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Staff Profile

Dr Joe Smith

Dr Joe Smith
Faculty of Social Sciences
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
United Kingdom

Senior Lecturer in Environment



I joined the Open University's Geography Department in October 1999, and have worked in interdisciplinary environmental research and teaching teams from the start. I've been awarded three teaching prizes and an Engaging Research (Research Leader) Award (2014). I've been a member of the OU's Broadcast Strategy Group (2008-2010); the Academic Reputation Working Group (2013-2015) and the Digital Humanities Steering Group.

I hold a BA degree in Social and Political Sciences and a PhD in Geography from the University of Cambridge, and ran a University-wide environmental research and teaching network there (1995-2000). I’ve held visiting fellowships at Clare Hall (2005/6) and CRASSH (2008/09). I’m a Fellow of the RGS, a member of the Architectural Association and the Antiquarian Horological Society and Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. Since 2011 I've served as Director of Smith of Derby Ltd, turret clockmakers since 1856.


BA in Social and Political Sciences (Cambridge, 1989), PhD in Geography (Cambridge, 1995)

Professional affiliations

Fellow of the Institute of British Geographers
Elected Visiting Fellow, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge (2008-2009)
Elected Visiting Fellow and Life Member (2003) Clare Hall, Cambridge

I'm a member of the OpenSpace Research Centre.

Course development and teaching

In step with my research interests, my teaching focuses on environmental policy and politics, as well as the join between media production and public understanding and debate of global environmental change issues. Since 2000 I have contributed to and chaired courses from entry level to Masters. While I love to be involved in the teams that produce the OU's innovative interdisciplinary textbooks I have a particular enthusiasm for working on media and interactive projects. For three years (2009-2012) I was seconded to devise and lead an innovative approach to environmental learning, outreach and debate through the Open University based (ongoing) Creative Climate project. The project has demonstrated major opportunities for quality and efficiency gains in the production and application of OU broadcast and online media, as well as the potential to bind together research, learning and public engagement goals.

Most recently I've produced multimedia and written a chapter on the emergence of a global environmental imagination for the Foundation course in social sciences (DD103). Prior to that I edited the 'food' themed block for Environment (DST206), a second level environment module. I have also led the making of a body of media and environment related materials for both of these modules. This has included work with the BBC environment archive, as well as working with online and social media content, including material I commissioned through the Creative Climate project. I was on the team that made Environment: Journeys Through A Changing World (U116), where I contributed to the first and second parts, with materials on the concept of sustainability and greener buildings and cities (block 1) and on the practice of interdisciplinarity, looking at the Arctic region as a case study (block 2). This included commissioning an interactive Arctic museum cabinet. I was also responsible for designing the over-arching motif of this module as a journey. We are just starting to update that module now.

I was one of the small team that made the innovative and successful Environmental Web module (U316) back in 2002/3. I return to the team each year to host an environmental journalism Masterclass, an online seminar held across a week with a leading environment journalist (e.g. from the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Times and Irish Times). I chaired/co-chaired and contributed to a number of courses in the Environment Policy and Society Masters courses in the social science faculty (primarily Exploring Sustainability (D836) as sole author and Environmental Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (D832).

I have been awarded three teaching prizes for my work on Environment (U216), The Environmental Web (U316) and Environment: Journeys Through a Changing World (U116).

I am the OU's representative on the management and exam boards of the Joint Distance Learning Masters in Urban and Rural Planning, and have served as external examiner on University College London's Environment, Science and Society Masters Course, based in the UCL Geography department. I have acted as PhD examiner at: the University of East Anglia, 2008 & 2012; London School of Economics, 2005; University of Cambridge, 2004 and the Open University 2003; 2010; 2012.

Research interests

All of my research seeks to enhance understanding and action on global environmental change issues, and draws on work from across the social and political sciences. This breaks down into two main areas of research and commentary: 1. Global environmental change and culture, largely focused on broadcasting and digital media; 2. Contemporary environmental history and politics, including the politics of consumption.>/p>

My research tends to be collaborative, interdisciplinary and experimental. Throughout my career I have sought to combine 'thinking' and 'doing', and impact and engagement has been integral to my varied projects. I am Principle Investigator on two major AHRC funded projects: Earth in Vision and Stories of Change, and also convene the Mediating Change group which seeks to support research and practice at the intersection of culture and climate change. My other current area of research relates to the politics of food in post-socialist societies. These investigations are currently summarised by the title Quiet Sustainability. Past projects include Interdependence Day, which tested reframings and provocations around themes of globalisation and sustainability with a series of events and publications.

Earth in Vision (AHRC funded Care for the Future project, value £470K) (2013-2016) is looking back at fifty years of BBC broadcasting about environmental issues, and looking forward to what citizens, teachers and learners might want to do if they could access digital broadcast archives. The team includes OU colleagues George Revill, Kim Hammond and Zdenek Zdrahal (KMi), and we are working with relevant parts of the BBC, the Geographical Association and others. The project has two main goals: 1. to tell new histories and politics of environmental change, with broadcasting ‘written in’ more prominently; 2. to use environment as a case study as to what citizens, teachers and learners want in terms of tools and support if more digital broadcast archive content is released.

Stories of Change (AHRC funded Connected Communities project, value £1.47m) (2014-2017) seeks to loosen up the public and political conversation about energy by showing how fluid the relationship between energy and society has been in the past, how varied it is in the present, and how many different ideas exist about how it might be in the future. The team includes humanities and social science researchers from the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Exeter, Sheffield, South Wales and the Open University, as well as a very wide body of community, industry, policy and creative partners (artists; poets; filmmakers and more). There are three parts to the project: Story 1: Demanding Times, looks at the political and policy backdrop to energy change, focusing on Westminster and London; Story 2: Future Works, explores the past, present and future of energy in industrial making in the English midlands and Story 3: Everyday Lives is set in South Wales, and engages with communities that have been made and remade by their relationships with energy production. As well as acting as PI I’m leading on Story 1 and contributing to Story 2.

Quiet sustainability is a project developed with OU colleague Petr Jehli?ka which looks at the unfolding politics of consumption and sustainability through a study of the changing food politics and cultures in Poland and the Czech Republic. We find that post-socialist Central and Eastern European countries are distinctive and very revealing places to try to make sense of globally significant questions about consumption, development and quality of life. Specifically, we have been working to understand why so many people from all social classes (up to 40%) produce so much of their own fruit, vegetables and eggs (again, up to 40%) in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe. This time-series research project is combining qualitative and quantitative methods, and has been running since 2004. Findings have been published in Transactions of the IBG, Geoforum (x2), Social Indicators Research, Sociologia Ruralis and Environmental History. Scholars in geography, anthropology and sociology in various countries are drawing on our mixed methods approach and theoretical framing.

I have supervised five PhDs to completion and currently have two PhD students working with me, Ana Harrison and Robert Butler. I welcome applications in the fields of culture, communication and environmental change, and environmental policy and politics.

Impact and engagement

It says a lot about my work that I find the separation of the 'research' and 'impact and engagement' unhelpful! Indeed I view research and impact/engagement as iterative. But here are three linked pieces of work that fall more directly into this category:

  1. Mediating Change describes a body of work at the join between culture and climate change. Together with Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler and other diverse partners I've designed a body of Mediating Change events, podcasts & publications, to create a reflective space for researchers and cultural producers to think together about the consequences of the 'difficult new knowledge' of climate change for their work. We view climate change as having cultural consequences as far reaching as Darwinism, and I have sought to summarise this cultural politics in terms of six key overlapping elements. Mediating Change is the umbrella under which the Earth in Vision and Stories of Change projects have developed.
  2. Media and global environmental change: Since 1996 I have co-organised seminars (with Roger Harrabin of the BBC) for senior media decision makers and leading environment and development specialists. These have been controversial amongst climate contrarians, but also won generous praise from leading media figures and environment specialists. I published (as editor) the first book on climate change and the media in 2000, and continue to publish academic and industry-relevant articles. My rare experience at the media-research join has led to invitations to speak and consult in a range of industry, research and policy contexts. It has also informed my design of the Creative Climate diary project, which combines broadcasts, online engagement and learning materials all designed around the proposition that humanity’s responses to global environmental change are unfolding, ambitious and compelling. Its design draws on my argument that environment and sustainability issues need to be represented as more plural and dynamic (and not necessarily framed around environment and sustainability). The project gave me the opportunity to co-commission content (5x28 min films for BBC World TV; 10x28 min radio progs for BBC World Service Radio; The Climate Connection in 2009 and 2010; 100+ short online diary films and 10x2 min short films co-commissioned with BBC Comedy in the wake of a student filmmaker competition). These experiences have nourished my interest in interactive documentary and the potentially significant role this new form could play in university research, teaching and public engagement.
  3. Interdependence Day (2005-2012) was a research and communications project which I initiated and led which provoked new thinking about how we should act in our interconnected world. The project was based around collaborations between researchers, publics, artists and performers, NGOs and media and aimed to refresh jaded debates about sustainable development, globalization and environmental change through an integrated body of activities comprising: academic work, such as the ESRC/NERC funded interdisciplinary seminars and related publications; direct public engagement, e.g. through the Interdependence Day public events and workshops, and a reach to wider publics through broadcast and webcasting. The new economics foundation and OU geography produced three reports which won national print and broadcast media attention: Interdependence, Chinadependence and the Consumption Explosion. We also published an approachable summary of life in a sustainable world: Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth, which included contributions from leading politicians, designers and authors. The project culminated in a sell-out event at London's Southbank Centre, a web ATLAS of Interdependence and a printed ATLAS. These concluding publications and events brought together many of the contributors to the project, drawn from the natural and social sciences, arts, media and policy. I continue to publish and talk on the theme of interdependence, supplying materials on the theme for the Geographical Association’s media and print content supporting the national curriculum.

External collaborations

Present and past advisory, consultant (paid and pro bono), facilitation or trustee roles include: the BBC, Bluelink (South East Europe journalist training), Cape Farewell, the International Broadcasting Trust, The Hedgerley Wood Trust, Metis Arts, Menagerie Theatre, Open Arts Archive, Polka Theatre, Religion Science and Environment, Reuters, the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts and TippingPoint.

The long-running media and environment seminars developed out of a partnership with BBC News' Roger Harrabin, and evolved further via collaboration with BBC Vision. Some of that work is now pursued via work with the International Broadcasting Trust.

The Mediating Change Group is a partnership between Renata Tyszczuk of the University of Sheffield School of Architecture, Robert Butler (now at the OU conducting a PhD) and has benefited from the support of the Ashden Trust, the University of Sheffield and the OU.

The Interdependence Day project, initially developed by me and Renata Tyszczuk, (and involving other OU colleagues including Nigel Clark) was transformed by a partnership with the new economics foundation, particularly their then policy director, Andrew Simms. Partnership with the Geographical Association has helped to ensure that that work has an impact on the UK's geography curriculum.

The Earth in Vision project was developed through regular discussion with the BBC, above all their archive partnership lead Bill Thompson, and we have benefited from close links with the Natural History Unit also.

The Stories of Change project has been developed through principles of co-production. Hence the cast of partners and advisors is very substantial, including arts and community bodies, media and policy partners, and a core academic team from across design, humanities and the social sciences.

International links

My projects have benefited from, and some entirely depend on, strong international links.

The Quiet Sustainability project has been achieved through collaborations with Czech and Polish partners.

The media and environment seminars have drawn upon the international networks of NGOs, policy and research bodies to ensure that broadcast decision-makers get closer to the realities of environment and development issues.

Stories of Change benefits from having research collaborators in Norway, Germany and New Zealand, and we are starting to connect with researchers around the world (e.g. US; Greece; Denmark) who are interested in our distinctive approach.

Recent publications

A selection of my research publications can be viewed at The Open University's Open Research Online.

Publication selection

Last updated: 18 May 2015