Summer workshop: Creating a place for insight to grow

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Centre for Urban Wellbeing, summer workshop

How can we work collaboratively to create change in tackling inequalities in urban and community health and wellbeing?

The first summer workshop of the Centre for Urban Wellbeing (CUWb) was dedicated to opening up the question of how research and policy could combine to create positive social change. The event brought together an interdisciplinary group from research, policy making, the public and third sector to consider both novel and pragmatic approaches to the perennial dilemma of working across disciplines and sectors to bring about positive change for significant urban challenges often referred to as wicked or systemic problems. 

CUWb was established in 2020 and has built a network of academics, policymakers and experts in the urban wellbeing field. It has extended beyond usual disciplinary boundaries gathering research interests which include geography, English literature, applied health and civil engineering. The Centre has spent time building relationships with NGO’s, community engagement initiatives, wellbeing think tanks, public health leaders and local politicians. The summer workshop offered an opportunity for these diverse groups to share perspectives on urban wellbeing and consider how to do, and what might be realised through, transdisciplinary working to create the kinds of substantive changes needed to effectively tackle wellbeing inequalities across and within cities.

Co-producing priorities for an urban wellbeing research agenda

The event formed the third and final stage of a collaborative survey process called Delphi, named after an ancient Greek Oracle. The method allows reflection between groups of disparate experts through a series of online consultative survey rounds, it helps both to define and narrow down a wide field. The last round involves a roundtable discussion, hence the focus of the summer workshop.

One public sector leader noted how the event succeeded in overcoming the isolation that researchers and practitioners often experience. They pointed out that opportunities for reflection with such a diverse and knowledgeable group was rare: “I never get the opportunity to discuss these issues which people who are so thoughtful and considering these issues in this way.” They called for more for on-going discussions to help strategic thinking and the kind of knowledge exchange essential for policy innovation.

The workshop was presented with the top five Urban Wellbeing research priorities identified in the previous three rounds of the Delphi survey involving around 30 participants. These had been honed down from an initial 79 themes to focus on:

  • healthy living environments
  • income inequalities
  • urban planning for wellbeing
  • challenging the underlying economic system
  • access to and use of nature and green spaces, including land ownership inequalities

Participants discussed and ranked the top five themes, considering the current level of evidence and initiatives in each area.

Challenges for creating lasting and shared impact:

We know a lot, but we struggle to actually apply it

A number of participants suggested the top themes are well evidenced, with some good examples of small-scale interventions, but there is a lack of research, knowledge and evidence about how evidence is put into practice and interventions scaled. There was a sense that the evidence base needs to be guided by a grounded understanding of human needs, which is often lacking. One suggestion was to use predictive modelling and future scenario planning, working in collaborative ways to discover what people want in their cities for the future.

How do we bring about effective cross-sector working which reflects how themes are connected?

Participants suggested that ranking the themes posed difficulties because they are interdependent, for example healthy lifestyles are related to income and high quality jobs. Rather than prioritising one over the other there needs to be a way to surface commonalities. Engineering experts offered system mapping as a way of exploring the links.

The funding environment doesn’t allow us to do what we need to do

Frustrations were voiced on the nature of current funding streams and how they fail to enable effective, equitable transdisciplinary working over the kinds of timescales needed for research to be effective. Stakeholders are forced to ‘lurch’ from one grant to another with only, as one participant described ‘breadcrumbs’ which are never enough and don’t allow for the depth of work over time needed to embed change.

Approaching systems interventions

The workshop also included a keynote talk by Professor Gerald Midgely, Director of the Centre for Systems Studies at the University of Hull on systems thinking approaches and the viable systems model. Professor Midgely used his experiences across a range of public sector and community projects to outline how making boundary judgments is especially important when considering inequalities and impact. To analyse a system, it is never possible to see the absolute whole, decisions need to be made on where to place boundaries. According to Midgely exploring the boundary decisions, what is included and what isn’t, is one of the most useful methods systems thinking offers when attempting to address issues on the ground. This way of working often reveals the marginalisation of voices needed to move thinking forward, it also highlights productive cross-boundary connections.

Participants also discussed the need for shared understandings and a common language, particularly between academics and practitioners, to enable effective transdisciplinary working. An example of unhelpful difference was given, where some academics might refer to specific mental and physical illnesses in a particular cohort in a particular city, whereas council documents talk about activities such as walking and assets, such as the value of green space. Therefore they end up talking at odds. There is also a need to address tensions between types of measurement, quantitative and qualitative and differences in basic definitions of wellbeing.

Next steps for an emerging research agenda on urban wellbeing

Unheard voices are key to making change happen

Professor Midgley pointed to the importance of identifying and including marginalised voices when attempting to understand and positively impact a complex social issue. One workshop participant discussed their experiences of creating decision-making structures which supported an equal citizen voice. They described the importance of creating a research advisory panel which can be sustained throughout the process of a project, designing and developing an intervention. Such a panel needs to be made up of people who accurately represent the target population and whose voices are made equal to other experts through their design and payment or other reward, also allowing them to be involved over time. This should involve acknowledging both the diversity and commonality of people’s lived experience. Such processes offer an important challenge to decision-making and systems largely grounded in a rationalistic, technological approach to change.

New forms of organisation and leadership are needed to support and lead change

Other participants suggested change does not happen, not because of a lack of evidence base, but rather that organisational cultures do not have the necessary capacities to support change. They called on the Centre to turn its gaze to the cognition and perspective of the organisational actors that design and organise the system. Institutional structures often limit the group potential to do something differently, this part of the puzzle is often not visible to researchers. CUWb could offer a valuable source of research on how we support practical implementation and how we create the organisational cultures and leadership able to make change happen. 

Sufficient time is needed to develop small exemplar projects and to scale change

Interesting debates emerged around how to scale the ‘small gems’ which represent excellent examples of change. There is value in smaller projects where groups can experiment with new and innovative ways of working, but could research support understandings of how such micro interventions, which tend to be expensive per head of population, can be scaled?  One example offered was the use of sustainable transport in Dutch cities. There is a tendency to want to parachute examples like these into a UK context and expect them to be immediately successful at scale in a contrasting setting.  However transformation took forty years to become accepted and embedded in the Netherlands, we need to allow similar lengths of time to develop, research and expand projects over time.

Connectedness and relationships an important driver of wellbeing

Participants pointed out that connectedness and relationships are the second biggest drivers of individual wellbeing alongside context and a sense of place.  Understanding how wellbeing is shaped differently through, within and between communities in specific context is thus key to advancing research in specific places. Building the social infrastructures needed to support wellbeing is a long term project.

Supporting knowledge exchange and strategic thinking

Opportunities for cross-sector and transdisciplinary discussions which allow for new thinking to develop are rare. Yet policy makers, practitioners and academics are keen to share diverse perspectives and find common ground. Supporting the incremental innovation needed to shape interventions on the ground involves humility and common dialogue.  CUWb is laying the foundations for connecting, learning and finding new perspectives and insight into the urban wellbeing issues that we are all working on.

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