Opening up the Black Box of Research-Practice Partnerships
Immediately following the 2016 EcoDistrict Summit in Denver, Colorado, EcoDistricts held a Research Forum shoulder event hosted at University of Denver (DU). The day was themed around the idea of “City as Lab”. The objective was to advance a comprehensive research agenda for urban redevelopment at the neighbourhood scale, a challenge which in turn demands that those engaged build a foundation for cross-sectoral academic-practitioner research partnerships across a host of disciplines and sectors of work. Going in to the event, few would be against the idea of partnership – indeed, as discussed in blog posts one and two of this series, the EcoDistricts agenda is all about collaboration. The starting point for our contribution to the workshop was that partnerships, functional and effective ones, are easier said than done.
This was the basis for the workshop we offered, called “Opening up the Black Box of Research-Practice Partnerships.” Ecourbanism researcher Dr. Meg Holden and research assistant Daniel Sturgeon, joined by Perkins and Will Senior Sustainability Advisor Rebecca Holt, University of Tokyo Associate Professor Dr. Akito Murayama and facilitator Peter Whitelaw from planning and design firm MODUS, hosted this interactive session. Digging into the box, our session began to unpack the murky who, what, when, where and why questions that need to be aired, discussed, and settled by would be partners to a long-term initiative to increase the sustainability of the built environment.
The terms ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnership’ tend to be used interchangeably in contexts like this – and without a great deal of specificity. This has consequences for both project work and the experience of the partnership – consider the consequences of undisclosed expectations, varying project deadlines, and different understandings of the full project scope. Collaboration itself is but a description– a noun– not a means of operating. The same can be said for partnerships. The fact that they both carry lofty expectations in the terrain of urban sustainable development adds to the challenge.
What is collaboration? Amabile et al (2001), offer that it is:
“the coming together of diverse interests and people to achieve a common purpose via interactions, information sharing, and coordination of activities” 
What do research partnerships look like? How are they executed in practice? There is no shortage of characterizations. Take for example this slide from our presentation. The orange clouds represent types of partnerships and the blue clouds, components of partnerships:
We can see that the multiple meanings and components can be confusing, if not detrimental, if the parties involved have different ideas of what ‘type’ of partnership is being engaged in, and how it is expected to play out. We may be speaking the same language but in different vernaculars.
Providing context, Rebecca Holt discussed the challenge and opportunity of research partnerships from the point of view Perkins + Will’s Research Lab. Bucking the trend of proprietary private sector research, P+W invites collaboration with universities, the public sector, and non-profit groups. Speaking about a recent research partnership with the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia on a project titled Regenerative Neighbourhoods, Rebecca emphasized that a degree of flexibility is required in order to accommodate such partnerships to mutual advantage. A lesson learned from this one was to use the capacity of practice to explore mutually beneficial – but specified and limited – research questions. This partnership allowed P+W to reach beyond its typical scope.
Dr. Akito Murayama discussed a research project that partnered with a local community organization in the Nishiki 2 District in Nagoya City, Japan, which aims to become a Model Low Carbon District in an existing urban area with numerous stakeholders. Dr. Murayama discussed the importance of communication, in multiple contexts: to effectively convey information to non-expert community members; to build trust; and to respect the boundaries between being a researcher and not a participating community member. He also discussed the need of “silo-busting” within academia and university departments in order to work effectively with community members. Lastly, Dr. Murayama emphasized the need to match community and research objectives; making clear what researchers can – and cannot – do.
These experiences reinforce what we know from the academic literature on research-practitioner partnerships: linkages between research and practitioner communities are weak, challenged by power differentials, different best practices, priorities, timelines, perspectives and needs, varying capacity to contribute, the framing of relevant research questions, challenges related to scope, alongside a general lack of experience in collaboration itself. The knowledge generated in our session, described below in rather raw fashion in each of the session’s five themes for discussion, elaborated upon these concerns in the experience of our presenters.
- Who: What makes a match? How do we construct a relationship framework, including roles across sectors? Project leaders need to be informed about who should be involved at the outset. Structure should be provided for the relationship, including support networks, ensuring inclusivity and the right to attend in the context of local involvement.
- What keeps us honest? Topics of transparency, privacy, and property. Projects need a contracted scope, alongside a mutual understanding of relationship management and a process of revisiting or ‘recalibrating’, placing strong emphasis on open communication both good and bad. It was suggested that discussing the potential break-down points and negative consequences of the research or the relationship are also necessary.
- When should we get involved? At what point during the research should the relationship begin or end, and what kind of pacing should be considered? When the goals of the research align, the trouble may be finding the right partnerships at the right time. Participant fatique was also listed as a concern, as was differing expectations for levels of involvement.
- Why? What’s in it for me? Participants talked about the challenge of framing mutual benefits; the dichotomy between the ‘needs’ of the community and the theoretical basis and framing for academic outputs. Trusting that there will be benefits (in the context of the other themes here) is necessary. To engage with the community on research, the community needs to define the problem. Researchers can help define the problem.
- How? What keeps us ethical? University ethics protocols set limits to research for the protection of research participants, adding both rigor to the research and protection to researchers. Equity is of paramount concern, with emphasis on the importance of “neutral” funding sources and ensuring diversity amongst researchers. Risk mitigation and negative externality assessment should be considered.
None of us questioned the starting point of this workshop: that collaboration is a ‘good’ thing. As a consequence, we did not explicitly address the benefits of partnerships with one another. But these are also worth keeping in mind and re-articulating throughout a long engagement:
- The bulk of the results of effective research-practice partnerships do not show up explicitly in the built environment. Instead, they reside in the social learning that occurs for partners along the way. The ongoing effects of this learning journey should best be considered separately from the instrumental benefits of the partnership to the redevelopment project itself.
- Knowledge mobilized during a partnership initiative flows in more than one direction. These flows as well as the information itself have values we can only begin to account for.
- Processes of reflection, far from sucking time and delaying innovation, can foster
- When a partnership succeeds in arriving at a common understanding of a problem in an urban neighbourhood redevelopment and a common agenda to address it, research results can inform decision making for research and practice alike.
The Ecourbanism Worldwide project hinges upon the establishment of many future-oriented research-practice partnerships. This is the only realistic possibility for gaining insight into the process and outcomes of new sustainable neighbourhoods. These preliminary findings will be rolled into future outputs and we intend to take this new insight along with these work-in-progress guidelines, and apply it to our own future work. As one of our insightful participants pointed out, these partnerships are ultimately between humans, where in order to create an opening and realize a mutual opportunity, interdependence needs to be fostered.
A special thank you to all the participants in this session and especially to our presenters Rebecca, Akito, and Peter.
~ Daniel Sturgeon and Dr. Meg Holden
 Amabile, T., Patterson, C., Mueller, J., Wojcik, T., Odomirok, P., Marsh, M., & Kramer, S. (2001). Academic-Practitioner Collaboration in Management Research: A Case of Cross-Profession Collaboration. The Academy of Management Journal, 44(2), 418-431. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3069464
 Miller, D. E., Hintz, R. A. and Couch, C. J. (1975), The Elements and Structure of Openings. Sociological Quarterly, 16: 479–499. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1975.tb00964.x