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RGS-IBG 2014

RGS_IBG Conference 2014

By Ross Gillard and Jamie Van Alstine


From the 26th to the 29th of August 2014, the Royal Geographical Society’s annual conference took over Exhibition Road in South Kensington. The RGS-IBG building itself, as well as a large portion of the Imperial College London campus, hosted a staggering 414 sessions attended by swarms of delegates wearing red lanyards and leafing through the sizeable conference guidebook. The conference theme of ‘Geographies of Co-Production’ and its implicit call for diverse participation was fully realised by the plethora of sessions on offer. Plenaries, presentations, roundtables and workshops were plentiful whilst a small selection of companion exhibitions and fieldtrips were also available for more interactive moments. Regardless of discipline or subject area there was something for everyone; traversing ‘energy landscapes’, living in ‘green cities’, co-creating in the ‘digital age’, examining ‘geoaesthetics’, networking among ‘entrepreneurs’ and contesting all manner of ‘spaces’. So many different analytical lenses and empirical contexts came together to create a vibrant atmosphere of inter-/trans-disciplinary exploration.

The University of Leeds’ presence at this years’ conference was strong. Both staff and research students were heavily involved in convening and contributing to sessions. Academics from the Institute for Transport Studies, from the school of Geography and from the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) in particular were there in force. Leeds representatives convened a number of sessions with SRI staff hosting two full afternoons dedicated to:

  • The co-production of norms in the extractive industries and the governance of ‘resource frontiers’
  • Awkward space(s) and institutions of climate change: governing adaptation in the Anthropocene

Both sessions combined SRI sponsored research with work from other institutions to produce insights on the key governance debates surrounding natural resource extraction and climate change adaptation.

The co-production of norms in the extractive industries and the governance of ‘resource frontiers’

This session co-convened by Dr James Van Alstine and Dr Jen Dyer from the Sustainability Research Institute and Prof Gavin Hilson from the University of Surrey, invited papers to critically evaluate the co-production of norms in the extractive industries, particularly in the context of resource frontiers. Presentations explored topics in a range of frontier, greenfield, and ‘ungoverned’ locations from the Arctic to West Africa, to Malaysia. In the first part of the session the presentations explored the drivers and implications of Chinese investment and participation in artisanal and small-scale mining in West Africa; oil and gas governance and impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems services in Nigeria; private sector involvement in climate compatible development in Zambia; and the impact of perceptions of uranium on resource governance in Greenland. The second set of presentations explored the politics of struggles over land rights in a resource frontier in Malaysia; the spaces for community participation in resource governance in Uganda’s emerging oil industry; the challenges of local level implementation of the Ruggie Principles; and last but not least, the issue of transparency in resource governance in Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria.

We had the honour of being joined by Professor Gavin Bridge from Durham University as a discussant during the second round of presentations. Gavin chose some of the salient concepts from the four presentations to further discuss, linking them to wider themes emerging from the conference sessions, as well as to the some of the seminal literature on these topics. Gavin discussed the new social and economic forms that emerge from cyclonic resource booms, and the struggle over land and resources which impact space and access to power. He pointed to the narration of ‘the frontier’ as a gendered space, which emerged from Jennifer’s presentation, and the political impacts of such discursive constructions. He made the link between Corporate Social Responsibility and James Ferguson’s ‘anti-politics machine’, given CSR’s tendency to turns issues of power and allocation into technical processes, and pointed to the changing forms of governance in different settings and how the state can often be present in different ways, for example through militarisation in resource enclaves. He reminded us of the importance of temporality in resource contexts, and how expectations, fears and aspirations change as the project cycle evolves and the implications of this for resource governance more broadly.

Awkward space(s) and institutions of climate change: governing adaptation in the Anthropocene

Bringing together researchers from the UK, Australia, Thailand and Canada this double-bill of presentations co-convened by Dr Andrew Kythreotis (University of Cardiff) and Dr James Porter (University of Leeds) focussed on why climate change adaptation initiatives so often suffer from misalignment with the institutions responsible for supporting them. In the first half of the afternoon the presentations spelled out the governance challenges facing the international level followed by some empirical insights from the UK, showing how the cross-scalar translation of climate policies is having minimal impact on-the-ground. Finally, a whirlwind tour of four dominant discourses surrounding transformational adaptation was given. Drawing on cultural studies and Descola’s notion of ‘worlding’ we were reminded of the need to understand the contradictions and complementarities among different proponents’ worldviews when discussing climate change adaptation.

Starting out with two in-depth cases studies of community responses to flooding in Mozambique and Thailand the second session sought to highlight how vulnerability and the costs and benefits of adaptation are often unevenly distributed. The final presentation by Ross Gillard from the University of Leeds traced some of these regressive impacts of adaptation responses back to the way change is framed in the literature, arguing for an increased sensitivity to issues of power, representation and co-production. With the aid of a guest discussant   and strong audience participation the session ended with a lively debate about the multiplicity of conceptualisations, as well as enactments, of adaptation. Ultimately, the design and fit between institutions and initiatives hinges on how adequately and transparently these multiplicities are brought together i.e. how well we conduct the art of co-production.

Parting Thoughts

Despite the overwhelming amount of sessions and spaces for interaction on offer throughout the conference, the University of Leeds, and in particular the Sustainability Research Institute, was able to showcase its leading research and bring together other academics and delegates to really explore some of the key issues of co-production in the extractives industry and climate change adaptation. Strong contacts were made with fellow presenters, making future collaborations / opportunities for SRI to lead the way in these areas of research more than likely.

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