Letter of motivation for my incorporation as a collaborating member of CICS.NOVA.Uac.

nothing’s confirmed yet but it’s a decent overview of the what and why.

21 September 2023

We live in such a complex world in difficult, changing times. It’s hard to know what is relevant, and how to act on it. It’s easy to feel isolated and overwhelmed. I want to make this situation better.

I am an engineer, at the end of expertise, needing to facilitate insight into how to take action in an uncertain world, through an ethic of care, with no idea how to get there.

An engineer

My PhD was on wastewater biorefineries, which was focused on the beneficiation of wastewater, with its ethical, regulatory and economic implications integrated with the safe discharge of treated water.

As a scientist and engineer my training makes me believe in the scientific method, and the value of expertise, of data, and evidence. I became frustrated at the inability of evidence to effect the the safe treatment and discharge of wastewater, when wastewater is considered a receptacle for all sorts of pollutants that should be caught and removed much further upstream. No amount of evidence can easily convince people to stop believing in “away”. When out of sight is out of mind people will go to great lengths to keep things out of sight.

The final straw was my experience living through climate change, specifically the extreme drought in Cape Town, South Africa during 2016 to 2018, and seeing how the current “command and control” way of governing is woefully inadequate. We cannot govern this way any longer. Further, the spread of misinformation, the rise of populism and demagogues proclaiming simple solutions that are not based in science causes great concern.

at the end of expertise

“Expertise discovers its limits when the predictables are no longer predictable. Expertise that is based on “command and control”, is based on the idea that expertise has no limits. Both our modes of “I know everything” expertise, and modes of collective organising (command and control) — reach their limits in a time of crisis.”

“Researchers should stop seeing [our]selves as the ‘thinking, rational brain of humanity’ and refuse to allow [our] expertise to be used to shut down the concerns of the public, or to spread the belief that scientific progress [technology] is inevitable and will resolve all of society’s problems.”

“Rather, science must engage openly and honestly with an intelligent public and be clear about the kind of knowledge it is capable of producing.”

“Discover the limits of individualism, and rediscover the power of collective action. In an era that has come to be defined by anti-politics, reclaiming this kind of collective, public-minded, ecological politics is what will make the biggest difference.” – Lesley Green, Associate Director: Environmental Humanities South, University of Cape Town.1

1 – http://www.acdi.uct.ac.za/acdi/blog/making-it-through-the-water-crisis

It is easy to condemn people for not believing in experts, for calling them stupid for not believing in scientific evidence. But I have come to understand through working with Lesley (and other colleagues in the Environmental Humanities department during my time at the Future Water Institute at the University of Cape Town) that we need an ethic of care. We need to understand where people are coming from, that what is driving their behaviour is fear, and the sociology of risk. While we have to maintain the rigour of the scientific method, we need to re-establish connection before we can ask people to think critically.

“Successful projects to solve water problems require approaches other than technology—community organization, education, behaviour change, ownership transfer, and long-term monitoring. These approaches, although necessary, create a complexity that has hampered our ability to take any solution to scale. ” – Rajesh Shah 2

2 – https://ssir.org/articles/entry/water_thinking

In the Netflix Explained series3, season 3, episode 9, “Hurricanes” this need for more bottom-up decision-making is articulated well:

“Government-centric problem-solving is going to fail miserably in these large [disaster] events. The more we can have neighbours helping neighbours, the better we can focus the limited government resources on the areas that have the greatest need.” – Craig Fugate, FEMA, USA

“Places that have done the best, during disaster, are the places where we have fostered and nurtured those existing bonds of community.” – Vann Newkirk, journalist

3- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Explained_(TV_series)#Season_3_(2021

needing to facilitate insight into how to take action in an uncertain world

We cannot however altogether disregard evidence. We need to maintain accountability4. The balance and tension between scientific rigour and re-establishing human connection has been on my mind since 2018. When the metaverse became an exciting concept I saw a potential way to combine large scale data in a visually appealing way, with a feminist ethic of care. I have been learning about structured data, the visualisation of that data, and the information technologies that enable this.

All of this is useless if people don’t want to use it. Now it is time to formally investigate the way that people engage with data, how we relate in an online world, how digital public spheres are changing governance, and bring the data science components closer to human connection.

My friends, Jonas Smedegaard, an IT specialist passionate about the semantic web and responsible data management, Siri Reiter, a designer and community sustainability transition practitioner, and myself have been working on a project we call peduncle. A peduncle refers to the eyestalk of a snail consisting of a sensor, and the processing of that information to act on it. This project is both about gaining raw information and creating the agency to act on it.

Figure : peduncle logo, the slug.

Our project Peduncle is a virtual space where knowledge is visual, created with Solid data and Free Software. An everyday-people driven, fun, free and libre open source software (FLOSS), digital twin earth.

The aim of this project is to synthesize coherent insight between different fields; sociology – how people behave, how we engage with data, make decisions, how we are influenced by the new fneeding to facilitate insight into how to take action in an uncertain worldorms of media, political sciences, how we engage in collective awareness, and information technology, to use these insights to inform, and hopefully directly build, a digital social innovation to structure and visualise resource information. Ultimately, we can then use this innovation to shape possible worlds, to create the stories for the world we want to live in, and create the stories to help us get there.

To achieve this there are many technical components, but there are also design components, and the user experience. Underpinning this is the sociology component. Why would people use this? What would prevent them from using it?

For example, OpenStreetMap has contributors, Wikipedia has contributors, but the numbers of contributors are orders of magnitudes lower than the contributors on social media websites like Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps it is the social aspect that is more fun than “doing good”, but these are not mutually exclusive, how can these be integrated?

Nanjala Nyabola, in her book “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya”,6 illustrates how Kenya uses social media for political means, and this needs more research. Now that Facebook and Twitter’s constraints are becoming clear, that social media for profit has fundamental limits for social good, can we design an alternative? What do people really need from such a thing?

through an ethic of care

My understanding of an ethic of care is vague, but mainly influenced by my readings of Carol Gilligan (“Moral Injury and the Ethic of Care: Reframing the Conversation about Differences” (2014, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol 45(1), 89-106) 1. My short-hand for this ethic of care is jouissance. Why jouissance? It’s a reminder to embrace discomfort. The definition of jouissance is “a brief flash of enjoyment achieved after excessive pursuit. The pleasure lies in the obstacles to fulfilment – but only if that fulfilment eventually arrives, and only if there are obstacles.”8

I have held on to this make-shift definition of jouissance for many years now, and have tacked on Carol Gilligan’s characteristics as a make-shift manifesto of jouissance-as-resistance-to-Otherness:

  • Association, Connection, Assemblages
  • Encouraging an ethic of resistance to moral injury
  • Listening in a way that creates trust
  • Replacing judgement with curiosity
  • Gently embracing the intimate

but it has been a footnote, a tagline to my main work which I have tried to keep “professional”: clinical and unemotional and logical and it’s just not working.

but having no idea how to get there

The problem is I have no idea how facilitate insight into how to take action in an uncertain world with an ethic of care. I don’t know what methodologies to use, apart from having a vague idea what I want to see when I interact with my project, I don’t know what specific outcomes to aim for, or how to get there.

While my interest is specifically in urban resource management, with relevance to grassroots-led urban design and climate adaptation, the principles are relevant to local governance. I need an approach that is usable by any community on the globe, because a global approach can give solidarity and reach to excluded communities. At the same time it needs to be sensitive to local contexts. My shorthand for this is a “global cluster of villages”.

The objectives of this project include how much of the framework of data use can be uniform, and how much and where of the innovation’s design needs to be contextually considered. Hence, case studies are envisaged to be employed in several contexts, European (my current home), African (my former home) and potentially others too.

This proposal is not about building the peduncle website, although I intend to make progress with that in parallel. This proposal is about having the rigorous sociological grounding to make sure the peduncle project is not flawed from the start.

I hope to bring a thorough understanding of the social sciences into the science, technology and engineering fields specifically as it relates to non-technical audiences. Bringing the scientific method and critical thinking to the everyday discourse, through an ethic of care.

I will not be able to change who I am. I am a biologist and an engineer. I am proud of that. But that is not enough. I want to understand how people work to respond and contribute better to the social and environmental context we find ourselves in. I believe CICS.NOVA.Uac is a good place for me to contribute to that understanding.


2 https://ssir.org/articles/entry/water_thinking




6Nanjala Nyabola Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya, https://indiebio.co.za/thinking-about-public-spheres/

7“Moral Injury and the Ethic of Care: Reframing the Conversation about Differences” (2014, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol 45(1), 89-106)

8CREMIN, COLIN. Capitalism’s New Clothes: Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis. Pluto Press, 2011. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt183p2gq. Accessed 21 Sept. 2023.

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