Action-oriented research and learning societies


The Forum is working with AR+ in the Ficino Project: Liberating Ivory Towers to create sustainable learning societies, with a focus on action-oriented research. The initiative is discussed by Hilary Bradbury, founder Hubstress of AR+ and Steward of the Capacity Working Group of the Forum; and Steve Waddell, co-founder and Lead Staff of the SDG Transformations Forum.

Hilary: We’re on our way to the first AR+ co-action researching conference, March 8-10 at Chalmers University. That’s in Sweden (land of great coffee, o yes and gender egalitarianism. And Abba!) . Even if it’s a bit cliche, the Chinese saying, ‘every journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step’ seems perfect. So let’s get our shoes on.  (She says while still looking for her shoes!)

Steve:  I wonder if the word “gathering” might be better.  Many of us are tired of tiresome conferences! But bigger question: what’s important for this gathering? I’m going because it’s a particularly important milestone in many in the Ficino Project we’re doing. AR+ has been operating for a couple years now and the Forum is part of AR+, which in turn is part of the Forum’s Capacity Working Group. So we’re asking how do we support societal transformation needed for a generative world?  AR+ is raising consciousness of action research as one way, and action-oriented science more broadly — so that includes Transdisciplinary work, Engaged Scholarship, transgressive learning and just lots of work people are simply doing because they realize it’s needed. What is going to be different after this gathering

Hilary: Let’s imagine that AR has a contribution to make to the necessary transformation of society. What does that look like? It looks like many things, right…but let’s start with transforming academia to support a learning society. What would that look like? We join others in thinking about this and our journey to Sweden means attracting a wider experimental community into the re-generation of learning, especially in the context of higher education.

Steve: The transformation of academia – that’s a nice large systems change challenge! It raises key questions such as: What are the implications for more universities putting communities and their issues at the center of our own learning and students’ lives.

Hilary: Well, it’s a place to start. And let’s keep an open mind about higher education and how it’s transforming, both inside the legacy universities and the new designs for future universities. AR+ had its genesis with a scholarly journal ARJ. The Board wanted to break through the scholar-practitioner barrier.  It’s quite a barrier. Not least is the paywall between readers and the articles we develop for publication. There was a sense that the worlds of practice and academia are too disconnected.  These worlds are in need of reunification and mutual regeneration. It’s not straightforward how!  Larger society is demanding more of academia. We need new ways to connect, reimagine, re-experiment.

Steve: With the organizing for this gathering, we’re catalyzing a new global experiment, called the Ficino Project. (We’ll share  more about that next blog).  For now let’s explore what we’re seeing when we say academia needs to be transformed. It’s a bit rude to say that, no?  It’s encumbered with an Ivory Tower model that doesn’t provide for the type of learning society we need to address the real threats and opportunities we face for flourishing futures for all. For sure, a learning society is key to that! But academia also is an important for developing a learning society.

Hilary: Yup, it’s that consideration for the very potential of academia that makes me so rude.  I see a runaway climate change/sustainability crisis, artificial Intelligence/huge technology shifts, urbanization of a burgeoning  population along with the rise of “the feminine,” all of it suggesting that the old “modernist” social contract is now up for grabs.  We – the lucky ones – have fragile democracy and mainstream academia is not up to the problem. But here’s the happy twist, probably more than many institutions it can be…that’s where the brain power is, the original urge to elevate the human condition.

Steve: We’re moving toward our vision of learning societies with a sense that current knowledge creation processes are not helping us meet these challenges.  They may even be making things worse. 

Hilary: Knowledge creation at universities is underperforming with regard to what’s needed by society, to put it mildly.  Have you noticed in popular media how the professor types often are seen as weird or dangerous. I’m thinking for example of the new novel by the author of Fight Club. Professors are gun targets! Not a good sign.

Steve: …they’re seen as the aloof experts who find working with communities so difficult. So yes the Ficino Project is about bringing together people with a different vision, people practiced in transformative knowledge creation processes to reenergize and renew our commitments. 

Hilary: And our very humanity – not techno-rational talking heads – is what will help.  So a first design principle for this conference, for the learning futures effort is that participants will enjoy a rich enough relational space to allow for purposeful personal, inter-personal and institutional connections.

Steve: What’s so hard about that…except that most conferences somehow block that very thing, with talking heads and no room for deep connection.

Hilary: Conferences operate with the same spirit of knowledge creation as conventional academia.  In a way our conference is an experiment in that very transformation.  Not to make the stakes too high!!

Steve: Before we get there: What are your top 5 reasons for how Ivory Tower academia fails to help society meet/navigate the current crises? 

Hilary: There’s a lot to appreciate about academia. I feel that it’s “my tribe.” But OK. And maybe they’re not the perfect 5 and who says 5 is a good number…But five limits on academia’s ability today in responding to our crises include:

  • Rankings used to market universities that measure only what’s easy to measure  – but not necessarily important,
  • A punishing reward system for professors that is too much about “disinterested” publications,
  • General structure (lack of engagement with stakeholders; class size and timetables) that limits high quality experiential learning,
  • The self identity of faculty gatekeepers as “detached observers”
  • A millennium of institutional success that results in inertia, AKA why quit when it’s worked so well for so long?!

Steve: That’s a start! We’ll come back for more as we develop our thinking and bring into our conversation the many voices having this discussion — a kind of thinking out loud about learning futures and capacity building. And we’ll have some webinars for people interested in these issues…stay tuned.

Hilary: In the meantime we look forward to comments and suggestions…   

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