Think Tank

To stimulate innovative thinking and project ideas, our regular Think Tank events bring together researchers and partners from across the University and community to explore concepts that cut across all our themes.  This approach allows us to synthesise across fields, and to be dynamic; changing over time to tackle the big questions in environmental and sustainability science.

For more details on the ESI Think Tank series please contact Mark Plummer, ESI Senior Administrator.

Processes of invention and innovation play out across biological, social and technological systems. These processes can be broadly termed as ‘adaptation’ and are central to determining how complex systems respond to environmental change - from molecular evolution underpinning the emergence of novel phenotypes to the structures of social networks that enable rapid transformational change. We will seek to understand and characterise the structures in social, political, biological, cultural, technological and economic ‘systems’ that facilitate effective adaptation to change and the achievement of sustainable futures.

The structure of biological systems, from organisms to ecosystems, has emerged through the process of evolution and natural selection to maximise the efficiency of energy transformations. Many societal and economic challenges associated with environmental change also relate to energy acquisition and material and resource use. How do we learn from the properties of biological structures and processes to develop more efficient material cycling systems? How do lessons from the natural world help us design more effective technologies and economies? How do insights from research on natural processes apply in social and cultural contexts?

This workshop is designed to explore current research and synergies between academics working at Exeter across all disciplines, especially those of business geography and law. There will be three short talks by leading academic researchers and time for discussion about overlaps and future work. All those with an interest in the field are welcome to attend.

Prof Jane Wills who led the Think Tank said: "The subject is genuinely interdisciplinary, as can be seen by the mix of people present and it is unlikely that so big a group of such diverse actors has been assembled anywhere in the country to tackle this problem."

The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership and Cornwall Council have officially launched Cornwall’s ‘Environmental Growth Strategy' which aims to encourage businesses, communities and individuals to work together to increase environmental, social and economic prosperity in Cornwall. A first of its kind, environmental growth is focused on helping nature to do more for us. Realising this ambitious goal requires creative solutions to environmental problems and an evidence-based approach to decision-making. This think tanking brought together people working on the strategic implementation and practical side of environmental growth, with University Academics, to discuss how we can facilitate environmental growth activities in Cornwall.

This Think Tank, hosted by the Cross-Campus Social Science Group at ESi and ECEHH, reflected on the intersections of social and natural sciences, exploring links between the health of the environment and the health of humans. It facilitated dialogue between colleagues who research planetary and environmental health with co-benefits for the health of people and their communities, and colleagues who ressearch the ways in which human health and wellbeing is shaped by and shapes environmental factors. At the intersection of these different starting points, questions were asked, such as: how can we balance the health of the environment and the health of humans? What are key relationships and interconnections between the two? What are the gaps in making these connections and what is needed to fill these gaps? A particular interest was to interrogate 'trade-offs' and challenges that arise at this intersection. The Think Tank was attended by staff across ECEHH, ESI, Geography, Renewable Energy, Biosciences, Mathematics and Camborne School of Mines as well as external delegates from Cornwall Council and the Eden Project. A blog on some of the Think Tank's actions will follow shortly.

Through this interdisciplinary expedition, our collective challenge was to explore the contribution that academic knowledge can make to conversations about the future of the landscape focusing specifically on the Trelowarren estate as a microcosm for the exploration of interdisciplinary points of contact and exchange.

Hollywood is synonymous with cinema, Bruges with lace. Paris and Milan are fashion hubs. What, then, asks Professor Trevor Barnes, should make up the fabric of Cornwall’s regional brand and reputation?

Barnes, a geographer at the University of British Columbia, was speaking at the recent Regional economic development: the Cornish way Think Tank, a workshop hosted by the University of Exeter’s Environment & Sustainability Institute on Penryn Campus. Building on his experience growing up in the county, he suggests that a collective identity has long been felt by residents of Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly, but that it has been slow to emerge in the public discourse. Delivering this ‘Made in Cornwall’ mindset, Barnes claims, is about creating a narrative that re-envisions the economy based on sense of place, much like similar work he has supported across Canada in recent years. The Canadian model focuses heavily on concepts anchored in localism and, to borrow an expression from the philosophy of science, around trading zones, which are philosophical areas of agreement teased out from more complex, nuanced discourse.

 

Location as a starting point

These points of agreement emerged throughout the day-long discussion, which brought University of Exeter academics and staff together with stakeholders from across the county and beyond. Workshop participants, inspired by a cross-sector array of keynote speakers, teased out what makes Cornwall different from other regions, highlighting areas where the county excels and suggesting opportunities for improvement.

In her introductory remarks, University of Exeter’s Professor Jane Wills points out that official devolution documents emphasise the role of location, including the county’s vast natural capital, as one of the most important economic opportunities for Cornwall. The explicit importance of nature, and its value, is further reflected in the county’s unique and pioneering Environmental Growth Strategy, recently published by Cornwall Council, which sets out a roadmap putting natural capital at the heart of the county’s regional development.

University of Exeter’s Professor Kevin Gaston, a co-author of the document, points to indicators of environmental growth, such as an anticipated increase of related management schemes, as evidence that Cornwall can lead when it comes to embedding natural capital within a thriving business environment.

 

A hub for interdisciplinary solutions

The geographic argument for Cornwall’s brand drives thinking about the county's regional economic development in novel ways, as an autonomous hub rather than a remote, peripheral appendage of a broader nation. To that end, interdisciplinary problem-solving sits at the heart of new approaches to regional economic development. For example, Wills proposes a repurposing of aspects of evolutionary theory to help grapple with certain development challenges. This powerful analytic tool puts the county’s unique economy at the heart of a broader regional ecosystem, which comprises self-organising components capable of adaptation strategies based on collective inheritance, influenced by similar patterns of variation as observed in genetic mutation.

Several speakers addressed a recurring misunderstanding, or differential application, of the concept of growth. Cllr Bob Egerton (Cornwall Council and the Local Economic Partnership) suggests that environmental assets are a vital component within any conversation about growth in the region and drive formalised initiatives in planning, such as Building with Nature. Further, multi-sector programmes like Tevi, a partnership between the University of Exeter, Cornwall Council, Cornwall Development Company and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, demonstrate the inextricable link between nature, society and the economy across Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly.

Cornwall also has the potential to lead within a broader transition towards a circular economy, a trend already enshrined on the national level in recent resources and waste strategy reporting. To that end, the University of Exeter’s Centre for Circular Economy led by Professor Pete Hopkinson, aims to create novel ways of designing waste out of conventional product cycles. For example, the Centre recently launched a new initiative aimed at rethinking plastics production and use whilst at the same time supporting several interdisciplinary programmes, such as Tevi, with bespoke expertise around decreasing waste and improving understanding of enterprise development and product life cycles.

These aims are shared by the University of Exeter’s Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) department, a cutting-edge department dedicated to driving the impact of research. By bridging the gap between academics and enterprises across the South West, IIB serves a vital role in facilitating large-scale partnerships, creating opportunities for further work around strategic priorities and generating value that allows for further regional impact and innovation initiatives.

 

Innovation through responsible growth

At the same time, Cornish enterprises continue to find opportunities for business growth around the circular economy transition. Cornish Lithium, based in the Tremough Innovation Centre in Penryn, explores the extraction of lithium from brine found in subsurface granite in Cornwall. Lithium is a vital resource for the development of low-carbon technology, such as renewable energy infrastructure and batteries in electric vehicles. Building on Cornish mining heritage, the company, represented at the workshop by Chris Harker and Lucy Crane, commands a leading role within emerging economic opportunities in geo-resources, an area that includes mining and the repurposing of mine waste but also the extraction of geothermal energy, which has also recently put Cornwall in the national spotlight.

Nevertheless, participants were wary of placing too much emphasis on growth, with suggestions that future scenarios could be unsustainable without explicit efforts to rein in certain indicators of growth, for example around consumption. Manda Brookman of Permanently Brilliant points to Cornwall Council’s recent declaration of a climate emergency as a wake-up call for direct and immediate action, or what she terms ‘positively disruptive’ thinking, putting into action the concerns shared by Kate Raworth’s widely cited doughnut model of economics. 

Beyond normal indicators of economic prosperity, Professor Jane Wills highlighted that we should also give due weight and attention to the fact that the top ten employers in Cornwall would be considered part of the Foundational Economy. This can be defined as including the organisations that form the infrastructure of a community or region: the health providers, the educators, the local councils, the providers of local services – sometimes known as the ‘Eds and Meds’ economy.  Considerable revenue flow through these providers, essential to the well-being of the community, but often under-represented in discussions of how a region’s economy should grow and flourish.

A work in progress

Going forward, the workshop offered compelling arguments that Cornwall’s identity as an economic region, which is framed around valuing natural capital and supported by a flexible workforce enticed by opportunities of greater work-life balance, remains a work in progress. Questions remain around access to opportunities for all the county’s residents, many of which feed into the national conversation around access, not least by facilitating the achievement of gender equality targets.

In his closing remarks, Matthew Offord, Member of Parliament for Hendon, who sits on the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, highlighted the massive scale and breadth of tech-based socioeconomic change in recent years. In the space of just over a decade, hitherto dominant companies, like Kodak for example, were overtaken by newcomers with game-changing ideas. It is in this dynamic context that Cornwall, Offord suggests, should think about where the priorities of its economic development should lie, identifying cutting-edge opportunities that give the county a leadership role wherever possible. To that end, in the face of Britain’s exit from the European Union, Offord believes that residents of Cornwall, with their historic drive and ambition, can play a leading role in shaping the United Kingdom’s future policies, especially around environmental targets, the regional structural funding landscape, and re-envisaged international trading markets.

For further information about this event or previous ESI Think Tanks, please contact the ESIesienquiries@exeter.ac.uk. ESI Think Tanks aim to explore cross-disciplinary concepts in environmental and sustainability science. So far, the series has covered environmental growth in Cornwall, the anatomy of adaptation, biomimicry, community energy initiatives, the relationship between environment and human health, as well as the future of the Cornish landscape. Future sessions will include a focus on sustainable clothing, and the relevance of studying extreme environments in Cornwall.