Fed up with questionnaires? The next level of collaborating with research

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. Julia Wittmayer summarizes 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 of 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. They do so through evaluating outcomes and impacts ideally using approaches such as developmental evaluation or principles based evaluation. Not only do the resulting reports provide your work with legitimacy and help you acquire new funding, more importantly perhaps, they help you to improve your practice and make it more effective. However, researchers can also point you to the problematic aspects of staring blindly at impact, which might go at the expense of system change (for more on this, read this post by Tessa de Geus).

Participating in research provides you with first-hand access to data and knowledge as well as experiences from which you can extract the skills, insights 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 allow to broaden your network and learn from and with other social innovators. An example is the research lab Refugee Academy that organizes recurring events to connect research to practice aiming 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 promises. There is the opportunity to be supported in answering your own questions through e.g. approaching a science shops at a given university. Another possibility is to work in collaboration with researchers to address broader societal issues, through for example action research or transdisciplinary research approaches.  Related research approaches such as transition experiments 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 not less important is that specific approaches to research such as reflexive monitoring or shadowing, but also the simple interview if done in a skilled way, offer room and opportunity for you to pause and reflect on your activities, impact and judgements by putting them into a different perspective. This allows you to challenge your own assumptions, refine your theories of change and question not only whether 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 – it 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 whole 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 forms are 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 check out whether your home town also supports the creation of such spaces. The UK has the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement that instils the importance of societal engagement within universities and gladly will act as a mediator. Similar institutions are to be found in other countries. There are also research alliances such as the European Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprise 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 are to find the researchers, who are mingling with the public debate that concerns you through social media, newspaper or public talks – contact them directly to see whether they are interested in exploring collaboration or can direct you to a colleague.

Of course, not all researchers are interested in or skilled for this kind of collaboration. Thus expect that researchers are neither always willing to enter into a relation, nor omnipotent and able to answer all questions. They have to navigate the institutional environment of the university and broader academia as well as the expectations towards them. They need to be able to negotiate the questions that you put forward, combine this with their own expertise, interests, and capacities, respect institutional boundaries, but also retain their research integrity.

There is good news for those researchers who are willing and those of you who got interested in collaborating with them. More and more funders are funding research that is performed by collaborations of different stakeholders – putting up 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 and grab your chances. This all is not to say that research is the one and only answer. It is to highlight that it is a resource to be tapped into to make your initiative accelerate and transform our societies to the better.

July 17, 2018