A few weeks ago Human Nature was one of the sponsors of Coastal Futures 2023. This conference of 350 people in London and several hundred more online brought together coastal and marine managers, researchers and practitioners to consider the next decade for the ocean.
It was the 30th Coastal Futures event since it was launched by Bob Earll, and the first in-person event since 2020.
From a personal perspective, this was the event where I launched Human Nature three years ago, so it was a bit of a celebration – I even gave away party bags!
It was really good to be back. There were excellent presentations and keynote speakers reminding us of the impressive work driving change in the marine space. It was good to see – and hug! – old friends and connect with new people.
Here’s a few of my reflections.
On the topic of social science
Within presentations and the panel discussions, there was recognition of the need for a much greater understanding of people – their views, values and engagement – in coastal and marine management. This was summed up very nicely by Dr Andrew Gill of Cefas who described the need to increase the amount of societal data collection and analysis as a core piece of achieving sustainable use of the marine environment. If you’ve followed me for a while, you won’t be surprised that I agree with this aspiration.
However, I also heard language which shows the hesitancy of putting people and communities’ views at the centre of processes and priorities. Rather than engaging people in “our processes”, how about aspirations to co-design processes? The knowledge deficit model was lurking around – hints that communicating the “right” knowledge and answers will effect change, that informing people will make sure that they care. Knowledge is not the silver bullet. There’s a need for continued reflection about what it means to integrate the evidence of people into management processes and to explore whether we truly value people and their views about coastal and marine spaces.
Libby West of Natural England reminded us that the first principle of the Ecosystem Approach is that “management objectives are a matter of societal choice”. That can sometimes feel like a challenging principle to embrace. But to maximise the effectiveness of social science, we need to value the people represented by that evidence. Social science has most impact if you value what respondents say.
There were many people at the conference who were early in their careers. Hannah Rudd – who gave an inspiring keynote presentation showing how much impact passion can have (check out her new book here), a cohort of postgraduate students from Plymouth University and recent graduates new to the world of networking. I had lots of conversations with people who were nervous-excitedly attending their first conference. Hearing their questions, ambitions, interests, and motivations for being there was great. I enjoy the energy and new insights that these conversations bring.
But there was also a stark reminder in Hannah’s keynote about the importance of encouraging the next generation. Hannah spoke about being told by her careers advisor that marine science was a pipe dream and unachievable. As a sector crying out for greater diversity, this message at such a young age is heartbreaking.
For those early in their careers, go to events, talk to people and share your energy. And for those of us later in our careers, we have the chance to encourage and cheerlead, to share our experiences, our tricks for making networking look easy, and to support those who are our new or future co-workers.
Find your inspiration
Several presenters described how emotionally challenging it can be to work in this sector. It isn’t easy listening, to be reminded of the depressing reality of the challenges we face. Mostly because it’s something many of us can identify with. But something all those presenters also shared was their counterbalance to this – they all had a source of hope and optimism that kept them going. One of Bob’s final messages as he closed the conference was a reminder to find the joy and be inspired to keep taking action. The people we work with in our teams and networks are a chance to be buoyed and motivated. To be reminded that many others share our vision of a just transition to healthy marine ecosystems and societies, and they are working equally hard to achieve that. This conference was a great chance to reconnect with that inspiration.
Thank you Bob
Finally, I’d like to say thank you to Bob Earll. I first attended Coastal Futures in the mid-2000s, early in my PhD. The chance to be one of those young faces, nervously loitering at the edge of the networking events, was really valuable – even though it felt a bit awkward at the time! Coastal Futures provided an opportunity to learn about what was happening in UK marine and coastal management, connect with others, and support action taking. Bob also gave me time and conversation at key points of my PhD research. Bob, your support, insight and ongoing encouragement are invaluable, and I will always be grateful for them.
I look forward to seeing what the next chapter holds for Coastal Futures.