07 Oct 2017
This blog reflects critically on some preliminary investigations I have undertaken through discussions with fellow researchers on a range of green infrastructure projects thus far and signals some important new academic and policy/practice priorities for my fellowship work.
First and foremost there is an amazing set of research projects involved across the technical, social, economic and environmental aspects of blue and green infrastructure at the present time. It is most certainly flavour of the month across the UK research environment and beyond with significant EU investment in nature-based solutions in the city. Whilst this emphasis is welcome it does makes navigating the maze of different projects quite challenging; even for academics like me. I have attempted to capture some of the key ones here for more detailed investigations and these alone reflect some £30 million of funding which is quite an investment.
From my assessments of pathways to impact and outputs the first key conclusion is that these projects are each generating a veritable armoury of new tools, toolkits and guidance. These are all currently separate within each project given researcher sovereignty which is important for academic credibility. Projects need to create their own outputs as part of the justification of resources invested in them and thus understandably there is not the culture of sharing This presents a challenge and opportunity as through my own investigations I am starting to see how these different projects can reinforce each other if they are used together in bundles to tackle particular GI challenges. Here piggybacking with supportive researchers helps exploit new opportunities and pathways to impact but we need to be sensitive to the sovereignty issue here for sure.
Second, with all these different outputs emerging there is a real challenge in making them usable in policy and practice particularly in the aspects of the planning system which is one of my priorities. I have chosen my words carefully here as virtually all these tools and toolkits and guidance are, or will be, freely available and accessible in web based portals. They will also be demonstrated, or have been, to wider policy audiences as part of dissemination processes. However, that alone does not generate the ability for policy and practice audiences to use them or embed them in their existing systems.
It is here that a see a fundamental disconnect in that many researchers do not engage with the planning system or built environment professionals and decision-makers in the design of their work or in core user groups who help inform the direction. Of course that is not to say they don’t engage with other policy and practice communities; they do but they tend to revolve around the usual environmental bodies. So far I have only encountered a few projects that actively work with planners and built environment professions in this way. Indeed many researchers and their project teams do not understand or engage with the planning system reinforcing what I have termed the disintegration of the built and natural environment domains.
Consequently, this leaves many in the built environment as passive receivers of research rather than active shapers and this represents a missed opportunity to look at how research outputs might be embedded in existing systems of data, evidence and assessments. I often see these audiences express considerable frustration as they are normally so busy and time pressed that they do not have the ability to try and understand these outputs as they had no initial stake in their design. Furthermore, the different research projects are not found in one place as there is no one stop shop that filters such information.
This creates a key challenge or opportunity space for me as a knowledge exchange fellow to help make such research more accessible.
This lack of researcher knowledge has led me to create a draft briefing sheet for researchers to better understand the planning system and to identify possible impact pathways that their own projects might usefully exploit (see next blog). I also feel there is a compelling case for some targeted impact workshops with planners and built environment professions to help research teams understand the ways to influence a forgotten target audience.
However, there is also a more fundamental need for the built environment professions and decision makers to provide better intelligence back up the academic research food chain to help influence the current and future directions of research efforts and also to communicate examples of good practice out there or preferably failures where lessons can be learned and more academic study can help mainstreaming efforts.
Ironically when I speak to such audiences the first thing they tell me is that we don’t need any more fancy tools or toolkits; they have enough already. They also go on to say they need mechanisms to help deliver and finance green infrastructure as it is an all too easy victim for cuts. It is also all too easily bypassed in planning decisions and thus all the research evidence about ecosystem service benefits for example is useless to a parks manger unless it can be translated into real financial mechanisms that give a tangible return on investment.
This leads me on to consider that my workpackage should be about bringing both groups together through sharing of intelligence both ways.
It is here that I see a kind of output that starts with the policy and practice hooks in terms of the question or GI challenges practitioners are facing. Each challenge then has a series of navigable pathways allowing audiences to gain access to research projects and their outputs as well as bringing in policy case studies to help answer their queries. This can also be structured according to different target audiences again reflecting their particular needs and priorities.
I also see an opportunity for researchers to come together collectively to see where the different projects out there might combine usefully to address and exploit new pathways to impact particularly to help policy and decision making for improved spatial planning outcomes. This in turn will be driven by responding to the policy and practice questions and challenges above.
These emerging synergies reflects my revised goals for work package 1 and 2.
Thoughts , comments and criticisms welcome.