Public Engagement


Public engagement is a critical component of modern society and allows the public to influence scientists. Outreach activities guide and inform scientists about which knowledge will provide future public benefit.

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Political Engagement

Can iPods Grow on Trees?

Nearly every component in a modern hi-tech device has a biological equivalent. For example: mitochondria serve as power supplies, DNA molecules store information and screens could be made from octopus camouflage systems. Biology is optimised to be sustainable at multiple levels, from the molecular to the planetary scale. By emulating biology in our own manufacturing, could we help develop a circular economy that efficiently recycles material at minimal energy cost?

For over ten years I have been privileged to present ever-developing variations of this talk to many audiences. It was even made into a short film for the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Disruptive Innovation Festival.

Can Smartphones Grow On Trees? from Jonathan Howard on Vimeo.

Cambridge Science Festival 2016
Cheltenham Science Festival 2015
Manufacturing Engineering part II Tripos, Cambridge University, 2010 to 2015
ISSM Engineering Module, Cambridge University, 2010 to 2015
IOP Christmas Lecture, 2006,  Birmingham University
Worcestershire and Hereford IOP, 2006

Artists, film-makers, journalists and students have been inspired by the story of why biology is the way that it is. I argue that taking a leaf out of biology’s book may help us to learn how the molecular details of biology lead directly to the concept of a circular economy. By reverse engineering this system, can we help our global economy become sustainable?

ipods-logo
Artists impression of an iPod Tree, David Greco 2015

Articles arising from this talk include: The MemoHow we Get to Next, and Circulate News.

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Open-Labware

Member of faculty of Open-Labware Summer School, TReND, Ethiopia.

TReND is an NGO that fosters university level education on the African continent. I was privileged to be a member of staff at a two week course in Addis Ababa. I helped to teach twenty one students from all over Africa how to program and build their own hardware using simple electronics and 3D printing. By the end of the course the students had assembled and used their own 3D printer, which they could take with them back to their institutes.

The program was featured in the German national newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung.

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Institute for Manufacturing

The IfM is legendary for its hands on approach to presenting the latest advances in manufacturing to the public.

In 2010 I assisted members of the public in taking images of insects using an electron microscope. The resulting images have had an interesting life. One of them won runner-up in the annual engineering photography challenge and was presented in The Independent. Another was used as the cover for an album and more still formed the basis of a pod-cast from Cambridge University, which I narrated.

In 2011 I designed a butternut squash “transformer” to present the idea that molecular details can endow simple engineering structures with complex emergent properties. Below is a time lapse movie of a tensegrity structure alternating between two extreme states under the action of osmosis.

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Scientific Political Engagement

As a scientist I am acutely aware of the lack of science, or selected science, being used by both activists and politicians to support or refute policy proposals.  I believe that there are ways in which the public, industry and politicians can be engaged by scientists, and other experts, to create broad, informed public support that can be brought to bear on political discussions in a timely fashion.

I am particularly keen to bring people together who don’t normally interact. I aim to support activities which support meaningful exchange of points of view and foster dialogue among a wide range of people, to find common ground.  To that end I am very interested in sortition, due to it’s unbiased scientific sampling of points of view in a population, and deliberation as a means of effectively engaging and capturing the output of such a randomly selected group.

I believe in public deliberations for two reasons. Firstly, involving greater diversity of people in our policy formation process will lead to more robust policies, that are non-partisan in nature with a greater chance of reaching actual consensus – as opposed to majority enforcement. Secondly, while polling and voting measure – and encourage – prejudice, it is recognised that deliberations actually have the capacity to change people’s points of view; particularly when individuals are confronted with new perspectives from outside their normalised bubble of opinion, and then given the responsibility to make a difficult decision or recommendation to a decision maker.

To make such public deliberations work there needs to a source of high quality unbiased information that is available to inform those members of the public who are called upon to make decisions during deliberations. In the same way the expert witnesses are called to trials, it is possible that all scientists, and indeed other professionals, have the capacity to contribute to public deliberations which would be of great benefit to the public, to science and to policy formers alike.

More recently I have adopted a learning attitude to my previously amateur political activities. My current political activities therefore center around upgrading democracy to include greater scientific contributions to public deliberations, as this will transform the political and decision making landscape in western society, as well as the scientific literacy of the public and policy makers alike.

I have recently been accepted as a Fellow of the RSA to help support outreach activities in Chicago where I currently live.

I am a member of the Sortition Foundation which is campaigning to bring sortition to the House of Lords.

In the past I have also been a 38 Degrees local organiser in Cambridge, which exposed me to activism and the policy formation process. In this role I began mediating open meetings for the public to come forward to discuss whatever issues they wanted to bring. My aim was to develop campaign teams from local citizens who would engage with the council and politicians on particular issues, but at the same time these teams would be aware of each other’s work.   In this way we would increase the capacity of the public to engage with politicians and scientists and to experience for themselves the trade offs that always exist in setting policies to which single issue organisations are not usually sensitive. 

In this volunteer role I also engaged with many organisations across Cambridge with the aim of helping them reach individuals who supported their causes, and increasing the level of effective political engagement of the citizens of Cambridge.

Had it gone on long enough I hoped the forum would evolve in to an efficient, non-partisan and permanent point of contact between successive elected representatives, the scholars of Cambridge university and the Cambridge public. 

It was to become a channel for the people of Cambridge that was powerful enough to counter the lobbies from developers and the university as a whole that shape Cambridge so strongly. I was forced to abandon this work when I moved to America to continue my scientific career. I would have been instrumental in setting up the G1000 in Cambridge had I stayed.

Now I live in the U.S. I am hoping to set up a scientifically driven deliberative process in Chicago and I have engaged with a variety of organisations across the US to make this happen.

Below are some online examples of political campaigns that I’ve been involved with throughout my bespoke political career. The total number of events and meetings that I have co-organised/co-ordinated has been huge – around one a week for several years at its peak! – and not all of them have an online presence.

http://www.cambridgeclimatemessage.org.uk/

https://home.38degrees.org.uk/2015/04/30/cambridge-members-produce-resource-to-help-electorate-vote-with-eyes-open/

Report on Constituting Democracy

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