Community-led innovation has experienced significant growth and support in the past few years. Social Innovation Community (SIC) reflects this in its community-led innovation network – a group of people across Europe dedicated to developing and disseminating community-led innovation tools, methods and ideas.
Monica Nagore and Rebecca Watterson from the Young Foundation are coordinating the community-led innovation network. In this article, Rebecca shares some insights into how we can support communities to build and tell their own stories, and why this is crucial to community-led innovation.
Community-led innovation looks and feels a little different to more traditional innovation processes, which might be conducted in an organisation, or more structured environment. As a tool for social change, more than any other kind of innovation process, community-led innovation has to embody the lived experiences, or the knowledge and direct involvement who would directly benefit from positive change in their communities.
By supporting community-led innovation, we are acknowledging the expertise of people to be the experts in identifying the issues they face, but also affirming their ability to create bottom-up initiatives for change, that are just as valid, and arguably likely to be more successful than traditional top-down approaches. Community –led innovation can involve aspects such as co-creation, on which I will be writing a second blog in the coming weeks, however, we are focusing on participatory research here.
But how do we really ‘hear’ the experiences and solutions of people?
Participatory and peer research techniques support community voices to be heard. By focusing on real-life action and change, this research method challenges the power dynamic of ‘researcher’ and ‘subject’, by collaborating with the participant who is usually a community member, and supporting them to have control over the research process. People can then analyse and reflect on the generated research to uncover the narratives of the community they are a part of.
Participatory and peer research involves both listening as well as action, as communities and individuals are encouraged to think about possible solutions to the social issues identified, and actions which could be developed as community-led solutions for change. 71% of people in Britain feel they have not much or no control over the decisions that affect their neighbourhood and local community. It can be difficult for grassroots communities, or marginalised people, to have their views heard or feel that they could influence public policy, which can make them feel like they don’t have a voice, or that their experiences aren’t valued. Participatory and peer research is one way that we can support communities to articulate their experiences and views and ensure they are heard by policy makers, and also to identify and develop innovative solutions to issues that can be taken forward.
Our Amplify process, has been designed and developed by the Young Foundation in partnership with communities. Amplify responds to the real, lived experiences of people and the communities in which they live and is based on the principles of listening deeply and treading carefully. This process helps support community-led innovation through people-centred research and co-creation techniques. An example of this is our Amplify NI programme where we encourage and support participatory and peer research across Northern Ireland communities. This enables them to articulate their understandings of inequalities, the assets that exist in their communities, as well as their aspirations for change. We encourage community researchers to uncover the stories and narratives of the places they live, or communities who have similar experiences to them, and then support them to feel a sense of ownership over this research, as well as the possible actions that could, and do, develop out of it.
Getting people to tell their stories is a powerful way of researching. Stories exist and belong to each person and each community, and as such they are powerful – holding the ability to explain their current realities, as well as holding the power to prompt change. Storytelling can be either experiences shared in an individual research interview, or it can be a whole community sharing their stories together. Both are equally as important and valid, and both can identify possibilities for change and co-create means and momentum to achieve that change.
Why participatory approaches?
There are of course both benefits and challenges to using a participatory approach, but in community-led innovation, we are leading the way in recognising people as experts in their own lives, and encouraging them to take ownership of solutions to social issues, both in their local communities and on wider systemic issues.
The benefits of participatory and peer research
- Recognises people as experts in their own lives
- Capacity affirming for participants
- The potential to capture voices of those otherwise unheard
- Amplifies voices that are often ignored
And some of the challenges
- Time consuming. It can be quite a lengthy process to recruit participants and collaborators, and to support them through the entire research process, even to convince them that they play a crucial role can take a long time. How this can be worked with is to aim for a small group to begin the research process with and either continue the full process with this small group, or encourage them to involve others as peer researchers who can also feed into the overall process. It may also help to identify a thematic topic that you wish to focus on after some initial research has taken place, which can help add some boundaries to the process.
- May replicate existing power structures within communities. *Power issues are at the core of participatory action research. It can be difficult to navigate knowing who to work with, because each individual experience is subjective and may or may not work inside or out of the existing local power structures, or the people who have control in some communities. It must be at the forefront of each researcher’s mind, recognised and constantly re-iterated in any participatory project, that they are operating within power structures of oppression and marginalisation. It is difficult because being truly participatory means inclusivity, which does include those who are more engaged or easily identifiable. However, the benefits of truly respecting and understanding the people who are being researched ultimately outweighs these challenges.
- Often involves small groups of people and therefore the findings may not be generalizable. The nature of this research is very much focused on the individual and so because each person may have different lived experiences and different beliefs, it can uncover very specific findings related to that person, which might not be translatable to other people. The same can be said for findings relating to one community, these findings might only relate to some people within this specific community. A way of working with this is to ensure that when findings are discussed and disseminated, that they focus on these more specific stories and experiences, and don’t try to draw generalizable claims or recommendations without wider research or data to back these up.
- May be difficult to reach a consensus. This can be difficult when researching within a community, similarly to what we said above, because each person has different lived experiences and so it can be challenging to reach a consensus when an issue is rooted so deeply to a person. A way to mitigate this is to develop a structure for decision-making at the beginning of the project, including a consensus on ethics and the principles of the project. If this can be upheld and supported throughout the process with conflict management, and group facilitation, to discuss the themes that are coming out of the research, then it may be easier to reach a consensus by the end of the process.
Where do I start if I want to do participatory research?
There are many different methods and techniques that can be used in participatory research such as:
- Semi-structured interviews
- Focus groups
- Participant observation
- Participatory video
- Theatre for development
It can often be useful to begin with some ‘appreciative inquiry’ techniques such as:
We would love to hear about different approaches you are using, or perhaps you have a toolkit that you would like to share with us? If you are interested in discussing this article, please let Rebecca know (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sign up to be part of the community led innovation network here!
We are holding a webinar on an introduction to participatory and peer research methods. If you are interested in attending, please register here:
Amplify NI has developed an appreciative inquiry toolkit to begin to explore communities, and discuss things that are loved, as well as things that offer opportunities for change for social action.
 Commission on the Future of Localism: Polling Findings. (http://locality.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Commission-on-the-Future-of-Localism-Polling-v2.pdf)