Approaching gender diversity in EU scientific projects

Aitziber Egusquiza, a Basque researcher, architect and urbanist, is the coordinator of the EU H2020 SHELTER project. In our discussion with her, she outlined how the project seeks to establish a data-driven and community based knowledge framework for heritage-led and conservation-friendly resilience. Aitziber also highlighted how the project is seeking to enhance the sustainable reconstruction of historic areas to cope with climate change and preparedness to natural hazards. She has a passion for cultural and natural heritage, and is fundamentally interested in improving the liveability and resilience of historic environments.

Tell us about SHELTER and where the idea and the establishment of five Open Labs came from?

Like many research projects, SHELTER has a very complicated title that matches with a simpler and more elegant acronym: Sustainable Historic Environments hoListic reconstruction through Technological Enhancement and community-based Resilience. At our research group in TECNALIA, we have always had a very data-driven approach that we wanted to balance and enhance with a grounded community-based perspective. This concept is at the core of SHELTER and for this reason it was essential to identify case studies which were very different as far as scales, types of heritage, mix of hazards and contexts were concerned. This would provide us with contrasting perspectives to build replicable results.

Additionally, we wanted enthusiastic Open Labs that would be willing to co-create with us the required knowledge and tools to improve their resilience. The 5 Open Labs in which the developments of the project will be validated, are representative of main climatic and environmental challenges in Europe and different heritage’s typologies.

What areas of expertise are present in the project and what is the potential of this large consortium? What does UNESCO bring to SHELTER?

UNESCO’s global mandate can help strengthen the interface between research and practice, and mobilise its networks to disseminate all project outcomes to relevant stakeholders in Europe and beyond. UNESCO’s role in the project is unique owing to its expertise both in cultural and natural heritage and in disaster risk management.

The consortium is performing collaborative and networking activities with several European Research and Technological Development initiatives in order to exchange ideas, knowledge, experiences, best practices, and establishing synergies. SHELTER has 23 European partners. We have a very diverse consortium, integrating scientific, technical, technological and political skills in a well-balanced group. Partners with high expertise in ICT and data-driven research work together with experts in cultural and natural heritage, and community resilience to develop results that are evaluated, complemented and adapted by local stakeholders.

What are the challenges of coordinating a large EU project like SHELTER?

It is very challenging to find ways to have partners (and people) from diverse backgrounds work together and feel comfortable, while ensuring that the consortium is both structured and allowing space for creativity and co-creation. Personally, it is more difficult to balance the time between coordination of the project and research. But luckily, when it comes to coordination, our team shares a lot of the responsibilities making it is less difficult to maintain a balance. In my career, I have had the privilege to work on several projects coordinated by women where I learnt a lot about creative leadership and a coordination style that maintains very high standards, which is also flexible and empathetic.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures greatly affected Spain, and probably, even more its women. From my side I managed my time pretty well among science, family and imposed rules - thanks to a very detailed schedule and a lot of coordination with my husband. It is good that I am a morning person so I can get a lot of work done before my 5-year-old daughter wakes up and the calm ends.

Finding some sort of balance between my work and my personal life is not easy but can be done. I place high value on my professional achievement having passion for my work – so at times I have had to reach compromises. For example, I used to practice martial arts before I had a family, now I can hardly find the time. Whenever possible, I go on long walks in the forest. We have just bought a very old house so I am going to give woodworking a try in the coming months!

How do you think covid-19 changed the way we do science? Looking in particular at SHELTER, how has the project been affected?

COVID-19 will force us to accept uncertainty and acknowledge that only global collaboration between researchers can address the challenges. The overwhelming quantity of information has raised the level of data literacy among the general public, which will have positive consequences for the dissemination of science. This dissemination will be crucial now that we have realized that the acceptance of science as a knowledge generator is not universal.

The lockdown restrictions during the pandemic made SHELTER and its partners find active and effective ways to make progress within the project. A strong effort was carried out by all SHELTER partners involved in the Open Labs in order to ensure continuity and not let the COVID-19 lockdown interfere too much with the project timeline. Some of them, as for example the Sava River Open Lab co-coordinated by the International Sava River Basin Commission (ISRBC) and UNESCO, seized the opportunity to engage with stakeholders and users through devoted online workshops, while others engaged with stakeholders in bilateral interactions.

Smart working has enabled the work of technical partners to continue almost without changes. The challenge has been in the Open Labs, where we had to be very flexible and try different strategies to address the different circumstances and restrictions. We are very proud of all of our Open Labs; they have proven to be very innovative and resilient given the circumstances.

What impact on society and culture can be expected from SHELTER?

We hope that we are building tools that historic areas can use to improve their disaster and community resilience. But principally, we would like to pave way for each historic area towards their own understanding of what resilience is. SHELTER has the objective of increasing resilience to climate change, reducing vulnerability and promoting better and safer reconstruction of natural and cultural heritage. How do I imagine the Open Labs in 10 years’ time? With a mix of new challenges and very old problems, but hopefully with more resources and actionable knowledge.

Twitter: Aitziber Egusquiza