Are there any benefits to be derived from a regional network that would not readily emanate from a smaller institution-based or a wider global research network?
ICT4D Network Launch Group Photo (Credit to Felipe Gonzalez)
Colleagues from the Manchester Centre for Development Informatics (CDI) and the Sheffield Digital Technologies, Data and Innovation group (DDI) co-organised an inaugural workshop on the 23rd of June to launch such a regional network for ICT4D researchers in the north of England. Twenty-four participants, from six regional institutions[i], gathered in Manchester to share their research interests and build connections. Following this one day networking event, I have concluded that not all research networks are equal; unique benefits can be derived from a meso-level, regional research network. Here are my reasons :
Researchers in close geographical proximity can interact more frequently and benefit from the richer, in-person nature of meeting together. ICT4D researchers typically connect with colleagues globally through some of the mainstream conferences, such as ICTD and IFIP WG 9.4. Conferences, as network events, are useful to disseminate research to members and these events occasionally lead to research collaborations. However, close regional proximity allows for more frequent interactions with a wider range of activities, such as reading groups, workshops, training events, etc. Regional network interactions can take place with relatively little additional organisational burden compared to conferences.
ICT4D is a rather small field compared to other mainstream disciplines that focus on development (politics, sociology, economics, etc.). Home institution networks rarely reach double figures – only two of the participating institutions at our inaugural workshop have more than ten active ICT4D researchers. Such small groups lack critical mass and only bring together a small set of competencies that a researcher can draw on to augment their own work. This is a significant limitation at a time when calls for multi- and interdisciplinary research into ICT4D issues are more urgent than ever before; not the least of these wrung out from Geoff Walsham in his recent ICT4D research agenda-setting paper[ii]. A regional network, such as ours in Northern England, exponentially expands the potential for collaboration amongst scholars in close regional proximity.
It was tremendously interesting to hear (for the first time!) of the novel work done by researchers who live and work so near. Inspiring highlights that stood out for me were research projects on drones for development, ICT and mental health, and media for development. Synergies and complementarities were readily identified and sparked new conversations; just during this initial gathering, we saw a diversity of strong competence in healthcare, development, media, education and leadership, to name a few, that are not readily accessible at any one of the participating institutions.
Collaborative research can be very rewarding, but many of us can testify that not all research partnerships are equally enjoyable; it can be really difficult to build productive collaborations without a critical mass of people to choose from. A regional network can fill this gap, perhaps better than global networks. The reason is simple: a regional network provides frequent opportunities to interact with a range of scholars (closeness and competencies) to “test” the working chemistry with potential collaborators. This enables researchers to find collaborators that they would actually enjoy working with, instead of taking a shot in the dark with someone less familiar from a loosely-connected global network, or being limited to ICT4D colleagues from their own institution. We have already seen an appetite for such collaborations amongst workshop participants and look forward to see the research that emerges.
However, a regional network offers benefits beyond the 3Cs – Closeness, Competence, Chemistry – such as:
- Providing isolated researchers with a connection to an ICT4D community, enabling them to become more involved and research active;
- Enhanced responsiveness to research opportunities and funding calls that require stakeholder involvement beyond a single institution;
- PhD supervision collaboration and potential teaching interactions;
- Creating a point of connection to a network of active researchers for those that would want to bridge into ICT4D.
Turning a bit philosophical, from a social capital theory perspective we could conceptualise relationships with work colleagues at your own institution as “strong ties”, and those with colleagues in your global network as “weak ties”. Learning from Granovetter[iii] and Burt[iv], I would argue that we as ICT4D researchers would benefit from a balance of strong ties and weak ties. Disseminating research findings and gaining access to information about research opportunities often occur over a network of weak ties. However, collaborations leading to innovative and impactful ICT4D research are more likely to originate from strong ties. ICT4D research could benefit from regional networks, such as ours, to facilitate the development of more and stronger ties amongst active researchers. This proposition will be put to the test over the coming years.
How will our network function in order to realise these potential benefits? It is still early days, but so far it was decided that the network will be led, in the first instance, by a steering group comprising of representatives from all participating institutions. Our first objective will be to decide on a name and the second to create an online presence where members can engage and interested people can connect. Regular news bulletins will help maintain and enhance awareness of network activities. Local seminars, workshops, reading groups and other relevant events will be opened up to the network community and researchers will be supported in their endeavours to participate in cross-institutional activities. Finally, the network aims to host two network events per year: one general event that will bring everyone together and another aimed at the specific needs of ICT4D early career and doctoral researchers. So, stay tuned for all that’s to come!
Please contact Jaco Renken if you are in Northern England and would like to get connected.
[i] University of Manchester, University of Sheffield, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Salford, University of Bolton, and University of Central Lancashire. Representatives from Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Lancaster, and the University of Liverpool could not make it to the event, but are part of the network.
[ii] Walsham, G. (2017). ICT4D research: reflections on history and future agenda. Information Technology for Development, 23(1), 18-41.
[iii] Granovetter, M. (1983). The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. Sociological Theory, 1(1), 201-233.
[iv] Burt, R. S. (2000). The Network Structure of Social Capital. Research in Organizational Behavior, 22, 345–423.