Presenting North Sea Transitions at International Workshop in Tokyo

Last week I was in Tokyo for an international workshop of the Japanese Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Programme (SIP): Next-Generation Technology for Ocean Resources Exploration. The environmental and socio-economic impact assessment work programme is led by my collaborator Prof Midori Kawabe at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, and along with Dr Kjersti Eline Busch of SALT in the far north of Norway I was invited to Japan as one of their section’s international advisors.

Harpoon gun pointing straight at the library

Harpoon gun pointing straight at the library

We had a full week of discussions and presentations, starting with an informal meeting over o-bento on the Monday evening. On a personal level I was glad to be back at TUMSAT, where I spent a very happy and productive time in 2014 on my Japan Foundation Fellowship. TUMSAT’s Shinagawa base is a quiet, leafy campus just five minutes’ walk but a world away from the frantic Shinagawa station, where the bullet train, main Tokyo railway line and airport expresses all meet. The university’s rich marine history is evident all over the campus, from the whale skeleton with its own building to the harpoon guns outside the library to the faint smell of fish hanging in most of the corridors.

But enough of the nostalgia. We were there to work, and Prof Kawabe and her team had devised a programme to ensure they got the best value possible out of our time in Japan. Tuesday was an internal workshop, where Dr Busch and I presented our work on knowledge gathering for marine management in Lofoten and North Sea transitions for Aberdeen respectively to TUMSAT’s SIP team. The aim of this was to let the Japanese researchers identify the most important and interesting points for the external workshop that would come on the Thursday (more about that in a second), and also to learn about our work. The key thing I took away from the internal presentation is that my ‘English’ (if you can call it that) is virtually indecipherable to non-native speakers, which meant presenting would take twice as long and hence half the material would have to come out before the Thursday seminar.

On the water in front of Tokyo Sky Tree

On the water in front of Tokyo Sky Tree

Education continued after the workshop when we boarded a boat at the adjacent Tennozu pier and headed for a cruise round Tokyo Bay with the members of the Edomae Education for Sustainable Development council – another initiative led by Kawabe and fellow TUMSAT Professor Hiroshi Kohno. One of the council members – retired cartographer Kenzo Imai – had brought along some maps of Lofoten and north Scotland to make us feel at home. It is also worth noting that the night before the cruise, Prof Kawabe – concerned that I had turned up to uni on Monday wearing only short sleeves – emailed me at half past midnight to remind me to bring a jacket with me as it would be cold out on the water. See, a good collaborator looks out for your welfare as well as grant income and impact factors.

Talking North Sea transitions to the hall

Talking North Sea transitions to the hall

But the centrepiece of the week was the Thursday international seminar. Twenty-nine environmental impact assessment professionals were invited to hear Dr Busch and I speak about our experience with socio-economic impacts in Norway and Scotland, with the aim of understanding what Japan can learn from countries with extensive experience of marine and subsea resource development. The Rakusui Hall – a grand wood-panelled room bedecked with portraits of Japanese presidents – had been booked out for the occasion, and two interpreters had been hired to relay our presentations to the audience in Japanese. Thanks to some very fortuitous timing, just before I got on the plane to come to Japan I got word that Chris Littlecott and I’s paper on scenarios for CO2-EOR in the North Sea had been accepted for publication in International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control, so my presentation would also be an impromptu world premiere for our findings into the need for a managed transition.

This wasn’t just a passive afternoon of talks, though. Kawabe-Kohno seminars are famed for their participatory nature, usually involving large quantities of post-it notes, coloured markers and flipchart pads. The EIA experts were spread across six tables, each assigned two facilitators from the TUMSAT team, and in-between the presentations participants were directed to discuss their interests and concerns around the socio-economic impacts of offshore resource development. So the question and answer sessions that followed the Scottish and Norwegian presentations were in fact a chance to ask questions that had been thought of collaboratively via group discussion, and the final discussion was really a way of synthesising what the assembled experts saw as the key concerns for Japan’s own subsea resource developments.

Atmosphere in the discussion session

Atmosphere in the discussion session

I first saw this way of working on my first visit to a Science Café at TUMSAT in 2012 (which coincidentally was the catalyst for all my subsequent collaboration with Kawabe and her colleagues) and it never gets any less impressive. On this occasion, what impressed me the most was that very few of the facilitators were actually ‘social scientists’. The groups were guided by a whole range of TUMSAT staff – phytoplankton experts, fisheries economists, ichthyologists, chemical oceanographers, professors, final year undergraduates and everything in-between. Japanese universities sometimes get a bad press for their marginalisation of the social sciences and lack of interdisciplinarity, but here everything was coming together to work towards the common goal of making more robust environmental impact assessments in practice. And of course, once all the EIA professionals had gone home and we’d reset the furniture in the hall, it was time to head for a colossal feast of seafood to unwind.

Planning the next steps

Planning the next steps

The final day was given over to discussing the next steps for collaboration – exchange visits, joint papers, future funding applications, that kind of thing. It was great to see that three of the department’s Masters students were invited to join for the final day – after all, they are the next generation of scholars and practitioners who are going to be putting into practice the more robust impact assessments the SIP programme is trying to develop. It’s just unfortunate that I’d painted a less than pretty picture of Aberdeen in the previous presentations, as it didn’t exactly do any favours in trying to attract the MScs to come to Aberdeen for a study tour. Note to self: next time I talk about Aberdeen, less pictures of oil rigs and more of the countryside.

Team photo!

Team photo!

Norway and Scotland perhaps represent two very different approaches to managing marine resources, and I only half-jokingly kept telling people “don’t listen to me, listen to Kjersti” in reference to Norway’s impressive sovereign oil fund. But joking aside, when we talk about social impacts from offshore resource development I sometimes worry we foreground the front-end of the project (getting the thing up and running) without really thinking about what happens to communities after a development ends. So I was very encouraged to see that in the discussions during the practitioner workshop, the Japanese professionals were asking lots of questions about the whole life-cycle of the project and how to define the public interest case. Japan is currently at a very early state in developing its seabed resources, but from the evidence I saw there is emerging awareness of the socio-political dimensions of such proposals, so let’s hope this continues to keep pace with technological progress over the coming years. I look forward to seeing how SIP develops with interest.

Stay tuned for the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control paper, coming out very soon!

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