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Annoyed with questionnaires? The next level of collaborating with research

Julia M. Wittmayer, DRIFT, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Many social innovators and researchers are motivated by a shared cause: contributing to more sustainable, just and resilient societies. However, more often than not they leave an important resource untapped. We summarize reasons and ways for social innovators to better unlock the potential of research to strengthen their cause.

What is your experience with research? The occasional – always too long – questionnaire? Or the ‘attack’ on your already too busy agenda by asking for an interview? And did you participate or politely decline (or not react at all)? If you are approached next time, think about the following reasons why collaborating with researchers could be worthwhile – especially if going beyond questionnaire and interview formats.

An obvious benefit of working with researchers is that they can support in making your societal contribution understood by evaluating outcomes and impacts using approaches like developmental evaluation or principles based evaluation. Not only do the resulting reports provide your work with legitimacy and help you acquire new funding, but more importantly, the reports may help to improve your practice and make it more effective. For a more classic evaluation set-up, see the collaboration of the project Stichting Nieuw Thuis Rotterdam (TRS#4) with the Erasmus University. 

Participating in research provides you with first-hand access to data and knowledge and experiences from which you can extract skills, insight and learnings relevant for you and the current situation of your initiative. This can happen by switching roles and interviewing researchers, using tools and instruments that are outcomes of research (see for example SIC Learning repository) or taking part in specifically designed workshops organised by researchers. The latter also allows for the broadening of your network and learning from and/or with other social innovators. An example is the research lab Refugee Academy, which organizes recurring events to connect research to practice aimed at “increasing the learning and reflective capacities of parties involved in creating the conditions for refugee inclusion from the perspectives of policy, institution, business, NGO, civil society and research” (Website Refugee Academy).

More collaborative approaches to research hold even more promise. One being the opportunity to gain support in answering your questions through e.g. science shops or working in collaboration with researchers to address broader societal issues, through action research or transdisciplinary research approaches.  Related research approaches like Living Labs, Transition Experiment or real world laboratories provide you with the possibility to experiment with new ideas and practices in a protected environment supported by researchers and other societal stakeholders.

Less instrumental but also important is the fact that specific approaches to research like reflexive monitoring or shadowing, and interviews if done in a skilled way, offer room and opportunity for participants to pause and reflect on their activities, impact and judgements by putting them into a different perspective. This allows you to challenge your own assumption, refine your theories of change and question not only if you are doing things ‘right’ but also whether you are still doing the ‘right’ things.

Thus, engaging with researchers not only provides you with the opportunity to have your questions answered or learn how to answer them yourself – but provides the opportunity to formulate new questions. It also allows for drawing public attention to your solutions and for networking with researchers and often a wide range of other actors interested in addressing the same or similar societal problems and questions. It can be a starting point to understanding yourself as a researcher. As a social innovator you most probably also undertake ‘research activities’ without calling them such; think of digging into policies and finding out whether and how the services you provide are successful.

Universities, research institutes or think tanks can be resources for social innovators to take the next step. If you are still reading, it might mean you are interested to hear about how to get in touch with researchers and universities and about the different faces of research.

For some universities it is easy, since they have a dedicated office that is the entry point for requests from different societal actors. Some of these are termed science shops, and they match societal research requests with student capacity under the supervision of researchers, often at no cost for non-profit organisations or civil society organisations. An overview of science shops can be found on the website of the Living Knowledge Network, which is their international umbrella organisation. Other organisational structures take the forms of Urban Living Labs – place-based, temporary spaces for experimentation. There are many of these lab-like activities being funded by municipalities to address local challenges. See Urban.Gro.Lab for an example and determine whether your home town also supports the creation of such spaces. The UK has the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement that instills the importance of societal engagement within universities and will gladly act as a mediator. Similar institutions are found in other countries. There are also research alliances like the European Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprise or the European Social Enterprise Research Network (EMES) that provide many opportunities for social innovators and researchers to collaborate. They are an example of practitioner collaboration towards exchanging knowledge on specific topics. Other possibilities include finding the researchers, who are mingling with the public debate that concerns you through social media, newspaper or public talks – contact them directly to determine their interest in exploring collaborations or directing you to a colleague.

Of course, not all researchers are interested in or skilled for this kind of collaboration. Some researchers are neither willing to enter into a relation or able to answer all your questions. They may need to navigate the university’s institutional environment and that of the wider academia circle, as well as the expectations towards them. They need to be able to navigate the questions put before them, combine this with their own expertise, interests, and capacities, respect of institutional boundaries while also retaining their research integrity.

There is good news for those researchers willing to undertake collaborations and persons interested in collaborating with researchers. More donors are funding research comprising of collaborations between different stakeholders – providing incentives for stronger collaborations between research and practice with more robust knowledge, innovation and experimentation as the desired result. See the current Horizon 2020 programme of the European Union or the public science agenda of the Netherlands as two examples. While this kind of research is not the only available solution, it is a resource to be tapped into to accelerate your initiative.