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Connecting off the grid and into the future

February 15, 2011
By: 
Amy Dove

Going off the grid to prove just how connected academic research can be to the public may seem counter intuitive.

But for Phillip Vannini, a professor in Royal Roads University's school of communication and culture, it couldn't make more sense. As Canada Research Chair of Public Ethnography and Innovative Learning, a position made official this month, Vannini will spend the next five years looking for better ways to fuse valuable academic research with the conversations of the general public.

Starting this summer he will travel across the country speaking to people living off the grid, in the many different ways that can be achieved. He chose the subject matter because society needs to start talking about a looming crisis, that being "the end of cheap energy, whether it's fuel or electricity." Living off the grid isn't the definitive answer, but finding ways to use energy different may be, he adds.

"I tend to like solutions more than problems," he says. "The small every day ways that we adapt."

That encompasses the creative ways people learn to be self sustaining. It's a lifestyle Vannini has embraced as well. At his Gulf Islands home he has his own water supply and hopes to one day generate his own electricity. There are less obvious grids missing from his life as well - he is not connected to a major road system and cannot be found on Facebook or through a cellphone number.

The concept of off the grid is common enough now that most people know what it means, he says. For Vannini it means having autonomy or relative autonomy from energy sources and social connections. These states of being can be influenced by location, economic necessity, environmental concerns or trends.

A grid is an assemblage of social and technically systems, Vannini explains. It is the fusion of people, technology and resources. The most powerful and obvious grids are water, electrical, gas, food and mobility. It's not that any one gird is more important than another from an environmental perspective, he adds, just as it is not about fewer resources, but rather different ones.

It boils down to a question of lifestyle: Can we consume less of certain resources? Yes. But should we? That's another question altogether, he says. Do we really need electric tooth brushes or to check out email from home? What different lifestyle options will open up as more people start to consume energy differently? he questions. Vannini is hoping that with awareness comes inspiration.

Finding the cross-Canada connections

In order to share those stories with people, Vannini and his team of students must first collect them. He plans on travelling across the country, interacting and learning from people about their ways of being off the grid. The study will represent different climates, different cultures and different geographic regions.

Vannini's work is ethnographic - meaning he listens to people and takes part in their experiences. He will start this summer on the Gulf Island of Lasqueti, where all residents are completely off the grid. Through contacts there he will live and learn what it means to be self dependant.

The West Coast is a prime place to start his research as the area draws a lot of people who are already interested in this lifestyle, he says. "Islands worldwide are prime territory for the cultivation of utopian lifestyles," he says. "They tend to attract eclectic people ... people who like to be in control of a place."

Vannini is using the off the grid research as a way to showcase the values of public ethnography. His ultimate goal is to find a way to take academic knowledge and share it with the public in relevant and interesting ways, ensuring it becomes part of public discourse.

During the five years there will be peer-reviewed academic articles of course, but there will also be a strong art and media-based presence in his outreach. A documentary film, short fiction film (based on true stories), radio documentaries, magazine articles and essays and an art installation are planned.

Bringing classwork into the community

In order to get it all done, Vannini is hiring two Royal Roads university students every year for the five years to help him. The work ties into the second part of his research chair - that being innovative learning.

Traditional teaching and testing methods are wasting student's energy, if you think about their creative input as having value on society, Vannini says. As part of the CRC position, Vannini will also be exploring ways of taking traditional class work out of the classroom and into the community. It's about finding ways for educators to do their job better, while capturing the countless ideas that flow out of a classroom. It won't work for every student or every class, but there are cases when the student's ideas and creativity deserve to be showcased in a bigger community forum, he says. That could be through radio and television documentary work, for example, he adds.

"It's amazing to see what comes out when you push," he says. "It's worthy of a medium broader than the classroom."

Do you live off the grid or know someone who does? If so Phillip Vannini is interested in hearing from you. You can also reach him for more information on his work at phillip.vannini@royalroads.ca.