Vice Chancellor’s Challenge 2017, a Reflective Report

The VCC competition is a new scheme that recruits teams of students to work across disciplines on issues relating to global challenge. In 2017, the topic was Sustainable Cities. Student teams were supported by staff from across the university, including our Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir David Eastwood. LANS students were finalists in 2017.

By Natacha Askovic (Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, fourth year student)

Why did I immediately feel that a topic on Sustainability was one for me?

The year I spent in Sweden as an exchange student [the LANS Year Abroad] has contributed a lot to changing my mind-set, to making me grow up as an individual and a student. Taking courses in Sustainability (Sustainability: Greening the Economy – lessons from Scandinavia) and Environmental Governance have greatly contributed to shaping my knowledge on global environmental issues and the various theories underlying their understanding, as well as the different solutions used/suggested to limit their effect and/or deal with the situation we have brought ourselves in.

I can say now with hindsight that I had already developed, even before Sweden, strong interests in topics related to ecology on one side, and social studies on the other. It is also mostly the reason why I decided to go to Sweden, even though at the time of applications, I did not use these terms to refer to my decision to pursuing my exchange studies in Lund; it is only after studying there and being part of a very sustainable and environmentally-friendly community that I was able to truly phrase what made me want to go there in the first place – and what actually attracts me about Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular.

At the end of the day, what I have known for years now is that I want to make sure the world that surrounds me is a better place – and that I never leave it worse off on a daily basis! – and throughout my experience at University, I have been led to consider SUSTAINABILITY as the framework in which I would develop both myself as an individual and my future career.

I found out about the Vice Chancellor at the beginning of my second semester abroad, when I was already more aware of my appeal for these themes, and I was truly driven by the topic of Sustainable Cities and Communities, simply because I felt that I was part of a Sustainable Community living in a Sustainable (Student) City – among a lot of other things, I learnt how to recycle EVERYTHING in Sweden, using literally the 8 different bins we had in our flat!

“Could you have the answer to a global challenge”: the LANS approach to the Challenge

Now the VCC is over, I strongly believe that we stood out from the rest of the groups, as LANS students, with regard to our approach. Our team was made up of five members, each of us having very interdisciplinary profiles, and this was both very beneficial and challenging in the first phase of research. In my case, my academic areas of interests are mainly centred around economics and international relations. In the specific given framework of Sustainability, I was immediately attracted to the questions related to Green Economy, Circular Economy and green political thoughts (Ecosocialism, Bioenvironmentalist ideas, the institutionalists approach to global environmental issues). Considering this is a topic that I am truly fond of, I enjoyed doing a lot of research on top of my already solid background on the questions we raised as a team regarding how we could tackle the challenge.

Quickly after we had our team constituted, we were faced with a few difficulties, difficulties that I feel we managed to successfully overcome. I believe that the first and probably main challenge for us while we were still abroad was to settle on a topic/project and this was for several reasons.

The first one was common to all of the teams and related to how vague the instructions were. The expectations on the significance of our project as a solution were also very unclear [this was the first time the scheme had run, and the expectations evolved as the project developed]. Secondly, as LANS students, we all have very interdisciplinary profiles already, with majors from various colleges, (and thus also different research methods, academic perspectives etc.) and we were asked to work on an already very interdisciplinary and very broad topic, which I think did not necessarily mean that it was harder for us, but rather we would approach the question differently from the very early stages compared to the other teams. Last but not least, we were all abroad making physical meetings impossible and also faced the difficulty of finding suitable times for Skype calls as we were in different time zones (Sweden, South Korea, Germany and Australia).

For all of these various reasons, it seemed hard to settle on a topic. When we started running out of time, it was decided that every single member should come up with a solution rather than an issue relating to sustainability, and from there find the problem(s) it relates to/solves, thus making the project both innovative and interesting and having an actual impact. We would then all vote and so Urban Gardens was the solution we settled on.

I offered to work on the idea of closed loops, a project that would involve circular process – having in mind the research on circular economies very promoted in Sweden and at the EU level – since circular/closed processes and cycles, or loop models, could be applied in a lot of different areas (academic, industrial, manufacturing, waste management, and actually urban gardens too!). Not only do I believe this bit of input influenced a lot our research and project as well, but also that it is absolutely essential to the concept of sustainability, since it could resolve the paradox that resides in the growing interest in environmental issues on the one hand, and the importance granted to economic objectives (growth) in the current world on the other hand.

BUGGs working on their platform: the long-term implications

As I learnt throughout my module on the Greening of the Economy, the concept of ‘sustainability’ does not only refer to environmental impacts and practices, but rather relies on three pillars, i.e. the economy, the society and the environment. Very quickly, I understood that the social one was at the heart of sustainability since societies as a whole are included within the economy, which in turn is part of the environment that surrounds us – indeed this is HOW we have decided to organise our societies on a global scale. We hence felt that if we (and when I say ‘we’, I mean anyone who has any interest in sustainability), could work within this pillar and help people develop a sense of connection with the environment while at the same improving social cohesion, empowering communities by teaching them how to be more self sufficient together, this was both life-changing for so many people here, around us in Birmingham, and at the same time a great step in the pursuit of sustainable development.

Urban gardens – or community local food growing – would help build both social cohesion that is so essential for all the individuals for so many obvious reasons – among which well-being, personal development, more (equal) opportunities… We pictured it as a process relating to the grass roots, or bottom-up approach: by shifting back the focus to local action, this could trigger realization of the importance of say more environmental friendly practices by the individuals; it could also impact on consumption habits, nutrition-related awareness and so on. Shifting the focus back to the local level means defining an improved quality of life and thus creating visions of sustainable lifestyles. This in turn leads to the need to work on designing, supporting and governing more sustainable cities where people have a good life and hence shows the key role that innovation and clean technology have in this greening economy.

Then, developments at the business and innovation level are expected to also lead to increased awareness and involvement at the governance level, with effective strategic planning and integration of policy instruments. This is the reason why we believe that working on the social pillar at our level is the best way to trigger this long-term process while still getting these very powerful short-term benefits, essentially related to food security, increased social cohesion, development of important skills etc.

To recap, I would say that it was not so much that we consider environmental or economic aspects of sustainability as less important than the social ones, but rather that as students asked to work on sustainability, the most REALISTIC and EFFECTIVE approach to Sustainable Communities and Cities was to start with a focus on the social sphere of the concept. Thus, Birmingham Urban Gardening Group (BUGG).

The benefits of participating?

I think that the most rewarding aspect of being part of this team and what made me so proud of us was literally knowing how feasible and concrete all of this is. We did not just come up with a utopian project relying on years of deep research, or huge finances. It was thought through to be as practical and achievable as if it was to be done tomorrow. We exactly know how we would proceed with our online platform, serving as a link to all the community gardens and people wanting to get involved in the offline community it would serve. We know we would go to schools and talk to children, and show them what they can do. We know this would bring families together to urban gardens, and create a strong connection to the environment and awareness on food practices, as well as help them all develop strong skills while meeting people they would not get to know otherwise, and so bringing communities together.

The final year is challenging enough but at the end of the day, I study because I believe in myself and what I can achieve through my studies. Studying is not just about satisfying my parents or making sure I earn enough money, it’s about the impact we can have as individuals, it’s about our beliefs and how we use our skills, our knowledge, our strengths and weaknesses to satisfy our values.

As written in the Brundtland Report (1987), ‘humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ and ‘technology and social organisation can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth’. With the aim of developing a sustainable project for the VCC, we manage to reach policy advisors, to meet community gardens managers but also communities who already are part of it, and to offer a solution to tackling food poverty (a topic that’s close to my heart, and that I am focusing on for my LANS dissertation too!) and the strong inequalities, and reduce the lack of social cohesion in the area of Birmingham.

In conclusion

Despite the challenges raised here, I think that the VCC highlighted how much we have benefited from our course: team work (for the core modules) + interdisciplinary modules + stimulating debates thanks to the our very personal perspectives. I think that our project was also about making compromises for each of us, both very obviously on the topic and maybe less on the entire expectations related to the project. I think that it is easy to see how much I have learnt on the concept of sustainability though this work, but also on the development of a project of applied sustainability in relatively long-term. A topic on Sustainable Cities and Communities is of genuine global importance, and I already had a taste of its practicality while doing my placement this summer at the Economic Department/French Embassy in Croatia and working on the state and potential of the Energy sector; I was glad to work on the VCC because it meant creating from scratch something more concrete and achievable, which also added to my experience to the field.

Advertisements

Re-viewing Rome (LANS summer study tour 2017)

IMG_3939

Arch of Titus, Forum Romanum (4/7/2017)

Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Rome study tour: 3rd-8th July 2017

One of the pleasures of being Dean is that I have twice had the opportunity to spend a summer week learning with and from a cross-section of our LANS students, while also talking to them about my own area of research expertise, the turbulent years of the late Roman Republic (the first century BCE) and the impact of that revolutionary era on how modern citizenship continues to be defined and contextualised. I blogged that first trip, and will try not to replicate too much of what I recounted there, here 🙂

With University of Birmingham doctoral candidate Miriam Bay, and guided by the wonderful Agnes Crawford, we worked our way through Rome and its environs with thirteen LANS students, moving from radical urbanism in classical antiquity to the modern city’s shifting acknowledgement of the importance and perils of embracing change.

IMG_3999

Streets in Rome’s Ghetto amply evidence the ‘layered’ quality of the cityscape (4/7/2017)

Rome, for me, is the ultimate laboratory city. Perhaps it’s my research focus talking, but in articulating my vision of what the tour would deliver (when describing it, back in January, to an interested but uncertain group of potential student travellers) I saw the sparks of questions, challenges, ideas, and responses flicker across their faces; to reappear over the ‘welcome’ dinner we hosted (at L’Isola della Pizza) for the whole group on 3rd July 2017, and as we made our first foray into the Forum Romanum early morning on 4th July.

Day 2 (4 July 2017)

IMG_3922

Spoliation, repurposing, but also the lure of genius loci are all on display for scrutiny (4/7/2017)

As Agnes emphasised, that calendar serendipity gave bite to our consideration of the complex forces that cause a people to turn upon themselves in civil war and in the process, to scrutinise and find wanting a myriad previously unquestioned myths of self-determination. These were the years when autochthony and (in a phrase Agnes used as a motif for the week’s study) genius loci (spirit of place) crystallised within Roman identify-formation. By the second century BCE Rome controlled a growing Mediterranean empire; no longer a city-state confined by peninsular Italy, yet still uneasily related to the peoples and cultures of its nearest neighbours.

This was an era when land use and land rights, not to mention rural to urban migration, linguistic change, and a reverse cultural imperialism (speaking to and striking back at Rome) from the literate Hellenic kingdoms that had previously dominated the western world, were all troubling the growing and increasingly urban political elites. It was also an era in which centuries of oligarchic politics (res publica or ‘public affairs’) were foundering as charismatic individuals (reformers, agitators, cynics, soldiers, demagogues…) began to see ways to game the system and wrest control from the few — by promising to transfer it to the many.

IMG_3929

The Temple of the Dioscuri — where we thought about how/why new gods get assimilated (4/7/2017)

Strolling through the Forum we considered how that genius loci paradoxically became a force for political and religious conservatism (‘we have always done x in y manner in z place, we always will; it’s who we are’) and also radical revisionism (‘by doing x in y place we validate transforming how, why, when, by whom it is done in z manner’). Thus, the Curia (a chamber used for meetings of the Senate, traditionally Rome’s conciliar body) which occupies a site by the Arch of Septimius Severus both is and is not the Curia constructed over two millennia before, by the Dictator (at that time still a regular office within consensus politics) ‘Lucky’ Sulla. And it also does and does not recall Mussolini’s early twentieth-century programme of laying bare, often with brutality to the urban fabric of the intervening centuries, what might be recalled to life as ancient proof of Rome’s destined imperial greatness.

As we discussed how the forces of history act not only on the fabric but also the context of how buildings function, we stopped at two evocative death zones. The mysterious Lapis Niger or ‘Black Stone’ (in one legend, the site of the burial of Rome’s founding father Romulus back in the eighth century BCE) is a waymarker for two other key funereal moments in the Forum: the riots, fires, and destruction that followed the deaths of Publius Clodius Pulcher (arch-nemesis of the orator and statesman Cicero) and, not long after, of Julius Caesar.

IMG_3924

The Deified Julius’ temple abuts the former home of the Pontifex Maximus and the commercial and civic centre known as the Basilica Aemilia-Paulli which went through significant changes in form and use (4/7/2017).

The temple to the God Caesar, dedicated shortly after his assassination in March 44 BCE, brings that strand in urban morphology full-circle. Like charismatic leader Romulus (in one version of the legend), Caesar was killed by his colleagues — a rebel conservative group within the political elite. Also like Romulus, he gained permanence within the built environment of the Forum. As Agnes reminded us, the extraordinary thing for contemporary Romans to get their heads around must have been that while humans in myth did indeed cross over into divinity, this was the first time a man with whom one might have had lunch made such a transformation.

The Forum was the heart of the Republican-era city, and while it had few permanent inhabitants (exceptions: the Pontifex Maximus, or Chief Priest, plus the college of female priests called the Vestal Virgins, a powerful cadre of professionally unmarried women) it was the hub for the courts and legal activity, for religious practice, political deliberation, for marking the triumphant return of successful military commanders. It had shops, monuments, arcades within which to stroll, and before the construction of permanent theatres or amphitheatres, it was a space for staging public entertainments. Setting the new God Caesar in this context, in a brand new marble temple, sent a powerful political and cultural message to upholders of the previous status quo.

IMG_3935

Pausing in the portico garden of the House of the Vestals gave us a chance to gaze up towards the Palatine Hill, and think about why statues are most vulnerable at their necks… (4/7/2017)

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Palatine Hill, the zone towards which power began to shift under the next phase in Rome’s political development: the era of the Principate, ushered in by Caesar’s heir who took the honorific name Augustus.

Rome’s Seven Hills are famous (even if no-one in antiquity exactly agreed which of the many more than seven were the Seven), and the Palatine gave us the chance to talk through the rapidity with which political power shifts can become inscribed on physical topography, and in turn shift cultural expectations. Elevated on a hill, Augustus’ (relatively) modest house was gradually added to, first by him (the construction of a temple complex to the god who helped him come to power, Apollo) then by subsequent ‘emperors’ (a term which in antiquity meant someone with officially sanctioned power, but without the autocratic connotations we now attach to it).

The vestigial remains of one part of that eventually imperial residential complex developed by the emperor Domitian (51-96 CE) showcased the superfluity and conspicuous consumption that characterised the powerful architectural and visual rhetoric of Roman ‘palace’ complexes (‘palace’ from…Palatine!). We would see aspects of this visual rhetoric (opus sectile, scale, complex geometric built form, rich materials) in the static experience and staged movement through space at the Pantheon (that afternoon), St. Peter’s and EUR (6 July), and Hadrian’s Villa (7 July).

After lunch we worked our way through the city zone that was in antiquity the Campus Martius (Field of Mars). Once outside the city limits, it was incorporated, shifting during the late Republic from a green-belt military exercise ground to an entertainment zone hosting the city’s first stone theatres, an amphitheatre, a grand public baths and gymnasium, gardens, galleries, and places of religious worship (including temples of some of the new gods Rome was so good at assimilating, for instance Egyptian Isis; but also giving us a chance to discuss a characteristically Egyptian power-icon, the obelisk, imported into Rome’s urban visual vocabulary).

IMG_4020

S. Maria in Trastevere (4/7/2017)

We though about urban segregation: by ethnicity/religion (within the confines of the Jewish Ghetto), by risk (on Tiber Island, a place of isolation and healing of the sick since classical antiquity), and by choice (the changed urban dynamic reflected in Papal realignment of power at Rome centred on the north-west bank of the river, some distance from the historic centre).

At Santa Maria in Trastevere we concluded the day, thinking about ‘left bank’ politics, spoliation and continuity with classical antiquity, and how radical was the iconographic shift from medieval to renaissance rhetorics of power.

IMG_3992

This charming fountain just outside the Ghetto belies the troubled history of Rome’s relationship with its Jewish population, and the wider challenges of how urban morphology aids/hinders integration (4/7/2017)

All these changes had deeply personal effects on individual lives, but also created seismic shifts in the economic, infrastructural, and political life of the city and its topography.

Day 3 (5 July 2017)

LANS students impressed us all with their ability to get up early and be on time for morning meet ups that were typically 0730! Students were staying in apartments on either side of the Tiber, and had to make their way independently every morning to the designated site — what stars they all were! Wednesday we were on a train to Ostia Antica by 0800 (some of us had postponed breakfast till the caffe at Porta San Paolo station…).

Agnes gave students a clear sense of how visiting Ostia not only presents the skeleton of an ancient city laid bare, but also tells a story of how geographic and environmental change have a radical impact on urban and economic life. This was a port city which lost its connection to the sea, and with its waterway gone, was abandoned to time. Commerce and economic life moved with the changes in the river’s course and the coastline. This vital impact of the river at the heart of Rome’s success was embedded by Agnes in discussions all week. As she reminded students, Rome itself may have been founded where it was not because of a legend of abandoned twins washed up on its banks (Romulus and Remus) but pragmatically because the salt route, moving inland from the coastal salt-flats, found a fordable point there on the Tiber. Commerce and politics then grew up around that site.

For lunch that day we ate at Flavio al Velavevodetto, a wonderful restaurant built into the base of Monte Testaccio, a hill composed artificially in antiquity as a terraced rubbish dump for broken potsherds, detritus of the city port on the Tiber from whence cargo from Ostia was unloaded and ported onwards (over land or using smaller boats).

IMG_4192

‘…along the banks of the sacred river, as far as the Tyrrhenian shores’ (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Similarly, on Thursday evening, at our visit to EUR we saw the famous inscriptions emphasising the River Tiber as a vital artery connecting Italy with its renewed twentieth-century status as a Mediterranean superpower, and characterising Italians as navigators, a nod to the importance of proximity to the sea by way of that watery road.

IMG_4098

Getting a straight line-up together in the cortile at the Palazzo Orsini-Taverna proved harder than one might think… (5/7/2017)

Wednesday evening was the first of our formal lectures, a tour-de-force exposition of what the terminology of the ‘palimpsest’ means when thinking syn- and diachronically about cities, delivered by Prof. Davide Vitale of the University of Arkansas Rome Center (based at the beautiful and evocative Palazzo Orsini-Taverna). I heard students dropping the term blithely into conversation over the following days, and am in awe of how well Davide managed to capture them with this new earworm at the end of another long hot Roman day!

The temperatures were in the mid- to high 30sC all week, so alongside breaks where possible during the early afternoon, we reconvened when it was cooler for evening activities.

After our lecture on the politics of architectural history we thus strolled briskly to the Ara Pacis Museum to look at a very old object (the Altar of Peace, commissioned for Augustus by a grateful Senate to celebrate peace in the empire and at Rome; dedicated in 9 BCE), significantly restored and reconstructed in a new location, excavated using cutting-edge technology, contextualised by a Piazza proud with fascist-era sloganeering and bombast, contained within a new museum (one of the only new buildings permitted to be built in the city’s historic heart) an external wall of which bears the autobiographically styled account by Augustus of his array of ‘things achieved’ (Res Gestae Diui Augusti).

IMG_3962

Do private finance and corporate investment represent a new dawn for the restoration and upkeep of cultural heritage? Are there dangers? (Colosseum, 4/7/2017)

Phew. Not to mention that like the Colosseum (where we ended up on Tuesday lunchtime), the Mausoleum of Augustus (the centrepiece of the Piazza) too will be subject to a restoration enabled by a public-private partnership, bankrolled by Italian commercial and telecoms giants. This, we decided, bore thinking about.

Day 4 (6 July 2017)

Thursday 6 July was another very early start: 0730 at a caffe near St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s gave us a chance to think about how this part of the city had been re-zoned by the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the rise of the Papacy, and the seismic shift operated by the fall of Constantinople leading in large part to what would become known as the Renaissance (with all the architectural, political, economic, artistic, and religious shifts that entailed).

The world really was changed as humanocentric theories of the cosmos were challenged (and eventually overturned) and the Catholic Church began the counterattack against ‘protesting’ voices unhappy with the style, ethos, and manner of central religious government.

IMG_3986

St. Ignazio, where a trompe l’oeil ceiling (and dizzyingly fake dome) helped students think about how the counter-reformation Catholic Church fought back… (4/7/2017)

From the church of St. Ignazio with its emphasis on the unknowability of the logic and language of the divine (unless mediated by the Church for its flock) to St. Peter’s (with its massive evocation of classical forms to lend authority, scale, and wow-factor, while reminding pilgrims that Catholicism remained Peter’s foundation and an earthly manifestation hinting at ineffable heavenly glory), we saw again and again how the urban vocabulary of classical antiquity and ancient Roman innovation formed vital motifs in successive negotiations of civic power and authority.

The Vatican also, of course, recalls the Lateran Treaty (1929) and the rapprochement between Church and State that saw the papacy make peace with Mussolini in exchange (among other things) for territorial rights. We saw flickers of this as we studied the iconography and design of the buildings left representing what was to be a showpiece of Mussolini’s fascist (from the Latin term fasces, the name for the symbols of office associated with the magistrates of the Res Publica) vision.

See St. Peter's dome rising, right below the Colosseum and just a swerve from the Pantheon!

Antiquity, Christianity, and politics jostle in this unusual frieze (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Concretised in a grand exhibition (Esposizione Universale di Roma, EUR) in 1942, this vision was to illuminate the modern capital city and (not long ago unified) nation as a ‘Third Rome’ (after the Emperors and the Popes). It would have stressed both the continuity and majestic progress embodied in Italy’s new and improved redevelopment of imperial status.

We had an unexpected transport strike to deal with that day, so Agnes’ ability to hire us a minibus (blessedly, with air conditioning — by 1600 when we were leaving for EUR the heat was intense) last minute was totally miraculous!

Our minibus moved us in style between key sites at EUR (sadly, the Museo della Civilta Romana is still closed), then returned us to the city centre where we variously went for a quick drink and/or a gelato before reconvening for our second evening lecture of the week: Miriam’s introduction to the ideological design linking botany, art, architecture, religion, history, and politics at the Villa d’Este, where we would conclude our visits the following day.

Day 5 (7 July 2017)

Friday morning saw many bleary faces. My impression is that the LANS students made a night of it and fully enjoyed Rome’s summer party atmosphere. I, by contrast, had embraced an early night. We set out for Tivoli in our mini-bus at 0830, and after a pity-pit-stop for coffee / cold drinks / cake at the nearby bar we tackled the archaeological site of the country estate said to have been designed by the Emperor Hadrian. Agnes had designed a route to give maximum thematic value and access to key zones while also keeping us moving between water fountains and patches of shade.

IMG_0036

Orientation: Villa Adriana (7/7/2017)

Crucial discussions picked up on the power of scale and decor, and the relationship of designed space to movement patterns and ideology. In a site as big as this one, with so many unique and complex architectural forms to get to grips with, the most important thing for LANS students was to understand the complex interrelationship between such disparate areas of expertise and authority, and the significance of buying in (or knowing how to source) expertise when novel problems appear.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hadrian, an emperor famed for forcing his ‘court’ to join him at his out-of-town villa (or on-tour across the empire), dabbled in architecture and philosophy, and wrote poetry (as well as governing most of the known world). After lunch at the hill town of Tivoli we finished our week’s work with the water-fantasia that is the Villa d’Este.

This sixteenth-century palazzo and garden complex, designed for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este by architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio (just as Ligorio was excavating the nearby site of Hadrian’s villa, for his patron the Cardinal — see a googlebooks preview of David R. Coffin’s 2004 study of Ligorio here), is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, but sadly diminished in terms of the working hydraulics as originally envisaged.

We were lucky to have Miriam as our guide for the gardens because her research is breaking new ground in explaining how the somatic, architectonic, natural, economic, hydraulic, political, religious, and personal all coalesce in a stroll through the water-feature filled terraces. I’m not going to give away Miriam’s original analysis in this blog! Lucky students got a sneak preview, everyone else reading this will have to wait for the completed thesis.

Suffice to say that the stimulating and cooling properties of the Villa d’Este made for a perfectly judged end to a memorable trip, which concluded that night with a very convivial dinner at Trattoria Polese.

There was genuine emotion on display as our meal ended, coffees were drunk, and Miriam and I made a closing address to sum up some of what we hope and believe the week achieved. It’s been a real privilege to share this intensive learning experience with such a great group!

Controlling Crypto-Currencies, June 2015

Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences was delighted to have the opportunity to sponsor a conference on crypto-currencies as part of our goal to foster lively debate on provocative and challenging topics. With Apple Pay just launched in the UK, and contactless payments becoming ever more normalised, exploring the ripple effect from crypto-currencies becomes increasingly important and urgent. University of Birmingham Law lecturer Dr Tatiana Cutts reports back from the conference, for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences.

Tatiana writes:

In the year of the bailouts, 2008, The bankers were printing more debt for the state The dollar grew weaker, the big picture clear As they fed the hangover more Keynesian beer […] Who’s to blame, is this caused by desire for wealth? When perhaps the real problem is money itself! The idea isn’t new, maybe everything’s tanking ‘Cause society is built on fractional reserve banking And so called ‘‘investment’’ and attempted control May soon spiral fiat into a death roll […].

 — an Ode to Satoshi Nakamoto, “coretechs”

In 2008, in a paper published in an online cryptography forum under the name “Satoshi Nakamoto”, a writer presented the blueprint for a decentralised digital monetary system. Through that system, Nakamoto attempted to eliminate the risk of double spending without reliance upon trusted third parties, such as banks and credit-card providers. Bitcoin was introduced shortly afterwards as open-source software, and gained momentum gradually, as those with personal, economic and/or political agendas began to adopt the new technology. Bitcoin’s popularity increased rapidly when in 2011 Wikileaks announced that it would accept donations in Bitcoin. That decision resulted in one of the first significant spikes in value, and at the start of 2015 the value of one bitcoin stood at a little over $300.00. The Bitcoin system adheres closely to Nakamoto’s model. “Miners” solve complex computational problems by which transactions are verified and recorded in a public ledger (the “Blockchain”), in return for bitcoins. Users hold a private and public “key”, and release only the latter to make a payment. In this way, the system is entirely pseudonymous, and can be maintained and developed without the need for a central authority. Thus far, the number of Bitcoin transactions carried out each day across the globe has never exceeded 130,000, in comparison with approximately 295 million conventional payment transactions in Europe alone. Nonetheless, the European Banking Authority, the US Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCen”), the UK Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) and HM Treasury, amongst others, have accepted that the risks of crypto-currency are too many and too great to ignore. Further, the pressure from the Bitcoin community to develop clear rules is growing: service-providers want the consumer confidence associated with state approval, and need the support of traditional financial organisations in order to continue to grow. In many cases Bitcoin business are already engaged in anticipatory self-regulation. On 12 June 2015 Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences supported a conference on crypto-currencies, hosted at the University of Birmingham by Tatiana Cutts and Joanna Gray of the Law School. Its purpose was to bring together practitioners, stakeholders, financial regulators, and academics to discuss the most important issues raised by these developments, in order to create a solid research platform to inform emerging regulatory and private law frameworks. The day began with an introductory talk by Jonathan Levin of Chainalysis, who introduced some of the foundational concepts and fundamental questions in Bitcoin and distributed ledger technology. Next up was Dirk Haubrich of the European Banking Authority, who spoke about the Warning and Opinion issued by the EBA regarding consumer protection issues and pseudonymous payment mechanisms. To round of the first session, Robleh Ali, speaking on behalf of the Bank of England, spoke briefly about the Bank’s stance on crypto-currencies, and its nascent project to link decentralised and centralized payment systems to create a more efficient central banking network. The second session was comparative, and contrasted the UK approach to crypto-currencies with the American, Canadian and Australian frameworks. This created a foundation for a more in-depth look at the workings of distributed payments networks, with industry insights from Tom Robinson and Gareth Jenkins, and an analysis of the private law framework by Tatiana Cutts. The last session tested the boundaries of the subject, drawing in governance issues, regulation, privacy and security and emerging movements towards inclusivity in banking, addressing some of the more controversial aspects of cryptographic technology. It was clear from conversations on the day that technologies and research projects such as this are only the start of the fintech revolution, and that the way that we understand moral and economic debt, the way in which we calibrate value and think about ethereality in the context of money, status and property and – most important of all – the way we conceive of power and governance structures of our society are all changing at an unprecedented rate. This is an exciting time for those engaged in research in the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and the conference will form the foundation for an ongoing collaborative project between Tatiana Cutts (Law) and Dr Matt Hayler (English), looking at “Money in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing”. For more information email t.cutts@bham.ac.uk or tweet @TatianaCutts Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences made live-streaming possible on the day, enabling the event to have a truly global reach, with over 1,000 people tuned-in. The videos can be viewed here.