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December 2011: Early reflections from an ISSR Manager

Right so I’ve been here three months and I’ve been asked to write a blog, come nonacademic sustainability thinkpiece, come outline of the future strategy of the ISSR (and all in 1500 words !) and it has to be punchy and controversial ! Help is my first reaction ! I’m not really used to writing in that style, in fact I haven’t done much “writing” for a while. Any how here it goes. These are my early reflections on the ISSR and Plymouth University (after three months of being here). I begin this blog with a short story that has influenced my own thinking about the ISSR, the Blind Men and the Elephant…….

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body. The blind man who felt the leg said that the elephant is like a pillar; the one who felt the tail said that the elephant is like a rope; the one who felt the trunk said that the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who felt the ear said that the elephant is like a fan; the one who felt the belly said that the elephant is like a wall; and the one who felt the tusk said that the elephant is like a solid pipe.

An argument broke out about who is correct!

However, a wise man explained to them:
"All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant.”

The significance of this story will be explained at the end……….

So what does the ISSR mean by Sustainability?

Sustainability often means different things to different people (!). The diagram on the left illustrates some of the activities that can fall under Sustainability. One of the first things that I wanted to understand when I arrived was - what does the ISSR mean by sustainability ? The answer is that at the ISSR we are currently taking a broad view of what Sustainability means and looking at all these different areas outlined (and more !). The challenges of sustainability are complex and deeply interconnected and we currently do not have a strict “definition” (or single perspective) that we are working with, rather we are keen to engage with organisations and researchers in any of these areas.

What does the ISSR mean by Solutions?

The ISSR is about delivering solutions to global sustainability challenges. We are focussing on “Real World” change in appropriate timescales. We are aiming to make a difference and to secure a sustainable future. Partnerships are key to achieving this both externally and internally within the University. The best example of this is the first major project to be delivered by ISSR on Smart Ticketing….

Smart Ticketing Solutions for South West Sustainable Transport – delivered through ISSR

In 2008, a conference of all SW local authorities, bus operators and regional economic stakeholders, established a Forum to explore the development of smart and integrated ticketing throughout the region. 

In September 2010, in partnership with Plymouth University, the forum was successful in winning £1.85m to deliver the regional smart ticketing back office system in partnership with the West of England Partnership. This will include the delivery of 1500 Smart enabled buses; a £100,000 consultancy support programme; a nationally acclaimed User Guide to assist migration to smart ticketing; and 12 Smart Interoperable Ticketing schemes, along with key outcomes of road based carbon reductions and quantifiable annual efficiency savings for both Local Authorities (LAs) and Operators alike. 

The partnership was formalised through establishing a public/private Company, limited by guarantee, South West Smart Applications Ltd (SWSAL), based in the ISSR. SWSAL was launched on 8th October 2010 by Rt Hon Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport. Since its launch, SWSAL has recently been awarded a further £2.98m from the Department for Transport’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund, in partnership with Plymouth City Council, to build upon the outputs of the £1.85m already won, and matched funding from local councils and bus operators to deliver in total:
  • Smart ticketing on all 3500 Buses in SW England; 
  • Europe’s 1st regional open access pay-per-use Card Management System;
  • England’s 1st Regional E-Money Stored Value Transport Ticketing Platform 
  • A Regional Fund to Assist the Smartcard Migration of Community Transport and Community Rail Partnership Schemes

ISSR – building on Plymouth University Excellence

From the outside of the University you realise that Plymouth has some excellent expertise on Sustainability. However, it is only when you begin to meet and talk to people that you realise the strength, depth and breadth of this expertise ! Also, it is clear that Plymouth University are very serious about “walking the talk”. Sustainability is a key part of the University, it is one of five University ambitions and there is some excellent work on the Operations side and “Teaching and Learning” as well as the Research side. I personally think we need to shout about this more!

Did you know?

  • The University has Rainwater harvesting in Roland Levinski building and Nancy Aster
  • Passive Ventilation and Night-time Cooling in Portland Square
  • Over the next 12 months new voltage optimisers are being installed
  • Plymouth University has a target to become carbon neutral by 2030
  • A recent book on Sustainability Education, edited by Plymouth University staff, was noted by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL) as one of the 'Top 40 books of 2010' 
  • The University’s approach to Sustainability through it’s tri-cameral structure won a “Green Gown Award” for Continuous Improvement- Institutional Change in 2011
  • Since 2006, Plymouth University have been one of the top six performers in the People and Planet’s Green League and in 2010 came first out of 138 participating Higher Education Institutions.
  • There are over 200 researchers at Plymouth University working on “Sustainability”
The ISSR is built on the prior success and outstanding reputations of Plymouth University’s world class researchers. There are over 200 researchers working on a range of applied sustainability areas from Sustainable Transport, Environmental Buildings and Renewable Energy to Psychology, Health and Policy. From Environmental Science, Climate Change and Sustainable Communities to Low Carbon Development, Sustainable Education and International Development. To name just a few!

What can the ISSR do for me?

The ISSR cuts across the whole of the University, all of the faculties. We have identified 3 key areas of activity:

Internal Network
The ISSR cuts across all faculties within the University and aims to facilitate internal communications between researchers and enhance research interaction. Sustainability solutions often require looking at problems from multiple perspectives and the ISSR will act as the catalyst for this. We have a whole host of activities planned. The first is to send monthly emails to all researchers with Sustainability research updates and funding opportunities, so we can join up on reactive research opportunities. More to follow on developing proactive research opportunities ………

External Gateway
By cutting across the whole University, the ISSR can offer a single point of contact to external organisations wanting to collaborate with the University on Sustainability Research. We can also offer dedicated project management to scope projects and monitor and ensure that project objectives are met.

In addition, together with the centres, we are helping to hold a series of events. For example the recent presentation by Alan Knight, held together with Plymouth Business School on “If only the Planet Was a Shop”

Bid Hub
Finally, we are also providing support to sustainability researchers by informing them about research opportunities but also by supporting the development of multi-disciplinary bids or bids that involve external partners.

Why the elephant?

So why the elephant ? Well, for me, the challenges of delivering sustainability are complex and deeply interconnected. No single discipline (or organisation) has the complete picture. Hence, in order to find “Real World” Solutions, we need to join up across disciplines and also engage organisations outside the University. It is only when we do this that we begin to develop a full, holistic picture of the solutions to sustainability.

These are my reflections after 3 months, it will be interesting to see what are my reflections after 3 years!

….If you have any comments, suggestions or would like to get involved, please feel free to 
email me at 

Dr Paul Hardman, Manager of the Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research

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