“How about it?” I asked a fellow colleague in response to the question. But I realized that it wasn’t so unnatural of her to ask this question. Readings on fieldwork methodology suggest that you collect quantitative and qualitative data and information, following one or more ‘techniques’ that is appropriate for your research. It also prescribes that you remain open minded, yet focused on meeting your objectives through planning and structuring your fieldwork well beforehand. I did read these instructions carefully, tried to plan my 3 months as much as I can (though it is quite difficult to tackle the uncertainty and plan ahead interviews with experts) to ensure minimum ‘wastage’ of this precious time. But I ended up participating in two International Conferences and one International Symposium in two different cities 1300 kilometers apart in this big country, during my 3 months of stay in India for my PhD fieldwork.
Attending the 8th Urban Mobility India (UMI) conference and Expo 2015, organised by Ministry of Urban development, Government of India was an experience in itself. The conference was facilitated by the Institute of Urban transport (IUT), New Delhi and was attended by more than a thousand practitioners, policy makers and academics. Among many things that I learnt from attending the sessions, couple of over-emphasized aspects with which I could not agree more were: i. Integration in many levels is the key towards sustainable transport, ii. Cities (mega, small and medium sized) need to be the focal points for planning and development, iii. Planning need to be ‘people centric’ and participatory rather than technology centric or organization driven, iv. It is time that we turn our eyes towards non-motorised transport facilities – measuring sustainability of a cities’ mobility in terms of walk-ability and bike-ability. This three day conference was one of those rare opportunities to witness the presence and enthusiastic participation of National and State Ministers, City level politicians, International organizations like World Bank and UNEP, industrialists, journalists as well as academicians – all in one platform to share experiences and negotiate in discussions regarding sustainable, inclusive urban mobility for ‘Livable cities’.
The second conference that I attended was in the city of my field study itself, thereby saving me the travel time and expenses. The 3rd Conference of Transportation Research Group of India (CTRG) held in Kolkata in December 2015 was truly a unique experience that exposed me, for the first time, to the arena of Transport and Traffic engineering. The presenters being scholars from different Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)s and engineers from different industries and transport authorities, most of the sessions showcased quantitative modeling, simulations of data and arriving at conclusions using traditional (and nontraditional) mathematical tools in transportation research. However the point of me – a Science and Technology Policy researcher and an Economist by training – attending such a conference was less about trying to grasp their methods, but more about understanding practical implications of their findings and conclusions. It was good to learn that the engineering communities have also started to realize the need for ‘actionable research’ and is becoming more and more open to the contributions of other ‘non-technical’ disciplines. It was highly encouraging to talk to many of these engineers in person who acknowledged the need for multidisciplinary approach in transportation research.
The International Symposium was titled as “Livable Habitat and Sustainable Infrastructure: A Twin key towards Smart growth”. The two day long workshop on different aspects of a “smart city” was a vital input to the country wide debate on the initiative of a hundred smart cities, undertaken by the Central Government of India. The symposium organized by School of Infrastructure and Design at IIT Kharagpur, assembled experts in mobility, urban planning, architecture and design, water resources, climate resilience, social infrastructure and IT services – all under one roof to offer critical perspectives on the determinants of the “smartness” of a smart city. One key message that came out from the symposium was the ambiguity regarding the very definition of a “smart city” and the need for attention towards improvement of the local quality of life for each city with unique characteristics, instead of a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. The symposium provided me with the opportunity to interact with experts and critics on “smart mobility” – a buzzword which needs re-interpretation and smarter application.
Doing fieldwork and attending conferences – both being integral part of a PhD study, are surprisingly separated out from one another. As much as conferences are acknowledged as sources of knowledge and heavens for networking opportunities, it is hardly considered as a useful component of the fieldwork experience. To my defense, I met almost half of my targeted interviewees in either of these conferences which made my life so much easier in terms of getting a personal appointment and initiating a conversation. Furthermore, I met at least a dozen of additional relevant people, talking to whom were unexpectedly enlightening, and could have been such a miss if not for the conferences. I learnt about the particular issues in the field which bring academics and practitioners together, and the other issues that pull them apart. Such an understanding is crucial for Science Policy research and is impossible without the mutual exchanges in a heterogeneous gathering of people. However, the exploratory nature of my fieldwork and the multidisciplinary approach of my research are the two biggest entry points that helped me make the most of these meetings. This experience of actively participating in all these conferences, with the combined opportunity of knowledge and networking was worth a hundred interviews. Do you agree?