Passions, post-its, pictures, presentations, problems, personalities, paintings, projects, people. This post on the Idélab is brought to you by the letter P…
In the last week of January I dipped below the radar somewhat; for I was part of Norway’s first ‘Idélab’. North American readers may recognise the term (idea lab); UK readers may know it as a ‘sandpit’. Whatever its name, it was an idea-generation event which was intended to produce innovative research projects seeking to pave the way for a zero-emissions society.
Twenty-seven delegates, six mentors, and representatives from Forskningsrådet (Norway’s national research council, who were behind the event) were led on a journey by Liz and Tim from the UK company Know Innovation (with help from Scotty and Paula). And what a journey it was.
Five days. Two days of defining and brainstorming the problem: what might a zero-emission society look like, and how might we achieve it? Two days of hashing out projects which could take us there. One day of presenting those projects to the panel and hearing their thoughts. Sounds simple?
In some ways it was. Looking back, all we delegates had to do was relax and let ourselves go with the flow. That is not as easy as it sounds, for we had to place all of our trust in the leaders and mentors. Forskningsrådet, too, had to relax and let the week unfold at its pace. If that pace seemed gentle on the first day, by the Thursday the hours were flying by.
The week was a success. I say that unequivocally for one simple reason: we all cared. Leaders, mentors, delegates, organisers: we all worked together, warmly (sounds obvious? Then you’ve never lived in Scandi-land), respectfully, on equal terms.
There was a cloud on the horizon, however. Following two days of encouraging all of us – perhaps particularly the so-called ‘hard’ scientists – to fully engage the social scientists and humanities in ideas for projects, then one day of thrashing out possible projects, the clanger was dropped: to be successful of funding in this round, projects had to advance research in two of the three areas funding the event – nanotechnology, biotechnology, ICT. This was, after all, what we had all signed up to some three months previously. It was not ‘news’ per se. But it had gone against the intense working we had been doing thus far. In short, the reminder, while not unnecessary, came too late in the game. Hopes for 50/50 social/hard science collaborations were dashed. Projects had to be abandoned, as those who (for whatever reason) needed funding had to divert their energies elsewhere.
One delegate from the social sciences summed up the frustration brilliantly: in Norway, all subjects are well funded by the research council. The ‘soft’ sciences don’t have to go cap in hand to team up with the ‘hard’ sciences in order to get funding for research. This could have been a real platform for engaging across the disciplines on equal terms, but instead – more importantly, at the last minute – the hard sciences were promoted. In practice, with soft-science-heavy projects abandoned, there were ‘floating’ delegates who found the remaining projects too far advanced to be able to accommodate them. The sage advice of the mentors (whom I do not think were entirely happy with the development, even if their professionalism gave nothing away) was to enjoy the last evening of working with wonderful people. But that is hard to do when just a few hours ago you thought you could save the world.
However, Forskningsrådet had two rabbits in their hat, and the first was pulled out at the end of day four: they would fund a ‘networking project’ to keep the contacts going from the idélab and to assess the projects and they unfold. This project had to have a PI from the social sciences or arts and humanities.
Day five was the big presentation day, and the presentations were fantastic. There were five projects which went to the final round. Of these, four received funding, for Forskningsrådet pulled their final bunny out of their hat – they’d found another 10M nok behind the sofa cushions. (As you do.)
So idélab had its ups and a down, and then more ups. The journey is not over. As a volunteer to co-PI the networking project it has not escaped my notice that we have gone entirely unmentioned by Forskningsrådet (and thus by the press) in their reports on the event. That is not to say that it is a dirty secret; indeed, for some of us it is the most important outcome of the event. Not because of the money, but because our research may show what so many delegates and mentors felt so strongly: that for real collaboration, and real change, support is needed from across the spectrum of disciplines.
Forskningsrådet, the leaders and mentors, not to mention the delegates, can congratulate themselves on a phenomenal week, and on some excellent projects. There is no shame whatsoever in seeking to improve on this success, and I hope the so-called ‘networking project’ can contribute to that, despite Forskninsrådet’s silence on it thus far. As well as excellent technological projects, what idélab showed is that Norwegian-based researchers are keen to work across disciplinary boundaries, that they understand that technology is meaningless without social change, and that they are keen to put this into practice. It is my hope that the ‘networking project’ can help to drive this change, already in the hearts of researchers, into the practice of research policy and funding.
Footnote: This review has taken me longer to write than any blogpost so far. I think this is partly because the roller-coaster journey is so difficult to capture in words. A pathetic excuse, but it is the truth. If you ever get the chance to attend one of these events, then grab it. It might just change your life.
*Update: I have now seen the following pages from the Norwegian Research Council, which clearly mentions the networking project: click here for English; click here for Norwegian (contains more details). And thanks to all for the emails sent – most reassuring. Let the change begin.
Two more blogs on Idélab (both in Norwegian):
Anja Røyne – Fysikk og Fascinasjon
André Fossen Mlonyeni on Forskningsrådet’s Idélab-blogg
Any others out there, then let me know!