Jigsaw pieces

Reflections on the network

Roger Street, PI, University of Oxford

When done well, the work of a knowledge exchange network is virtually invisible, but the added value is evident.

The Adaptation and Resilience in the Context of Change (ARCC) knowledge exchange (KE) network finished at the end of April 2018. Funding from EPSRC (EP/G036586/1, EP/L005700/1) enabled a coordination team with diverse and complementary skills and expertise to facilitate engagement across the boundary between researchers, policy makers and practitioners working on adaptation and resilience in the built environment and infrastructure sectors.

The ARCC network was originally funded (2009–2013) to support a rolling portfolio of EPSRC-funded research projects (20 projects, £50m investment). The coordination team worked directly with researchers and a wide range of policymakers and practitioners to enhance and add value to academic outputs by building on and going beyond the impact activities undertaken by individual research projects. This approach enabled trusted relationships to be established. Further engagement was enhanced through a comprehensive programme of knowledge exchange events to foster greater awareness and understanding across the communities. Specific events focused on single issues of direct relevance to stakeholders and/or researchers, whilst broader community events such as the ARCC Assemblies enabled more cross-cutting discussions. All events provided participants with opportunities to capture and share relevant knowledge and evidence and for the stakeholders to provide input and feedback on the research as it developed. Event design deliberately allowed time and space for the ARCC network community to grow, strengthening collaborative efforts and helping to enhance the overall quality and relevance of research outputs.

For the second phase of work (2014–2018), EPSRC recognised that the ARCC network had developed into a mature network and requested that the remit be expanded to include relevant research from across the EPSRC-funded portfolio (and beyond where appropriate). The core rationale of developing knowledge exchange and impact-focused opportunities and working with researchers to facilitate their engagement with policy and practice remained the same. But the challenge was to expand the approach to be responsive to the evidence needs of a much broader stakeholder community, whilst still being sufficiently engaged with a wide range of individual projects to help realise the provision, integration and uptake of useful information. This broadening also reflected the changing nature of the knowledge needed to address the evolving adaptation and resilience needs of stakeholders. For example, within the infrastructure and built environment sectors, many of the issues and responses are socio-technological in nature and, as such, engagement was broadened to include research on social and behavioural aspects of change, including but not restricted to climate change.

Across both phases of the ARCC network, a flexible approach responding to evolving knowledge and evidence being produced and required was essential. It was important to work across the network to clearly define the network’s efforts, including identifying knowledge and evidence needs, working with researchers to consider relevant outputs, and targeting and facilitating knowledge exchange activities to enhance the uptake and use of salient research outputs. All activities were underpinned by an integrated approach to dissemination: a central website providing up-to-date information complemented by a monthly e-newsletter (>1000 recipients) and a popular Twitter feed with over 1000 followers. So what, now what? guides were introduced to facilitate the rapid sharing of the implications of new research findings, and a blog series enabled adaptation experts to share their thoughts.

The challenges associated with delivering the required researcher-stakeholder engagement and facilitating knowledge exchange requires specific expertise, skills and time. These should never be underestimated and having an effective core network team with a sufficient breadth in the required knowledge and skills, along with clarity in their respective objectives, roles and relationships is fundamental to success. We also found it critical to be able to seek independent advice and feedback, but also to be able to clarify and demonstrate the added value of the network. To these ends, the ARCC network made effective use of the ARCC Advisory Group (comprised of members of the relevant stakeholder community), targeted interactions with the research and the broader stakeholder communities, and a bespoke evaluation framework. This combination provided an appropriate and effective balance between the required versatility and rigour.

Innovative approaches to knowledge exchange were developed including the use of science-policy/practice dialogues (e.g. the overheating of buildings; understanding infrastructure interdependencies; exploring how people’s senses can be affected by the design of public spaces) and targeting showcasing events at industry trade shows (e.g. UK Construction Week, Ecobuild). Working with relevant professional institutions (e.g. IET, CIBSE, ICE, CIRIA) and organisations (e.g. National Platform for the Built Environment, the EA Infrastructure Operators Adaptation Forum, Royal College of Physicians), was particularly valuable in enhancing the focus and reach of outputs across the membership of these organisations.

The ARCC network also worked extensively with early career researchers to help develop the skills needed to support the next generation of research leaders. A KE skills development training programme was developed, with eight workshops reaching over 150 researchers from 35 universities and covering topics such as proposal writing, effective stakeholder engagement, addressing pathways to impact, and showcasing research. And a series of Joint Working Opportunities funded six short placements for early career researchers to work within policy and practice to better understand the interface between research outputs and their use.

Looking to the future, we anticipate that new opportunities for the use of outputs from the network will continue to emerge, e.g. for topic-specific synthesised outputs on Ageing & mobility in the built environment, on Flooding & business, and on Enhancing the use of decision-support models. These and the other resources from the ARCC network will continue to be available through its website) to help inform policy and practice beyond the lifetime of the network. In addition, lessons learnt from coordinating this successful knowledge exchange network have been captured as a means of informing similar initiatives (pdf, 2.6 MB).

We also believe that there is an on-going need to take up the challenge of supporting and facilitating KE within the built environment and infrastructure sectors, particularly with respect to adaptation and resilience to change. These sectors present major challenges and opportunities for society’s prosperity and well-being, both today and in the future. With the recognition that associated risks and responses require complex socio-technological considerations, the opportunity exists for a cross-research council funded network/s. The evidence needs and capacities of the research and stakeholder communities continue to evolve, as do approaches to effective KE. On-going support is valuable for established stakeholder-researcher relationships, and many of the newer relationships (particularly those reaching out to stimulate and inform action within the private and public sectors) would benefit from targeted KE and engagement to enhance the impact of research council investments.

With the support over the nine years from:

Victoria Hayman, Fiona Hewer, Kay Jenkinson, Anastasia Mylona, Phil Sivell, Briony Turner, Pete Walton, Tanya Wilkins and Stephanie Ferguson