Space for the unexpected
Most research projects have fixed sets of aims and/or objectives, which have to be delivered by set deadlines with limited time, funds, and other resources. This creates a natural pressure to proceed towards these objectives, often leading to the subordination and/or exclusion of other outcomes. However, these unplanned and unexpected outcomes often turn out to be more useful and/or productive than the core aims, and merit further exploration. Transition is an inherently experimental and iterative undertaking, where new activities break new ground and create new possibilities on which future work can build. Research – particularly action research – can strengthens the emphasis on incremental innovation within the Transition process. Working within Transition compels novelty in research processes, and there is potential for creative synergy between the two. The wish to follow the new avenues that Transition research opens up can conflict with the need to fulfil obligations to sponsors, institutions and collaborators, including practical outcomes for the Transition group. However, failure to do so may limit the creative and/or transformative potential of research.
Academic-community partnerships often proceed in unpredictable ways, and the most interesting and useful outcomes often turn out to be completely different from those expected at the start. This reflects both the frontier nature of such research and the fertility of collaborations across established boundaries, that bring together novel combinations of expertise and perspective.
Two examples from our previous research illustrate this well.
The first was a collaboration between Transition Durham and Durham University, a masters project that fed into development of the Durham Local Food Network and creation of a local food website for County Durham. The main non-academic collaborator on this project was a permaculture teacher, and both the research student and her main supervisor completed the 72-hour training for the permaculture design certificate over the course of the project. Retrospectively, the team realised that much of the methodological and organisational novelty that had allowed reconciliation of the projects intellectual and applied goals could be attributed to the unconscious application of permaculture design principles. We later documented and analysed this systematically. This analysis has in important ways informed the design of this pattern language and the Transition Research Network more broadly. This is true both in relation to detailed points, and the broader insight that permaculture has much in common with, and can productively inform, participatory action research.
The second example is from the pilot phase of ongoing work to identify the most appropriate methods for Transition initiatives to evaluate their activities. Key early findings were that the overarching goals of Transition are not specified in sufficiently concrete terms to allow robust evaluation, and that individual Transition initiatives in any case interpret them in such diverse ways that no uniform set of evaluation criteria and methods could adequately capture them. A collaborator in this work (who had little previous experience within Transition itself but who had developed tools to evaluate the effects of community action on carbon emissions at household and community levels), suggested that as a first groups could use the Theory of Change approach to identify what changes they are trying to achieve. Transition Network staff involved in the project realised that this was also relevant at the level of their organisation, and the movement as a whole. As a result, the Theory of Change approach fed in to a restructuring process that Transition Network had in any case decided to undertake. None of the people involved in the initial conception and design of this piece of work had anticipated outcomes of this type, and the work turned out to be of far broader relevance than anyone had initially imagined.
Whenever possible, build flexibility and redundancy into the research process so that time and other resources can be reallocated when unexpected new directions emerge. Build in mechanisms that allow assessment of progress and re-evaluation, and where necessary modification, of the original aims and/or objectives. However, do not treat the original goals and associated obligations to funders, collaborators and other third parties as trivial: change these only when justified by new opportunities and possibilities revealed through or in the course of the research process, and when there is good evidence that the revised approach will be an improvement on that originally agreed.
Application of this pattern allows maintenance of a capacity for creativity and problem-solving in the face of inherently unpredictable circumstances, which is a key feature of Building Resilience.
Inclusion and diversity – voices marginalised early in the research process may become more prominent (e.g. as people without previous experience become more confident)
Permaculture Principles: Use and value diversity, use edges and value the marginal, creatively use and respond to change.
12 steps of Transition: let it go where it wants