UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Transcript: Navigating prosperity, with Dr Nikolay Mintchev

00:00:00 RP 

Hello. I'm RP. I'm a sustainability professional involved in impact investing in social enterprises. 

00:00:07 Sam 

And I'm Sam, an advocate on the role of technology in the pursuit of social innovation, nation building and sustainable development. 

00:00:15 RP 

We’re both from the IGP's MSc Prosperity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. 

00:00:21 Sam 

And welcome to  

00:00:22 RP and Sam 

To prosperity and beyond. 
00:00:31 RP 

I think it's quite important to choose someone quite knowledgeable on context, participation and representation and how these things play a role in the discussion of prosperity. 

00:00:44 Sam 

Yeah, sounds interesting. So would you mind introducing our guest today, RP. 
00:00:50 RP 

So Nikolay Mintchev is a senior research associate at IGP, where he's also the Director of research and departmental graduate tutor. His work focuses on the UK and Lebanon, and he is a core team member of the IGP led Prosperity Co laboratory, or Pro-Col Lebanon. He convenes and teaches the IGP MSc modules, global legacies and social theories of prosperity. 

00:01:16 Sam 

His most recent work in publication focuses on challenging the prevailing understanding of prosperity by developing alternative models and ways of thinking. He is co-editor of a new book called “Prosperity in the 21st century”, which is out and available for Open Access via UCL Press. So please do check that out. Now without further ado, let's all welcome Nikolay. 

00:01:41 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Thank you. Hello. 

00:01:50 Sam 

Yes. Welcome. All right, so before we formally begin, let's start off with something light. So when you're not mentoring masters and PhD students or conversing with scholars halfway across the world, or conducting your own research, how do you spend your time, unwinding from the pursuit of prosperity? 

00:02:14 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

OK, so I can begin with the most recent thing that I did last night, which is watching some of the episodes from the new season of Black Mirror which is really good. 

00:02:26 Sam 

Ohh it's really good. Unwinding Black Mirror. OK, nice. Yeah. 

00:02:31 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Yeah, well. Well, it's very different from academic work. 

00:02:38 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

I find this strangely social in a way, because a lot of people that I know have seen it as well, or watching it at the moment. So yeah, you just message your friends “oh did you see the latest episode?” 
00:02:48 RP 

Yeah, generally speaking, we also understand that you are a trained social anthropologist and in this regard, how do you think this background helped you discover practical implications of having to contextualise prosperity? 

00:03:09 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

So anthropology is really about studying culture and society and how people live. And anthropologists really take pride in their methodology, which is based on extensive deep field work and really getting to know people. And one of the things that is very captivating for me in anthropologies listening to people's stories so anthropologies about people’s stories. You know their stories about themselves, their stories about who they are, how they became the kinds of people that they are, stories about what kind of society we live in.  
You know, when you when you talk to people, people love to tell stories. And these stories are usually very concrete narratives about lived experience, and I think that when we talk about prosperity in context, one way to begin the conversation is by listening to people's stories about prosperity and their kind of concrete experiences about what prosperity means to them, or the opposite. What are the challenges to prosperity that they face challenges to living a good life and opportunities of living a good life. So, in terms of contextualization and anthropology, I would say that the notion of a story and telling a story is really key for me. 

00:05:01 Sam 

Yeah, I guess like based on my understanding what you said, in order to be a good social anthropologist, you should be able to #1 listen well to the people that you're trying to conduct your research in and as well as become a good storyteller. So just building on that, we want to learn about the connections of your work on this field as well as your other research and how did this sort of like approach influence your view on participatory approaches and citizen social science? 

00:05:32 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Yeah. So I mean, just thinking about the history of my kind of academic interests over the past few years, a lot of the reading that I did as a student was actually in philosophy, philosophy and psychoanalysis. I was interested in psychoanalytic theories of the mind and philosophical theories of society. And both of these were really quite abstract and they didn't necessarily connect with particular concrete experiences of people, you kind of had to learn how to do that.  
And since then I have progressively become more committed to thinking concretely, sort of moving from the abstract to the concrete. So with anthropology I started thinking about well, how can we take these philosophical concepts and theories that are really abstract and apply them concretely to a specific set of empirical materials or data. 

After that, when I came to the IGP, what I started thinking about was, well, how is it that academic work including social theories and different kinds of conceptual models can help us actually make a difference in the world. So in a sense, my trajectory has really been moving from the abstract to the concrete in terms of thinking concretely academically and then doing something concretely and thinking how we can do something concretely as researchers and as members of a university, so with respect to citizen science and participatory approaches, I really see it as a kind of mechanism for doing something for having some sort of an impact. So I guess in that way you know it's part of my kind of trajectory of different kinds of commitments, but they have been adding to one another rather than sort of being replaced, I'm still very interested in theory and you know, here's the class on social theories. 

00:08:01 RP 

So like there is this divide that you sort of pointed out between like what is occurring in real life and then having to translate the theories that have been thought of in the real of academia. What are the biggest challenges and breakthroughs sort of engaging local communities with regard to trying to sort of work that divide out since you were trying to sort of bridge those two worlds and like, are there any personal memories that you're fond of in terms of, like, connecting these two things? 

00:08:34 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

I wouldn't say that it's a real divide it. There is a divide in some ways, but you know, we can argue that the divide is really arbitrary and it's the result of you know academic silos, intellectual silos. You know, the fact that people choose to do one thing as opposed to another and choose to, you know, not engage in certain kinds of connections. And, you know, one thing that we've been trying to do at IGP is try to bridge different kinds of thinking in new and original ways. 

So I wouldn't exactly say that there is a real divide. There are a lot of possibilities on bringing these kinds of work together and we're very committed to doing that. In terms of the challenge, if you ask me about challenges to participatory research? 

00:09:32 RP 

Engaging in local communities. 

00:09:35 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

I mean. 

00:09:37 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

I mean. I would say that. For me, in my experience, the biggest challenge has been the fact that you never know if it's going to work until it actually works. 

00:09:51 Sam 

OK. Can you elaborate a little bit on that? 

00:09:53 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Yes. So when you begin a particular kind of research initiative for a particular kind of research programme, you don't know what's going to happen. You have some sort of a plan, but you don't know whether your plan will work or not. When it comes to engaging communities, particularly when it comes to working with teams of citizen scientists, you know recruiting people working with them to sort of develop training programmes and data collection, and data analysis, and possibly interventions later on, there are so many different factors involved that you never know if it's going to work out in the end, or at least this is how it felt for me. Luckily for us in the work that myself and other colleagues do in Lebanon and in London, it has worked out really well and I'm you know, I'm quite proud of the work that we do.  
But there have been so many important factors such as you know the fact that I work with a brilliant team of colleagues, the fact that we have been very lucky to be able to recruit a team of citizen scientists who are very skilled and very capable and very committed to the work. This is something that I personally do not take for granted, and I know that a lot of people have done a lot of work to get to the stage where we are at now. And just thinking about how overwhelming the whole thing seemed at the beginning. And how proud myself and other colleagues are of the accomplishments of our citizen science team, I think that sort of initial uncertainty was for me one of the big challenges. 

00:12:11 RP 

I think I personally feel it now. I'm engaging social enterprises from halfway across the world for my dissertation, and it's becoming very difficult in the engagement. Yeah, I like sort of mapped out a plan. 

But then it's really having to be able to improvise is a learning that I have to sort of do right now. I don't get to see yet the fruit of my labour, But I'm hoping it comes out to something similar where I can be proud of like the understanding or the contribution I make? 

I don't know about you Sam? 

00:12:54 Sam 

Yeah, I guess. Like for me, I can really feel that Nikolay is very much invested in his work. And you know, it's something that he's truly proud of. I guess just out of curiosity, is there a particular project or achievement that your team has achieved? And it's something that's etched in your memory forever and you want to keep on telling that story just because of the learnings that you got there, but also like the impact that you generated for that specific community. 

00:13:22 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Yes. Well, I would say that it's not a particular event or a particular story, it's the bigger story over a long period of time. So the fact that we have been able to keep this work going for a number of years now, 3-4 years and go through a number of steps and build on the previous step. Each time we do something new, I think it's that bigger journey that is really something that is going to stay with me and something that has quite a bit of meaning for me. You know, it's not just one thing or another that happened. But it's the whole longer process of working with a group of people over a number of years.  
Starting with just the design of a research programme and you know the prosperity models that you see in a lot of the IGP publications with the five domains and the indicators you know creating one of those models, adapting the model for the sites of inquiry where we work and then organising the data collection and carrying out, a quite a substantial data collection programme, and then doing the data analysis, the visualisation, the writing up the publication and then afterwards working together as a team to see, “Well, what can we do next” to make sure that this research isn't just research but actually leads to some impact. And what we did is work with our colleagues with citizen scientists to develop designs for different interventions in Beirut, in the Hamara neighbourhood in Beirut, but also in other in other parts of Beirut and Lebanon. 

And working together to make these interventions happen and to see them being successful after quite a few years of research and thinking and design and working together to kind of create the interventions. I think it's that bigger journey that has a lot of meaning. 

00:16:07 Sam 

Yeah, I think personally I can definitely relate to that because I run my own nonprofit and there comes a time where you're not looking at specific projects or campaigns anymore. You're trying to hopefully change the overall narrative and you're seeing it as sort of like puzzle pieces that fit and just add-on on top of each other as you progress along the years, so I guess that transitions nicely to our next question, which is about the diversity that we have right now at UCL and of course within the IGP and most especially one of the procols that you are involved with.  
So how do you think this exposure to different cultures and in your personal and professional experiences shape your mindset and approach in academic discourse? 

00:17:02 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Oh, I mean, I think that diversity, whether it's cultural diversity or diversity of ideas, always makes up for an enriching environment. But I think that we need to be careful to acknowledge that diversity itself is not enough. For people to be in a diverse context, it's not enough for people to be able to enrich their ideas, because you can you can live in a diverse context and you can still have a kind of colonial, neo-colonial mindset. I think it's about how you relate to diversity, how you relate to others, and here we go back to the notion of listening, you know, listening to people's stories, having a position of humility, where you learn from them – learn from others, learn from other people’s ideas. 

I think this is something that is extremely valuable. Having that, having the humility that allows you to learn from others views, others arguments, others experiences. You know, living in a diverse place and knowing people from, you know, different walks of life, different parts of, different corners of the globe is really quite a privilege. And I think we should all see it as such, and we should all try to make the best of it by listening and learning from those around us. 

00:18:55 RP 

I think like, especially it's 2023 right now and we need to acknowledge that we are living in the most sort of the thickest of diversity in terms of the conversations that we're having. There is great divide and we have to acknowledge that.  
But with the different conversations happening, which areas do you think needs more representation in terms of like, we understand that the diversity can bring out multiple voices, but which voice do you think or which voice or which stories need to be told more or is it a matter of location? A big or a particular platform? 

00:19:39 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

I think that everybody's voice should be heard and everybody should have the opportunity to tell their story and there is obviously, you know quite significant inequalities in terms of whose voices are given a platform and you know, in a neoliberal context where everything is commodified. We know whose voices are going to be given the platform, people who have resources and power to have their voices heard. 

So I would say that when it comes to when it comes to voice. Yes, everybody, everybody should have the opportunity to, to have their voice heard. But in a democratic society, we have to have mechanisms to ensure that this happens in ways that are not tied to capital, economic resources, political power, political interest because these kinds of structures of inequality in resources and power can really be detrimental to the kind of conversation that we have, precisely because they can shut down the voices of some people particularly the most disadvantaged. 

00:21:09 Sam 

Yeah, I guess like I have two main takeaways from what Nikolay has mentioned so far. I like that he pointed out diversity is not enough because more often than not you know you have some sort of listing where like in terms of EDI (equality, diversity, inclusiveness). 

How do you identify as? And sometimes people feel that they're just, statistics are just numbers because it reflects on paper, but obviously it's just a starting point, right? To have those kinds of conversations and to sort of like move the needle towards more democratic discussions.  
And the second thing that I would take away from what he's mentioned is that everyone deserves to be heard, but I guess as it stands right now, not everyone is being treated equally like there are some voices that are I guess, more heard because they have the platforms and spaces afforded to them and with that, let's take a quick break and we'll come back later and continue our discussion. 
00:22:14 RP 

OK. And now we're back. 

00:22:17 Sam 

Alright, so perhaps now we can move on to what IGP is promoting, which is conversations around prosperity. So based on your observations, in what ways have discussions around this topic evolved not just within the department but also perhaps in other institutions that you are part of? And do you think we're headed in the right direction? 

00:22:41 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

So when you ask if we are headed in the right direction, I really think it depends who we mean by “we.” 

I would be lying to you if I said that the world is heading in the right direction. I think there's plenty of things to be worried about. I think the conversation about prosperity is, to a large extent, headed in the right direction. I think the reason I say that is that more and more people know what prosperity is and what we mean by prosperity now. 7-8 years ago - if I told somebody that I work at a place called the Institute for Global Prosperity into the work on prosperity, they would be very likely to not know what it is. They will be curious and they'll “say, oh, what do you mean by prosperity?” 
And now more and more, I've had instances of people asking me what do you do, you know, where do you work? And then when I say work on prosperity or work at the IGP, they say, “oh, do you mean prosperity –  as in the critique of GDP and well-being and new pathways for quality of life” and say, “yeah, that's exactly what it is.” 

So more people are aware that there is a new kind of conversation that is happening, and I think that the work of the IGP and others who are talking about this and trying to get our work out there, has had an impact in the right direction. 

00:24:23 RP 

Do you have sort of like a working definition of prosperity that you frequently share for those who come at you with really, with very little sort of recognitions of what prosperity is. 
00:24:37 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Yes, I would say “quality of life for people and planet.” 

00:24:42 RP 

So with that sort of working definition and we've had a lot of conversations, dialogues in and out of the classroom. Do you think in your opinion and this will tread the realm of vague, but that we'll have to ground in reality? Do you think prosperity is a vision, a journey, a destination? Or a fairy tale? 

00:25:09 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Well, I certainly don't think there is a fairy tale. I do think that it is a vision because we need to envisage ways of doing things differently. If we're going to get out of the multiple crises that we're facing as a society and as a planet, you know, environmental crisis and so on. Sorry, what were the other things that? 

00:25:36 RP 

Journey and destination. 

00:25:38 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

I certainly think that it is a journey because the set of practices and the set of principles that you embody when you try to achieve something definitely matter. They're part of the outcome. I don't think prosperity is just about the outcome. Prosperity is about the process of how you do things and the kinds of principles that you do it in accordance with. So, for example, principles of Inclusivity. Here we go back to the notion of listening, certain kinds of methodologies, if you're doing research that are part of the process of creating better quality of life and you know, we can even say that this is why we'll talk about pathways, right? Because it's a journey. It's a pathway to getting there and the other thing was destination was it? 

00:26:35 RP 


00:26:52 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Well, it certainly has to be some sort of a destination where we live in a better kind of society than we do now. But I think the important thing is that the destination is never final. You know, it's not like you get there and that's it. It's an ongoing process and once we reach one destination, then the question is: what next? Where do we go next? I think prosperity is never something that is achieved once and for all. You can, you know, you can have gains and losses. You can have ups and downs, but it's not like you get to your destination. And once you've arrived there you stop. It's a.. 

00:27:26 RP 

It's an evolving thing. 

00:27:27 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

It's a renewing, a destination that renews itself and evolving thing exactly. 

00:27:34 RP 

No, because honestly like since it's a post GDP kind of criticism that sort of come comes out like if we solve all the GDP problems, all the sustainability goals, have we subverted the system that allowed the goals to be needed in the 1st place. So I think that has always been my sort of view of trying to change the system to require the sustainability goals in the 1st place and when we do get there, we'll probably figure out that there are more things that we need to solve and there's nothing particularly, I don't want to say wrong, but there's nothing particularly faulty in trying to work towards that just because it's imperfect. 

00:28:34 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Well, we try to do better. We try to do better. 

00:28:38 Sam 

OK, I think we've covered a lot of topics at this point. Like you know, we started with psychoanalysis and we delved into participatory approaches and even touched a little bit about diversity. So maybe we can end on this note. How and why should more people be involved in paving a path to prosperity? 

00:29:01 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Well, I think the reason why people should be involved is because we all ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in. Not just now, but five years in the future, 10 years in the future, 15 years in the future and the way that things are going, right now it is looking quite bleak in a number of different areas. And I think that we need to do something about it. But in terms of what people should do, I think it really depends on people's commitments. You know, it could be something as simple as being kind to your friends and family, going out for coffee with your friends. 

If you are a researcher, and if you teach at the university, then it's really about what kind of research you do and what you teach and what kinds of principles, what kind of principles you stick to in whatever it is that you do. So I don't think that everyone should drop everything that they're doing and start doing something that's related to prosperity. But I think that everyone should be aware of the challenges that we're currently facing, the direction in which we're going and think about what they can do to make a contribution to the lives of those who are closest to them as a starting point and then. You know, beyond that to their community, to their city. And so on and so forth so yeah, I think it really depends on. What people's circumstances are? What they do and how they can do things differently in order to in order to make a contribution to, like I said, quality of life for people and planet. 

00:31:17 Sam 

What a really beautiful ending to our podcast so. 

00:31:18 RP 

Wow, what a great 1st guest to this podcast. 

00:31:27 RP 

Thank you so much Nikolay for spending time with us and talking about talking about prosperity, talking about diversity. And I think it really sets up our series to a good start of how we want to sort of structure more conversations moving forward. 

00:31:48 Dr Nikolay Mintchev 

Thank you. It was great to be on. 

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