Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Fiona Gleed, University of Bath, talks of her experience of Communicate 2017:

“Five years ago, I did something crazy… A colleague in the Civil Engineering cluster at UWE had been approached by Dr. Helen Featherstone, then with the Science Communication Unit, to submit a bid to the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious grant scheme but wasn’t sure she had the time so passed my name on instead. It turned in to an amazing experience, including presenting in the RI lecture theatre!

After the adventure, the central pole of the crocheted canopy was returned to its mundane life as a washing line prop and I returned to an annual cycle of classroom teaching and curriculum review. But participating in public engagement had made me realise that there was more beyond the walls; more to learn and more to share. And so, I took another crazy step; returning from teaching to learning to make good on previous missed opportunities and start a PhD, investigating flood resilience of masonry walls.

Flood resilience can be addressed at multiple scales, from global co-operation to address climate change right down to nano-coatings that reduce water absorption of construction materials. Many of the most immediate gains are in property level flood resilience; the construction or adaptation of buildings to reduce the volume of water reaching habitable areas and make it easier to clean up any water that does get in. And to make that happen, you need to engage with people helping them understand the risk to their property, explaining the technologies available, and encouraging proactive steps to minimise future flood damage. So when I saw a call for postgraduates to apply for funding to attend the Communicate 2017: Navigating Change conference, I jumped at the chance.

Stag beetle sculpture at Bristol Zoo

The conference was over two days at Bristol Zoo, with a packed schedule that saw delegates dashing across the zoo between the Education Centre and the Pavilion for their personal pick of plenaries and toolbox talks.   After the Opening Briefing had set the scene, of a public broadly convinced that climate is changing but still expecting engineers and researchers at Universities to fix the problem for them, I chose to Explore Echo Chambers. This considered both current and target groups, with an exploration of how putting the audience first and the message second could make communication more effective.

I had already found one opportunity to break out of the engineering echo-chamber, presenting a paper at the Academic Archers conference looking at how Ambridge residents could develop their resilience to future flooding, which has now been published as a chapter in the book “Custard, Culverts and Cake”, edited by Cara Courage and Nicola Headlam.

University of Lincoln, venue for the Academic Archers Conference 2017

This formed the basis of a poster for the Communicate 2017, prompting several interesting discussions about story lines and the potential for fiction to communicate truth in an era of fake news. And the book was also to form the basis for an interview with Steve Yabsley on BBC Radio Bristol, which made “Meeting – and Surviving – the Media” a clear choice for the Toolbox session after lunch!  I had hoped to gain a few notes to ponder but the imminent interview meant I was selected as the guinea pig and had a chance to practice. This gave me useful feedback on presentation but also some suggestions of additional facts to have ready for a local audience.

And so, on to Policy and Strategy, with an overview of the Natural Capital Committee’s input to DEFRA’s 25 year environmental plan, as yet unpublished.  By “The Swap” at the end of day 1, I had a long list of queries and hashtags to follow up – but not before a drink and networking dinner.

Creative support for branching out at Bristol Zoo

Day 2 was similarly packed; an Introduction to Generation Z, an exploration of Fake News, the changing face of Green Space and Tools for Behaviour Change – all interesting, all informative and all helpful for future engagement on Flood Resilience and Civil Engineering in general.

And did I survive the radio interview? Well it was still nerve racking but I was extremely grateful for the experience of the Communicate conference. Not only had it helped me prepare myself and my message, but it also gave me a broader context to respond to some unexpected questions.

Thank you to the Bristol Natural History Consortium, the Public Engagement unit, the speakers and all the delegates for taking me out my comfort zone and showing me creativity isn’t crazy – it’s the only sensible way to navigate change.

Thanks to Fiona Gleed for writing this blog, Fiona is a PhD Researcher in Civil Engineering at the University of Bath.

We’d love to hear your experiences from Communicate 2017, if you have any thoughts from the conference and would like to write a blog get in touch!