Reflecting on the Sustainable Futures summer school

summer school participans sitting and listening to young woman introducing herself.
Summer school participants behind desks in greenhouse at UU Botanical Gardens (Hilde Segond von Banchet, 2023)

July 3-7 saw the 6th Urban Futures Studio Summer School: Politics, Democracy, and Futuring. What does a sustainable future look like? How do the powers that be capture the futures we consider possible and desirable? In what ways are those in positions of power themselves the victims of this capture? How can we begin to collaboratively construct new futures? These are some of the questions we explored among a cohort of PhD students, Post-Doctoral Fellows, teachers, policymakers and societal actors from around the world.

As a studio, we believe that the content we offer is only as important as the space we curate. Small gestures go a long way. We, therefore, opened the week with an informal get-together, sharing drinks and playing games. This ensured that when class started, a number of us already felt like friends. We also decided to host the week’s classes in Utrecht’s Botanical Gardens. By taking students outside of the academy and among lush vegetation, we hoped to open up a space for free and creative thinking.

Prof. Liesbeth van de Grift sitting on a desk, on her left a presentation slide 'connecting past, present, and (sustainable) futures'
Guest lecturer prof. Liesbeth van de Grift

The first day of class focused on the studio’s core theory: Maarten Hajer and Jeroen Oomen offered a masterclass on techniques of futuring. Liesbeth van de Grift, Professor of International History and the Environment, joined us to talk about the role of the past in envisioning sustainable futures. In the evening, to mark the coming of his future, Jeroen invited everybody out to celebrate his birthday. The second day explored scientific and policy expertise. Our focus was on the underlying political and more-than-rational factors shaping purportedly rational settings and process. Lissette van Beek and Jeroen opened the day, explaining how political negotiations shaped the IPCC’s adoption of a 1.5C temperature goal. We then turned to Lilian van den Aarsen, Director of Staff for the Delta Commissioner, who explained how different delta futures become operational. Finally, Timothy Stacey offered his theory of how “religious repertoires” (myths, rituals, magic, traditions) shape the supposedly highly rational science-policy interface, and asked students to reflect on the alternative repertoires associated with a sustainable future. Again, conversations flowed into the early evening. 

  • Lilian van den Aarsen giving a presentation, on her left professor Maarten Hajer
  • Josephine Chambers, Timothy Stacey, and summer school participants listening to lecture at UU Botanical Gardens greenhouse
  • Dr. Jeroen Oomen giving opening lecture at UFS summer school 2023
  • Lisette van Beek leading session during UFS summer school at UU Botanical Gardens greenhouse
  • summer school participants sitting behind desks listening to lecture
  • group photo of ufs summer scool participants 2023

We aimed to bring theory into dialogue on the third day with a live case study. The plan was to have renowned forester, conflict mediator, and author Simon Klingen give us a tour of Amelisweerd –  a forest that is currently under threat from plans for highway expansion. Perhaps appropriate for a group focus on the environment, Storm Poly scuppered our plans, and we were forced inside. Fortunately, we were blessed by an enthusiastic group who pooled together to make the day feel worthwhile. After a long discussion with Simon, we broke into groups for open, student-led sessions. We closed the day together, critically reflecting on how those who self-identify as rational label those with alternative ideas as emotional. In the evening, we were lucky enough to be invited to the Inaugural Address of Fatima Denton, as she was formally welcomed into the role of Prince Claus Chair in Equity and Development at Utrecht University. As a scholar focused on the Global South, Fatima helped us to see how dominant approaches to sustainability are mired in hypocrisy.

On day four, we explored the role of power and creativity in shaping and liberating the future. Flor Avelino offered us an alternative understanding of the role that power plays in shaping approaches to sustainability. Dan Hassler-Forest explained how science fiction shapes the futures we consider possible and desirable. And Josie Chambers critically extended Ruth Levitas’ idea of utopia as method, demonstrating ways in which music and AI could help us to envisage alternative futures and, through these, critique and transform the present. We chose Thursday evening for the closing dinner and drinks. Many stayed out till the early hours, and have the Polaroid pictures to prove it. 

Polaroid of UFS summer school 2023 with participants and staff

Friday was about breaking into small groups and exploring together whatever we felt to be missing. People looked into mapping futuring, how to transform power from within, and various approaches to putting futuring into practice. After a closing discussion and promenade, we handed out certificates and said goodbye. Many of us had tears in our eyes.