UNSW Sydney in Australia aims to lead the debate and shape the public discourse on some of the most important issues facing humanity. The Grand Challenges Programme was established in order to facilitate these critical discussions, and in the process raise awareness of the ground-breaking research and excellent initiatives undertaken by UNSW academics, staff and students. Current Grand Challenge topics include Climate change, refugees and migrants and inequality. As part of our month featuring examples relating to inequality, in particular linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, I spoke with Prof Rosalind Dixon and Prof Richard Holden, the academic co-leads of the UNSW Grand Challenge on Inequality, to learn more about this platform.
Introduce the Grand Challenges Initiative and how it came about?
The UNSW Grand Challenges program was introduced under the leadership of the current President and Vice-Chancellor, Ian Jacobs. It aims to lead the debate and shape public discourse on the greatest issues facing humanity. Thought leaders from around the world come together with UNSW academics, staff and students to share their views and develop ideas on each declared challenge through public forums, speaking events, panel discussions, conferences and policy development workshops. UNSW will build on this platform for discussion and the development of ideas, with a view to fostering innovation and action on these pressing issues.
What are the key features of the programme and how does it work?
Income inequality has grown dramatically in both developed and developing economies – especially over the last three decades. This has been seen as a challenge to established political and economic structures, and a potential cause of rising political polarization. It is also a major contributor to increased poverty and economic deprivation. The UNSW Grand Challenge on Inequality seeks to better understand the intersection between income inequality and other sources of social and political inequality, including gender, race, ethnicity, age and disability, as well as the complex ways in which it impacts on access to basic human rights – including housing, education and health-care. As part of this the Grand Challenge program will seek to address the issue of income-inequality from a number of different angles – including economic causes, government solutions, government mitigation devices, globalized solutions, and private/corporate responsibilities.
What kind of research are UNSW faculty and students currently engaged in around the topic of inequality?
The overarching objective of each Grand Challenge is to complement and enhance existing work in the university around inequality by; making connections between researchers and different faculties, schools and centres; increasing publicity and awareness surrounding existing research; and spark and incubate and ideas on the part of staff and students, particularly policy-relevant ideas.
Prof Rosalind Dixon has been doing research on how Presidents tweak the rules to avoid leaving office and delivered a TedX style talk about the topic at one of the events. The Social Policy Research Centre does quite a bit of work on the disadvantage aspects of inequality. One of our events focused on Cities and Inequality involves the Cities Future Research Centre and their research on the topic. Professor Richard Holden is also doing significant research in this area including exploring “Network Capital” and inequality and also delivered a short presentation during the Grand Challenge about how to redistribute capital, mitigating inequality without killing productivity. This is only a snapshot but the list of events that are part of the Grand Challenge shows the range of research we are doing around this topic.
What kinds of events have been organised around the topic of inequality so far?
Launched in 2017, the Grand Challenge on Inequality has already hosted a number of engagement opportunities for UNSW staff, students and community. During semester one O-Week activities, the Grand Challenges team encouraged UNSW students to exploit their creativity and develop a web-based tool that directly challenges inequality as part of a 12hr hackathon. Students developed a range of novel ideas designed to address inequality, including a meet-up app designed to help match refugees with community volunteers, and system of electronic self-notification for indigenous people taken into custody.
That same week we hosted a giant book club, exploring Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century in conversation with Peter van Onselen (Sky News) and Andrew Leigh MP. During the book club, and the following public forum, staff, students and partner organisations came together to share their thoughts on what the Grand Challenge on Inequality might address. Attendees were keen to see robust discussion on topics including Indigenous and gender inequality, housing affordability, education and superannuation reforms. These ideas have been taken into account in the planning for the future events of the Grand Challenge of Inequality.
International Women’s Day on March 8 was celebrated in partnership with Workplace Diversity at UNSW, where the Grand Challenges team hosted a breakfast with the theme #BeBoldForChange. The breakfast was attended by staff and students and highlighting the ground-breaking research and initiatives led by UNSW staff and students driving changes for women in our community. Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Minister for Education and Federal Opposition Spokesperson for Women, Tanya Plibersek, spoke in celebration of the achievements of women but implored the audience to keep fighting for gender equality in Australia. A range of other important speakers also shared their thoughts.
The Grand Challenge on Inequality has developed a suite of activities and events to support the concept. These activities will be added to as new opportunities and partnerships arise.
What have been some of the challenges?
Inequality is a very broad concept that touches on many aspects of people’s lives. Keeping the focus broad, but driving toward policy-relevant outcomes is one of the key challenges.
Launched in July 2016, the Grand Challenges program has hosted a significant number of high-profile public events, conferences, seminars and workshops, where attendees share ideas and discuss the complexities of each of the Grand Challenge themes. The flagship event for the Grand Challenge Program, UNSOMNIA, was held on 1 December 2016. UNSOMNIA presented 13 UNSW thought leaders riffing on the theme “What keeps you up at night?” The TEDX style event attracted over 700 guests from UNSW and the broader community.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
We thought it important to engage a wide group of people, bring leading figures onto campus, make events easily accessible (in terms of location but also combining with other popular and centrally located events – see Sydney Writers Festival below) and have a policy focus.
What’s next for the initiative?
We have a number of events coming up and are adding more. At the upcoming Sydney Writers’ Festival we will have a panel on globalisation and inequality in the age of Trump. See here for a full list of events planned so far through 2017 into 2018. You can also listen to many of the talks and presentations from our events here.
For the month of June Primetime will be featuring examples around the Special Focus area Equality and Diversity (SDG 10). Click here to see the rest of the articles in that feature.