems especially pertinent when juxtaposed to images of Corona patients on ventilators and the latters’ global scarcity (but also the grassroots innovations resulting from necessity being the mother of invention). Here breathing – the most basic of human activities – needs intense medical intervention. In the context of the COVID-crisis, Latour has developed an exercise of taking stock of activities that have now been suspended to see which ones we would like to reanimate after the lock down and which ones we would like to abandon for good. Exploring our reasons for these choices will yield insights into personal values and having conversations with others about what choices they would make might open up opportunities for political changes.

While the role of technology in this crisis is a much larger discussion, I do want to finish with a digital initiative I like, which is #BlossomWatch. This is a campaign by the UK’s National Trust to emulate Hanami, the Japanese tradition of celebrating cherry and other spring blossoms and the promises they hold. The idea of #BlossomWatch, which invites people to share their photos, is to allow people who cannot currently go outside to enjoy this wonder of spring. This then brings me to empathy (as practiced by designers, care professionals and many others), as the ability to imagine other people’s situations and feelings. Following calls for spatial distancing, which might be a more apt word for what we are being asked to do and the resulting new forms of sociality, is presented as needing to protect vulnerable groups and the NHS, in the case of the UK. It is also about trying to imagine what it might feel like to self-isolate, to have lost one’s source of income, to have to work from home and care for toddlers or home school at the same time. There have been so many amazing responses to these challenges that manifest our collective capacity to empathize with and care for each other, however small the contribution might be. In the spirit of humble interventions, here is a photo from the splendid blossoms outside our house. Stay well!

Spring blossoms outside our house