Our recent peer research conference Hive, brought together practitioners, philanthropists, commissioners, policy-makers, local government officers, academics and people from business together, who, like me, are more than averagely interested in participatory research. We spent two days examining the role of participatory research in creating change on key societal issues. 

Until relatively recently, we hadn’t seen a great deal of mainstream questioning about who is involved in the creation of knowledge, what their role might be (beyond that of ‘subject’), or who the knowledge we create seeks to serve. Then, in the last few years, there’s been a surge in interest – and The Young Foundation has sought to capture the ‘state’ of peer research and its policy impacts over that period. 

A complex evolution 

Globally, we humans have spent 20 years building a complex, adaptive network of knowledge and information exchange. We have created infrastructures to communicate, organise and amass knowledge. In the earliest days of the internet, we saw the democratisation of access to knowledge through platforms like Wikipedia. And now we can publish ideas globally via a small handful of social media platforms at; all – ostensibly – examples of creating open networks of knowledge and information exchange between anyone and everyone. 

It’s easy to forget that this was impossible before mass participation in digital technologies. And let’s not pretend there aren’t challenges or fool ourselves these challenges weren’t predicted. For example, through the first decade of the 21st Century, technological positivists pushed aside the concerns of journalists that untrustworthy information purporting to be ‘news’ would promulgate through what was then called Web 2.0. Yet here we are. 

And regardless of its veracity, the sheer volume of content, opinions, information and knowledge that’s now being created persistently distracts and overwhelms us. Engaging in knowledge about the world around us that actually ‘feeds’ us, requires a different kind of mindset; a different kind of curiosity about what’s going on in the world. A mindset that is perhaps is more creative, that can ‘arrest our attention in the midst of distraction’ and hold us in a deeper space of learning and understanding.  

The art of understanding each other 

The latest Edelman Trust barometer shows us that society’s dominant emotion is now distrust – particularly distrust in our politicians and public institutions. In this culture, we lose our ability to debate sensibly and collaborate.  

The more people ask questions (of themselves, to others), the more we can counter bias, distrust and polarisation, and build community. Daniel Kahan’s Science Curiosity Scale – which was initially designed to understand how likely someone is to be interested in a science documentary – showed clearly that whatever your class or level of education, if you are curious, you are less likely to hold partisan views. More likely to have your mind changed. Because you are looking to learn. 

We also know that knowledge and evidence do not change minds. Being ‘rational’ in an argument makes no difference if your rationale is based on values or beliefs, not data. Worse, the presentation of facts that go against what people believe entrenches views, it does not untangle them. To do that, we must engage in conversation, ask questions, seek to understand motivations and explore perspectives. We need to be curious, not combative. This isn’t an innate talent – we build these skills – and they can be built through peer and participatory forms of research. 

Equally, we know that right now people are less likely to feel that they can influence decisions in their local area, and a feeling that life is worthwhile, has dipped in recent years. And yet through mass engagement in participatory forms of research – relearning the art of asking questions and reflecting on answers, is proven to build more agency, confidence and appetite for taking action. 

And so my core question throughout Hive was: ‘Does this kind of research make it more likely for more people to take more action on the issues they collectively care about?’  

I came away enthused, needless to say. 

Strong signals 

The 2022-2027 strategy from URKI published earlier this month, is a very strong signal in a shift towards expanding the research and innovation system out into communities; out into involving people and orgs from different sectors, backgrounds and circumstances. 

And if we really pay attention, we may begin to see three things happening, whether you are a researcher, an institution or a large-scale funder of research. Firstly, the creation of new skills, knowledge and critical 21st Century competencies which enable us to work in a more complex environment. This is fundamental if we are to achieve the ‘system change’ so often talked about.  

Secondly, we should see an increased sense of accountability for the use of those skills and knowledge. Namely, once we are exposed to knowledge or experiences that increase our empathy for others, doing nothing or retaining the status quo is not a neutral act.  

And thirdly, it should lead to greater questioning of our assumptions about the world around us, our own role within it and the structures that are enabling or inhibiting change. That might be change towards ‘levelling up’ our left-behind communities, it might be change to a more inclusive and mission-driven research sector. It might be questioning our assumption that research ‘isn’t something for me’ or that ‘this isn’t a sector that welcomes someone like me’. 

Despite all the reasons why we might be depressed about the state of the world at the moment (and there’s no shortage of reasons why we might lie awake at night worrying) it feels like there is movement here, and perhaps we’re heading toward something a far more profound, positive shift than we realise.  

As teachers, politicians, local authorities, communities, healthcare professionals, businesses and universities reach for new ways of working of surviving and thriving in a more complex world, the tools of participation and collective, social learning are an essential part of our kitbag.

Peer research Posted on: 24 May 2022

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