Academia as a space for radical exploration

As I think back on my allies in making my transition from teenager to independent adult and beyond, I can distinguish two phases.

In the first phase, my main ally was my family. They only did one thing, but a very important one: they supported me while I was at university, until my first degree. So far so good.

In the second phase, starting at age 21-22, I found allies in a string of university professors that encouraged me to try out some out-of-the-box thinking, and helped me to create a context in which that could happen. It all started when I was still an undergraduate. My Industrial Organization teacher, Sebastiano Brusco, asked me if I already had a supervisor for my thesis. Actually yes, I had been speaking to one of the teachers. “Do what you want - he said - but if you want to it with me, I would be interested. I would put you to work on environmental economics, which I am becoming interested in.” I could not pass on that. Environmental economics was almost unheard of in a peripheral university in 1987! So we did the thesis together. As the work came to a close, he asked me what I was going to do once I graduated. I said I wanted to go into journalism (I worked as a part-time journalist during university). “Do what you want - he said - but I think you would be making a mistake if you did not go into research. When you are through with your army service look me up, I think I can find you something to do.” I did, and ended up a researcher in environmental economics. Later, Sebastiano and three of his former students (me included) started a small research company in that area that still exists. Later still, when I decided I needed to go back to school, Sebastiano helped me look for a scholarship and recommended I do a certain M.Sc. course at University College London.

Much later, after a long foray into, uh, rock music, I decided to go back to economic research. My old teachers, whom I had stayed in touch with, invited me to a seminar held by an American historian-mathematician-statistician (!) called David Lane. At first I was extremely scepical: I just could not even understand his terminology. Ontological uncertainty? Agent-artifact space? Scaffolding structures? But I  was intrigued enough to look it up, and so I came into contact with the radically interdisciplinary approach to science associated with the Santa Fe Institute (whence David comes). David did not mind me nosing around his stuff, and told me I was welcome to go along to his Ph.D. courses, though I was not enrolled. For a while I tried to put David’s thinking into practice with my own work as an independent economist. That went reasonably well, but it was clear that I needed a more structured way of thinking: I needed theory. And I conceived this completely crazy idea that you can design emergent social dynamics in online communities. “Designing emergence” is almost a contradiction in terms, a little like “whitening black” or “cooling heat”, but I was able to come up with a research strategy that sounds promising enough: it entails creating a software for augmenting online community management that I call Dragon Trainer. So I talked to David, and he went: “Great! I am not sure you can do this at all, but let’s try anyway”. He offered me to bake my idea into in some research projects he had in mind; we did so, our bids for funding were successful, and we managed to fund my scholarship.

Thanks to an old classmate of mine turned professor himself, Giovanni Ponti, I found an University willing to take me on as a Ph.D. student without insisting in me doing yet another master in Economics (no more sitting in a classroom for me, thanks). Since Dragon Trainer requires doing a lot of network anaysis, Giovanni hooked me up with one of Europe’s most prominent network scientists, Fernando Vega-Redondo.  I attended Fernando’s Ph.D. course on complex social networks, and he amazed me by asking me to collaborate on yet another research project, that builds on a simple, but groundbreaking idea derived from my “designing emergence” framework!

I am not an academic, and probably never will be. I started to follow that career path in the 90s, but then discarded it. But, along my journey, academia has been a very useful place for me to find space and help to think radically, beyond day-by-day work. The pattern has been to approach first-rate academics with specific and ambitious requests: I found out that they enjoy the intellectual kick they get from hanging out with people different from their own departmental tribes; and that they will help if they can.

I find it inspiring

Wow, your report touches on a very intriguing aspect for me, and I’d like to ask you:

Don’t you lose practice in doing good research? I don’t think it’s enough to just keep an open mind and ask the right questions. it’s the techniques, it’s being riguros and up to date with literature. how did you manage to do that throughout your music and creative industries careers? Or your background was already solid when you left?

I find it inspiring, really. very nice how your scientific calling is still active and kicking more than once in a while. and somehow goes well with what you choose to do elsewhere.

So… : ) you’re that guy in conferences sitting in the front row asking inconveniently witty questions?  The guy that afterwards goes for a beer with professors and keeps a genuine interest, wanting to find out more? and a good networker…  that’s great actually.

Thank you Alberto!

I am that guy all right. :slight_smile:

And yes, you lose practice when you do theory, and you lose rigour when you do practice, and there just is no way that it is ever going to turn out perfect, at least not for me. So I muddle through, staring awestruck at some theory here, doing some back-of-the-envelope math there, well aware of the amount of noise in my data, trying to map it all out into the incredibly rich and messy world out there.

I admire the cold splendor of science’s top floors, where beautiful minds sculpt elegant theories. But me - I hang out in the basement, with wild-eyed graduate students drinking cheap whisky and smoking dubious stuff while scribbling equations at each other on the whiteboard into the small hours. It’s fine actually: science may be humanity’s greatest adventure. It is a privilege to be part of it, even as a lowly crewman.

When I was in music I used to say “What I do is music. But what I am, I am an economist.” :slight_smile:

Uhmm…I also like to to say  ‘I am a sociologist’ (or whatever it is) before anything else and whatever I am doing. … . Sort of way of looking at things in a certain perspective and see in them something I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. But I suppose research is only appealing when you see a challange in it, when you get up and first thing in the day feel inspired by a detail, see that it makes the difference and have the DRIVE to demonstrate that. Whatever ‘drive’ is.

Finding the right person to accomplish a specific task

Sitting on a bench at school, no thanks! I can understand why you don’t want to go back there. Working on projects with academia, however, is a good thing. Finding the right people willing to collaborate is not easy.

I was reading about the different types of personality this weekend, and I saw, in the list of skills,  that you are probably very good at “finding the right person to accomplish a specific task”. This mission report confirms this hypothesis.

We saw earlier, in another one of your mission reports, that you are a good performer, which can be considered an asset for a speaker.

Here is the rest of the proposed set of skills:

  • creative, high energy, with a great capacity for work;

  • likes order, and is able to produce excellent work that requires precision;

  • gifted to care and look after the details;

  • ability to simplify and explain clearly;

  • knows what that must be managed in a timely manner;

  • enthusiastic living and dynamic;

  • knows what to do and does it himself (ah aaaahhh… Spaghetti Open Data…)


Reading through this list of skills made me realize that of all profiles (among 5 different types), yours is probably the best to lead a project such as Edgeryders. Each of the five personality types have special skills. Having a diversity of types of personality in teams allows to cover the whole spectrum of possibilities.

It is also reassuring to read that you are probably able to cope with difficult situations, given the scope of the project’s goals.

For future projects, you will probably continue to excel at spotting / finding the right people to collaborate with and to obtain funding. You could become very useful to push change, being aware that you have these skills… and performing well to argue that you have these useful skills in front of government officials…

By knowing and understanding what are the other sets of skills for other types of profiles, you can be an enlightened manager.

Thanks but not completely true

Gee, thanks Lyne. However, let’s not fool ourselves: I am a terrible manager. Except in one case, which is when I manage to hire good people, point them roughly in the right direction and get out of their way. People who enjoy autonomy and genuinely like what we do together work well with me, but they basically manage themselves (I play the part of the shaman, who sits on a hilltop and tries to say wise things, rather than that of the general who maps out a detailed battle plan). People that don’t enjoy their job and need to be told what to do are typically quite unhappy having me as a manager (and I am very unhappy managing such people).

Another reason why I function better in the wild-eyed fringe academic environments, now that I think of it. :slight_smile:

The Future of Work

Whoa, you are hard on yourself. I think that you are doing well at managing a team of ‘e-lancers’ scattered across several countries.

Many future opengov projects could be structured like Edgeryders.

In ‘The Future of Work, How the New Order of Business will Shape Your Organisation, Your Management Style, and Your Life’ (Harvard Business Press, 2004), Thomas W. Malone explained: ‘We need to shift our thinking from command-and-control to coordinate-and-cultivate. When people are making their own decisions, for instance, rather than just follow orders, they often work harder and show more dedication and more creativity. Flexible webs of small companies or even temporary combinations of eletronically connected freelancers – e-lancers – can sometimes do the same things big companies do, but more effictively.

I should do a second reading of chapter 10 on cultivation, cause I read the book many years ago. Malone sees ‘good cultivation’ as finding the right balance between centralized and decentralized management, between controlling and letting go.

I see you doing this with the Edgeryders project: you are experimenting with the concept of ‘cultivation’.

In chapter 11, Malone explores the concept of freedom in business. ‘If more people have more freedom in business, they will naturally seek the things they value – and different people value different things.

Faith in academic allies

This has been a really interesting read, Alberto.  And it has made me reflect on how academic allies have helped me to where I am now… as well as how I have (I hope) become an academic ally to others.

My undergraduate degree was in Art History - a fascinating three years, but I knew from the beginning that I would be hard pressed to get a job that made use of what I had learned.  Why?  Because I didn’t have the right allies.  To work in a top museum, gallery, auction house, etc. requires months of working for free - generally in an expensive city.  Since I didn’t have the financial means to work for free in London for a year, I left behind my ideas about becoming an art conservator and took a short-term admin job while I worked out an alternative plan.

A couple of years later (and, having moved jobs a couple of times thanks to contacts made along the way…) I ended up working in the field of sustainability education.  At the same time I was volunteering with a local charity as a youth worker.  It didn’t take long for these two areas of work to connect in my head and I knew that what I really wanted to do with my life was to research and/or work with young people who are driving change for more sustainable, equitable futures.  To do this, I needed to show knowledge and commitment, and this required a new qualification.  A degree in Art History just wasn’t the right goods.

And here’s where the challenge lay.  I found it rather difficult to find a human geography course (which was what I had established I was looking for) that would take an art historian, even with a couple of years of relevant work experience.  I was becoming despondent when I came across an MSc course at University College London (like you, Alberto!) that sounded promising.  I went to the open day and outlined my concerns to the course convenor.  He reassured me that they took students from a diverse range of backgrounds and encouraged me to apply.  Not only that, since money was a real concern for me and I had already been thinking about extending my postgraduate study in the form of a PhD, he suggested I apply for a four-year scholarship.

This was going to require a lot of work.  I had to write a detailed PhD proposal on a subject that, sure, I was enthusiastic about, but I felt ill-equipped to construct what I was sure would have to be a detailed and well-argued plan when the whole discipline of geography was a new world to me.  Ben, who was then the MSc course convenor, put me in touch with three of his colleagues who he thought would be interested in my work.  We emailed back and forth a little as I tentatively put forward my ideas.  Over the course of about three months, I spend every bit of spare time I had in libraries, accessing whatever free information I could find on the internet, and trying to think geographical thoughts that would make my proposal even half-credible to the panel that would read it.  The UCL staff I had been in touch with were both enthusiastic about my ideas and generous with their own, and I am confident that this made all the difference when I finally submitted the proposal.

The day, a month later, when I was told I had been given one of only two departmental scholarships that year was not one I’ll forget.  Yes, I’d put in a lot of hard work of my own on that proposal, but that was fed by the enthusiasm and support from people who must have seen something in me.  Those allies, at the earliest stages of my transition from lapsed art historian to youth geographer, have gone on to remain the backbone of my work as I move into the final stages of my PhD.  And I can’t thank them enough.

I’m a bit of a believer in karma - what goes around comes around - and, more than that, I really enjoy sharing my experiences and talking about research with anyone who’ll listen.  So now I try to give as much of my time as I can to other students - undergraduates who are just getting excited about geography, to Master’s students on the course I took  three years ago (and for which I now provide teaching support) who are thinking about possible research careers of their own.

It won’t be long before my next transition - back into the world of work.  While I have hopes for what my next job might entail, I know I have to be realistic.  But I also know that I have plenty of people that I can reach out to and who will share as much as they can in order to help.

Good story!

Wow, Beckery, that was a good story, thanks! You wrote it as a comment, but it could easily be a mission report in its own right. Actually, you might want to do that: copy paste it into a Share your Ryde or Bring on the Allies, it might be that some other Edgeryder is drawn to it and join the conversation.

The moral of my story is, however, a little different from yours: I see academia as a space not for sensible (employable) professional development, which I have done on the job, but as one for doing crazy stuff. In a sense it is not exactly an investment: it is at least in part a form of leisure, looking something up because you just have to understand it better. ROI is pretty low when you put down two years to acquire knowledge that you can, by definition, only sell to people who don’t have it… which means they have no way to measure how much more knowledgeable than them you are! Here’s a nice version of Arrow’s Paradox for you.

I write this from a place where people think about basic income. University at its best is a place that makes learning sustainable: you get basic income - a scholarship - to pay the bills (just about), access to teachers, seminars and libraries and a lot of time. The result is you learn crazy stuff. A small, but larger than you might think, part of such crazy stuff ends up actually being good for something in a spectacular way, and the whole thing propels progress.