Politics, measurement and morals: the biodiversity offsets trilogy

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, back in August the third paper derived from my PhD was published in New Political Economy. It was quite an important moment for me, not just from a work point of view, but also from a personal angle.

I passed my viva back in November 2013, and started working in Coventry University in January 2014. On my very first day, my then-line manager sat me down to discuss priorities over the coming year and how to achieve them. I was a Research Assistant and had a bunch of my time taken up with a string of new projects; however, I was also allowed some time to work on publishing my PhD.

From that meeting came a plan to publish 3 papers, closely following my PhD’s empirical chapters. Very broadly, these papers would cover:

  • Where do markets for biodiversity offsets come from?
  • How is biodiversity brought into the markets? and
  • Why don’t these markets expand further?

Sounds simple, right? Wrong.

It turns out that when you do a PhD via the classic route (a whole thesis) you are not exactly prepared for publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Reasons include, for example, the fact that it is difficult to separate the various sections of your thesis (where you worked really hard to blend those things together in the first place); the fact that your literature review is probably unbalanced; and the fact that writing an 8k words peer-reviewed journal is very different from writing what is, in essence, an 80k words book.

In the end, I did publish those three papers.

Taken together, you could call my thesis Politics, measurement and morals: The biodiversity offsets trilogy* – a name I am cribbing from one of my favourite books, Matt Ruff’s classic post-cyberpunk romp Sewer, gas and electric: The public works trilogy.

So there you have it! Less than 5 years later, the main lines of inquiry of my PhD have been published, and I am pleased** with the results. There may be a final publication coming up (waiting for confirmation on that one), but these are the main points. It took time, it took quite a lot of toil, tears and sweat, and it taught me to deal with rejection. And I am really, really proud of each of those three papers.

_________

*What you should absolutely NOT do, under any circumstances, is to call your thesis something like – oh, I don’t know – like Performativity and pluralities of biodiversity offsetting experiments: towards a synthesis of economy as instituted process and economy as performativity. Which I did. And I am sorry.

**Subject to terms and conditions.

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Promoting Financial Capability

On the 31st January I was involved in supporting the research team responsible for the Responsible Community Finance Research and Impact Programme – led by Prof Sally Dibb and Dr Lindsey Appleyard – host a workshop for the Credit Unions sector. The workshop was an opportunity to launch a new CBiS White Paper, titled Financial Capability – Why it Matters for Credit Union Member, produced for the Centre for Community Finance Europe (CFCFE). CFCFE also co-hosted the event (you can read their write-up here).

Dr Paul A Jones of CFCFE noted that financial wellbeing and financial capability are amongst the most important services provided by Credit Unions – especially in a digital age.

Prof. Sally Dibb of CBiS noted how half of all adults in the UK are financially vulnerable. However, it is also difficult to help people change their behaviour. The research conducted by the team addresses this problem, focus on helping individuals make small, sustainable changes to how they manage their money. The research aims to empower individuals, and it has shown that helping people to make small changes makes people feel more in control of their lives.

The team’s research also showed that different individuals respond better to different materials. However, a common thread was the fact that increasingly people wanted to use their smart devices to manage their finances. In order to support this, the CBiS team developed MoneySkills, available online and as an app on Android and iOS.

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MoneySkills is, at its core, a budgeting app, which allows users to predict their income and track their expenditures. But in addition to this, it provides a series of learning materials to empower users to take control of their financial lives.

The app and the White Paper received excellent feedback from the assembled Credit Unions. The CBiS Responsible Community Finance Research and Impact Programme team is currently working on follow-up research projects.

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Cafes and the circular economy

As I mentioned before, one of the interesting projects in which I am involved researches the sustainability of the coffee industry, with a focus on the last parts of the chain – what happens at the coffee shop. This project is led by my colleague Dr Jennifer Ferreira.

Lately we have been looking specifically at the opportunities for cafes to engage with the circular economy agenda. The concept of the circular economy – with its focus on reducing resource use and reusing by-products to produce new goods – holds a lot of promise.

In a newly-published report, we highlight what cafes are actually doing. Jennifer and I spoke to cafe managers in the UK and Germany about their engagement and practices in reducing resource using and reusing by-products, and found a number of very interesting example.

You can read more about our work in Jennifer’s blog, cafespaces, and you can read the report here.

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Losing Legitimacy, Facebook edition

As I have mentioned before, I have been very interested in how online companies can lose and/or manage their legitimacy. It is a difficult conundrum for these companies. Perhaps the most challenged of the internet behemoths is Facebook, whose power can literally break industries, and which stands accused of everything – from having become a platform for spreading fake news to contributing to undermine democracies.

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This is the reason why me and my co-authors Maureen Meadows and Alessandro Merendino describe Facebook’s legitimacy as challenged: the company’s very right to exist is being discussed in the light of the apparent downsides. It is a difficult situation to manage, and navigating the many challenges of communicating with the appropriate stakeholders definitely requires a deft hand. Which is why the recent Teen Vogue-Gate is so grating. If you didn’t follow it, Gizmodo has a summary piece. It’s a wild ride.

After the dust settled, Margins published a pretty good write analysis of the issue. This sentence caught my eye:

This is a major negative inflection point for Facebook. The Teen Vogue incident might seem like insider-baseball for media folks, but the main evolution is that you now have “real” people who aren’t normally at the forefront being exposed as villains. Not senior exec dudes who have already made tens of millions, but younger, motivated, folks who are used to being praised and celebrated being thrown into a negative limelight. Facebook’s rank and file are now having to deal with the shitstorm that was previously been reserved for higher-ups.

It’s all a bit…

source

Facebook set out to remake the world; many companies do, but arguably few succeed. They did. The company can downplay their ability to change the way people think as much as it wants, but their power is very clear for everyone to see. But effecting change is one thing and to fit with the world where you exist is another thing altogether. It is not enough to move fast and break things; it is necessary to understand if your company’s lack of legitimacy is leading you down a road with no return.

The Teen Vogue incident suggests that Facebook doesn’t put all that much attention into managing its legitimacy. The company has lived in a bubble, inside which the paradigm is to force the world to change to fit its views, not to conform to what society requires of it. Facebook has come to play a very important function in our social lives; I just wonder at which point it realises that it is also a part of that society, bound by its rules and values.

 

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What I published in 2019

A bit late to the party, I know (can you still wish people a Happy New Year with a straight face on the 15th January?), but a surprisingly busy start to the year has meant I haven’t been able to take stock of what I published in 2019 until now.

  • With my colleagues Maureen Meadows and Alessandro Merendino, I co-authored a paper on International Corporate Rescue. This signals, in many ways, the direction my research interests have moved into lately: the problem of legitimacy, as applied in particular to online services. Hopefully there will be more on this topic soon. There is also an associated blog post which sets the scene for this paper.icr
  • With my colleague Jennifer Ferreira, I co-authored a White Paper on sustainability in the coffee industry. This white paper has led to a research project, for which a summary of findings has since been submitted. There should be more on this in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, you can always read more about coffee on Jennifer’s blog, cafespaces.
  • With my colleagues Jennifer Ferreira, Kevin Broughton and Stewart MacNeill, I co-authored a chapter on the use of Institutional Mapping to understand cross-territorial relations. It’s another output from the ReSSI project – and the first time I published a methods paper!

It’s been a funny year. Sometimes, like in 2018, it seems like all the papers come out at once; other times there is a lot of work and (comparatively) little to show for it. And I have been busy with other things too, so this should be no surprise. As a wise, experienced colleague once told me, it’s all about managing your pipeline.

Complex pipeline with playful different people

 

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DBA – a Doctorate in Business Administration

Coventry University has a very successful Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) programme. DBAs are interesting: they are professional doctorates for practicing managers, which combine the intellectual rigour of a PhD with the candidates’ practice and experience. They help create practitioners who can change their organisations through research.

I have been involved in supporting the Coventry DBA for a while now, and earlier in the year I was invited to take over as Academic Director of the programme. It has been a very exciting experience, and I feel like I have learned a great deal with and from our candidates.

We put together a short video about what a DBA is, who it is for and what the benefits are. Our candidates take the spotlight here – they are truly the best ambassadors we could ask for. And they are a lot better on camera than me.

Not directed by Kathryn Bigelow, from an original script not written by Aaron Sorkin, I give you – the Coventry DBA.

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Miscellaneous: Podcasts

For a bunch of years now one of my hobbies is to listen to podcasts. I am very lucky to be able to walk to and back from work, which means I usually get between 80 and 90 minutes a day by myself. So listening podcasts makes sense to me.

The roster of podcasts I listen to is too long (and embarrassing) to list, but here are some of the highlights:

Reply All: ‘a podcast about the internet’. Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt discuss online culture. Great if you want to keep up to date with what is happening but are not extremely online yourself. Humourous, good-natured and deeply informative. Look out for the ‘Yes Yes No’ episodes in particular, which are always hilarious.

Recent highlight: Bedbugs and Aliens

How to Build a Stock Exchange: ‘making finance fit for the future’. Philip Roscoe, a reader in management at St. Andrews, discusses financial markets and their embeddedness is society. Criss-crossing history, economics, sociology, anthropology and so many other disciplines, this is right up my alley.

Recent highlight: UK plc

99% Invisible: ‘a radio show about design’. Roman Mars and colleagues discuss design in everyday life. This is a fascinating, ‘smart thinking’ podcast, produced by people who are fascinated by the world around them. Great fun.

Recent highlight: Built on Sand

Power Corrupts: ‘the podcast about the hidden, and often nefarious forces that shape our world’. Brian Klaas is a political scientist who discusses issues such as corruption, assassinations, trafficking and money laundering. Full of colourful characters and engaging stories, this is a belter. Currently in hiatus, coming back in January 2020.

Recent highlight: Dirty Cash In/Clean Cash Out

Underfutures: ‘a podcast about the future’. Scott Smith (a futurologist) and Madeline Ashby (SF author extraordinaire and perennial fave) discuss under-examined futures, and the complex ways in which tech and society interact. A true treat, albeit rare.

Recent highlight: Platform Citizenship

The Missing Cryptoqueen: ‘a story of greed, deceit and herd madness‘. Jamie Bartlett looks into the story of OneCoin, a cryptocurrency. Or is it? Mixing tech, finance, cult-like behaviours and crime, this one brings together all the things I like, except cake. Finished now, which is a shame. More please!

Recent highlight: More than just a coin

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New chapter on Institutional Mapping

One of the research methods I find the most interesting is Institutional Mapping. It’s a funny old thing: frequently used in consultancy but not in academia; as intensely useful as it is deeply subjective; and very poorly codified. It is not something for which you will easily find a ‘how-to’.

Me and my colleagues Jennifer Ferreira, Kevin Broughton and Stewart MacNeill have written a chapter detailing how Institutional Mapping can be applied to study relationships between agents operating across territories. The data for the paper derives from the ESPON ReSSI project. The images above are three examples we use to illustrate our points.

The chapter was published in the most recent ESPON report, titled Building the next generation of research on territorial development, which will inform the next few years of EU cohesion policy. We hope that it will help highlight the importance of institutions in territorial research.

You can download the ESPON report here. Our chapter is found in pages 29-34.

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