Flexibility: a key component for successful multi-actor research collaboration

Tue 10 Mar 2020

ROBUST is moving towards its final phase of work. In order to track the progress of work to date, spot difficulties, and make last-minute adjustments, Marina Knickel (University of Pisa) conducted mid-project interviews with the partners of all 11 Living Labs (LLs) in November 2019 during the last general assembly in Riga, Latvia. The interviews focussed on two main questions:

  1.  Are teams expecting to achieve their planned outcomes within the remaining time in the project?
  2.  How is the research-practice collaboration going and what have you learned so far?

The interviews captured rich experiences in LL work, including the challenges that teams were facing, and the ways they addressed them.

Despite the different socio-cultural and political contexts of the 11 Living Labs, and the different goals for their joint work, partners reported many common positive experiences. They emphasised that the complimentary competences and experiences between research and practice partners were extremely valuable. One partner explained that, in their LL, the partners have experience in either rural or urban issues and bringing the two together to explore rural-urban synergies is seen as a real strength.

The partners from another LL said that the combination of the research partner’s specialized knowledge and the practice partner’s long-standing track record of implementing regional, national and European projects, and well-developed stakeholder network, is their LL’s main strength.

Some partners also called their LL team ‘a natural fit’ for their joint work in ROBUST (and beyond) – they "happened to have similar interests and complementary knowledge and competences". Partners emphasised that this has made their joint work and achieving goals much easier.

Multi-actor team dynamics matter: nearly half of the respondents were genuinely excited about the strong LL team they built over time. One practice partner noted how their good cooperation and the related dynamics helped achieve considerable progress in their work in the LL:

“We have got at least two or three really strong outcomes emerging, which could lead to quite significant policy shifts for us. For a practitioner, this is a great outcome for a project. The academic team needs to be congratulated for being receptive to our demands.”

But with the inspiring experiences, also come some difficulties. A number of partners acknowledged that the uncertain and evolving nature of the research and policy agenda – which is an inevitable part of transdisciplinary research – has been very stressful personally, and difficult to communicate to their institutions. LL goals were sometimes changed due to the evolving needs of partners and the influence of stakeholders on the joint work.

All of the LLs seem to be “learning by doing” when tackling specific issues. The need to remain flexible and open-minded, and to embrace and respond to changing circumstances, are increasingly recognised as crucial qualities for success. Such flexibility has paid off for some teams, with unexpected positive impacts in the region and relevant results for practice partners and regional stakeholders.

Another significant challenge experienced by several teams is a mismatch between partners’ interests or needs, and competences. For example, in one of the LLs there is a limited interest in a “rural” component and rural-urban dynamics, while “urban” plays a central role. In two other LLs, one of the partners has either no (or only limited) relevant expertise or no interest in collaborating with their counterpart in the LL on a specific topic. The result is often insufficient progress in LL work.

Several LLs have hired an external or additional expert to join the LL team and bring relevant expertise to complete required tasks to overcome the problem. Others initiated an open discussion of what outcomes are still feasible and which goals are critical to reach for each of the partners before the project ends, and have adjusted the LL’s projected outcomes on this basis.

About half of the LLs recognised that policy uptake of findings is a crucial step and that good timing plays a fundamental role. However, transdisciplinary research processes tend to be complex and sometimes unpredictable, making this difficult to achieve.

“Integration of research results into policymaking is unpredictable, even at the level of local government. Sometimes the results and interesting findings are communicated at a wrong time, while they might be relevant in half a year or more. Sometimes the evidence is instantly relevant, you never know.”

Personal contact with decision- and/or policymakers in the region, involving them in projects, monitoring policy settings and developments, attending meetings regularly to participate in relevant discussions, and timely and effective communication tend to increase chances for policy uptake and positive change.

“The timing has been great for all of us [in the region]. Various policies like the industrial strategy, the local food strategy, and reviews and planning processes and the 2050 vision have come at a good time. We have really relied on you [practice partner] to inform us about how to make the collaboration policy relevant.”

Based on the experiences from ROBUST to date, a scientific article on planning and steering multi-actor research projects is currently being elaborated. The suggestions will, for example, include increased flexibility in work programming, time schedules and outputs planning; dedicated tasks to support adaptive management and process facilitation; and introducing a preparatory project phase.

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ROBUST is a European research project involving 24 partners from 11 countries. ROBUST receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727988.

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