In order to reach the SDGs, a societal transformation is necessary and all actors must be mobilized. We should encourage strengthening of the collaborations between researchers and civil society promoting societal contribution of research.
The 2030 Agenda adopted by the United Nations in September 2015 is a real project for the transformation of our economies and societies. To address this challenge, research and innovation need to be more effectively mobilized. Experimentations aiming to bring the world of research and society closer together are emerging and beginning to produce tangible impacts.
Increasing expectations towards research
Innovation is regarded as being essential to the transformations of human activities that will allow the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved. As we can no longer take a business as usual approach, but do not yet have the keys to do otherwise, there is a widespread call for innovation, both social and technical. Consequently, there are increasing expectations towards researchers: in addition to giving an understanding of phenomena, the research community is perceived as being able to provide new solutions. In this context, while it is important to reaffirm the need for basic research and to protect it from any imperative of being useful, there is also a pressing need to mobilize more research to come up with solutions. Indeed, it has to be recognized that faced with the complexity of phenomena and the magnitude of all kinds of risks, civil society, politicians, donors and private actors have real and increasing expectations. To address these expectations, we need to strengthen the societal contribution of research, an imperative that especially concerns the area of development, which has always been involved in fields facing a number of economic, social and environmental challenges.
Collaboration, diversity and pooling: essential tools for research
It is neither incompatible nor futile to seek to combine high-quality research and contributions to solutions in the field. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Researchers can contribute to coming up with solutions, even if this is not their only role. Better still, they must do so, as the clock is ticking, and this involves closer cooperation with field actors: in this collaboration process, each actor focuses on their main strength and the entire ecosystem benefits from this. IRD (Research Institute for Development) has been innovating with field actors for a long time and considers this collaboration to be essential.
Plumpy’Nut is an emblematic example: in 1998, a nutritional peanut-based paste was developed following the joint research of IRD and the company Nutriset. This resulted in Plumpy’Nut, a product which in 2016 alone treated 2 million children suffering from acute malnutrition. This example shows the concrete and direct contribution that research can make to development, when it partners with an enterprise which has a social impact.
In view of the urgency, it is time to revitalize this sciences-society relation, which is far from being natural or straightforward. Indeed, researchers, when they respond to the requests of their community (evaluation through publications or patents registered and not through the societal impact of their research), are not sufficiently responsive to needs or in search of solutions. Research and society are too far apart, which alternately generates a blind trust and complete mistrust with regard to researchers. A different form of intentionally cooperative relationship is now necessary: it involves jointly building solutions between committed actors, citizens and researchers. The innovation which will really be conducive to (human) progress will come about through bringing together actors who are dissimilar, but complementary. For this coming together to be fruitful, new forms of work, meetings and collaboration are required.
Innovation Campuses for the Planet: Centers of innovation for the common good
In view of these considerations, in 2016, IRD reoriented its research development policy with the aim of strengthening the societal impact. It implements it, for example, via its Innovation Campuses for the Planet. The objective of the campuses: have innovative places and tools that facilitate meetings and experimentations between researchers, social entrepreneurs, NGO representatives and other field actors. The Bondy Campus is the spearhead of this policy and was joined in 2017 by partner campuses located in Dakar and Ouagadougou (the latter benefits from financing from the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs – MEAE). After a year of activity, the results are conclusive: this type of place can rapidly promote the emergence of concrete solutions. For example, in the context of the “The Future of Water” encounters, the collaborative research programs created by the social enterprise SoScience, a partner of the Innovation Campuses, Abdou Maman (founder of the Nigerian social enterprise Tech-Innov) and Geoffroy Lesage (lecturer and researcher at the University of Montpellier) decided to work together. They collaborate in order to demonstrate the feasibility of low-cost and energy-saving decentralized wastewater treatment systems for the health security of small, poorly served rural communities in Sahelian countries. They are currently working on integrating a gravity-driven membrane treatment developed by Geoffroy Lesage into technologies used in the field by Tech-Innov. This is an excellent example of a research partnership between a laboratory and a social enterprise!
The academic world, working for development and, more generally, the common good, needs to rethink its relations with field actors. The creation of Innovation Campuses for the Planet is an experimentation which proves that it is possible to obtain results in a short time-frame and, especially, that all actors desire these collaborations. Other research institutes, associations and enterprises now initiate actions for responsible innovation. The more numerous we are in implementing these new forms of jointly building solutions, the more we can hope to achieve the objectives of the 2030 Agenda in an inclusive and sustainable manner.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.