The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


The DSA2022 Global Conference on 'Just Sustainable Futures' successfully hosted by UCL and the DPU

12 July 2022

UCL, in a a joint effort led by the DPU, has hosted the largest ever Development Studies Association Conference on the theme of 'just sustainable futures in a urbanising and mobile world' (6-8 July).

DSA2022 graphic

Conference organisation also involved collaboration from the Institute for Global Prosperity, the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, the Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction (UCL STEaPP), and the Centre for Education and International Development, Institute of Education.

The conference attracted 726 participants, amongst which over 43% were based and from Global South. Participants came from 69 countries and, amongst the top 11 delegation, there were 5 African and 3 Asian countries (for example, there were 140 participants based in Africa). The conference addressed some of the issues likely to become UCL global challenges, including the Climate Crisis, Inequality, and Data-empowered Societies. However, these issues could only be discussed with a global community of scholars. This was particularly important given that traditionally debates about global development issues affecting the Global South are dominated by scholarship produced by global north universities. This more equal participation represented an important shift towards a decolonising agenda. This was achieved with funding support from the UCL Grand Challenge and Global Engagement Office and the Bartlett to provide fee waivers for Global South participants and by choosing an online methodology.

The online methodology was also fundamental to limit carbon footprint, while delivering the most diverse DSA conference ever. The methodology used a limited number of core hours for synchronous discussion, and pre-recorded presentations available in advance. This allowed to accommodate for different time zones, caring responsibilities, different learning styles and disabilities. It dramatically reduced zoom fatigue and focused on discussion. Too many conferences have overrunning presentations, with almost no discussion. At the DSA2022, the entire synchronous slot was dedicated to discussion. This was very much needed given that the last two years have radically changed the world: COVID, dramatic changes in the official development assistance, dramatic impacts of climate change, and unstable geopolitics and war. These changes added to the complexity of imagining just sustainable futures and required the academic community to undertake a global discussion. Unfortunately, participants felt we had just started scratching the surface when sessions ended.

Organising the conference pushed us to reflect on the relation between conference format and inclusion. In-person UK-based conferences are very exclusive. A disabled Bangladeshi scholar told about how he felt he could participate on equal terms, including in the dancing session. He would not have not been able to participate if the conference was in person. Similarly, the DSA2022, allowed more than 300 people from and based in the Global South to attend. In-person conference remains one of the best parts of academic life. They create relations, trust, and allows early career researchers to build a network. However, they are very exclusionary spaces based on income, employment contract, resource of the employing institution, citizenship, ability, and caring responsibility. These conferences often reproduce the unequal power relations that we seek to challenge in social justice and the decolonial perspective that we promote at the DPU and the Bartlett.

Through innovative social activities provided by our Togetherness partner, we were able to push the boundaries of online interactions to build empathy and connection. However, only few conference delegates took part. The challenge is to think whether we can mainstream these activities into main plenary events and nudge people to build collaborative relations online around different thematic areas.

If you missed the conference, all the pre-conference webinars and conference plenaries are available to watch. For example, don’t miss Bartlett’s Dean Christoph Lindner chairing the opening plenary Urbanising futures and sustainability (video here) with Jo Beall, Aromar Revi and William E. Rees.

UCL Organising Committee for the DSA2022 was composed of Andrea Rigon, Hanna Baumann, Caren Levy, Samantha Ahern with the support of the Scientific Committee at UCL and DSA, which included: Joanna Chataway, Michael Walls, Priti Parikh, Sam Hickey, Laura Camfield, Shailaja Fennell, and Taibat Lawanson, with the support of Nomad IT and Laura Roberts.