A decade after the AHRC launched the Connected Communities Programme, Dr Keri Facer, Professor of Educational and Social Futures, University of Bristol reflects back on some of the key learnings from this transformative national programme.
The Connected Communities Programme brought together over 300 projects, over 500 academics and over 1,500 partners from civil society, local government, the arts, culture and social enterprise to explore the dynamic and changing nature of communities in the UK today. Today, I’m really pleased to launch two short films that give you an insight into what we’ve learned about how to do collaborative research over the course of the programme.
I joined the programme in 2012 as Leadership Fellow alongside Professor George McKay (UEA). Over the course of the eight years that I have now been associated with the programme, I have seen just how transformative – intellectually and practically – really good collaborations between researchers in communities and universities can be. I think of how projects like Tangible Memories for example, opened up radical new directions for the practice and theory of dementia care in the care home community. I think of the work of the Benches project, and its powerful partnerships between the Nepalese community and architecture and landscape scholars, rethinking how public spaces in north London should be used. I recall the Creative Citizens Project, with its fantastic networks of government regulators, hyperlocal journalists and creative artists rethinking what it means to be a citizen in the era of the internet.
I remember the Around the Toilet project that drew attention to the shared interests of female truck drivers, transgender people, children and others in getting access to good public toilets. I remember the Productive Margins project that transformed public spaces in my hometown of Bristol, into an open air Somali Kitchen, in partnership with women and artists in the community, to intervene in the throwaway takeaway food cultures of the city, pushing the city to change the regulation of public space. I remember a year of working on Utopia – exploring the theoretical foundations for the relationship between community and the future at conferences at Bristol Zoo – and creating a mass open air Utopia Fair at Somerset House in London, the day following the Brexit vote, when thousands and thousands of members of the public talked with our academic and community researchers about how to come together as communities to imagine and create better worlds.
Over this time, we tried, collectively, to learn about how to do this sort of collaborative work better, to work out what ‘co-production’ of research really means. Many of the leading academics in the programme had decades of experience in participatory research traditions across social sciences and the arts. Many others had novel ideas and practices that they could offer to create new methods for dialogue and research. Together we learned.
In 2016, we published ‘Creating Living Knowledge’ – our study of the first stages of the programme with its key recommendations for project teams and funders. Here we talked about the tensions that exist in all these projects – between different accountability regimes, different ideas of what constitutes useful research, the need for very diverse sets of expertise, the overwhelming need to recognise that this sort of work is about time and relationship building, the difficult positions that junior and temporary researchers on these projects face working across different institutions, the need for longer slower funding models. Here, too, we recognised the limits of the programme – the failure to engage widely with communities of colour and the risk of intensifying existing inequalities.
From this came our project Common Cause Research, with our fantastic partners Runnymede Trust, Karen Salt, David Bryan and the Translating Cultures Programme, which focused in particular on the question of how universities might better build bridges with individuals and groups from Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in the UK. It provided detailed case studies of previous partnerships, what could be learnt from them, what went well and what could be improved. Here a set of very clear recommendations came out that are now being taken up by the AHRC’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Initiative, including what we called our 10 principles for community-university partnerships. These comprised a set of commitments that address everything from the long-term outcomes of successful projects to the ways in which participants are paid: they merit attention by any organisation or individual seeking to build meaningful and fair partnerships:
10 principles for community-university partnerships
- A commitment to strengthening the partnering organisation
- A commitment to mutual benefit
- A commitment to transparency and accountability
- A commitment to fair practice in payments
- A commitment to fair payments for participants
- A commitment to fair knowledge exchange
- A commitment to sustainability and legacy
- A commitment to equality and diversity
- A commitment to sectoral as well as organisational development
- A commitment to reciprocal learning
Alongside the programme, we have also been working with Policy Press, since 2016, to produce a series of 11 books (to date) arising from networks and projects in the programme. These include books on how to evaluate the legacy of collaborative research, new approaches to community archives and cultural heritage, to urban regeneration, and much more.
In 2019 my final task was to try to draw together in one place all the different traditions of collaborative research and practice that informed the programme. One of the things I noticed when I started was how many different ways there were of approaching this collaborative practice – from participatory action research to participatory arts, history from below to critical disability studies. With Dr Katherine Dunleavy, we published a series of literature reviews of each of these different traditions – now free to download, which are being used by students, scholars and community researchers around the world.
After ten years, there is a huge body of work arising from the programme. Perhaps most importantly, as we said in Creating Living Knowledge, the people involved have learned, developed and changed the ways in which they work. Over time, I have received so many messages saying how the programme had changed careers, supported new ideas, changed practice in organisations and made real material differences in communities.
It was an honour to be involved in this programme, to learn from all the participants and to see a powerful cohort of rigorous, reflective researchers emerging for whom collaboration and interdisciplinarity are second nature and who, most importantly, are committed to creating the conditions for both practical, lived and intellectual breakthroughs that this work allows. All the projects and resources from the programme are archived on the Connected Communities website where you will also find the two films (one shortened version, one full length) which give an overview of what we have learned, and which we hope will inspire your own ventures into collaborative research.