How to write a winning research impact case study

If your research has had beneficial impacts in the real world, then there’s a good chance you’ll want (or have) to shout about it. This guide will distill the best advice that is currently available about how to write research impact case studies that have real, erm… impact.

This guide will help you, if you are:

  • A researcher writing about the impact of your own work for your funders or the media
  • Writing about research from the marketing department of a University or other research organization
  • Writing or helping academics write case studies for a Government assessment of research, such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF2020)



By Prof Mark Reed @profmarkreed


8 points for writing an effective impact case study

1. Create a coherent narrative that explains clearly the relationship between the underpinning research and the impact. It may be useful to briefly explain what was original or distinctive about the research that contributed to the impacts. Consider starting from the perspective of the beneficiaries – how did they benefit and why is that benefit so important to them? Be as specific as possible if you want the link between the research and the impact to be credible, including specific details about the names of researchers, their position and dates and locations of the research activity. Choose a strong headline for your case study and ensure your summary starts with a powerful opening sentence that summarises the case study and draws the reader in

2. Be as clear as possible about exactly what the impact was, adding some sort of precise quantification with numbers wherever possible. Quantitative data and indicators need to be meaningful and contextualised to clearly support the case being made, not used as a substitute for a clear narrative. Avoid generalised or exaggerated statements about your impact.

3. Clearly identify specifically who has benefited from the work or which groups/organisations have changed something as a result of the research. Bear in mind that this may include ‘intermediary’ organisations as well as your intended ‘end users’ or audiences.

4. Be concise. A concise case study that pulls out the key points easily for readers has far greater impact than one that is dense and rambling. The UK’s Research Excellence Framework gives people strict page limits, but if you don’t have this constraint, then you could consider imposing some sort of constraint on your case studies.

5. Keep your language simple and direct. If possible, get advice from a science writer or communications specialist, but try and avoid introducing inaccuracies. Remember your audience, and that your audience is probably not other academics. Readers should not have to have in-depth expert or prior knowledge to be able to understand your case study. It is essential that impact case studies avoid academic jargon, so that they are accessible to all your readers. 

6. If you are writing multiple case studies, identify key features of best practice and be consistent about all your case studies covering these aspects. You might for example want to consider a particular list of sub-headings for each case study to follow. However, avoid making all your case studies sound too similar, as though they are all written by the same person, if you want them to also feel authentic.

7. Related to this, make sure you provide detailed, specific and independent evidence to support every claim you make. All material required to make a judgement about the impact needs to be contained within the case study. Avoid anecdotal evidence or evidence that might perceived as such. If possible, link to published evidence that demonstrates the impact of your research. It is possible to commission work to demonstrate impacts yourself, but you will need to consider carefully how this will be published, to ensure that it is perceived to be sufficiently independent and credible. Rather than just listing sources of evidence, explain how each source of evidence supports a specific aspect of the impact that has been claimed.

8. Bring your case studies to life with quotes that illustrate the impact with greater resonance than could otherwise be done with formal language. If these quotes are from people with high profile and relevant job titles, then this adds significant credibility to your case study, as well as some lived experience. Finding quotes from people years after an impact has occurred can be tricky however, so it is recommended to collect these from people as the impact unfolds, and if nothing else, keep track of contact details so that people can be easily contacted later. Bear in mind that key people who could attest to the impact of your work may retire or pass away before you need to write your case study. Usually it is best to aim for a good balance of quantitative data and quotes to support impacts. However, in case studies where there is no quantitative data to corroborate an impact (e.g. a policy which has been developed but not yet implemented), quotes may be the primary source of corroboration to evidence your impact. 



What do we know about impact in REF2020?

We don’t yet know the rules and weighting that will be associated with the assessment of research impact in HEFCE’s Research Excellence Framework in 2020 (REF2020), but we do know four important things:

  • Impact was worth 20% of an institution’s score in 2014, and most commentators expect this to either remain the same or increase slightly to 25% for REF2020
  • Some impact case studies submitted to REF2014 that have continued to generate further impacts during the current REF period are likely to be eligible for re-submission to REF2020. HEFCE are currently consulting on this, to try and get the balance right between incentivising Higher Education Institutes to continue developing and building on existing impacts, whilst having sufficient incentives to develop new impacts
  • It is likely that the eligibility criteria and guidelines for submitting impact case studies in 2020 will be broadly similar to the 2014 assessment, although these are currently under consultation too
  • Assessment criteria may be expanded (e.g. including impacts on public discourse and attitudes) or become more fine-grained (e.g. considering different elements of reach such as number versus the types or geographical spread of people adopting a new technology or behavior) in response to feedback from REF2014 panels, but they are still likely to address aspects of significance and reach.

HEFCE commissioned an assessment of the potential for metrics to inform REF2020, which reported in early 2015. It concluded that metrics could not replace case study narratives for the assessment of impact in 2020. Research commissioned by HEFCE about the impact case studies submitted to REF2014 somewhat uncritically accepted the breadth and depth of impacts captured in the assessment, implying that a similar approach in 2020 could yield similarly authoritative “evidence” of impact. This approach to impact may be criticized as biased towards a narrow set of self-reinforcing perceptions of what constitutes valid and significant impacts, created primarily between different sectors of the research community, rather than in the eyes of beneficiaries. However, although research has been proposed to address these issues, if funded, it will not report until after procedures have been set in place for REF2020. It is therefore reasonable to assume that REF2020 impact case studies will be broadly similar to REF2014.

This is what Universities were required to submit in 2014, which is likely to be similar in 2020:

  • Each Unit of Assessment (UOA) had to submit an impact statement (REF3a, Figure 1)
  • Each UOA also had to submit between 2 and 7 impact case studies, depending on the number of academics submitted in the Research Outputs section of the assessment (REF3b, Figure 1)
  • Underpinning research had to be “excellent” (2* quality or above) and must have been conducted by University members of staff to be eligible.

Underpinning research could include published reports (e.g. final reports to funders) where it was clear that they were of 2* or above quality, but it is highly risky to submit a case study with underpinning research that has not undergone peer-review in an international journal, in case panel members do not deem it to be of sufficient quality for the impact to be eligible. If you are submitting grey literature as the underpinning research, provide copies or links to any assessments that may have been made by the funders as a form of peer-review, and if this isn’t possible then make sure you get it reviewed by a number of experts in the field to ensure the panel is likely to judge it as 2* or above in quality. Depending on how long there is before REF2020, you may be able to turn a report from the grey literature into a peer-reviewed journal article and submit both as underpinning evidence (the original report to show that the research preceded the impact and the peer-reviewed version to demonstrate 2* quality). The underpinning research has to be conducted (not just published) at the submitting institution, so members of staff appointed between now and the 2020 assessment will need to be able to conduct significant new research to further underpin and extend existing impacts if these are to be claimed by their new institution.

Research has to have made a distinct and material contribution to any impacts that are claimed, such that the impact would not have occurred or would have been significantly reduced without the research. If this link cannot be adequately established, then the case study may be graded as “unclassified”. Research from a number of different individuals, UOAs and institutions may have contributed towards a particular impact, and as a result, there are a number of REF2014 case studies that cover the same impact in different ways, based on the specific impacts related to the research conducted by each of the different submitting institutions. If you are in this position however, it is worth considering whether the impacts that you are able to claim linked to your work will be as far-reaching and significant as those claimed by a competing institution who is submitting to the same UOA. Panels assessing the same impact submitted by different institutions will inevitably compare case studies, and you want to make sure that if this happens, your grade doesn’t suffer as a result.

Figure 1:   Outline of information required for impact case study and impact template documents

Figure 1: Outline of information required for impact case study and impact template documents

Is your impact significant and far-reaching enough for REF2020?

In 2014, impact case studies were evaluated against two criteria:

  • Reach is the extent and diversity of the communities, environments, individuals, organisations or any other beneficiaries that may have been impacted by the research
  • Significance is the degree to which the impact has enriched, influence, informed or changed policies, practices, products, opportunities or perceptions of individuals, communities or organisations.

This led to a star rating for each case study from 1-4 stars (Table 1). Assessing the significance and reach of research impact is extremely challenging. Indeed, about a third of REF2014 panel members did not feel that either of these criteria helped them to fairly or reliably assess impact. One of the key problems is the overlap between concepts of significance and reach, as they are highly connected and correlated in most cases. As a result, most panels evaluated both of these criteria together rather than separately. So rather than worrying too much about the difference between these two concepts, the key thing is to make sure that your impact couldn’t be described as insignificant or lacking reach, and to identify evidence that can strengthen claims to either significance or reach (ideally both).

Impact was defined as including but not being limited to “an effect on, change or benefit to:

  • The activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
  • of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
  • in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.

This could include “negative impacts” where something harmful, risky, costly or in some other way negative is stopped or prevented as a result of research. Impacts on research or the advancement of academic knowledge within the higher education sector were excluded in REF2014 and are expected to be excluded again in REF2020, to avoid duplication with the assessment of research outputs. Impacts on students, teaching and other activities in HEIs were excluded unless the reach of those impacts extended significantly beyond the submitting institution.

Geographically local impacts could in theory be considered both significant and far-reaching, according to HEFCE guidelines. However in reality, a number of panels reported that it was more difficult for local impacts to score highly.

These impacts have to have occurred within the census period (in this case from 2015-2020) to be eligible. This means that many impacts that occurred during the previous REF period and were submitted in 2014 will not be eligible in 2020, as the impacts have already occurred. There is a grey area for cumulative impacts, which HEFCE is expected to clarify when guidance for REF2020 is published. If additional impacts have occurred from an impact claimed in 2014, then the additional impacts may be claimed in 2020 e.g. additional lives saved by a drug or safety device as it is licenced in new countries.

Although you would normally have a good idea of the impact your work has had, if you are submitting a case study based on research by someone who has now left the University, it may be necessary to do quite a bit of your own research to capture all the relevant impacts. Normally this would start with a simple Internet search, but this will often extend to interviews with research users, taking a snowball sampling approach, where you ask each interviewee to recommend others you can interview who may have been impacted by the research.

Some tips for quantifying impact:

  • Google key statistics or phrases from your work to see where they have been used in documents that have been put on the web
  • Did people pay for advice or did consultancy work arise from the research, and can you track the flows of money?
  • What is the readership of a particular newspaper or online media source and how might this translate into money via advertising revenues linked to page views and circulation?
  • In public engagement case studies, can you show evidence of your research being widely disseminated and talked about or used? Did you blog your research and how many people read the blogs? Did you tweet it? Did you get any press or broadcast coverage? Did any trade journals or close-to-policy journals or websites cover the work?
  • Did you get letters of support from external bodies before you submitted the grant that funded your research? If so, can you go back to these organisations to see how they used your work? Who did they pass your work onto or talk to about your research, and at what decision-making level? Can these people point you to evidence in documents etc. that your work has been used? If not, can they provide testimonials about the impact of your work?
  • Did your engagement with stakeholder continue after the project? If so, what further collaborations arose from this engagement that wouldn’t have happened without the original research? Did collaborators use the methods from the research in their own professional practice after the research ended, and what was the effect of those changes in their practice?


Table 1:   Level definitions used for assessing impact in REF2014

Table 1: Level definitions used for assessing impact in REF2014

Box 1 provides a number of different definitions and types of impact. Although most impact case studies tend to focus only on instrumental impacts, for some topics, other types of impact may be important, and may lead you to more concrete impacts that you can write about in a case study.


Top Twitter Tips for Research Impact


Our Top Twitter Tips are 4 years old today, and to celebrate, we've completely re-written and revised them for 2015. The previous tips were viewed over 30,000 times before we took them down. We hope that many more will find the new version just as useful!




Mark BCU image (cropped).jpeg

How can Twitter enhance the impact of your research?

Twitter is one of the most powerful social media platforms for academics, given the number of highly focussed and influential networks of people who use it. Effective use of Twitter doesn't just amplify your research, it enables conversations to take place about it. This can enrich your research and enable you to make a far greater impact:

  • You can use Twitter to get feedback on new research ideas, so that you can reframe them to be more relevant to the people who might use your findings
  • You can get insights into the way that likely users of your research are talking about the topics you're working on - the kind of language they're using and the sorts of things they're most interested in. These sorts of insights can be invaluable when you need to start communicating your findings
  • You can be the first to find out about news and events related to your research, and you can link your own work to what's happening, making it more likely that your work is picked up and debated
  • An increasing number of researchers are finding out about funding via Twitter. You can also identify collaborators for grant proposals, who already trust to be a good team member through your online interactions with them. You can find out about funding that you might not have come across through your institution, especially linked to industry, which can help generate impacts from research
  • As we've blogged recently, more and more researchers are using Twitter to crowd-fund parts of their research. The benefits of additional funding are often dwarfed by the power of an effective crowd-funding campaign to reach out to new audiences about your research.

Why aren't you seeing these benefits?

So how do you get all these great impacts social media? Perhaps you've been on Twitter for months or even years now, and you've still got a small and very slow-growing following, which doesn't give you any of these benefits? If that's the case, then you've probably not been using Twitter strategically for impact. That's why we created these top tips.

We've drawn these tips from our experience managing three Twitter accounts in particular:

  • @fasttrackimpact - our own Twitter account, which arose from the knowledge exchange research we conducted in a UK Research Council funded project that concluded in 2012 (formerly @SustainLearning)
  • @IUCNpeat - a Twitter account which arose from the science side of the same research project. The IUCN's UK Peatland Programme pursued the legacy of the project and rather than starting its own Twitter account, given the overlap in audience, we re-branded @reluuplands as @IUCNpeat in 2015 
  • @seed_ball - a Twitter account for a product that arose from another research project, and grew into a global business supporting four staff within 2 years, marketed solely via Twitter.


Our Top Twitter Tips for Research Impact

Tweet yourself, your projects and your institution

In addition to your personal Twitter profile, consider opening accounts for some of your research groups or projects. Each of your research projects is likely to have a different focus, and you’re probably a member of more than one group or institution in your University that doesn’t have a Twitter account. A project Twitter account is an easy addition to your next “Pathways to Impact” statement when you’re applying for funding, and some sort of engagement with social media is increasingly expected by reviewers.

Next time you’re revising your website, why not consider adding buttons to enable readers to share what they’re reading via Twitter and other social media platforms?

Opening an institutional account will usually need to be a group decision. If everyone agrees, others can either send you material to tweet or you can give everyone the Twitter username and password to tweet themselves (if so, you’ll need to agree on the nature of material you want posted, or it may be easier to decide on the things you want to avoid). 

Open accounts for major research projects that will be going for a few years, and that you hope will have some form of successor project in future (so you’ve got time to build a following and don’t have too many accounts to manage). Again, the burden doesn’t have to be entirely yours – it can be delegated to a post-doc and shared with other team members. Other ideas you might want to consider:

  • Link to your Twitter feed from your project/institution homepage, and include the link in newsletters, presentations and consider putting it in your email signature
  • Every time you do a conference/workshop/seminar presentation, put your slides online (e.g. using SlideShare) and tweet them
  • Every time you get a paper published, tweet the link to the article on the publisher’s website (if it’s not open access, consider adding that you can send copies if need be). If you can get permission, upload a copy on ResearchGate or similar and tweet the link
  • Tweet quotes from speakers at conferences you attend, using the conference hashtag (make one up if there isn’t one), to connect with other delegates and make them aware of your work
  • Set up Science Direct (or something similar) and Google News and Google Scholar alerts for key words and authors that are particularly relevant to your work, so you can be the first to let your followers know about new developments linked to your shared interests
  • When you’ve got a tweet that’s of much wider, general interest, you can re-tweet it from your other project/institutional accounts, to reach a much larger audience than you could ever command from your personal account or one project


Don’t just wait for people to find you: actively promote your Twitter stream

There are some easy things you can do to promote your twitter stream, like including links on your homepage, project websites and in your email signature. But more active promotion of your Twitter feed can attract many more followers:

  • Make sure you’ve got an effective biography (consider including some popular and relevant hastags in it if possible) and enough really informative/useful (typically with a link to more information) tweets in your stream before actively marketing what you’re doing
  • Contact relevant people with large followings to ask if they can re-tweet key messages you’ve sent – tweet or Direct Message them via Twitter, and if that doesn’t work, find their email address via an internet search and email (or phone) them
  •  Use hashtags (#) to make your tweets visible to more people (e.g. #PhDchat) – notice which hashtags people you’re following are using, and use them. If you’re planning a Twitter campaign on a particular topic (e.g. linked to a new paper or policy brief), you could make up your own hashtag, but for it to work, others will need to use it, so you may want to work on getting a key tweet including your hashtag re-tweeted by others with larger followings
The way most people find out about other people on Twitter is when they get followed.

The way most people find out about other people on Twitter is when they get followed. Default settings send an email and mobile notification to a user when a new person starts following them (including their brief biography) – if they like what they read, chances are they will follow you. Twitter recommendations (on can be helpful, but it will only recommend a few people and recommendations are less so when you’re just starting out. If you log out of Twitter and search for your profile on the website, Twitter will list others who are similar to you on the basis of who they follow and who follows them, compared to you. But the best way to find others who may be interested in what you’re doing is to see who is following other users who are tweeting very similar things to you:

  • Who are the people you most frequently re-tweet? Who’s tweets are you most likely to follow links from? Go to these people’s profiles and see who’s following them, then systematically follow their followers
  • If you have time, try and be a bit selective – you can usually filter out the least relevant people from their username (e.g. don’t bother following companies that are clearly just following the person to try and get their custom)
  • Most people will decide whether or not to follow you based on the last three tweets you wrote, so before you start following lots of people strategically, make sure your last three tweets are representative of the sort of thing you tweet about, and among your best (e.g. look back through your historic tweets to see if there was something you wrote a few weeks or months ago that was popular, which you could tweet again)
  • If you’re following people who are following a specific Twitter account, make sure that one of your most recent three tweets is either a retweet from the account you’re targeting or a quoted re-tweet with your take on the story, so that followers instantly recognize that you’re tweeting about material they’re familiar with
  • Twitter monitors the ratio of people following you to the number of people you follow to stop spammers, so you will reach a limit beyond which you cannot follow anyone else. But don’t let that stop you getting the word out about what you’re doing. Unlike Facebook, it is common and acceptable to unfollow users (they won’t be notified that you unfollowed them) to free up room to follow others. If possible, unfollow the people who you’ve been following for longest who have not followed you back (they will be least worried if they do work out that you unfollowed them). Tools like ManageFlitter can make strategic unfollowing very quick and easy

One problem with this approach is that you’ll no longer be able to use this account to follow tweets the people you’re most interested in learning from (as they’ll be lost in the noise of all the other tweets from people you just wanted to know you existed). To ensure you can still use Twitter to gather information from those you’re most interested in, either make sure you only market your project or institutional Twitter accounts in this way, or set up a “personal” Twitter account where you follow those you’re most interested in and a “work” Twitter account that follows many more people, where you put out most (if not all) of your tweets. Lists can also be useful for this – set up a list of users who tweet in different areas so you can look at a more selective timeline of tweets that interest you


Work on your signal-noise ratio

Most people will follow you because they share your core interests (your “signal”), but they will rapidly lose interest if too many of your tweets are not relevant to these interests (effectively “noise” they have to filter out when scanning through their timeline)

As an academic, you need to build your reputation in your chosen field. Twitter can help you reach a network of highly relevant academics, as well as potential users of your research, and make them aware of your work. To do this effectively, you need to decide what it is that you want to be “known” for, and then work on building your reputation in that area. Most people will follow you because they share your core interests (your “signal”), but they will rapidly lose interest if too many of your tweets are not relevant to these interests (effectively “noise” they have to filter out when scanning through their timeline):

  • Consider how useful and relevant each tweet is before sending it, to increase the likelihood that your followers find your tweets useful and keep following you
  • Ensure the majority of your tweets have hyperlinks to further information
  • Provide an image (or video) to accompany your tweets where possible (research by Twitter shows that tweets with images are re-tweeted 35% more than text-only tweets and videos give a 28% uplift). Bear in mind that some web links automatically generate an accompanying image (e.g. many blogs, newspaper sites and video sites automatically generate an image, title and first line of the article below your tweet once it has been sent)
  • Avoid sending too many tweets and re-tweets at a time – if you’re at a conference and tweeting every couple of minutes, followers who aren’t interested in the conference are likely to get fed up of you dominating their timeline on a single narrow issue and unfollow you
  • Avoid using too many acronyms and abbreviations in your tweets – they may make sense to you but many people reading fast will simply skim over your tweet if they don’t understand you instantly. Better to say less in complete words than to try and cram too much in, if it means you resort to acronyms and abbreviations
  • If you’re increasingly tweeting about things that are very different to your core interests, consider setting up a new Twitter stream devoted to that issue/interest
  • If you’re tweeting from a project or institutional account, try not to mix work and personal tweets. Remember you’re tweeting on behalf of a group, so telling people about what you’re doing on holiday is going to sound a bit strange (either your institution appears to be on holiday or it becomes clear that the Twitter stream is really only about one person (who’s on holiday) and not the whole group). If you do want to mix personal and work tweets (some commentators suggest this can help build rapport with your followers), make sure your biography clearly states the name of the person tweeting on behalf of the project or organisation
  • Delete conversations once they’re finished. One of the great strengths of Twitter is the capacity to join in conversations about your research and other people’s work. However, people are less likely to follow you if they look through your timeline and can’t find information-rich, relevant material easily because it is cluttered up with lots of conversation. Particularly if you’re about to strategically follow a lot of people, make sure you delete all recent replies from your timeline (assuming the conversations are over), so that they can easily see your material and are more likely to follow you

It is also worth working on the signal:noise ratio in those you follow – if you find that you’ve started automatically skimming or skipping tweets by certain people, chances are they rarely have anything particularly relevant/useful to say – unfollow them and reduce the amount of noise you have to trawl through.


Get your timing right

Linking to an ongoing news story or debate can really get your research attention

Because of the way Twitter works, most people only read a fraction of the tweets in their timeline, so if you're tweeting on a day and time that none of your audience are reading their timelines, you could be tweeting into the void. Timing is also about linking to the issues of the day - reframing to link into an ongoing news story or debate can really get your research some attention:

  • Link your tweets to ongoing events in academia and the news, using linked hashtags where relevant
  •  If you’ve got a lot to say, don’t tweet in bursts; rather spread your tweets through the day, using something like HootSuite ( to automatically schedule your tweets (so you don’t have to keep interrupting your day). Someone who only logs into Twitter at the end of the day may not get to the three tweets you put out at 8 am, but will probably get at least one of the ones that were scheduled for the afternoon. Warning: your friends might think you have super-human powers when they discover you're tweeting while lecturing or speaking at a conference (many people actually schedule conference tweets in advance, based on the programme timings)
  • Get to know when your followers are most likely to read your tweets. The time of day you’re most likely to get retweets and other engagement from academics is 7-9 am and 5-7 pm on week days, before/after and during the commute to/from work. Tweeting between 8-9 am is particularly effective. There is often a quite different audience of academics reading tweets at the weekend to these week-day times, so it is worth repeating key messages from the week at the weekend. Similarly, if you come across some great work-related material over the weekend, remember to re-use it later in the week when different people are more likely to pick it up
  • Repeat key tweets at different times the following days – if you have a newsletter, set HootSuite to tweet a headline per day with the link to your newsletter PDF
  • Have a relatively constant presence if you can – if you only have time to log on once a day or once a week, schedule your tweets to spread them through the day or week

Use Twitter as part of a wider social media and communications strategy

Set goals for your use of Twitter, come up with a strategy to meet them and monitor your progress

Twitter is just one of many social media platforms, so consider putting your material out via other platforms too, and remember that people who might use your research aren't always using social media, so you're going to want to think about other ways of reaching out to your audiences:

  • Come up with a properly thought-through social media strategy as part of a wider communications strategy for your research, whether as an individual, a project or an institution – what are you trying to achieve through communication? Why are you using social media? Set your goals, come up with a strategy to meet them and monitor your progress
  • Everyone has different learning preferences (some like to read, others to listen, watch or do) and everyone has different preferences for the media through which they want to learn. Therefore, try and adapt your research for as many different learning preferences as possible, via as many different media as you have time to engage with. Also tweet links to different types of media – press releases, videos, journal articles, photos etc
  • Adapt your approach to each platform, rather than just linking Twitter to your Facebook account. Effective use of Twitter involves re-sending key tweets a few times, which is likely to annoy friends on Facebook or colleagues on LinkedIn. Instead, consider setting up a Facebook group for your project or institution, and just putting material there. Alternatively, use the Selective Tweets app on Facebook and choose which tweets you want to appear on Facebook by putting #fb at the end of your tweet. 
  • Remember that social media is just one form of communication, and that there will be many who are interested in your work who are not using these technologies. Keep up your project newsletter – printing and posting where relevant (but still tweeting the link to the PDF, hosted somewhere you can count hits like ScribdResearchGate or ISSUU). Keep presenting at conferences and running workshops for the end users of your research (of course tweeting videos of what you do on You Tube and putting your presentations on SlideShare)


Constantly refine your practice

Watch how other academics, projects or institutions with large followings tweet:

  • Learn good practice from others, and experiment yourself
  • Take note when something annoys you about the way other people use Twitter and avoid doing that yourself

Monitor and learn from your successes and flops:

  • Which of your tweets are most likely to get re-tweeted? Which tweets don’t get re-tweeted? What do they have in common, and what can you learn from this? How were you using Twitter on the day you got 10 new followers?
  • Put (open access) documents that you cite on Twitter in places where you can count hits – which tweets make people click on the link (and presumably read your document), and which ones fall flat? What can you learn from this?
  • Experiment with different headlines in Twitter to see which ones work best – try and reframe your point and tweet it again later that day, and see if you have more success
  • Read through the material you’re tweeting and find quotes you can use to promote the link in a slightly different way – sometimes one of these quotes really takes off, far more effectively than the headline. If you’re tweeting a blog you wrote, then you might want to consider re-titling the blog at this point!


Remember it’s all about relationships

Don’t forget twitter is about communicating and building a relationship with people and not just marketing your own or institutions work at them. So, remember to check other similar institutions/academics tweets and respond to those that are interesting. As an academic, Twitter allows your work to reach a much wider audience and also enables more discussion of your work with others who may put it into practice.

Also, as with any other social setting there is “Twitter Etiquette”, for example: thank anyone who answers you directly or tweets about your work; and always give credit where it’s due. If someone gave you the information credit him or her with it, either by using via @person1 (if they are a twitter user) or as a quote in text.


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Top ways researchers achieve policy impacts

By Mark Reed and Sarah Buckmaster

Earlier this year, HEFCE published a searchable database of impact case studies, collected as part of its evaluation of UK research under their Research Excellence Framework (REF). We took a 5% sample of impacts on social (including health), economic and environmental policy, and classified the different pathways to impact that the researchers identified (you can read the full results in the table below). The most commonly cited impact pathways make interesting reading:

1.    Publications: as you might expect, the number one pathway described by researchers in their case studies was academic publications, typically in peer-reviewed journals. Given that most case studies contained multiple pathways, the role that academic publications played in achieving impact is debatable. Also in the top ten pathways however were industry publications and policy briefs, underlining the importance of translating academic findings into formats that are more likely to be read by non-academics

2.   Advisory roles: being asked to contribute to Government inquiries, reports, panels and committees was one of the most important ways that researchers influenced policy, with over 50% of the case studies we reviewed using this pathway

3.   Media coverage: researchers perceived that getting their research covered in the mass media was an important route to policy impact. This might be because of the visibility that media coverage can afford research, putting it directly in front of decision-makers who engage with the media (themselves or because they are made aware of media coverage by their civil servants), or more indirectly be contributing to a body of public opinion that decision-makers then respond to

4.   Partnerships and collaborations with industry and NGOs: by finding organisations that shared their research interests, researchers may have been able to harness the lobbying power of these organisations to promote their work more actively and at higher levels than they would have had the time, resources and ability to do as researchers on their own. These partnerships also enabled researchers to test their research in real-life situations, which gave it more credibility when approaching policy makers

5.   Presentations with industry, the public and Government: face-to-face meetings, whether one-to-one or in workshops and conferences, can be a powerful way to get research findings noticed and understood, partly because the audience has the opportunity to question the research team. Although researchers cited presentations directly to Government, they were just as likely to cite presentations to industry and the public as their pathway to policy impacts. This may suggest, like the previous point, that many impacts were achieved via the knowledge brokerage role of industry partners, or by raising the public profile and contributing towards a weight of public opinion that policy-makers could not ignore

6.   Developing easily accessible online materials based on the research was also a commonly cited pathway to policy impact. Although this is rapidly changing with open access, a significant proportion of research findings (particularly older material) is behind journal paywalls. Making this material both available and easily accessible via online materials that translate the findings for specific audiences can be an important way of getting research into policy.

It is clear that by far the most important pathway was advisory roles. Although these roles are sometimes one-off interactions, for example giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, many are medium to long-term roles over a period of years, in which the researchers are able to build trust with other panel/committee members and provide advice on an ad hoc basis between formal meetings. Apart from this however, the majority of the main pathways were in dissemination mode. Although partnerships and collaborations with industry and NGOs feature strongly in the pathways reported by researchers in these case studies, these appear to primarily have operated as knowledge brokers, helping to translate and amplify messages arising from the research, and enabling them to reach policy-makers.

It is clear from the case studies we reviewed that well-targeted dissemination of research findings can pay dividends, but if the experience of these researchers is anything to go by, certain types of dissemination may be more likely to achieve impact, for example publications, online resources, press releases and presentations. But it is just as important to invest in longer-term relationships with the policy community and key players who have the time, resources and expertise to help you form those relationships and amplify your message. In the long-term, this may open opportunities to contribute to advisory committees and other processes that directly feed into the policy process. 

Three Horizons: A way of working with change

Posted by sustainable on October 28, 2013

Sustainable learning is not just about learning about the past – it is also about the role of learning in creating a more sustainable future.

This raises important questions about how we can think about creating such a future. For example how we can work with people from diverse backgrounds, expertise, and worldviews to come to a shared vision of the future?   How can we work constructively with the problems our society faces that defy analysis and demand that we learn our way together into the future respecting both our knowledge and our ignorance of what to do?   Over the last few years the Three Horizons framework has emerged as a way of helping people with these kinds of challenges.

Three Horizons is a way of working with transformational change, drawing attention towards systemic patterns rather than individual events or unexamined trends; it frames the discussion in terms of the shift from the established patterns of the first horizon to the emergence of new patterns in the third, via the transition activity of the second.

Untitled1A simple linear way of thinking about change places us in the present moment looking towards how we want things to be in future – placing the future outside the present moment, something that might or might not happen, and appearing in the guise of the unknown or unknowable and the risky. Yet we act with future intent all the time, linking what we are doing now to future outcomes.  The central idea of Three Horizons, and what makes it so useful, is that it draws attention to the three horizons as existing always in the present moment, and that we have evidence about the future in how people (including ourselves) are behaving now.

By making these qualitative distinctions between the three horizons in the present, a lot of dynamics of change come into view quite naturally, and we are led to explore them in terms of the patterns of behaviour of those who are maintaining or creating them. This leads to the additional benefit, that we can reflect on our own intentions towards those patterns in the process of exploring the behaviour and intent that is revealed in each horizon.

Three Horizons thinking offers a way to find and shape our own intentions more clearly as we look over the first horizon of the known towards the second and third horizons of innovation and transformation towards the future.  It transforms our perception of the future potential of the present moment by revealing each horizon as a different quality already existing in the present, and which might develop depending on how we choose to act – to maintain the familiar or pioneer the new. The outcome of Three Horizons work is a map of transformational potential which enables us to act with more skill, freedom and creativity in the present, both individually and together.

H1: The first horizon

The first horizon describes the current way of doing things, and the way we can expect it to change if we all keep behaving in the ways we are used to. H1 systems are what we all depend on to get things done in the world. Throughout the day we make use of a myriad societal systems – shops, schools, banks, hospitals, transport – and most of the time we don’t want, or need, to think about them too much; we all help perpetuate the system by taking part in it. While we talk a lot about the pace of change, it is worth remembering that lots of things must stay the same for daily life to go on. Innovation and change in our H1 systems is happening, but it is about sustaining and extending the way things are done now in a planned and orderly way; uncertainties and risks are to be eliminated or prepared for – the lights must be kept on.

Nothing lasts forever, and over time we inevitably find that our H1 ways of doing things are falling short – no longer meeting expectations, failing to move towards new opportunities, or out of step with emerging conditions. More than that, we have a sense that our H1 methods of improvement and innovation do not ever get us where we want to go and are just sustaining the old approach with its failings; that approach is losing its ‘fitness for purpose’.

H2: The second horizon

The second horizon is the transition and transformation zone of emerging innovations that are responding to the shortcomings of the first horizon and anticipating the possibilities of the third horizon. New ways of doing things emerge in messy ways, brought about through some combination of deliberate action and opportunistic adaptation in the light of circumstances.  Entrepreneurs must judge the moment, and bring together ideas and resources to try a new way of doing things here and now. They live in an ambiguous territory where the old ways are dominant but the new is becoming possible; they can look to the past and fit in with familiar patterns of life, or try to become the seed that grows into the new. Entrepreneurship is hard and most attempts to do new things fail; it is much easier to serve the old systems, and established H1 players typically dominate.

H3: The third horizon

The third horizon is the future system. It is those new ways of living and working that will fit better with the emerging need and opportunity. H3 change is transformative, bringing a new pattern into existence that is beyond the reach of the H1 system. There will be many competing visions of the future and early pioneers are likely to look quite unrealistic – and some of them are. As we build our own Three Horizons map we bring our own vision to bear and take a view on how it relates to the visions of others and the trends that are playing out for all of us.

Convening the future

So, from this simple Three Horizons framework we get three things:

a way to look at the processes of change that encourages us to see deeper patterns of systemic change beneath surface events
a way to make the future accessible in the present in the form of the intent and actions that are bringing it about
a way to bring all the voices of continuity and change into play as part of the discussion, as expressed in their intent towards the patterns.
Three Horizons is a way to think about the future that recognises deep uncertainty but responds with an active orientation. It allows us to understand more clearly how our own and other people’s actions might shape the future we are exploring. This is especially important when we look at issues of broad societal concern, where we are all actors in the future. Here we are particularly concerned to find ways for the many different constituencies in society to come together to unlock the future from the dominance of old ways of doing things – ways that are no longer working for us.

Over the last few years many people have started using the Three Horizons framework as a way to work on their issues and in the International Futures Forum we’ve been talking to them about why it works.   All of them speak of the way it separates things out in a helpful way and improves the dialogue, because people can see where they are and can avoid unnecessary confusion and conflict between the three horizons.  It turns out to be quite natural, in almost any situation where people are working on some complex issue, to gently bring out the three ‘voices’ of the horizons:

the managerial voice that is concerned with the first horizon responsibility for keeping things going
the entrepreneurial voice of the second horizon that is eager to get on and try new things (some of which won’t work)
the aspiration and vision of the third horizon voice that holds out for commitment to a better way and the opportunity that can be imagined in the mind’s eye.
The Three Horizons approach is aligned with these three forms of awareness which everybody can adopt towards the future. By default, many people inhabit just one horizon in their work, and view other horizons with perplexity, misunderstanding or hostility. However, everyone has a natural capacity to work with the other horizons, and the core of Three Horizons practice is the flexibility to work with all three modes of awareness at the same time.

Once different groups are able to see which horizon dominates their thinking they can also see how it relates to the others.    For example, a passionate H3 advocate for renewable energy may easily forget what it feels like to have H1 responsibilities for keeping the lights on, and in return the H1 thinker, dominated by current concerns, can regard the H3 protagonist as simply irrelevant to their pressing needs. The H2 entrepreneur may be drawing their inspiration from the third horizon, but is also having to judge when the time is right to challenge the H1 organisations for dominance, or instead to work with them.

This is the core idea of Three Horizons – to shift from our simple, one-dimensional view of time stretching into the future and instead adopt a three-dimensional point of view in which we become aware of each horizon as a distinct quality of relationship between the future and the present. We call the move into this multi-dimensional view, and the skill to work with it, the step into future consciousness: an awareness of the future potential of the present moment.

As people make this step individually they can also make it together – developing a shared culture of future consciousness that in turn opens up a greater freedom of action.   International Futures Forum is working to bring about the emergence of such a culture through the provision of resources and expertise to support Three Horizons practice.

Untitled2Bill Sharpe is an independent researcher in science, technology and society. He was a research director at Hewlett Packard Laboratories where he led research into everyday applications of technology and introduced scenario methods to HP to support long-range research and innovation. With a background in psychology he is particularly interested in drawing on leading edge research in cognition and systems thinking to find new ways of tackling complex problems. He is a member of the International Futures Forum and has worked with them to develop the Three Horizons framework for futures.

Read more in Bill Sharpe’s book Three Horizons: the patterning of hope, and an extended case study of its use in education in Transformative Innovation in Education: a playbook for pragmatic visionaries, by Graham Leicester et al, from Triarchy Press.


This summary of Three Horizons makes use of material from Three Horizons: the patterning of hope (Sharpe 2013) by permission of International Futures Forum.

The first published version of a three horizons model was in the management book The Alchemy of Growth (Baghai, Coley et al. 2000). The idea of using the three horizons as three orientations to the future in the present was introduced at the Intelligent Infrastructure Futures project (Sharpe and Hodgson 2006) and (Hodgson and Sharpe 2007). The evolution of the approach presented in this book, and its relationship to other futures techniques such as scenario planning, is described in (Curry, Hodgson et al. 2008) which provides a good list of references for those with a technical interest in the futures field.

Baghai, M., Coley, S., et al. (2000). The alchemy of growth: practical insights for building the enduring enterprise, San Frncisco, CA: Perseus Publishing.

Curry, A., Hodgson, A., et al. (2008). ‘Seeing in Multiple Horizons: Connecting Futures to Strategy’. Journal of Futures Studies 13(1): 1-20.

Hodgson, A. and Sharpe, B. (2007). ‘Deepening Futures with System Structure’. Scenarios for Success: Turning Insight into Action, Sharpe, B. and Van der Heijden, K. (eds.), Chichester: John Wiley.

Sharpe, B. (2013). Three Horizons: the patterning of hope. Axminster: Triarchy Press.

Sharpe, B. and Hodgson, A. (2006). Intelligent Infrastructure Futures: Technology Forward Look, Foresight Directorate, London: UK Dept of Trade & Industry.

Transcending Boundaries: Students and Sustainability in Higher Education

Posted by sustainable on October 18, 2013

If sustainability is truly about future generations, then young people — students — should be given the opportunity to propose, develop, and implement prospective solutions for sustainable development. At present, universities are almost never designed for these ends.

Imagine if students, at the beginning of their studies at university, were challenged to ask themselves the seemingly simple questions: Why am I here? And what is higher education for? At the same time, imagine if they were introduced to the many urgent challenges facing humanity and the future of life on this planet. Then, what if students themselves were given the opportunity to propose, develop and organize their own education, based on their newly acquired insights about themselves and the state of the world?

What would it look like? What knowledge and skills would they aim to acquire? Who would they bring in to be their lecturers, teachers, mentors? Which societal actors would they engage with? What would the learning environment look like? What questions would they ask? What solutions to local and global sustainability challenges would they come up with? And perhaps most importantly: how would students, and in extension our future societies, change through this kind of empowering process?

In Uppsala, Sweden, this is happening. For more than 20 years, students from all disciplinary backgrounds from the city’s two universities have gathered at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), to co-create the higher education of their dreams. Just as in Bologna in the 11th Century, where the very idea of the university was born, students themselves in Uppsala are the conveners and at the core of developing the curriculum. Students are hired to work in close collaboration with teachers, researchers and practitioners, to plan and coordinate the wide range of transdisciplinary undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate courses offered at the centre. Perhaps the most radical characteristic of CEMUS is the degree to which students are given agency and treated as intellectual equals – all within a fairly rigid and tradition-laden university structure.

So what then, does student-initiated, student-coordinated education for sustainability look like in practice?

Transcending boundaries

Courses created at CEMUS are inherently trandisciplinary and bring up new and emerging issues that no single department, faculty or discipline can address by themselves. The breadth of the content of their content can be illustrated by just a few of the course titles: Climate Change Leadership, Sustainable Design, Philosophy of Life and Actors and Strategies for Change. Transcending boundaries is not only evidenced in the content of the course work, but also in the learning environment itself where conventional hierarchy between learners and teachers is replaced with reciprocity.

Critical thinking

The desire to seek out opposing viewpoints, or constructing them if they don’t exist, is hardly a dominant characteristic of our current educational system. At CEMUS, students are continuously exposed to a plethora of different perspectives which, at its best, leads to a deep investigation of the values, worldviews, power relations, and ethics at the root of our human predicament. This also entails students to look within, to look back or to contradict their own worldview. At times, this can be an uncomfortable process, especially if students come to the conclusion that the way we think and do things is wrong or potentially harmful. Uncomfortable as it may be, this may be one of the main reasons that student-run education has the potential to be so transformative and really change what students and teachers know and believe about sustainability.

Creative and Reflective action

Besides gaining new theoretical knowledge and insights, the courses are designed for students to gain applicable skills and the courage to take action. By developing proficiency in systems thinking, innovation processes, creative thinking, heterogeneous methods for analyzing, structuring and solving problems, diverse modes of communication, project management tools and a deeper understanding of self, students seem to become better equipped for creative and reflective action in their lives.

A revolutionary learning process

Most education is seen as a process of learning more, of acquiring more knowledge, skills and tools. However, at CEMUS much of the learning would perhaps better be described as a process of unlearning and reevaluating knowledge already acquired. In recent years, norm-critical and anti-oppressive forms of learning have also gained a stronger presence in several courses. In the best cases, this can lead to an emancipatory learning process that brings out the genius in every individual. One of the most exciting aspect of this type of education is that students and teachers can start questioning, challenging, and transforming other learning and work situations in which they find themselves.

Changing the world through collaboration and co-creation

Besides the 20 plus courses that are offered at the centre a subunit within the organization, CEMUS Forum, serves as a meeting place for students, teachers and the wider community outside the university. It aims to be a catalyst for change, an incubator for regional and global innovation that contributes to sustainability by partnering with businesses, civil society organizations, the public sector and more.

So why is the educational model at CEMUS so successful? Here are just a few observations that might shed a little light on this question:

  • Hiring the most engaged students from previous years as course coordinators for the next year’s courses, leads to learning processes that are adapted to students’ interests and needs.
  • Students hired as course coordinators are given both freedom and a large responsibility. In teams of two, they quickly grow into very competent organizers of higher education – passionate and committed to creating the best courses possible.
  • The education is a result of co-creation between faculty and students: the process is a source of inspiration, as well as intellectually and practically challenging, to everyone involved.
  • The courses are complimentary and help to put the students’ previous studies in a broader and meaningful context. Students that find CEMUS are often frustrated with the shortcomings of earlier education and seeking a learning environment that is more interactive, inspiring and meaningful.
  • The organization is dynamic and ever changing due to a constant inflow of new students as course coordinators, two times each year.
  • CEMUS has become a pedagogical experimental lab for active student participation and didactic renewal at the university, with a constant momentum to improve, remix and innovate based on what seems to work.

So, does CEMUS really live up to all of its claims? Based on the many evaluations, comments, and reflections from students, the courses provide some of the most meaningful and relevant higher education that they have experienced. As one recent student expressed it:

The best thing with this education is that it really takes you into the depth of things, aiming to understand the underlying reasons to environmental degredation and other problems of civilization. Furthermore, the courses have meant a lot to me – I feel that I have been studying something important, I feel wonderful.

However, despite the apparent benefits of CEMUS educational model, there are a number of issues that need to be studied in more detail. There are many obstacles to creating the critical and creative education that I’ve described. For example, students ambitions and goals with their studies are not always aligned with the high ambition of the organizers at CEMUS, and the quality of the papers and projects produced can be highly variable. Another major institutional obstacle has been the difficulty to create and develop a research environment at the centre that is just as transdisciplinary and creative as the educational environment. Attempts have been made but with limited success.

Up until now, very little actual research has been done on the educational model and the learning taking place in the courses and in the organization. However, there is an increasing interest from educators and educational researchers around the world to study the model and potentially develop similar initiatives at other universities. Student-run education for sustainability is just in its infancy and has a long and exciting journey ahead to meet its full potential.



Isak Stoddard’s professional work for the last few years has mainly dealt with transdisciplinary Education for Sustainable Development, with an emphasis on experiential, transformative and lifelong learning. He is acting Programme Director and educational coordinator at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), a student-initiated, and mostly student-run centre at the University of Uppsala and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. His educational background is in engineering physics, systems technology and energy systems. Isak has worked in Asia, North America and Europe on issues related to renewable energy, environmental degradation, children’s rights, human trafficking and alternative development paths.

How does the community we belong to help us learn, and enable us to shape our community?

Posted by sustainable on August 9, 2013 

When Ioan Fazey suggested I contribute a blog post to Sustainable Learning, it seemed like a great opportunity to interview John David Smith, whom I’ve learned so much from about learning. I recorded this interview and edited this transcription for brevity and clarity.

John David Smith was born and raised in Humacao, Puerto Rico. He first studied architecture at the University of New Mexico. He became a student of Trungpa Rinpoche in 1975 and worked at the University of Colorado for more than 20 years. He’s been the community steward for CPsquare, an international community of people who are involved in communities of practice as leaders, researchers, or consultants, conducting workshops with Etienne Wenger and others on learning from a social theory perspective.  He is the co-author of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities with Etienne Wenger and Nancy White, and he currently serves as the Interim Communications Director for the Portland Oregon Shambhala Center.




HS: John, how is that your focus came to be on learning? Why learning, per se?

JS: Well, I remember as a child growing up in Puerto Rico, I listened to Americans and Puerto Ricans talking past each other. And meanwhile, missionary doctors would just show up from the States and be able to talk shop with my father. The contrast seemed completely fascinating to me.

Then, when I was working at the University of Colorado, where I focused on using administrative records to support decision making, I found that there were, in effect, communities around different data sets. There were people who understood admissions data, who had no idea about how budget or finance worked or what it really meant. So that made me want to ask: Is there a way of learning across these communities? How could it happen? And how does it not happen? What are the forces that keep one part of an organization out of the business of some other part?

Another theme was seeing how the process of bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West involved a kind of learning that was incommensurate with learning in schools. It involved personal practice and experience — and also, on a social level, a whole messy process of figuring out: Do social forms that made sense in a medieval culture work in Boulder, Colorado, or not?


HS: Were you involved in the Buddhist community in Boulder?

JS: Yes, I moved there in 1975 — having read a book! — but also with the intuition that, this isn’t quite book learning. I remember having that thought.


HS: What’s the difference between book learning and — other forms of learning? Learning as practice? What’s the appropriate counterpoint?

JS: Book learning for me, at that time, meant discussing the books as we did at St. John’s College. Whereas the whole enterprise of Tibetan Buddhism was much more “mind-in-body,” asking: “How do I show up in the world?”

Early on, the social element was not so explicit. Trungpa Rinpoche’s students were very individually motivated: “I’m here for my spiritual practice and goals.” Now, in traditional texts, a Bodhisattva vow clearly is about “all sentient beings” — and that’s a great example of book learning. It’s easy to say, “Yeah, I take that vow,” and then go back to doing my individual thing.

Then, over the years, it became more clear that there was a kind of social learning component to what Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about. He was talking about transforming society on a deep level that contested the Western notion of individualism, contested the Western stance of mind-in-opposition-to-body, and communicated the idea that “I am the product of all the causes and conditions around me.”


HS: You mentioned the notion of community, which brings up the question of how community pertains to learning or social learning. Are recognized communities necessary for social learning?

JS: Well, I think “community” is a fiction is some ways — it’s whatever we want to mean by that term. And different people have both different definitions and different experiences of community. It’s a constructed concept. But, from the other side, that construction can have real value. I find it interesting to note in retrospect how many little communities Trungpa Rinpoche spawned to hold and carry forward different facets of his teaching.


HS: And do you find that the perception of belonging to a community is correlated to a perception of learning?

JS: Well, one definition that Etienne Wenger talked about in one of the online seminars we did is that acommunity of practice is the experience of social learning that becomes expressed as a social formation. That’s a whole bunch of squishy but important ideas linked together. The experience of learning and the experience of connection can take place along different vectors. Whether I see myself as a member of the community might precede or follow other important kinds of acquisitions: of identity, of knowledge, or competence — or as membership in opposition to another community.

Last week, in a webinar with people studying social media in The Netherlands, in order to get away from the baggage that the term learning carries, I asked them to talk about how they had been influenced. In that conversation, one of the things that came out was that people did not always know when they were being influenced or not. So it’s my hypothesis that, “When did learning happen?” is a very problematic question to answer. And yet causing and even scheduling learning is conventionally taken for granted in the field of education.


HS: You’re equating learning with the perception of being influenced?

JS: Yes, through some interaction over time.

And a community itself defines what learning is — whether we’re learning to pick people’s pockets or to bring environmental awareness onto the agenda of our local community.


HS: And if the group is defined by the boundaries of an academic discipline, then competence is defined by understandings of biology or physics or whatever, and that competence is defined in relation to the world around us?

JS: Yes, the world around us as perceived by those communities, but still in relation to communities. Communities define competence. Competence, and membership, often become a contested calls.

I think part of what’s going on here is that our language inevitably floats concepts up to the status of being externally real, and what we’re trying to do in the conversation around communities of practice and — for that matter — in Buddhism, is to remind ourselves that concepts like competence are, in effect, mental events. At the same time, that doesn’t mean we can’t hone them, and fight about them, and grow them, and make them more useful.


HS: Your book with Etienne Wenger and Nancy White is called Digital Habitats, yet you place such a strong emphasis on the subtleties of learning. Do you see a lot of potential for digital habitats?

I think the digital habitat is interpenetrated with how we live. We saw it as a little more separate back when we were writing the book. Today, just look right here: you have an Air and a digital recording device; I brought an iPad and a cell phone. All of that is together in our experience and shapes our expectations and sense of meaning about this conversation, as does our environment, in your backyard, under this cherry tree.

As people’s activities move online, then looking over each others’ shoulders in those online activities becomes somewhat more feasible, but there’s always a question of, “Do I see on my screen what you see on yours?” These interfaces create illusions of what’s possible and what’s there. It’s a very difficult thing to see the technology from the perspective of an outsider or of someone who’s coming onboard to a community.


HS: What’s the value of looking over another person’s shoulder? Or of having one’s shoulder looked over?

Looking over someone’s shoulder, you get to see practice, you get to see expertise, you get to see human activity in its richness and ambiguity. And it’s definitely a collaborative thing to look over someone’s shoulder. When you do that, it’s typically not didactically organized around a linear text or curriculum. It’s organized around practice, around doing something. And the logic of doing is very rich and kind of unfathomable in some ways. Acquiring the logic of doing happens gradually and iteratively. The word apprenticeship comes to mind here.

From the other side, the value of having someone look over your shoulder is confirming, and the conversational aspect, when someone asks, “Why do you do that?” That can illuminate our own practice.

In Situated Learning, the original frame around a community of practice was somewhat hierarchical. People who are competent are at the center; those who aren’t are outside and move toward the center. A more dynamic frame that Etienne explored in his 1998 book is that the world has multiple communities of practice. Sometimes an outsider pulls the community in a different direction; and sometimes the community pulls an outsider in. That dynamic of who pulls who is very complex. It points to the idea that the center is both imaginary and emergent, changing over time. And so is the periphery.


HS: Could you talk a little about other influences on your thinking?

JS: Well, in the generation before Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning, there was Vygotsky, who as a Marxist set the context for a lot with his focus on zone of proximal development and perfectibility of society.


HS: “Zone of proximal development”?

JS: He was getting at the notion of: What are you ready to learn? What’s in the periphery of your understanding that — if you were exposed to or interacted with — you could figure out? One of the benefits of looking over someone else’s shoulder is that you learn what you’re able to learn, picking stuff out from the many elements before you.


HS: Like an individual-scale “adjacent possibility.”

JS: Yes, exactly.

And a very important person in this whole inquiry has been Jean Lave, who looked at learning from a cross-cultural perspective. Among other things, she asked: How do people learn to reason quantitatively or — as we learn in school in the West — to do arithmetic? And what do those activities mean? And how is competence defined? And what does schooling do to our notions of competence?

Her recent book, Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice, is a wonderful example of sustained attention — that she could focus attention over five summers in the early 80s of conducting interviews with tailors in Liberia, thinking critically about the quantitative tests she gave them, then working to make sense of it over some thirty years, and finally letting us look over her shoulder. It’s really quite a feat, it seems to me.

It’s an example of mind looking at itself, which is a fundamental theme in Buddhism as well. What are the tricks that we do to ourselves? And what enables us to see our own thinking? In Shambhala, that’s the key argument: Looking at our own thinking is not an optional thing at this point in human history.


HS: Because?

JS: Because our technical capacities to affect the planet and to affect each other …


HS: Have outpaced our ability to be reflective on these things?

JS: Yeah, right, or to organize the level of reflection that’s needed. The board of directors of a big bank can be very reflective about what they’re doing on their own behalf. But do they take a broader view?  Society as a whole has to have a way of bridging across differently focused communities. The whole community of practice conversation is about saying: If you start by looking at knowledge as a social phenomenon, competence as a social phenomenon, then you get a different picture of the world — not only of how it works, but also about its possibilities.

So, rewiring the world socially actually has great promise.


HS: “Rewiring”?

JS: Well, that’s an image from the digital habitats conversation — about inducing the kinds of conversations that have been prevented by technology or habit or social separations or jargon. One of the things that you look at in your work is the way that jargon is very powerful. When it faces one way, it’s good for digging into a subject; when it faces the other, it’s exclusionary, confusing, and can be very problematic evidence for those who “don’t get it.”


HS: And can lead to assumptions about how learning takes place, through the metaphor of “knowledge transfer.”

JS: Exactly! What’s pernicious about that metaphor — apart from the fact that it doesn’t work at all — is that it creates an illusion that we have served those who have, say, downloaded the PDF file. Maybe we have, but we just don’t know. Often, we just can’t pinpoint when learning happens.


HS: Is there such a thing as “design for learning”?

JS: I think so. I think it comes down to extending an invitation to conversation, to looking at your intentions as you participate in the conversation and in the world, and to doing all that with as much scrupulousness and precision as we can muster.

It may require a special jargon to look at our intentions. Jargon is everywhere. And jargon is sharpened in communities. But jargon is useful for asking: What am I doing in the world? And what is the sustained attention that guides my actions in the world? As actors in larger social learning systems, are we out to promote our own conclusions, our own actions and brand — or are we out to enable something larger than ourselves individually?


HS: And this takes place at an organizational level, as well as an individual level, right?

JS: Absolutely.


HS: So, what types of organizations — whether agencies, businesses, nonprofits — have been good at learning? Are there any individual examples that come to mind?

JS: Well, I don’t know. But my hypothesis would be that effective communities are sometimes contained in but often cross organizational boundaries. Organizations can do something to sustain a conversation. Organizations tend to persist beyond the conversations or communities they contain. But so do communities. The persistence of the two may be incommensurate.


HS: So, for example, if we look at the extended Silicon Valley community, it seems to be learning and — for better or worse — evolving rapidly in the last couple of decades.

JS: At that scale, it’s a persistent community that accommodates organizational birth and death. I forget who talks about how the effectiveness of that community is based on rapid organizational formation, learning — or not — and then thriving or bankruptcy. If it’s bankruptcy, those individuals and those relationships disperse and reform somewhere else. That enables other conversations in other companies to form. So it may be useful to think of organizations as platforms, just like we think of digital platforms. The problem is when we think of the organization and the community as coterminous.


HS: In Portland, as you know, there is a pretty passionate, extended community that’s focused on sustainability, and there are opportunities to look over each other’s shoulders at what others are working on.

JS: So I think questions about metrics come up. For whatever reasons, in Silicon Valley metrics emerged at the core of the ecosystem to say that what counts is innovation.

It’s much more difficult when it comes to sustainability, to agree on the metrics and to be able to say, “Look, I did it. I moved the needle.”


HS: And sustainability indicators are often organized around the three Es — ecology, economy, equity — and don’t always explicitly include learning itself as a measure of success.

JS: Well, learning is driven by some sense of life force, and if you leave that out, it’s as if you’re talking about a closed system or are ignoring how interactions can lead to inspiration or accident. You are ignoring the important ability to discern what to retain or remember versus what to abandon or forget. Without learning as a core point of awareness and self-reflection, there’s no space for, “Wow, we’re doing something really great! Or, this is terrible!”  There would be no pitched battles between different parts of the family.


HS: To wrap up this conversation, what are you looking to learn next?

JS: Well, on the community of practice side, I think that conversation has often gotten trapped at the skin or “self” boundary.  I’m thinking about questions like: How can we talk about “self” and “experience” and “learning” in more productive, integral ways? How do we create sustained, and collective, awareness about these things and about the environmental and social challenges that we think we face?

Howard Silverman teaches systems thinking in the Collaborative Design MFA program at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Formerly with Portland-based nonprofit Ecotrust, he has worked in numerous areas: food systems, fisheries and forestry, green building, climate and energy — and learned from the use of numerous approaches: scenario planning, spatial planning, market design, life cycle assessment, online-offline participatory processes, and communities of practice. He is cofounder of the scenarios, research, and design consultancy Pattern Labs and blogs at Solving for Pattern.


Should research(ers) get emotional?

Posted by sustainable on July 22, 2013

Many researchers prize their objectivity and detached independence, and recoil in horror from the idea of displaying emotion in their work. In a world of politics, where emotion is often used to bias decisions away from the evidence, do we need to be ever more rigorous in our detachment from emotion? Or do we need to start harnessing the power of emotion, to deliver the evidence we generate as powerfully as possible to the people who are making the decisions?

The simple (but perhaps simplistic) answer is to separate the generation of evidence from the communication of evidence. In our quest for new knowledge about how the world works, many argue that we should always strive for independence and objectivity. But how we communicate what we find is another story – communicated with passion and unwavering conviction, we can make evidence compelling.

Positive, effectively channeled emotion gets people’s attention – it makes people sit up and take notice. Through emotion, we can connect with our audience and engender empathy. We have little control over whether decision-makers will act on the evidence we present to them or not. But by engaging with both hearts and minds, we increase the likelihood that our audience is really listening, and actively considering how our evidence fits with the other evidence they have access to, their goals and their worldview.


Positive and channeled

There are of course caveats, which I have already alluded to. Decision-makers are more likely to respond to positive emotion than they are to anger, or doom and gloom predictions. For example, there is evidence that decision-makers are less receptive to messages about the value of nature if these messages are perceived as threatening their psychological needs of autonomy (e.g. because they feel manipulated or coerced), happiness (e.g. environmental campaigns based on fear), reputation (e.g. because they feel implicitly criticised or patronised) and self-esteem (e.g. because they start to feel responsible for or guilty about environmental degradation). On the other hand, enthusiasm is infectious. Presenting our evidence with passion and crafting our arguments to meet the innate psychological needs of our audience is more likely to get people to listen, even if they don’t act on what they hear.

As experts, we hold a privileged position of authority, which is likely to be a key factor in getting us an audience with decision-makers in the first place. Retaining that credibility is essential, and so it is important to carefully channel our emotions. No matter how positive our emotional input may be, if we go over the top with our enthusiasm, we may loose credibility. For me this is about never forgetting to choose our words with the utmost care. This may mean lengthy preparation or just slowing ourselves down to pick our words carefully. But if everything we say is measured and supported by the evidence we have collected, then imbuing those words with genuine passion can have a powerful effect.


Is all research emotional?

Implicit in everything I’ve said so far, is the idea that the evidence itself is unquestionable; the question is only whether we as researchers should use emotion to communicate that evidence. But there are many researchers who would challenge the idea that research is (or can ever be) entirely independent, emotionally detached and objective. This sort of researcher often values subjectivity and seeks to explicitly recognisise the sub-conscious biases and norms that often frame supposedly objective and independent research.

This tension between objectivity and subjectivity is particularly acute in conservation research, where ecologists and environmental researchers often frame their research within a set of implicit normative assumptions about the value of species and habitats, which are often at variance to the norms and assumptions of other groups within society, who may for example value human and economic development over the environment. If these biases and assumptions are made explicit, then environmental researchers may be seen as advocates for the environment, who frame and use research to support their normative goals of environmental protection and enhancement.

There is of course nothing wrong with this. But if we recognize that this is just one strand of evidence feeding into what are usually political decision-making processes, then we can begin to explore the subjectivity inherent in many of the processes we use to generate “evidence”, and can become less detached and more emotionally engaged in the normative goals that pervade our work.


Becoming more emotionally engaged in our research: a role for the creative arts?

There must be many ways that we can become more emotionally engaged in the research process and in the communication of our research. But one mechanism I’ve been considering, is working with the creative arts. Working with artists who share our goals may enable us as researchers to engage audiences in our work at both an academic and an emotional level. This is not to say that we should overstate or stray from the evidence we have collected. But it is a plea to make our normative assumptions and goals explicit, and state them with passion and conviction. Working with artists in collaborative projects, it may be possible to engage emotionally with our audiences and interpret evidence in ways that are not just understandable, but in ways that can convict audiences and spur them to action.

Although not common, serious collaborations between researchers and artists are happening more and more. Many researchers and artists share a desire to discover new insights about the world we live in and to change the way that others look at the world. On the surface, our methods are often very different, but both researchers and artists share a love for experimentation and the critical interpretation of what emerges from that process. By bringing researchers and artists together as equals in interdisciplinary teams, it may be possible to draw upon and combine very different sources of knowledge, and to derive new insights that could not have occurred as a result of either group working in isolation.

In many collaborations between researchers and artists, the artist is relegated to the role of interpreter, translator or communicator, taking research findings and communicating them to a wider public. Although this is a valuable role, it is only part of the role that the arts can play in collaborations with researchers. In the right environment, artists and researchers can coproduce new insights that have the potential to change the way we look at the world.


Influential or manipulative?

I’m sure much of what I have said will sit uneasily with many people. Do two wrongs make a right? Just because smoking lobbyists and campaigners use emotion to manipulate decision-making processes, does that mean we should join them and use the same tactics ourselves as researchers? We would of course say that our motives are pure – we are just trying to communicate the evidence, rather than any ulterior motive. But if we use emotion, then aren’t we being just as manipulative?

For me, the difference between someone who is manipulative and someone who is influential, depends on their motives and the level of coercion they are prepared to employ. If we have the best interests of the decision-maker in mind and are seeking to help them make a voluntary decision that they perceive is right for them and for those in their sphere of influence, then we are seeking to influence. If on the other hand, we are seeking a decision that would be in our interests and against the interests of the decision-maker and those in their sphere of influence, and we are prepared to coerce them into that decision, no matter how subtly, then the chances are that we’re seeking to manipulate.

Emotions may be used to influence and to manipulate, and the distinction between these two modes of operation may at times be fuzzy. The simplest solution is to avoid all emotion – play safe and retain our position of credibility aloof from the real world. Engaging with emotion in our research is the riskier option. But if done effectively, I believe it has the potential to make our research truly influential.

Thanks to Alister Scott @bcualisterscott, Professor of Environmental Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University, Andrew Dawes @Wessex_Reiver, producer for Radio 4 wildlife programmes and Anand BS @ABSabyss Senior Manager at Genome Life Sciences for discussion via Twitter that helped shaped this blog post – I doubt you’ll agree with everything I’ve written but I’ll look forward to the debate @SustainLearning.

Mark is a Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Research at the Centre for Environment & Society ResearchBirmingham School of the Built Environment, Birmingham City University. Find out more about Mark’s work here: You can read more blogs by Mark and you can follow him on Twitter.

A simple tip for communicators of science – what’s the story?

Posted by sustainable on July 23, 2012 

When a scientist is asked to talk to the media, let’s say, do a radio interview, their usual first reaction is to go off and check their facts. Too often, we scientists, for I was trained as a scientist too, feel that communicating is about telling someone the facts.

And this is despite the fact (you see – many things are despite the facts) that I have never, ever, heard a scientist caught out in a radio interview through not knowing enough. More often they (we) are caught out by knowing too much, and wanting to tell it all. Keep it simple – that doesn’t mean lying, it means telling the true essence of your exciting finding without going into all the details that fascinate you but will just confuse everyone else. Please keep it simple.

An encounter with the media is an opportunity to tell a story, so think about the story. The story is often the answer to these three questions: what happened? why should we care? and what should be done about it?

So, for example, most murders are: this person was shot/stabbed/strangled in this place at this time, police are looking for the killers who are still on the loose, please lock your doors and give us any information to help catch them. That’s the simple story and the facts can fill in the details.

And a study of carbon stored in peatbogs might have a story like this: there is twenty times more carbon stored in peatbogs than in the forests that you might plant on top of them, and so we need to protect peat bogs to keep that carbon underground because otherwise the carbon released will add to global warming, so government should think of incentives for landowners to protect that peat (or penalties if they don’t – depending on how carroty or sticky you are feeling).

Facts on their own can be interesting – but facts put in context are important. And if you can be interesting and ensure your work is seen as important then you are maximising the chance that your findings will get through the defences of busy people who aren’t really paying attention. This will mean that you might make a difference and you might get another grant to do more work. Interesting? Good story? At least it’s a simple one.

Dr Mark Avery is a freelance writer on environmental matters. He writes a daily blog Standing up for His book, Blogging for Nature is available from and contains tips on how to blog successfully as well as 143 blogs written on wildlife and environmental matters between 2009 and 2011.