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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Democracy, knowledge and universities

I was one of the 78% of people in the London Borough of Hackney who yesterday voted for Britain to remain in the EU. I work in Camden where 75% of people voted to remain. I am an academic in one of the highest ranking universities in the country. I was born overseas, as were most of my students, colleagues and friends. I have a PhD, I eat quinoa and I ride a bicycle. I am a member of the global elite.

This is not an easy identity for me to own up to. I was the first generation of my family to get a degree. I grew up in a country town in Western Australia. When I was a child both my parents were always in work and we always had food on the table, but most of my clothes were hand-me-downs. For a long while my Mum did a special contortionist trick involving keeping her feet on all three pedals at once to prevent the car from stalling at every intersection. During 'the recession we had to have' in the late 1980s when interest rates rose to 18%, my parents couldn't pay their mortgage.  

I know what it feels like to sit in a car full of kids, in a second hand school uniform, hoping we won't stall, listening to politicians on the radio talking about how all this economic reform is in our best interests.

I get it.

But twenty five years later here I am. One of the metropolitan, global elite. Completely out of touch with the 'real people' out there who chose to leave the EU.

The 'real people' aren't stupid, and most of them aren't racist. Some of them have legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration on their communities. Mostly it seems that  people want more control - over their own lives, and the people who govern them. Everyone voting yesterday knew the risks, and they chose to take their chances.
What troubles me is how far away the conversations I have in Hackney and Camden are from the issues that motivated the majority of the country to vote as they did yesterday. How have those of us who work in universities and urban professions become so detached from the worries and aspirations of so many people?

Colin Macilwain wrote about this problem from an American perspective in Nature News back in March. Universities and scientists have enthusiastically aligned themselves with the interests of big business and centrist politics. We've pursued a 'deficit model' of public engagement, preferring to talk at rather than listen to 'real people'. Too often we fall into lazy political arrogance assuming 'if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me'. If people disagree with us, it's because they are ignorant, possibly stupid. We've been complacent, and we're becoming irrelevant.

In coming years we all have to work together to figure out a positive future for a UK outside the EU. Those of us in universities also need to think harder about our role in all this. How is knowledge used in these messy debates? How well are we preparing our students to participate in this new style of democracy? Why do people choose to ignore evidence and expert opinion? Who is it that we serve? How can we better fulfill our primary purpose - to create and share knowledge for the greater good?

I don't know the answers. With colleagues we are trying our best with the Engineering Exchange and modest research and citizen science projects. We'll have to adapt to a changed funding and policy landscape. Collaboration with European colleagues will be more difficult. But the biggest challenge might be how to bridge the divide that seems to be opening up between power and knowledge.

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