By Mary Gearey
How many chances in life are you given to spend four days with people who start as strangers and end as compadres for life – even to the point of discussing summer house swaps and when, not if, you will visit each other in your respective home towns? The answer is likely to be ‘almost never’. Usually there’s one or two people who ‘get’ your sense of humour, the importance of your work to your sensibilities or outlook on life, who understand, and have sympathy with the fact that sometimes you just need to spend some moments looking at a handbag you will never buy. What is unusual is to be meet a group of unknown people and feel at ease with all of them very quickly and completely naturally. It’s rare to be part of a group collaboration and feel that every single person in that shared space is someone that you could happily sit alongside, drink coffee with, whilst you engage in a mutually stimulating discussion about the big, and the little, aspects of life, work, philosophy, family. This, for me, was the core experience of this first Intrepid Training School held in Barcelona in mid February 2017. I feel that I’ve met a truly wonderful group of researchers, including the trainers, whose commitment to supporting and encouraging sustainable futures is motivational, inspirational, pragmatic and compassionate.
We first met as a group as the streets of Barcelona were swelling, not thinning out; this Sunday night was the final night of the ‘Festa da Santa Eulalia’ celebrations. A gruesome story concerning the murder, and subsequent martyrdom, of a Christian adolescent called Eulalia by the Romans occupying Barcelona, the annual festival in her honour is now a winter time children’s event, with parades, dancing, music and, when we arrived, a final night spectacular outdoor light show in one of the city’s main squares. As we left our welcome dinner of tapas and fine locally brewed craft beer around 10pm, chatting together and winding through the streets before peeling away to our respective hotels, we were swept into the city life, ablaze with light and people out in the night airs, watching the spectacle with their families, and especially their young children, enraptured by the amazing choreographed ‘son et lumiere’ storytelling unravelling before their eyes. For a weary British traveller who had left sub zero temperatures on the 9am plane that morning to be standing outside in the clement star filled evening, with new acquaintances and surrounded by happy groups of people – some tourists, some families, some groups of friends – the event, in retrospect, seemed delightfully different, and so apposite for our training days ahead. What had brought these diverse people together to share this festival experience? One can presume, a collective desire to participate in an unique event, to share an immersive experience, to allow themselves to possibly be taken outside of their comfort zone and to be open to new ideas, new corporeal activities, new vistas. The crowd were amazed and awed by the lasers and the music which thumped in the chest, exhilarating the senses. We Intrepid School trainees were also to undertake a similar journey of wonderment, albeit without the dazzle of the carnival, over the four days we were to spend working closely together at the Centre of Contemporary Culture in Barcelona.
As always with group work, particularly in training environments, there is always the trepidation that collective dynamics can be subtly altered by strong personalities, or that the trainer has very firm ideas about how the work should progress, and in what ways the group should participate. Not so, with this Intrepid School. Both the trainers and the trainees were able to freely exchange with one another ideas, thoughts, questions, concerns. Rather than static groups forming on day one and throughout the course, there was an organic interplay between the researchers, with a physical movement of people between tables and during practical exercises, and with verbal exchanges of ideas and commentary, so that as a result the 22 participants had all got to know each other, and had a pretty good idea about each others’ case study work, by the end of the four days. It was a great privilege to hear about the diverse and interesting research work in support of sustainability being undertaken in a wide range of countries. My own work focuses on how waterside communities understand, interpret and respond to alterations in their local water environments, to provide insights regarding performances and actions which could be deemed resilient in light of these environmental changes. To be able to work alongside researchers who take participatory governance as their focus, whose work enables social innovation to support urban governance, those who explore urban beekeeping as a means of bringing nature into the city fabric and civil engineers trying to design out the reproduction of social inequality often found in geographies of place, has been revelatory and epistemologically enriching. The fusion of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity as subject matter and as practical endeavour within the Intrepid Training School has been a delight, and a chance not just to reflect on the different practices evident in the room, but also a welcome breathing space to ruminate on my own approach, and a chance to take stock and consider other approaches, ways of seeing, ways of doing, that would be beneficial for my work and for the colleagues that I already work with back at the University of Brighton.
Of course, this chance to be inspired is helped greatly by the location. Barcelona is a wonderful city, melding the old with the new. I really felt energised both by being at large in the city – wandering amongst the architecture, taking in the view from my hotel’s 360 degree viewing platform, mingling with the tourists and locals in my chosen neighbourhood in the Ravel – and by listening to, talking with and walking around the city with two members of the Sustainability team from Barcelona City Council. Irma, a biologist, and Tony, an urban planner, were a joy to interact with. Vibrant, funny, engaged, realistic, considerate, passionate – true to the Catalan spirit of a balance between seny (‘common sense’) and rauxa (‘outburst’) they were committed to a sustainable vision for Barcelona with social justice, community integration, economic stability and urban biodiversity as central pillars to ensuring that their city responded to the demands that modernity and climate change place upon it. It was a joy to walk with them through Barcelona, looking at the urban spaces that have been temporarily uplifted by community gardening schemes, street pavements widened to enhance the green infrastructure, understanding the context and ongoing conflictual issues with local residents around changing city centre traffic flows to form ‘superilles’ – or dense blocks of city streets in which cars are rerouted, slowed or removed altogether to create, over time, urban green corridors, repurposed as citizen spaces.
The four days of the Intrepid Training School were intense, playful, thought provoking, reflective, challenging, full of bon homie, rapid coffee drinking, sparks of humour, sanguine reflections on the atomising effects of everyday life, and the self-evident need to embed the importance of reclaiming the option spaces for all of us to be able to perform as good citizens, underpinned by mutual benefits, self actualisation and the chance for everyone to define for themselves the life they would wish to lead for themselves, their families and for future generations. I think for me the work undertaken over these days will be a slow maturation process, as the conversations shared and experiences exchanged will percolate over time, informing my work and shaping the next stage of my research. I very much hope that the Intrepid vision will enable this team of academics, activists, writers and practitioners to come together again to explore the resonances on our professional and personal lives of this time together, and to share future directions in support of sustainability within the context of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.