As part of our engagement with the impact agenda at ESRI, I hosted a ‘bag lunch’ to explore how different ways of communicating research might enable researchers to communicate their findings more effectively and influence positive social change. My feeling is that articles and books are fine enough for developing and sharing ideas but as they are, largely if not exclusively, written and read by academics and not the people we are seeking to communicate with then we can really expect them to be taking much notice.
I’m increasingly interested in projects that go beyond traditional methods (e.g., journals and books) to communicating ideas, especially those that create a more experiential or otherwise more engaging strategy. Examples of such approaches are Thomas Thwaites’ ‘Toaster Project’ where he made a toaster from scratch, the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, Natalie Jeremijenko’s ‘no park’, and the Inspired2Greatness project I developed with Heather Piper.
These projects present new ways of communicating and doing research but more importantly they employ an open and dynamic approach to knowledge communication, one that provokes and inspires as much as it informs. They are playful and/or purposive, and do not presume that everyone shares the same cultural values of academia that prioritise reasoned and referenced, rational discourse. In the case of the Social Science Centre, the argument for the managerialisation of higher education is developed by creating an alternative something academic critique cannot do.
Whether these sorts of projects can or should be developed for all or most research is another matter. I’ve been struggling to think of examples where such an approach would not be possible but it seems to be only limited by a person’s creative powers, and mine at this point in the year are somewhat diminished. This does however raise the issue of how far from the core skills of academics these projects require, from web development to art practice, to succeed in a highly competitive media environment. Yet, as was pointed out in the discussion, increasingly academics are expected to develop impact strategies when applying for funding.
Rather than academics dabbling amateurishly it may be better for research centres to bring in people with the relevant skills, knowledge and relationships. Geoff Bright suggested he would like to explore this area by establishing a laboratory to bring together academia with critical arts practice to create academic-art hybrid projects. There is however no reason to limit the engagement to art and artists. We could have a residency programme where ESRI invites activists and designers to help develop more effective ways of engaging with the world beyond the academy. Watch this space for developments.