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Community engagement for impactful research: an island reflection

Wednesday 03 June 2020

Elsa Cox
Elsa Cox, RGU's Orkney Project Development Manager, based in Stromness, writes for the Press and Journal about engaging with a community for valuable research. Reflecting on RGU's experience in Orkney she identifies the type of support that research projects give places like Orkney and why it is important.

Orkney is a unique archipelago of islands, regularly ranked as one of the best places to live in the UK. But, its appeal is much greater than this. Orkney has an entrepreneurial and innovative culture which lends itself to testing new and varied ideas.

As an island group, it offers variety through its mix of towns, rural mainland areas and outer islands, each with differing demographics, service requirements and landscape. Orkney is also large enough for projects to lend scale to research proposals, yet small enough for those projects to be truly transformational.

It is now two years since the establishment of RGU Orkney, an innovative research hub with the goal of enhancing its reach and reputation and ultimately creating transformational research projects. Within this island landscape, community engagement has been at the heart of RGU’s approach embedding the university’s activities and ethos within local networks.

Setting up and running a satellite initiative requires a close working relationship with the local authority. It’s essential to be of benefit to the people of Orkney in order to succeed long term so aligning activities with specific local priorities is fundamental. There is already significant research activity in Orkney, particularly in the areas of renewable energy and the marine environment, so open dialogue ensures the creation of novel projects which are distinct or designed to support existing activity, rather than replicating it.

The island hub has succeeded in its approach to date, through being open and approachable so that anyone with an idea or a question can get in touch. Visibility is important and this has been greatly enhanced through moving to the new Orkney Research and Innovation Campus (ORIC) in Stromness. Building on Orkney’s reputation for innovation in renewable energy, the campus encourages more academics to build relationships with the islands while supporting the growth of new and existing businesses.

With a diverse approach to community engagement, a wide range of audiences have influenced recent and planned projects, ensuring relevance locally. Engagement should not be tokenistic and should encourage discussion and the sharing of knowledge and ideas for local benefit. This enhances understanding of specific challenges and opportunities, while encouraging the creation of research initiatives which are specific to stakeholder needs and realistic in both an island context and the funding landscape.

A workshop series developed in collaboration with local partners explored challenges as diverse as an ageing population, the increase in volume tourism, and island-scale circular economies, all within the Orcadian context. Taking academic expertise out to the community has seen the creation of tailored workshops in design thinking, DNA and forensics for schools and community groups. This proactive approach has opened up new experiences locally while highlighting potential careers.

Projects emerging in areas such as entrepreneurship, domestic energy efficiency and waste reprocessing exemplify the community approach in Orkney. Building research ideas together has facilitated stronger networks and the tailoring of interventions to provide improved outcomes. It has also led to a wider variety of projects at differing levels, from specific place-based opportunities to interdisciplinary projects with international collaborators exploring commonalities across the Northern region. Importantly this approach is also starting to generate funding. With objectives closely tied to local concerns and aspirations the potential for impact is clear.

Research activities in Orkney have expanded to include successful commercial and student initiatives over the last year. Actively promoting engagement that prioritises listening to collaborators and looking at means of adapting services for an island environment has greatly influenced the popularity of initiatives such as the Graduate Apprenticeship Programme. A work-based learning degree which allows businesses to upskill their teams and shape experience to match future objectives, it also expands higher education opportunities for those who want to remain in Orkney to study.

The impact of Covid-19 on Orkney’s economy and wider community is as yet not fully understood, but it will be significant. As part of a sector-wide response to ongoing challenges RGU will continue to work with local businesses and umbrella organisations to identify activity that will best serve the community and economy as the recovery phase begins.

Does every approach always work? No, but by being open to trying new things, ensuring flexibility and placing the local population at the heart of activities, valuable networks and relationships have been established as well as trust in our work as part of the community. Two years since the establishment of RGU Orkney we have seen a tide-change, from consistently going out to promote the university to being actively approached with new ideas, invited to participate in a wide range of initiatives and community groups, and as a potential source of support in overcoming local challenges. This is a really positive place to be and we look forward to working with our local partners to face whatever challenges the future brings.  

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