The RGS-IBG will soon welcome the Open University’s Head of Geography, Joe Smith, as its new director, following the standing down of Dr Rita Gardner. Geographical sat down with Smith at the Society’s Kensington headquarters to discuss his appointment, his plans, and what role he sees the Society playing in the future
What’s at the core of this job for you?
Balance is the single most important word in the role of the director. Not just respecting but having enthusiasm for all of the varied activities that make up the Society. These diverse constituencies are what make it such a fantastic institution. You lose any one of them and you’ve lost something of the magic of it. There isn’t another scholarly society that has all these points of connection with the world, from schools to exploration, to its collections and celebrated events programme.
The Society has always been firmly tied with education groups, how much further can that be taken?
There have already been some great achievements, but emerging challenges and opportunities mean that everyone who cares about geographical education needs to keep coming together to revise the ‘to do’ list.
Collaboration is key in defending and enhancing the school curriculum and making the most of new tools. One of the reasons geography as a subject is doing well in schools and universities is that it takes on some of the big issues of the day such as environmental change, migration and trade. The RGS-IBG has unique convening power on topics such as these and is in a great position to connect research, learning and public debate.
How much of that involves engaging at a governmental level?
The work that the RGS-IBG, the GA and others have done together across the last ten to 15 years has been really important in terms of ensuring a strong position for geography in the curriculum in schools. But the price of success is eternal vigilance. We have to sustain a close relationship with all the main political parties, in all of the nations in the UK. The fact that geography is really well appreciated by employers, both post-school and post-university, is really important. We need to keep putting that in front of governments. The recent appointment of a Whitehall lead for geography is a really important development, and is going to help.
What spurred you to go for the job?
I can recall years back seeing Rita in action at a Society event and thinking ‘what a great job’. Seeing a role that allows you to play a constructive part in what is a strategically significant discipline in the UK at the moment. This is a strong team, and I know it’s an effective institution because I’ve been a Fellow for many years.
It seems like a natural progression from where you were previously.
Yes. I am going to miss my OU geography and environment colleagues enormously and the OU is also a real one-off institution. But this is a great opportunity to draw on some of my lessons from that work and other projects I’ve been involved in to try to connect the mission of the Society in particular with the potential of digital media to support better public understanding and debate, and also more effective learning. I’m also keen to push harder to see what further role mediating institutions such as this can play in improving public debate of tough topics.
What are the strengths of the RGS-IBG in aiding communication about geography and environmental issues?
The RGS-IBG can make it easier for people to access and debate the current state of knowledge. Our events and publications already do a good job of this. But going one step further I want to explore what ‘citizen geography’ might mean. Citizen science has been a fashionable notion for years, but geographers can bring together the natural and social sciences and humanities in powerful and unique ways. I think there is under-explored potential to put digital and social media to work to help people to explore questions and share findings.
We have seen lots of citizen science projects do very effective jobs at engaging the public.
When people have a bit of ownership of the production of knowledge, that travels through a wider family or friendship group. If your grandchild has been involved in, say, the RSPB’s garden bird survey, you feel more engaged and invested in it yourself, even though you might be a couple of steps removed. That is potentially very powerful. I’d be interested to look at the possibilities around that, and bring together some of the immediately popular things about the subject, including maps, and exploration, with some of the big questions that geographers in universities and schools are grappling with.
What jumps out at you right away?
One of the things is the fact that maps are having a real moment! How can we combine enthusiasm for citizen-generated knowledge together with digital capabilities to re-invent what maps could mean for people. With plenty of concern currently about data being shared without users’ knowledge we could open up more positive thinking about how digital and social media could be put to work for society. What new maps are there to be made with the powerful new interactive media that are emerging? Geography as a discipline, and the RGS-IBG could be a real pioneer in this field.
It feels as though 90 per cent of our correspondence with readers concerns maps and wanting more of them.
In academic geography there is sometimes a degree of frustration at popular misunderstanding of the discipline. But, maps can be the things that get people to come and join us for a moment, then we can work from that to draw them into the wider scope of all that geography does – that includes understanding everything from sea ice extent to street art.
How key is having the media onboard for boosting this message?
Geography quietly already does very well in terms of broadcast media. However, it would be good for the word ‘geography’ to appear more prominently. We won’t get presenters wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the word, but perhaps university and school teachers and professional geographers and RGS-IBG members can come together to invest in focused social and mainstream media activity clustered around major broadcast events to say ‘yes, glad you enjoyed that, come and take a longer journey with the subject’.
Let’s talk about getting the job. How was the interview?
It was a very positive experience throughout, from beginning to end. I got a very clear sense that people here cared, and that was very consistent across the board, from administration to members of council that I met, to past presidents. It was definitely a... thorough process...
[Laughs] Well, yes. But of course, the institution isn’t just interviewing you, you’re also interviewing it. This is a big investment, and it’s a big step in my career to leave a tenured position in an institution I love. So it all needed to feel right.
What do you think swung it for you?
Remembering that those two words – balance and convening – seem pretty central to what the Society is. I think the unusual mix of my professional experiences has prepared me to deal with a pretty large portion of the very diverse requirements of the post. The combination of academic experience, work with the media and public engagement, and lastly my business experience has all proved relevant. The business side of the job, in terms of the mechanics of being on a board that is managing 60 people, turnover, keeping an eye on membership and so on, has a lot in common with my work with my family’s business in the Midlands [Smith is also a director of Smith of Derby, a 160-year-old clock-making business]. The more commercial aspects of the role here are not foreign to me.
It would be easy for someone to step back and not see this as a business.
Everyone involved is going to have to keep a close eye on revenue. If there was a downturn in the economy we would need to hold close all of those people who come and hold events with us through the year. Remind them of the value of their support of this charity every time they hire a room. And looking to the membership, and its contribution to the thriving of the Society, we have to continue to make sure that the offer is compelling. But at the same time to keep reminding them of the wider value of their contribution, and that they are a significant part of something important.
>How different does this building feel now from previous visits?
[Laughs] I admit, I’m starting to look at fixtures and fittings, thinking how long is this or that going to last until it needs replacing! But it is such a great building and resource.
What, for you, would define success?
The most important marker is just to ensure that whatever conditions emerge in coming years, the Society continues to thrive. I do think that there are opportunities opening up in the digital realm to support university and school teachers in new ways.
Separately, one of the things I’ve learnt from casual conversations is that there is a lot of affection and awareness of the Society, but that hasn’t always stepped over into membership. One definite measure of success would be to go and knock at those doors, invite people in and continue to sustain growth. But these days that will likely involve some level of an expanded or refined offer.
I’m also keen to better understand the work of the Society across the UK’s regions and nations. I’ve an instinct that could be expanded, not necessarily with increased cost, but it might need a bit of shrewd connecting together.
One area of potential lies in the professional pressures for academics to gain more public and economic or policy impact for their work. Can the RGS-IBG do more to support that? There are already some great examples of the Society’s work in ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’ on big issues of the day, but this is a growing sphere of activity and one that geography can perform very well in.
Finally, how do you hope people view you as a director of the Society?
You know those triangular stickers that you see on vans – ‘How is my driving? Call this number’? I will be open to feedback! The structure of the council and so on provide good formal guarantees of balanced representation. But certainly I want people to take the chance at our formidable programme of events to come and share with me their own thoughts about the Society’s and geography’s role in the world.
This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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