About Me

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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.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Mass demolition is not magic bullet to solve housing disaster

As we await the full details of the cause of the Grenfell disaster we must not jump to blame 1970s tower blocks.

Right now, it looks like 2016 cladding is to blame, not 1970s design and construction. We need stronger refurbishment standards and more sustainable funding models for regeneration schemes, not mass demolition.

In 2015 the London Assembly report 'Knock it down or do it up' calculated a net loss of 8,000 socially rented homes in London since 2005. This is in small part due to right-to-buy, but largely because of regeneration programmes that demolish social homes and replace them with flats for private sale. Many of those new high rise flats for private sale are left empty, as cash deposit boxes for international investors. 

Unless we have a complete, radical overhaul of housing policy involving building new social homes at a level not seen since the mass construction programmes of the 1960s and 70s that are now being blamed for this disaster, demolishing tower blocks will exacerbate an already desparate shortage of homes for social rent. That will mean our cleaners, shop assistants, care assistants, teaching assistants, drivers, security guards and so many other people who keep this city going will be forced to leave or left in even more dangerous, overcrowded private rental accommodation.

Please, don't jump to blame 70s architecture and engineering. Mass demolition without complete reform of housing policy will cause more problems than it solves.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Grenfell: questions for engineering ethics

The awful inferno that killed an as yet unknown number of people in Grenfell Tower on Wednesday needs no introduction.

Building things, particularly technically difficult things like high rise buildings, is what the engineering profession prides itself on. The safety of the public is the highest priority of every engineer. No question.

The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was, amongst other things, an engineering project. The engineering profession is central to setting building standards and providing technical advice to policy makers. Something has gone horribly wrong.

We hear from the contractor that they met all relevant standards. We await the full details to emerge during the investigations and inquiry, but on first hearing this response implies that an engineer's only obligation is to uphold the law. It is not. Our ethical duty is to keep the public safe. We are professionally obliged to put safety first, especially when clients or bosses are urging a cheaper option.

It is also our professional duty to be knowledgable about the state-of-the-art in our field. Contractors and consultants working on tower block cladding should have known about safety concerns and previous fires associated with these materials and systems, in London and in other parts of the world. That knowledge should have informed a thorough risk assessment and fire modelling, no matter what the minimum standards require. The modelling should have informed design and materials choices. Failure to insist on such work, particularly to keep costs down, would be a further breach of ethics and professionalism.

This is not just a failure of individuals and firms. As a profession we need to ask more searching questions.

If individual engineers have been raising concerns about these materials, what did their professional bodies and representatives do to make them clear to government?

How have we allowed building standards to slip so badly? Have we been complicit in allowing safety to become politicised? What have we done to stand up to vociferous 'health and safety gone mad' degregulators? Have we been strong enough in countering an ideology that believes that regulations must not hinder profitability?

Why have we been silent about the crisis in social housing and the safety implications of cost cutting, value engineering, poor maintenance, and unfeasibly low refurbishment budgets? Is it because we rely on contracts from social housing providers? Have we been too willing to bend to the pressures of these clients? Have we done enough to help our social housing clients resist and change government policy that has shown willful neglect for decades?

Some of this may sound political. Some will argue that housing policy is a matter for democratic politics, not engineering ethics. It may be. But when housing policy and deregulation leads to neglect and incompetence to the point where the public is no longer safe, it is time for engineers to step up. For the residents of Grenfell Tower and their families, too many of us were too slow in getting to our feet.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

University reforms in a complicated world


Apart from the food and festivities, the Christmas break is a time to catch up with friends and family, debrief the year that was, and think about things to come. The social media meme that summed things up best for me about the past year was a version of the old proverb 'if you think you know what's going on you probably don't know how bad things really are'. 2016 was a year when pundits and experts were made to look silly. It was also a year when war and terror destroyed lives. If I learned one thing this year, it's that the world is very complicated. I am one of the most highly educated people I know, and am really struggling to figure out what's going on.

In my annual holiday catch ups with friends who work in universities we swap our various analyses of events from different personal and theoretical positions. Then we talk about work. Invariably we kick off the annual championship competition for the 'most Kafkaesque experience of university administration' of 2016. This is cathartic and amusing, but given the state of the world, the state of our universities is increasingly becoming a source of shame and despair.

The world needs people who can think clearly. Now more than ever. The role of universities is to do some of that thinking on behalf of society, and to educate people to be able to do it for themselves.

Yet, when I talk to colleagues from universities all over the world, each year we seem to be moving further away from this purpose. University leaders are caught up responding to constant changes in government policy driven mostly by ideology, untested by an electorate who don't know that 'higher education policy' is anything other than tuition fees. University administrators are absorbed implementing reform to address a murky mixture of myths and realities about inefficient services and out-of-touch academics. Academics muddle through. Year after year, policy reforms come and go, consultants march in and out, surveys and focus groups and system reviews roll on, all in the name of improving the capacity of universities to respond to a changing world.

The tragedy is that the more intense and ambitious these processes of change and reform, the less capable universities seem to be in actually delivering on our core purpose. Processes that are sold as improving efficiency and reducing barriers to excellent teaching and research seem to create new and moving obstacles. My friends may be a cynical bunch, but never have I heard anyone who works in a university say 'we went through a really difficult and far reaching administrative restructure, but thankfully now it has released me to truly give my best to my students and to produce ground breaking research'.  Continuous improvement never rests.

The world needs clear, critical and creative thinking. It's time for universities to step up. We certainly need to change the way we work to be able to better address a changing world, but we also need to draw a line against endless distractions of reform and get on with the job. Knowing how and where to draw this line requires wisdom and good judgement. Where would you go to find people like that in a chaotic world? Let's hope we don't have to look too far.  

Monday, 31 October 2016

Enthusiasm Deficit Disorder

The quality of teaching and the 'student experience' have been rapidly rising up the agenda for universities in the UK. This is partly driven by a sharp jump in student fees and partly in anticipation of the Teaching Excellence Framework which will form the basis of government funding allocations. It is disappointing that money seems to be the main motivation for universities to give student learning the attention it deserves. But here we are.

At the heart of the new emphasis on student learning, the National Student Survey (NSS) is a key measure of the quality of student experience. Completed by undergraduate students at the end of their course, it highlights areas of strength and room for improvement. This can be very useful in helping to improve professionalism and performance of university departments and academic staff. However, the NSS is not a checklist of what constitutes a good education, nor should it be a to-do list for teaching staff. Identifying actions in response to the NSS and any form of student evaluation requires thoughtful analysis and creativity which universities should be good at. I am beginning to worry that we might not be living up to the possibilities that a renewed emphasis on student experience provides.

One of the statements on the NSS is 'Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching'. This seems like a reasonable way to evaluate how engaged staff are with the courses they teach. Staff and students should be on the same side - no-one wants to teach material they have no enthusiasm for. 'Enthusiasm' seems like a quick win for university administrators looking to improve student experience and NSS scores. We are encouraged to 'be more enthusiastic' and 'friendly' in our interactions with students. Surely we can all manage that?

I am not sure its quite that simple. Enthusiasm and joy for teaching is not something we can just switch on. If university teachers aren't 'enthusiastic' about their subjects then it might be a sign that something has gone wrong. Are people being asked to teach material they think is irrelevant or outside their areas of expertise? Are they so terrified about being judged for their accent, appearance and delivery by large classes raised on TED Talks that they have lost the love they once had for learning? Are academic staff so overwhelmed by pressures to bring in funding, publish in high impact journals, work with industry, engage with the public, make YouTube videos, speak at the right conferences, figure out the latest expenses system, monitor students against their immigration visa requirements, book rooms for tutorials, chase accounts payable on behalf of suppliers... that they are walking into class under prepared and exhausted?

Even when we are doing our be very best to use innovative teaching methods, teaching and learning will not always be fun. Our work is serious. Some of the stuff we teach is hard. We should be professional and respectful in our teaching but it is not always possible, or desirable, to be cheerful and enthusiastic. I expect my GP to be knowledgeable, respectful and to listen to my needs, but I don't expect her to be 'enthusiastic' when she gives me her diagnosis. It is curious given everything university teachers have to offer students, 'enthusiasm' is deemed to be important as an end in itself.

And so it is with many of the items on the 'higher education checklist' that the NSS has become. The NSS is not intended for this purpose, but this is how it is being translated in departments under pressure to get the right answers. Student feedback is essential in delivering a high quality education. We need to listen to what our students tell us about their experiences, and we need to be thoughtful and professional in response. We also need to demonstrate the critical and creative thinking that universities exist to provide. The renewed emphasis on student learning and feedback is an opportunity for us to improve the quality of university education in an increasingly complex world. Like students who ask 'will this be on the exam?', if we focus our efforts at improvement entirely on NSS questions and answers we might miss the point entirely.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The ways of the sexual harassment ninja warrior

In the last 24 hours I've had two separate conversations strategising with friends about how to deal with idiot men in the workplace. The sort who don't understand 'boundaries', who call you 'young lady', who make fun of your work in meetings 'just to get a rise'. Not all, but many, men.

I then noticed a retweet of a Guardian Academics Anonymous post about how terrible it is that women in science have to strategise about how to 'cope with' sexual harrassment. The Anonymous Academic was collaborating on a grant proposal with a senior colleague who had harassed one of her students. The post described how the student, her mother and the supervisor had to figure out how to work around such bad behaviour. The 'scientific community' and 'professorial staff' should take more responsibility for making such bad behaviour unacceptable, so women don't have to 'deal with it'.

I hate having these conversations. I hate reading these blog posts. My inner nineteen year old is screaming 'THIS WAS MEANT TO BE SORTED OUT IN THE 1980s'. My outer forty-two year old is bored and annoyed.

So here are some tips.

Sexual harassment isn't acceptable. Anywhere. Not at the bus stop. Not in the lab or at a conference dinner or the tea room.

It is simply not possible for anyone who has been in the workforce anywhere in the free world in the last 30 years not to know what sexual harassment is. 'But I was trying to be nice' is never an excuse.

No-one wants to be sexually harassed. No-one deserves it. Don't even go there.

If someone sexually harasses you or anyone you know, you should not accept it. You have options. Your options depend on the stage of your career and your circumstances.

All institutions have formal procedures for dealing with harassment and bullying. This might be the right thing for you to do. Find out about it, and make your own mind up. You'll need to weigh up the personal costs of going through the system, your urge for 'justice', and the greater good that might come from properly holding the creep to account.

Most of the stuff we feel crappy about are those annoying moments of ickiness that don't add up to enough for a formal complaint. In those moments, we just want to be that badass with the perfect one liner. We want to deal with the creep then and there. But sexual harassment comes as a surprise, and we are left paralysed and tongue tied.

Badasses are made, not born. In an ideal world we wouldn't need to be badass sexual harassment ninjas. We wouldn't need to 'deal with it'. Unfortunately we work in the real world with men, some of whom are creeps, many of whom are clueless. And we are real people too. We aren't born knowing how to defend ourselves. We need to learn.

Practice the ninja arts of badassery. All those things you wish you'd said, say them out loud. Hear your own voice say 'thank-you for the compliment, but I'd prefer it if you didn't comment on my appearance.' Practice your withering stare. Imagine yourself physically taking his hand off your shoulder, or maybe just start with a really big shrug. Concentrate on not doing the girly giggle that makes everyone feel OK about stuff that's really not. Workshop all this with your friends, while you make fun of the slimeball who looked you up and down in front of your team. Don't just 'wish' you'd said something, or hate yourseful for not standing up and walking away, practice it for next time. Next time you just might say something. It might be in a small, shaky voice. You might feel like an even bigger idiot, but it will be something.

If someone is a creep, tell people you trust. You don't have to publically bad mouth the sleazoid, or assassinate their character. Don't gossip. Just quietly let people know 'so, this happened'. Reputations get around.

If someone relatively vulnerable tells you they've experienced creepy behaviour from a more powerful person, believe them. Don't try to explain it away. If you can't act on it imediately or are not sure if it is quite right, just file it away for future reference.

Be choosy who you work with. When you are early in your career this can be difficult, but after a while you'll build your own reputation and you'll have more options. Don't work with anyone who has a reputation for being a creep. This is what I found most baffling about the Anonymous Academic. To me the answer to the dilemma was clear  - you harass my student, I never work with you again. There won't be any drama, I'll just prioritise other commitments. Your sales rep sends a dirty message to my purchasing offer, you don't get our business. Make a pass at the adminstrator who checks you in for your interview, you don't get the job. This is not cutting off my nose to spite my face, and it is not kangaroo court. It's clarifying priorities. So many people complain about being overworked. 'Don't work with creeps' can be a handy workload management strategy. There are more than enough non-creeps out there to build a successful career.

Change the conversation. If you know that your workplace isn't doing enough to eliminate harassment, make a fuss. Suggest that everyone takes a really boring sexual harassment training course, again, in person, not alone on their computers. Re-write the policy. Call out the bosses on their 'pinkwash' gender diversity clap trap if it doesn't ring true.

Step up. There are creeps so creepy, and sleazeballs so slimey and institutions that are so structurally dangerous and chronically dysfunctional that sometimes the nuclear option is the only option. Sexual harrassment in the workplace is illegal. There will be times when the law is the best answer. There may come a point where it is right to go public with your experiences, particularly if others share those experiences. At some point the Anonymous Academic might need to take off his mask. Doing this on your own takes a lot of courage and can be costly, but the cost of 'putting up with' degrading and demeaning behaviour can be much higher.

'The scientific community' shouldn't accept sexual harassment. This is true for everyone who is part of that community. It is not the responsibility of women, particularly young women, to hold every creep to account. Our brighest minds should not be wasting their precious brain cells figuring out workarounds to 'deal with it'. And yet we can't wait to be rescued by enlightened professors. We need to empower ourselves and each other, because that is ultimately what sexual harassment is about. It is the abuse of power. There are formal and informal ways of taking back some of that power from the creeps. These are the ways of the sexual harassment ninja badass. Be more ninja.