'Mobility is the Key to Sustainability': A Conversation with Dr. Antonio Luna

Professor Antonio Luna, also known as Toni Luna, holds the position of a Geography Professor within the Humanities Department at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. His involvement in environmental research dates back to his doctoral studies. While at the University of Arizona, his focus was on the dynamics of urban and economic transformation in cities along the US-Mexico border. His research emphasized urban social movements, and cultural aspects of urban life, and included an exploration of Environmental Politics. Antonio Luna also delved into the complexities of environmental organizations spanning the Mexico-US border, addressing issues pertinent to the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries. Upon relocating to Barcelona, his research shifted predominantly towards urban and cultural geography, diverging from his earlier environmental focus.

Could you provide some insights into your current research and offer a brief overview of your presentation in Cairo?

I adjust the focus of my research in alignment with the subjects I teach, as opposed to the conventional way of doing research. This approach not only helps me stay updated in my research but also allows me to contribute to my students' knowledge. As part of this strategy, I initiated a new program at Pompeu Fabra called Global Studies. I was asked to offer a course on Environmental Issues, prompting me to delve into this area. Subsequently, my research took a different trajectory. We collaborated with creative artists working in rural settings, exploring how they analyze environmental conflicts and convey them to communities. Currently, my primary focus revolves around this aspect. However, the upcoming presentation in Cairo is centred on environmental issues in urban spaces. I will touch upon the happenings in the Mediterranean region, with a predominant focus on Barcelona, despite my current research direction involving rural creative artists and their insights into environmental conflicts.

What is Geo-Humanities? What is its relevance?

The term GeoHumanities emerged in the literature and forums of the US and the UK around the early 2000s, specifically in 2006-2007. It was initially coined at a conference on the East Coast of the United States. Geo-Humanities comprises two distinct approaches. The predominant American perspective aligns closely with the Digital Humanities, emphasizing the extensive use of data to analyze various human issues, primarily centred around maps rather than traditional written content. In contrast, the European, particularly British, Dutch, Nordic, and Spanish, approach posits that the geographical experience is universally accessible. Geo-Humanities is introduced here as a research methodology, encouraging individuals, regardless of their expertise in geography, to represent what a city or geographical location means to them. This method involves leveraging the creativity, both the researchers and participants, to construct research. This multi-layered approach encompasses various creative art forms such as photography, drawing, and creative writing. I am particularly interested in this aspect as I collaborate with colleagues who specialize in these forms of artistic expression, examining how their creativity contributes to and complements research. Concurrently, my current focus lies in literature, exploring a literary festival that seeks to compile a body of writing about a specific region, serving as a means of empowerment and defence against potential activities in that area, thereby taking on a more political dimension. The diverse endeavours within Geo-Humanities extend to include arts, photography, and dancing.

In what ways do you believe GeoHumanities, as a discipline, can enhance sustainability efforts and foster a deeper understanding of indigenous environments? Furthermore, how does this collaborative interdisciplinary approach address the challenges related to sustainability?

I am currently teaching in the Humanities Department, operating in an environmentally sustainable setting. Although geography is not an elective for students, it is integrated into their curriculum, fostering a highly interdisciplinary approach. The concept of GeoHumanities holds significant importance for us. In the context of the ongoing environmental crisis, discussions often rely on complex scientific data, posing challenges for those outside the field. I find fault in this approach, as the analysis can be excessively intricate for non-experts. Take, for example, the severe water drought in Spain. When experts elucidated the causes, the multitude of variables surpassed our comprehension. Theories existed, yet the actuality differed. Engaging with local community members, either as hosts or by encouraging their creative input, proves valuable. They possess the ability to articulate and convey these crises more effectively to the community, offering a unique and insightful perspective. This concept is undeniably intriguing. In this scenario, I consistently cite a particular example. There is an artist, Marc Sellarès, residing on the outskirts of Barcelona, situated amid a forest. Approximately 15 years ago, a severe fire engulfed one of the forests, the very same forest where the artist used to play as a child. The devastation was immense, with the entire forest reduced to ashes. In response, he conceived an installation. Using the charred trunks of the trees, they arranged branches in a cross formation, creating a forest of crosses with the deceased trees. This unconventional setting served as a poignant representation of the dire implications of climate change. The installation garnered widespread attention from the media, not only in Spain but also internationally. The message resonated far more swiftly than any scientific explanation for the fire could have conveyed. Examples like this are all over the globe.  Another concern arises from historical developments. In the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the 18th century, there was a tendency to segregate science from creativity. The prevailing notion was that, as a scientist, one must uphold a serious demeanour and refrain from engaging in creative pursuits. However, there's a growing realization that this separation may not be justified. Geohumanities endeavors to reunite these aspects and explore how serious research can be conducted through a fusion of scientific rigour and creative activities. The whole idea is also to involve bringing traditional knowledge into the ground. Currently, I am participating in a European project in Barcelona focused on discussing soil protection. Remarkably, I am the sole representative from a humanities background among a group predominantly composed of scientists. The scientific community tends to approach farmers with assertions that they are managing their practices incorrectly, which may not be the most tactful approach, considering the farmers' extensive experience passed down through generations. In such instances, it becomes crucial to identify a middle ground that resonates with everyone involved. This is where artistic expressions prove to be valuable. I've discovered that leveraging artistic approaches provides an intriguing means of establishing connections. It prompts the consideration of why we haven't incorporated these aspects into our discussions more frequently.

So coming back to sustainability, which is the most talked about word of the decade, how do you think an alliance like EUTOPIA or any European University Alliance for that matter, can effectively engage students, faculty, and staff in sustainability initiatives and foster a culture of societal and environmental responsibility?  

I believe one of the primary goals of EUTOPIA is to contribute to the betterment of the world and shape a more promising future. This endeavour inherently involves being mindful of our impact on the environment. I am a staunch supporter of EUTOPIA and view it as a catalyst for positive change and new opportunities. From my perspective, universities currently find themselves in a crisis. The clarity surrounding how we learn and prepare for our careers is somewhat lacking. In this context, the role of universities remains crucial. As we navigate through lectures and discussions, the traditional notion of being confined to a classroom is evolving. There's a growing recognition that learning extends beyond physical classroom settings, presenting an array of possibilities for exploration and engagement. Universities are not only about a teacher teaching and a student receiving the lesson. It's about getting experience. That's why I'm supportive of my students getting the semester or year abroad with whatever programme they can because it's part of building up. Enhancing mobility is crucial for fostering sustainability within the university setting. Beyond the traditional academic curriculum, EUTOPIA enables students to easily traverse various locations, attending classes without incurring significant costs. This is intriguing because perceptions of sustainability vary across countries, even among European and developed nations. Differences in perspectives exist between countries such as Spain, France, and Sweden. Therefore, proposing the creation of a versatile curriculum that allows students to navigate through the ten universities, including partner institutions, becomes imperative. This curriculum would offer students the flexibility to attend classes in person or online, providing them with a comprehensive and diverse educational experience. By doing so, students can tailor their education to specific areas of interest, with sustainability standing out as a particularly compelling subject.

There's another aspect we should focus on, which would be fantastic for junior professors—those who are just starting their careers. Providing them with the opportunity to teach or conduct research at another European institution would be invaluable. We are looking for a certain level of international exposure; we prefer educators with prior international experience. We're not seeking teachers without any international background. What we need are individuals who have had a degree of exposure. While studying, for example, French medieval literature may naturally lead you to the best places in France, spending a semester in Italy could establish connections that enhance your teaching and open doors to new areas of research, which can be just as beneficial for us as for others.


One of the success stories of a collaborative initiative is the EUTOPIA SIF Postdoctoral Programme. It creates an environment where the researchers meet each other and discuss the work they are involved in. What do you think about such collaborations?

Initially, I had reservations about whether research would be an area where EUTOPIA or any alliance could make a meaningful contribution. However, the SIF has begun its work independently within EUTOPIA. It operates autonomously and doesn't require direct involvement. Success lies in its ability to function without constant oversight. While it may not be relevant for all researchers—I, for instance, might be conducting research unrelated to any of the partners within EUTOPIA—it proves beneficial for those who lack connections. In essence, it serves as a valuable tool for individuals seeking such connections, which adds another interesting dimension to it. Spanish universities that have become part of alliances are currently engaging in increased collaboration. Although we were previously part of the same system, there used to be a competitive dynamic among us. However, the alliance has brought about a shift, and now we are beginning to undertake joint initiatives that were not pursued before. This change is attributed to the altered climate and environment within the collaborative framework. As we categorize the universities into a ranking system, we become acquainted with the highly active ones and those that operate more discreetly. There might be institutions doing remarkable work, but they go unnoticed. That's what adds an intriguing element. Furthermore, Spain and, to my knowledge, France are pursuing a similar approach. While France had already implemented it earlier, the European University Alliance is a French concept, possibly associated with Macron's initiative. Now, in Spain, there is a discussion about forming alliances within Spanish universities. The success stories of some French universities merging and creating university conglomerates have inspired voices within the system to propose a similar approach. The idea is that instead of having small, individual entities, forming coalitions could enhance competitiveness globally. There's momentum for change in this direction, making it exceptionally interesting, especially for researchers.

You mentioned bringing together art and the humanities for awareness. How do you think EUTOPIA can collaborate, bring in such sustainability initiatives, and raise awareness? How can we successfully communicate the sustainability initiative to the stakeholders?

Currently, we are undergoing a groundbreaking transformation in the university landscape, marking a significant departure from conventional norms. During my tenure leading EUTOPIA at UPF, I championed this innovative approach, which stands out as one of the most substantial advancements in higher education globally in recent decades. What sets this transformation apart is its origin in the public sector, challenging the prevailing trend where most innovations emerge from the private sector. A key aspect of this shift is the emphasis on inclusiveness, influenced by the notion that education in many universities, with some variations, is almost free ( acknowledging the practical need for some financial resources in high-cost urban environments). This commitment to inclusiveness aligns with the idea of education as a public service—a principle that resonates with me. This represents a distinct perspective on education, countering the competitive mindset prevalent from the 1980s until 2010–2015, where universities focused on outperforming their peers rather than contributing meaningfully to education, science, or other fields. Traditionally, universities engaged in fierce competition for students, driven primarily by financial considerations. However, EUTOPIA seeks a different goal, emphasizing collaboration and a collective focus on a broader mission. While this shift is a commendable aspect of EUTOPIA, the challenge lies in effectively communicating these principles to civil society and stakeholders. The intricacies of EUTOPIA and similar alliances might be clear to those directly involved, but there's a significant need for widespread understanding. It goes beyond the scope of programs like ERASMUS, requiring a nuanced explanation to convey the unique nature and objectives of this transformative initiative. It is time for EUTOPIA to progress and deliver tangible outcomes—concrete programs that address practical challenges. While we must acknowledge the existing practical difficulties, we also need to actively seek solutions. Consider the possibility of establishing an EUTOPIA program, like a degree in European Environmental Politics. This program could involve taking courses at four out of the ten universities, complemented by internships at other several institutions, and so forth. For instance, envision students engaging in this degree across Barcelona, Lisbon, Paris, and Brussels. The core courses could be conducted in either French or English, while those in Portugal could be in Portuguese, those in Barcelona,  in Catalan and Spanish, and those in Brussels in Dutch or Flemish. Over three or four years, students would not only earn a degree in Environmental Politics but also gain international exposure, multicultural experiences, and a multilingual education. Recognizing that multilingualism is integral to sustainability, this approach offers comprehensive preparation. The envisioned outcome is a graduate who not only possesses expertise in Environmental Politics but has also lived in diverse environments, acquired proficiency in various languages, and grasped the distinct political contexts of each country. This holistic approach to education aims to produce well-rounded professionals. By successfully implementing such a program, we can anticipate increased interest and support from stakeholders. This could also attract more students from non-European countries with international recognition to all these universities.

You are delivering a talk in NOVA Cairo representing EUTOPIA. Is this probably the first time a European university has opened a campus outside Europe?

To the best of my knowledge, the British are the only ones from Europe who established campuses beyond their national borders, with campuses in China, the Middle East, and other locations. This initiative gained momentum in the early 2000s, particularly following visa restrictions for travel to the United States after the 2001 terrorist attacks. NOVA Portugal has been audacious by venturing to open a campus outside European borders. Remarkably, this marks the first instance of a non-British university establishing a campus abroad. Recognizing the potential, NOVA Portugal promptly identified EUTOPIA as a valuable tool to enhance the visibility of their Cairo campus.

This is an event of impact for EUTOPIA, enabling bigger global visibility, especially on occasions when the alliance is expanding its global partnership. Do you think this is just the beginning?

Of course. We must engage in extensive education and communication with our international partners because there is a lack of understanding about the depth of collaboration involved. It goes beyond a mere understanding or a noble agreement; it's about sharing everything, including strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations. This concerted effort is crucial because having partners in Morocco, South Africa, and Colombia, for example, means that students can pursue a European standardized degree without the necessity of initially relocating to Europe. This approach simplifies the process and enhances inclusivity. Furthermore, it is imperative to attract individuals to Europe, particularly considering the declining young European population. Bringing in a new generation becomes essential for the vitality and sustainability of the educational ecosystem in Europe. I believe the EUTOPIA global partnership has the potential to have a significant influence because the proposed offer includes private institutions too. I speculate that non-European universities, especially private ones, might find it easier to participate in such agreements due to fewer restrictions compared to public institutions. This could have implications for the local communities associated with public universities. Additionally, this arrangement provides an avenue for accessing diverse information. Another noteworthy aspect is its appeal to lesser-known universities, offering them a valuable opportunity for widespread promotion. There are natural preferences for certain European countries, because of linguistic familiarity or colonial past, which gives some European universities better visibility and less for others. Regarding internal impact, I believe it will be highly beneficial as it exposes us to locations that were previously overlooked. In these places, smaller European universities will garner increased attention because they provide something distinct from other institutions, making them particularly interesting.