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Co-producing a transformative research conference

October 26 2016

Sarah Rach, Matthew Bach

Last month, TRANSIT hosted a conversation at the European Social Innovation Week in Tilburg, The Netherlands as part of its efforts to co-create its final conference.

We were joined by a unique and diverse group of social innovators and researchers, both from our networks and the wider community to delve into this topic and gather input that will help us formulate a concept that gives all potential participants the space they need to play an active role throughout the conference. 

In a little less than 12 months, TRANSIT will be celebrating four intense and successful years of research. To mark the occasion, as well as the official end of the project, we are organizing a conference during the week of September 11th 2017. All EU-funded projects have final conferences, although these usually involve lots of sitting and powerpoint slides, and tend to include mostly researchers. Given the strong relationships we have developed with practitioners of social innovation, as well as the transformative vocation of the project, we believe that TRANSIT calls for a different set up.

We are also eager to take up what our partners from the world of social innovation have mentioned many times during interviews. There is a strong desire to learn from others – other social innovation networks and initiatives which may have been through similar situations, people with different perspectives on social innovation, policy makers (un)supportive of social innovation, and many more.

This desire to learn forms the basis for our conference vision: we see it as an event that should facilitate a learning journey for all the participants. We aim not only to give back and share the knowledge we have gained from others, but also to bring together a broad audience interested in social innovation, by creating a platform to generate new connections and ideas. In order to translate this ambition into reality, we started an engagement process with practitioners of social innovation, researchers and policymakers in June 2016. Since then, we have enjoyed dozens of insightful conversations with researchers from TRANSIT and other projects, with social innovators from Rotterdam, The Netherlands and beyond, and with policymakers from local, national and EU levels.

And that’s where we picked up from for our conversation in Tilburg.

After a quick overview of the project and our ideas for the conference, we settled into a world café setting to discuss three questions: ‘How do you want to be involved?’, ‘What would you like to learn and/or who would you like to meet?’ and ‘How can we have a lasting impact?’

We took back home a few key messages:

  • Surprise! The best moments in conferences are those of surprise and disruption. For instance, what can we learn from a case that is not socially innovative? Counter-intuitive insights help us to think outside the box.
  • Experience! Knowledge is created in a process of experience, like learning by doing or sensing social innovation. E.g. participating in real-life cases, being a part of demonstrations given by social innovations, expressing the social innovation journey in a drama-theater setting.
  • Meaningful encounters! Depending on your personal learning goals, you want to meet specific people. E.g. Building networks with like-minded people, having matchmaking activities, dialogue dinners.
  • Insights! Would it be possible to come up with a handbook with ‘how to’ tips and principles for reflection?
  • Impact! Can we generate impact by creating a movement, platform or hub for transformative SI?

Some welcomed criticism was also shared: if we wish all participants to take on an active role, participation will require careful design. Another pitfall is that bringing together a diverse group can result in a lack of a focus, which risks turning the event into in a meaningless encounter. Last but not least, adopting a co-creative approach, can create high expectations, which might in the end be disappointing.

Over the coming months, we will consolidate all the input we have collected during this engagement process. If you want to share some ideas with us, just send us an e-mail at Starting in January 2017, we will develop the specific conference activities and will share an overview of our concept and our progress with you.

We hope you’ll join us on this learning journey!

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