In November 2019, I was successfully awarded a grant under the British Academy Knowledge Frontiers Symposia scheme, which was co-sponsored by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, who were commemorating their 50th Anniversary celebrations. In light of this occasion, the theme for both events was based on 'Humanising the Future' and challenging how 'knowledge' could be produced on an innovative interdisciplinary pathway such that it would sustain and shape the future of the fields of both the Humanities and Social Sciences. The weeklong event took place in sunny (38 degree) Brisbane, Australia.
The British Academy hosted the first two days of bringing together early-career academics from across Australia, New Zealand the Pacific Region and the UK to work on discussing themes related to the (i) futures of the past, (ii) environmental futures and (iii) co-designing and co-producing knowledge in the future. Each session had three invited speakers from the group to share their comments based on their initial grant application submissions and these remarks inspired questions, comments and conversational material for all participants around the room.
As an invited discussant, for the third panel (co-designing and co-producing knowledge), I challenged my peers to consider knowledge as 'oppressive' in the philosophical sense of how humans are limited by what we know and how we have come to this knowledge. This was one of the main challenges for the social sciences and humanities, in a time when society is endorsing the investment of progressive STEM curricula. For instance, there were general concerns that with the rise of STEM programmes the value of the humanities is being shadowed. I challenged how our own understanding and framing of disciplinary subject boundaries has become knowledge that is in a sense oppressive. We as humans need to rethink the barriers we have placed on our own distinctions of what makes a discipline. If we can learn how to tap into what we know and how it has been shaped for purpose then we might be able to tie new threads of knowledge which becomes more purposeful for the future.
As the principal host, the Australian Academy of the Humanities must be highly commended for their organisation of the week, their hospitality (gift bags, t-shirt, water-bottles, priority airport pick up). In addition to the formal speaker events, they also hosted a welcome reception, trivia night and workshop sessions for visiting delegates. The official dinner held at Parliament House was an eventful occasion in a desirable, high-security location. The Academy spared no effort in terms of looking after their guests. Personally, I would like to give recognition to Dr Julia Evans (Director of Communications, Engagement) and her exceptional team. She made everyone feel at home while away from home and her pleasant smile and warmth did not go unappreciated. We realised in hindsight our event was one of 22 others that were being held that week. A truly commendable effort to Julia and her team!
There were three separate workshops organised mid-week for delegates. Prior to arriving in Australia I signed up for the 'Getting Research into Policy and Practice Workshop', which to my surprise and delight was chaired by a friendly acquaintance Professor Karen Hussey (Director, Centre for Policy Futures), who I had known back when I started my PhD at the Australian National University in 2012. Professor Hussey's day-long workshop was insightful, informative and engaging. She challenged us as ECRs to think of more innovative ways to get our research transformed into actionable outcomes. Her years of experience working on environmental policy in Australia gave us insights into 'how' we can be more effective with being heard and seen in political spaces, along with her incredible understanding and articulation of how a typical policy works across government and other social structures in any Western society. As a senior academic she was also extremely supportive of the ECR stage of one's career and the challenges that young scholars face with employment and mentorship in academic institutions.
The Australian Academy of Humanities curated a three-day session of speakers and panels that were engaging and enlightened. The bar was set extremely high by a riveting keynote delivered by Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell of the Australian National University. She opened by explaining how her humble start as an Australian anthropologist landed her a job in Silicon Valley to be a person that explains 'people' and of that group 'women', especially to her new colleagues in the tech world. Her hour-long address was punctuated frequently with jokes took us on a more serious consideration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and (surprisingly) elevators/lifts. We went through the fear (or as we learnt if you are Dutch this may exclude you) of lifts becoming that form of AI that we as humans feel a great sense of threat. It is true a lift's autonomy is only to go up or down and it cannot decide to leave a building, so there is contained intelligence to be fearful of, but smart lifts do pose different unilluminated fears. Her keynote concluded on the need for us to use our understanding of progression to challenge our recreation of new knowledge by driving a truly interdisciplinary effort, as is exemplified by Professor Bell's new brand of engineering, a programme launched at the Australian National University called the 3Ai Institute.
The other sessions contained speakers from a range of specialist backgrounds addressing: 'Futures: The Re-formation of the Knowledge', 'Does the Past Have a Future?', 'Civic Cultural Futures', 'Humanising the Digital Future' and finally 'Humans and the Post-Human'. Of special mention is Professor Ineke Sluiter (specialising in Ancient Greek), showcased how knowledge is reproduced by in less threatening ways so as to carry humans safely through the transitions of trusting what we know about our future to be safe. In this sense, there is much to be learnt and rediscovered in the Humanities by returning to the Ancient histories and rediscovering how we might be able to interpret, mimic or challenge our human behaviours through evolutions of change.
The building of smart-cities or humanised cities was also quite exciting because it presented some of the basic thoughts that go into city planning and conservation, where some of the more challenging questions can be asked about the need to involve human enjoyment of city life. There is a potential danger in making cities too enjoyable for humans such as the over-engagement of humans in some cities (e.g. London) from that of say, Brisbane. Over morning tea Professor Marcus Foth (specialised in Urban Informatics in the QUT Design Lab, Creative Industries Faculty at QUT) and I had an interesting discussion on the conventional movement of young people out of cities rather than towards them, which is an interesting life choice for the younger generation.
The last panel on 'Humans and the Post-Human' was quite an interesting and lively group who had some solemn messages about the potential end of our species. The first speaker Dr Elise Bohan (Research Associate Edith Cowan University) delivered a known message but one of great provocation that the human brain is not simply build to deal with the crises that face our generation, so we need to go 'post-human or bust'. This message resonated with some about the challenges we have as a species on our delicate planet, but at the same time Professor Neil Levy (specialising in Philosophy at Macquarie University and Senior Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics) emphasised that as humans we are evolving and always have been but its not from a lack of knowledge because we in and of ourselves have not truly tested the depths of the human brain. At the risk of an oversimplification of his message; we do not yet really know if we are doomed. This was an interesting and concerning conundrum for our species and not one that left a very hopeful or motivating message. However, it does raise with urgency the need to question how we think, what we trust, why we value what we think we know and the ultimate and perhaps most dangerous question as a species what are we willing to give up to get what we want collectively.
Reflecting on the trip, there is much more to consider when we think of the next giant steps we want to take in knowledge production and conservation. Though the above is a summary of the experiences and sessional activities the largest takeaway message was the consideration of how knowledge continues to provoke its representation in the present world.
The disadvantage of such 'awareness raising' activities is that beyond the inspiration of challenging our understanding of how we think about the future, there is little to no direct activation for change. Transforming knowledge into widespread practice is not a task for the faint-hearted, though the overall message (when examined under a microscopic lens) is that even if the end goal is not to transform all knowledge into applicable change, we are then confronted with the reality of the limitations of our species to adapt and acknowledge the limitations of our humanness.