In brief

The UKRI recently published a call for a new world-leading Centre in Community Participation and Connectedness. Bringing together academics, policymakers, practitioners and community members, the Centre will have a bold ambition to make a meaningful contribution to communities in the UK and beyond. Our minds are abuzz with possibilities. Here, we lay out our hopes and dreams for the Centre. We’d love to hear yours too.  

From Community Weavers to local businesses and Relational Councils, lots of people in lots of different places are doing amazing work around building better relationships and weaving strong communities. But whilst all share a belief in the importance of strong relationships, the connections between these nodes are often weak or non-existent. That’s why we’re teaming up with others who are passionate about the importance of good relationships to join up the dots and create more than the sum of our parts.

Drawing on our insights from over 100 conversations in 2021 we’re focusing our efforts on helping to develop the infrastructure to support a thriving field of relationship-centred practice. 

Over the course of these conversations, the need for more research into ‘what works’ when it comes to nurturing community activity and weaving connected communities, and more evidence of the importance of the hidden work of relationship building, really shone through. 

During our first major convening of Relationship-Centred Practitioners  at Northumbria University in November 2022, we saw how research in this space is patchy and dispersed across many disciplines (sociology, geography, psychology, history and beyond!), how terms are differently defined, measurement contested and inconsistent, and how practice learning is fragmented and often wasted. We committed to the development  of an interdisciplinary learning network connecting academics and practitioners.

We were thrilled, therefore, to hear last week about the UKRI call for a new, university based centre in community participation and connectedness. What a much needed opportunity! Our minds are abuzz with hopes and possibilities. We’re dreaming of a centre that…

Walks the walk

We think everything works better when relationships are valued, and we think the same applies to an interdisciplinary research centre.

We’re imagining a centre that is founded on the principles of good relationship-centred practice and strong, active communities; a centre that seeks out diverse contributions, weaves together different perspectives, supports unlikely collaborations and makes more than the sum of the parts.

We’re imagining a platform for collaboration between learning disciplines and institutions and a cross-sector space for community/practitioner-led academic enquiry linking research, policy, and practice within a virtuous circle of improvement. There is huge, and almost entirely untapped, potential for joining the dots between social policy, social geography, health and social care, urban planning, data science and the many other disciplines which have a part to play in understanding, designing, building and sustaining strong and active communities.

Embedding academic inquiry in real world experience is about more than latching remote evaluations onto local projects.

Building on existing networks of relationship-centred practice, the Centre can lead on the development of citizen research and community led academic enquiry generating practical outcomes as well as transferable insight. Ultimately, we imagine a diverse community of academics and practitioners with the credibility and the evidence to inform national and international debate.

It would be helpful if some lines of enquiry could begin with the individual and the fine grained – how, for example, formal volunteering can co-exist and complement organic community action and mutual care. Others might start with systems and infrastructure – what for example are the conditions required for thriving communities and active connectivity, and what gets in the way. These baseline questions lead into others: What else is needed to move a community that cares for its own into one that builds bridges with others, or one that takes on wider challenges such as embracing devolved democracy?

We envisage a hub and spoke model with a strong centre in a university that has both a reputation for high quality research and deep roots, nurtured over time, in its own community. The Centre will work closely with partners across the disciplines and sectors. Some of these partners will be place based. This will lead to a mixture of perspectives, some national or international, others diving deeper, researching, testing and developing their work in  communities that are defined and recognised by the people that live there.

In addition to paid staff a university centre can also provide a home for unpaid collaborators – practitioners in residence, visiting readers etc. We envisage a structure that maximises the opportunities for a diverse range of contributions.   

Sets an ambitious vision for communities

The Centre will land in a period of intersecting challenges. Covid’s “deep tissue damage” will still be felt in many communities. It is likely that economic pressures will persist in the public realm as well as individual households. The need for transition to low carbon will be an ever more urgent challenge and the movement of people across the globe will be continuing to stretch community cohesion.

To be relevant and impactful the Centre must develop an agenda that shows how we can build a better world by building better relationships and, in aggregate, more connected communities. In this context, meaningful relationships, and active and participating communities, are not a ‘nice to have’, they are a practical and political imperative.

We think the centre should begin with an ambitious, broad and open sourced approach to understanding what community connectedness and participation looks like now and might look like in the future. We imagine communities that are “ready for everything“– equally capable of coping with adversity and of seizing opportunity. This vision, so much bigger than stand alone ideas about resilience, connects the worlds of disaster recovery, conflict transformation and community development, in ways which currently feel more essential than ever. 

Builds on what we know

Because collaboration in this field is underdeveloped, researchers often behave as if it is virgin territory. This is neither correct nor helpful. The systematic collation of existing information will be an important role for the new centre and can facilitate the rigorous distillation of transferable principles and assets.

Communities are not identical machines where the same cog will serve the same function in every instance. They are living organisms. Every intervention must be customised in the context, much as a medical treatment is adapted to the patient. This requires informed calibration,  not blue sky reinvention. 

We imagine that the centre will lead the field into a better understanding of what works, what is transferable and what is adaptable. This deeper understanding will provide the foundations for thinking about next steps and in particular, for considering the infrastructure needed to embed and sustain the learning in policy and practice.

Rethinks the measurement paradigm

For many Relationship-Centred Practitioners, measurement feels a long way from being something that is reinforcing and supportive. Finding a way to assess the impact of community participation and the relationships that it engenders in a way that does not reduce those outcomes to overly simplistic statistics or damages those relationships in the process, is one of the most significant shared challenges of the field. 

Too many commissioning contracts require the completion of impact surveys which, in their deficit-based questioning, can strip people of their agency rather than recognise the power in people’s stories. Too many loneliness measures are academic, remote and cold. Many of these tools perpetuate division and isolation, rather than measure it, much less solve it.

Contributor, Through Thick and Thin, 2021

Building the evidence base for strengthening community connection and participation requires not just more data but also new thinking on how we gather and interpret information.

We hope the new centre will lead work on the application of different approaches to evaluation – rigorous story-based approaches as well as more conventional statistical analysis – and begin to re-define performance management and accountability frameworks.

Fixates on the change it will leave behind

Some disadvantaged communities are very familiar with researchers asking questions, governments piloting schemes and national third sector organisations parachuting in and leaving again, not long after. Significant funding for five years offers a new centre the  opportunity to break the mould.

Its leaders should ask of every initiative not only what can we do in the next five years, but what is the change that we will leave behind?.

Involving communities, policy makers, practitioners as well as academics in every stage of the process will help to ground hypotheses, to test ideas and to integrate the smartest learning with the deepest experience. It will also lead to uncommon outcomes. Not only datasets and academic papers but practical tools, new networks, maybe online modules or other innovative applications of learning. We imagine a centre that balances flexibility, imagination and innovation in the application of its  learning with a rigorous commitment to long term value and impact. One that is judged on its real world impact beyond the term of its initial funding.

We are ready and eager to help.

What do you dream of?

Do you share our enthusiasm for this opportunity? What else should we all be hoping this centre achieves or embodies? We’d love to hear from you @Rships_Project and