Prescriptions for using research to influence policy and practice usually include some form of engagement between researchers and research users. People who use the results of research typically include, for the social sciences at least: members of the public who are the direct beneficiaries of the research; practitioners within the relevant professions; the staff of private sector and non-government organisations; and people involved in government policy-making.
Mobilizing research knowledge into the public sphere
In a previous blog on the impact of research on development policy and practice I argued that such engagement denotes the need for closer relationships between researchers and research users, involving a better understanding of the demand for knowledge that research can generate, co-creation of content and greater interest in the promotion of results. Subsequently, in a report on a survey among researchers in my own field I contended that researchers are not inclined to take part in the engagement activities that have been shown to be required for mobilizing research knowledge into the public sphere. Among the many reasons for this that can be postulated, we might include the simple notion that they are unsure of how to go about it.
In this article, I describe an engagement process that is showing results through the establishment and nurturing of multi-directional dialogues between and among researchers and the varied groups of people that have an interest in their findings: The eBario Knowledge Fair. This is a biennial event that takes place in the remote and isolated village of Bario, which is situated in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Bario is the site of the multi-award-winning eBario project that began in 1998 and is based on a community telecentre which introduced computers and the internet to this hitherto highly isolated and underserved location. It is also the cultural heartland of the Kelabit indigenous people, one of Malaysia’s and Borneo’s smallest ethnic minorities.
More recently, Radio Bario was established there in 2010 as Malaysia’s first community radio station — broadcasting in the local language to the surrounding community. The initiative to introduce Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to the community came from researchers at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) and it began with the conviction that the implementers and the community should work together and learn from each other about how such technologies would contribute to the development aspirations and priorities of the residents. No technologies were deployed until there was a consensus between the project team and the community regarding how they would be used. This was arrived at after lengthy deliberations, surveys and formal and informal dialogues.
The Knowledge Fair approach
Over the years, the people of Bario have derived a range of significant benefits from their use of ICTs, both directly and indirectly, and the project continues to be guided by the mutual learning that has emerged from the close relationships they have developed with the implementing team. Arising from the experience, the idea of the Knowledge Fair arose as a means for: i) showcasing the project achievements; ii) obtaining community feed-back on the results; iii) generating joint proposals for new interventions; and iv) ensuring researchers were accountable to community beneficiaries.
The event, which has run four times now – every other year since 2007 – is not characterized as a conference because the intention has always been to give maximum possible participation to the community residents. One motivation for this was the observation that most conferences to do with ICTs, poverty reduction and/or rural development take place in luxurious city-based surroundings without any poor people or farmers present. The intention of the Knowledge Fair is to flip this approach on its head; by immersing the pundits in the environment and the culture that their programmes are influencing and by affording maximum possible opportunity for those affected to voice their opinions, concerns, aspirations and priorities. As another desirable spin-off, the event also contributes to the local economy through the provision of lodging, catering, the sale of handicrafts and the additional side-tours that visitors engage in.
To achieve the desired level and style of interactions among participants, we have adopted several formats that are known as ‘unconference’ formats, covering Chat Show, Fish Bowl, Storytelling; and World Café approaches to knowledge sharing (see http://www.kstoolkit.org/KS+Methods for a description of these). Whilst orthodox conferences are dominated by speakers who allow only a short amount of time for questions from the audience, unconferencing reverses this approach by structuring deliberations so that all present have an equal opportunity to introduce their voices. In a typical workshop, the researcher would be given 10 minutes to tell her story and the rest of the time – an hour or more – would be for group interaction; usually structured around forming a consensus or a set of priorities or an agreed agenda for action.
Visiting participants to the Knowledge Fair include academic researchers, government officials, NGO workers and staff of private sector organisations. The entire experience is generally highly enjoyable, with one prominent researcher from overseas declaring it as her favourite conference. The Knowledge Fair has produced at least three desirable effects: i) It provides researchers with an intimate understanding of the problems that their research could help solve, ensuring real-world relevance for their work. ii) It provides feedback on the utility of the findings of research that has already been conducted; a rolling research agenda has been established and this is re-visited on each occasion to verify earlier solutions and to unearth new problems. iii) It provides government officials and private sector representatives with the contextual knowledge they will need for their programmes to achieve the kind of impacts that have been generated by the eBario project. By demonstrating community benefits in one location, officials can learn how to replicate their achievement among wider audiences.
The eBario project, which now encompasses several more communities, has evolved into an Innovation Village, in which innovative applications of technology are conceived, tested, and evaluated through research, which is then used to stimulate replications at other locations. The Knowledge Fair performs a vital role in each of these activities and acts as a key component in the mobilization of research-based knowledge. The researchers have solid evidence and can argue with confidence that the event has contributed to policy developments in Malaysia, for example in liberalizing broadcasting policy to allow community radio, as well as influencing professional practice in the formulation and operation of nation-wide telecentre programmes. There’s more on eBario at http://www.ebario.org/.