Across arts and humanities, co-creating R&D with communities and cross-sector partners generates significant cultural and economic returns across education and skills, health and well-being, the environment and net zero, and civic identity and pride in place.
These are the findings of our new report By All, for All: The Power of Partnership which maps the impact of a decade of investment in co-created R&D by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). We’re calling on funders – including UK government – to use the insight in the report to more effectively engage partners and communities as researchers, especially those who are impacted by geographic, economic or social inequalities.
Individuals and organisations in communities can consider R&D in negative terms: as something that is not open to their involvement, part of their remit, or of benefit to their growth. This is something that funders of all kinds need to address by taking action to engage more diverse players in the R&D ecosystem.
Unlocking the unique knowledge, networks and assets that connect our communities is key to empowering communities as researchers. By harnessing community expertise and listening to community priorities, funders of all kinds can co-create richer R&D that is more than just the sum of its parts.
A “creative community” describes a cross-sector alliance of partners who come together around a shared opportunity or challenge to engage in R&D that produce new cultural experiences and resources. Since 2012, Creative Communities R&D has been accelerated by a series of AHRC funding calls and by wider contemporary contexts including Brexit, the Covid pandemic and the cost of living and energy crises that have necessitated closer working across sectors.
Up and down the UK AHRC-funded creative communities are co-creating new culture in key challenge areas of R&D – culture that is available for all, not locked behind a paywall.
Some examples of creative community projects include: embedding new skills through community co-curation of contemporary ceramics in Teesside; the creation of new collaborative public art works that communicate community health data in Brighton; exploring the preservation of the environment in community-led archaeological digs and co-authored heritage trails across Wales; analysing civic identity and pride in place through new cinematic reimaginings of borders, citizenship and policy making by young people in Derry and Belfast; and co-designing new cultural walking trails to boost wellbeing and post-pandemic recovery in Glasgow.
Good ideas can come from anywhere. To allow them to birth, funders need to broaden who can bid for research funding, develop collaborative leadership models and consider how we value what the process and output of research can be.
Communities are capable. Much like handing over power and trust in devolution, funders of all kinds need to work differently in trusting communities and partners in research. This means evolving research models to ones in which communities and researchers build research agendas together. In practice this means shifting the dial on power relations and adapting research funding and research priorities to those of communities, rather than communities having to fit into research council agendas.
Innovation and growth will come when we grant third and private sector organisations and communities the same access to resources, infrastructure and opportunities, and celebrate and value their engagement. It also means accepting that different challenges require different models of funding, rather than a one size fits all approach.
By inviting more non-academic partners and communities into the world of R&D, the collaboration model of Creative Communities provides opportunities for building resilience and sustainability in communities, and incentivising participants to become leaders within their community.
Moving towards a less extractive model and more citizen-centric R&D requires a strategic and practical pivot. Researchers and funders must consider how to create the conditions necessary to grow a new generation of researchers in communities who can tackle the issues communities want to address, build leadership roles and create resilience and greater equity within the research system.
The current structural inequalities of bidding mirror those of wider society, reflecting the power dynamics encountered by communities in other areas of disparity of access to opportunity. R&D is not alone in this, and cannot solve it, but our innovation ecosystem can play a significant role in evolving methods, practices and strategies to lead from the front on creating an authentically inclusive R&D landscape that mobilises the talent of all our people.
The current moment offers a timely opportunity to move from a cycle of crisis to one of community action and empowerment. Communities came together at a regional level through the pandemic in response to Covid, leading on place-based decision making. Researchers can help to maintain and accelerate the capacity of community working in the aftermath of the pandemic, and turn local communities into engines of growth and magnets for inward investment.
By helping R&D to complement other initiatives and spending we can add value to existing investment and strengthen civil society. This strategy for funding can develop new approaches to incentivise and build innovation ecosystems across their regions.
Our evidence suggests that while there are constellations of talent in Creative Communities’ partnerships, the partners involved in R&D bidding have become “monologic” over the last ten years, with the same partners and faces appearing in multiple bids, smaller organisations appearing only once or not at all, and cold spots emerging in bidding – especially across the devolved nations.
Greater participation from communities, smaller organisations, freelancers and cultural compacts should be encouraged and enabled through ring-fencing funding opportunities that are explicitly designed to grow new partners and to avoid larger more established organisations with greater capacity dominating funding success.
Creative Communities create the capacity to catalyse change and contribute to the reconceptualisation of R&D as a national endeavour, not just an ivory tower pursuit. R&D only works if it straddles sectors and is viewed as a team effort across the regions and nations, not just as a university brief. Innovation does not occur in pockets or silos, and it cannot empower when it is kept apart from wider society. How we form ideas for research projects must change to involve more people in shaping priorities, processes and practices of research.
Everyone everywhere should benefit from and have opportunities to engage in R&D through creativity and culture at a local level no matter their location, means or background. By contributing and creating new value in places that already experience disadvantage, Creative Communities can create a legacy of empowered and upskilled researchers in communities and in the third and private sectors.
The model maximises our greatest resource – our people – and opens the door to engaging everyone with the opportunities and benefits that arise from becoming research active citizens. By providing new knowledge of past activities and identifying potential areas for growth this report advocates for a joined-up cross-sector approach to flipping models of R&D, funding and governance to bring together partners in cooperation rather than competition to grow R&D by all, for all.
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