A blog entry by Dr Matthew Lariviere, UKRI Innovation Fellow

Part 1 of the ‘Engagement and Involvement’ Series.

Engagement with non-academic audiences is critically important for contemporary academics. With metrics like the Research Excellence Framework and Knowledge Exchange Framework, academics have to demonstrate how their research affects culture, the economy, industry, and wider society. In this two-part blog series, Matthew Lariviere discusses how he engages with different external organisations and groups.

Writing this during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, I am deeply conscious of the importance of local community. As researchers, it is important we ensure our work connects with a range of communities of practice which may be disconnected from places and relationships embedded where we live and work. We engage with national and international charities, governments, industry partners, and service providers, as well as with the various communities in which we conduct our research, some of which may be far from our own homes. Public engagement can provide the opportunity to ‘join up’ world-leading research findings with interests and challenges encountered in our own communities, near and far.

Public engagement refers to processes and activities that connect researchers with ‘the public’ –  broadly, anyone not already involved in the research. It’s an approach that strives to create opportunities for people to share ideas, co-create products – sometimes collaborating as ‘lay researchers’ – to ensure outputs from academic research are impactful and relevant.

In 2019, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which funds my current study, published its Vision for Public Engagement. This describes a ‘renewed commitment’ for academics and businesses to engage with a wide variety of individuals and groups in their research. Its vision of better public engagement for the research it funds identifies four goals in supporting researcher and innovators:

Engage under-represented communities and places with research and innovation

Actively involve a wide-range of people in their work

Nurture a future generation passionate about research and innovation

Listen to public concerns and aspirations

I have strived to achieve these goals in my own public engagement activities. In November 2019, for example, as part of the annual ESRC Festival of the Social Sciences, I organised Futures of Ageing: AI and the Digital Revolution of Care. Over half the 55 attendees identified as members of the general public, in an audience that also included people from Sheffield City Council, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Trust, and staff and students from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University.

Calum Webb and I ran the event as a conversation with the audience about our research on the use of technology in public services to support an ageing society.

Matthew speaking at Futures of Ageing: AI and the Digital Revolution of Care

Our presentation involved dialogue with the audience, who were invited to share their opinions on the topics we covered: How comfortable are you with predictive analytics (AI), like those used by Netflix and Amazon, in decisions about care?  How do you feel about robots caring for yourself or older family members?  During the conversation, we ‘nudged’ people to think ‘like a social scientist’: questioning ‘taken for granted’ assumptions about what care means in our communities, and considering what we might consider to be the limitations and possibilities of new digital technologies in our own later lives.

Public engagement events like this provide the chance to go beyond ‘sharing research findings’. In adopting a participatory approach, we enabled divergent voices and experiences to shape the event. Afterwards, people approached Calum and me, saying how comfortable they felt discussing their concerns and hopes about how technology can affect care for older relatives and their future selves.

My next public engagement endeavour seeks to expand on the theme of how, as a society, we can imagine futures for care. We regularly hear that adult social care in the UK and globally is ‘in crisis’. Years of austerity, ageing societies, chronic staff shortages and high turnover rates among the care workforce place a heavy burden on the system.

In September 2020, I will launch an exhibition I am working on for the Festival of the Mind entitled Sheffield Carespaces: Potential Futures for a Caring Society.

For the exhibition, I have brought together artists, writers and researchers to imagine possible futures for society if caring was at the centre of our relations to the environment and to each other, and was the guiding force in our use of technologies and social systems. The exhibition will draw on my research and the work of colleagues in academia, policy and practice, who will inform and curate the creative direction of the exhibition.

Kate Morgan and Rob Richardson, local Sheffield artists, are  creating ten “carescapes” to illustrate care in Sheffield’s near and distant futures, and as potential alternatives in a future society focused on care and empathy. Local young writer, Akeem Balogun will produce several new and immersive short stories about care futures.

In working with local artists for the exhibition, I aim to explore multi-modal approaches to imagining alternative ways of ‘doing care’. Illustrations of potential futures can, I hope, spur us into discussions about care that go beyond policy rhetoric. I’d like people to visualise how futures of care could look and feel, and to think about their implications for relationships, institutions and culture.

Most of all, I hope these “carescapes” can help us share novel ideas about how we can support one another in Sheffield, the UK and internationally. I want to provoke people visiting the exhibit to become hopeful about a more caring society, and to share their aspirational visions for this with us.

The Sheffield Carespaces: Potential Futures for a Caring Society exhibition will open in September 2020 as part of the Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, UK.

Next month, I will conclude the “Engagement and Involvement” series with the second and final part. I will explain how to collaborate with external partners informed by my experience with clinical trials and non-academic partners both involved in technology-enabled care services.

Dr Matthew Lariviere
UKRI Innovation Fellow

CIRCLE recently launched a YouTube channel, our first video is an interview with Matthew. Watch it below to learn more about Matthew’s research on the Sustainable Care programme.

More on the blog