A campire has been a beacon for human life for centuries and may provide the ideal analogy and literal tool to engaging people in creating new things. The opportunities for it to shape our thinking and actions is enormous.
The campfire is a place where we go for warmth, intimacy, safety, light, food and inspiration. As camping season comes upon us in the Northern part of the Americas, it seems fitting to consider the ways that the campfire might be used to stoke the sparks of imagination and flames of passion (pun firmly intended).
Metaphors and analogies are commonly used in systems thinking and complexity science to illustrate concepts that are, on their own, relatively complex and awkward to describe literally. A campfire provides both a metaphor for bringing people together, but also a literal tool that could be used more effectively in work with groups struggling to innovate, collaborate and contemplate together. From a design perspective, campfires and the social system that they create around them provide an opportunity to enhance intimacy quickly, allowing for the potential to explore issues in ways that are more difficult to do in other settings.
Consider some of the following properties of the campfire.
Lighting has been found to have a strong environmental effect on many behaviours and moods, and the type of inconsistent light that is thrown by a campfire is similar to that which induces relaxation and intimacy (PDF).
It can be argued that storytelling has been our most powerful vehicle for sharing what we know throughout human history. Research on narrative effectiveness has found that emulating the environments created by a campfire (PDF), the close-in, small-group, open dialogue sharing kinds of spaces, leads to more effective communication in business contexts.
The sensory richness of a campfire — the smell of wood and smoke, the crackle, the sight of sparks and flame, the feeling of heat — all create an environment that differs from much of what we are used to, provoking psychophysiological stimulation that has been associated with learning outcomes. Research linking environmental design and architecture has explored the phenomenon of sensory richness and how modern designed environments reduce this and (potentially) limit learning. (See program example here).
Another quality of a campfire is that it creates space for meditative inquiry. Anthropologists and psychologists have speculated that it was the campfire and the meditative rituals that it created that led modern humans to separate from Neanderthals. The focus on something like a fire draws attention away from the chaos of the world and channels into a circle that is generated through the campfire.
One of the benefits of a campfire is the circle that it creates. Leadership scholar Meg Wheatley, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea reflected on their use of the circle and how it has been used historically as a means of creating a common space where participants are on more equal footing with one another as a means of leadership promotion. In a circle, everyone can (usually) see everyone else and no position is held as more important than others, which privileges all participants and not just some.
Lastly, the campfire creates not just internal peace, but social intimacy as well. Indeed,modern social media has been compared to the campfire (PDF) in its ability to potentially replicate the focused, shared space that a campfire occupied for much of human life. For the reasons listed above, the social media effect is likely limited, but nonetheless the metaphor may partly hold in light of a lack of alternatives.
In practice, lighting a chord of wood in the middle of an urban setting might be problematic, but it is worth considering for those of us looking to create those social spaces where people can gather. Taking a break and leaving town might be worth doing as well. Failing that, what are the campfire-like spaces that we can create with what we have.
Designers, health promoters or anyone seeking to bring together ideas while working in complex spaces may wish to give this more thought — or meditate on it, which might (as it has done before) spark a new evolutionary shift attributed to the campfire.
Spend some time engaging with the service industry reveals a stark gap between what they do to deliver a product that satisfies and what research does and maybe there are lessons to learned for those of us in the scientific world.
Spending time sampling wine and exotic locally produced, handcrafted foods, beyond being enjoyable, also raises awareness of the craftsmanship that goes into a good drink or meal. From the way a food is grown or raised, prepared, delivered and consumed, it is hard not to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into making that meal a good one. Add in the restaurant, its ambiance, design, and the people there to serve the food to you and soon you are prepared to say “thanks” before every meal whether you are religious or not.
Sitting at a table looking at all that was around me, I couldn’t help but notice the finer details of my experience and wonder about why we have no equivalent in research. Whether it was the texture of the linen table cloth, the arrangement of flowers on the table across from me, the blown-glass lantern and flickering light it produced on my table, to the smell of the food, its temperature, its presentation and, of course, the taste. What about the cadence of the service? How about the way that the server introduced the menu and commented on the options for pairing a wine with each course? Restauranteurs create experiences and products and work to make sure that they are matched to what I want and how I want it now.
In research, we spend at least as much time thinking about how to produce a product that is worthwhile as farmers, ranchers, and vintners do, yet once created we do comparatively little to further develop a worthwhile experience for our end user — if we think about them at all. When was the last time a researcher — or knowledge producer (it could be a clinican sharing their knowledge — helped you to gain a deep appreciation of what they had to offer by working with where you were and what you kind of experience you were looking for?
I can say confidently that this has never happened to me. And why shouldn’t it have? Or better yet: why haven’t I done it for my audiences?
Anticipating some answers that others might give, I offer a back and forth / Q & A:
1. Position: That is not a researcher’s job. We are trained to do research, not sell ideas.
Response: Times change. I can’t think of another role, job or position that doesn’t have to adapt to changing times and where there is no accountability for the outcomes of that job to someone else. I am not suggesting that a researcher, particularly those doing more basic/foundational research, will, can or should know the myriad possible applications of that research, but the idea that they ought not have thought of some possible, eventual application is problematic. I have heard time and again that such applied thinking undermines discovery, but there is no evidence that this is the case, nor does it seem reasonable when those who pay the bills are the public. Even a discovery that makes it easier to make further discoveries is an application of translational thinking and it is time to change.
2. Position: Others don’t understand my research; it’s too complicated to explain.
Response: Any service organization that is unable to explain its purpose goes out of business. There are a lot of ideas that seemed complicated at first, but became easier to grasp once those offering such services reached out. Investing and mutual funds are two examples of complicated business models that have gained widespread purchase. Nearly every concept can be broken into pieces that can be understood by someone else. For a great example, look at the Academic Minute program on WAMC Radio where academics take one minute to share their research with the world. It can be done.
3. Position: The time I spend selling my ideas takes away from generating knowledge. I will be far less effective if I have to do one more thing.
Response: This might be true, but that is only if a researcher does all her or his own knowledge translation and communication. The service industry uses many models. Great chefs aren’t always out on the street wearing a sandwich board trying to convince you to eat at their restaurant, or romancing a dish at your table, there are specific roles that do that. But a great chef is always prepared to play that role if needed and at many great restaurants, the manager or chef surveys what is going on in the front and back of the house to make sure things are going well. In research, we don’t do this much at all. We produce knowledge and maybe share it with other producers, spending little time with other audiences and even less wondering whether we produced the right kind of research for the. There are some models that are promising, like the knowledge broker , who can play the role of the sommelier for research , but like restaurants that have a role like this for wine, they only work when the system is in place to use those talents well. The analogy here is that there needs to be the right stock of research, the right options for using it, and a mechanism to connect the knowledge broker to the audience.
4. Position: Selling research cheapens it and makes it like a commodity and it is so much more than that.
Response: If you don’t think that there isn’t some commodification of knowledge, then maybe you need to consider what is happening to academia and the trends in research, education and publishing. Louis Menand‘s great historical review of the North American university views the battle for ideas as a marketplace shows that this isn’t even a new phenomenon, rather its just looking different than it did before. He has gone further to discuss the problem with PhD’s, echoing recent work published in the Economist on the disposable academic, pointing to the commodification and professionalization of academia. Researchers may like to imagine that their ideas and work are pure, but the reason we get funding is that someone is interested in what we do for reasons that go beyond reason and science and into passion and some acknowledgement that something will be better because we ask the question. Yes, knowledge is greater than just its application, but we must acknowledge than we compete for attention and that when people pay attention to what we do, we have greater impact than if they don’t.
5. Position: There is no support for this kind of selling of research.
Response: Have you looked at the Internet? Walked into a bookstore? Perhaps turned on the TV? There is research being used all the time. Do the major grant councils pay for this? Not always. But times change (see point #1). The idea that knowledge translation should be funded by grantors is new in itself and will evolve. We need to evolve with it and, if it is not supported, do it anyway. Tweet, blog, share. There is too much information available out there to not be active in its promotion or use, otherwise our intended audiences will choose to use something else.
Restauranteurs know this. They know that no matter how good they are, there are hungry (literally!) customers and competitors who will walk down the street to another place. A Michelin star or Zagat rating this year doesn’t mean that you’ll be successful next year.
Take a moment and envision what research could look like if we handcrafted it to meet the needs of our audience, still taking the time to create art like great chefs, warm our day like a host, and treat us like royalty like a great server. What might that look like and why should we not take some queues from the diners we visit and the restaurants we visit as models for a tasty future for knowledge generation and translation.
I’ve been reminded a lot over the past few days about the limits to email’s power and the social distance created by electronic tools. Email, even for the most careful writer, is fraught with difficulties in communicating issues of a sensitive manner or being emotive. Outside of the most simplest forms of expression, like rage or extreme joy (think: OMG!!!!!!!), there is so little opportunity to truly convey emotion or context without going into a long story.
I find it hard to convey emotions like frustration while not appearing to be angry, love (or affection and admiration) without looking trite, and confusion without seeming to be clueless. These are all complex emotions, ones that are better conveyed through a glance, a hug, or a sigh than they ever are by printed words. And yet, we expect to achieve strong, effective communication through email all the time.
Skype or iChat, both visual media, are better, but even then it is difficult to get the warmth (or cold) from another person at a distance. I’m reminded of the work of W. Brad Johnson and Charles Ridley and their book ‘The Elements of Mentoring’ where they synthesize the vast field of mentorship and conclude that face-to-face time is critical for effective mentorship. They also observe that apprenticeship, the highest form of learning, is done through collaboration — that is, co-labour. Working together, alongside one another, is what counts. This can’t be done remotely.
I’ve been very productive with groups of people whom I’ve never met, or seen sparingly. I’ve published articles, written grants, and created entire curricula without ever being in the same room with my collaborators. But in each of these cases, while there was a product created, there was no advancement of the relationship to sustain the benefit of that product to the world. The paper was created, it was now dead. Whereas those times I did the same thing working with someone, really working with them, the products were taken in many directions I couldn’t have anticipated. This is the goal of knowledge translation: to get knowledge into practice.
So if this is true, could it be that the fundamental core of any KT plan is to get people together and find ways for them to protect interaction time? Is it possible that our efforts at creating better dissemination strategies using distance tools is not the best use of our time?
I recently was awarded a grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), the leading funder of health research in Canada. This was one of those hard fought, peer-reviewed grants that provide the fuel for the engine of research (and look good on a CV to boot). I’ve been fortunate to have had funding from them before, but unlike the other times I’ve received a letter from them (or another funder) this time I received something extra: a pamphlet called “Communicating the Value of Health Research” .
The pamphlet provides a short outline of how as scientists we can better share what we do with not just the usual places (peer-review journals, academic presentations), but also the wider world. It fell short of advocating for science blogging, or posting results on Twitter, but went beyond the usual to discuss ways in which scientists can better explain what they do the public and why that is a good idea in the first place.
In any other venue this might not be so strange, but for CIHR — or rather, academic health research more generally — this was something of a surprise. One of the biggest problems we face as researchers is that there is an air of mystery about what we do to the public and frankly, I think most researchers are content with that. Much of what we do is unknown to the rest of the world for very good reason: we are the one’s who invented the very thing we are studying. This is pretty handy when that invention is something that has the potential to change people’s lives for the better, but much less so when that ‘thing’ is a new way of expressing something we’ve done over and over again or something that has no obvious benefit, but might a long way down the road. Sure, we like the attention that comes when people actually use our work for something, but the prevailing idea for most of the 20th century held that the work had its own merits and therefore should be valued by the public because of it.
The dawn of the era of knowledge translation; active promotion of research and consideration for how it is presented, potentially used, and the role of the audience, participants and intended beneficiaries of research outputs is here. And CIHR is determined to ensure that we researchers promote what we do, hence the little pamphlet I received with my acceptance letter.
The concept of the socially active researcher promoting his or her research without the filter of peer review is something that scares a lot of people. Those fears are not unfounded. There is a lot of research that is not well-grounded, potentially confusing, and overtly misleading, incomplete or inaccurate. Gunther Eysenbach has pointed to some of these glaring problems in his discussion of the concept of infodemiology.
Yet, the idea of the researcher as a stand-alone generator of knowledge is outdated. It implies a system of knowledge generation that is divorced completely from its effects, which flies in the face of what we know about innovation and applied research. This is not to argue that there is no place for the “pure” scientist, focused exclusively on research, but that is only one role within a larger spectrum that ought to reflect a diversity of mixes of research and application. On the other end should be those who’s role is to exclusively translate knowledge into action, much like the Canadian Health Services Foundation’s concept of the knowledge broker (PDF).
Regardless of the position taken in this spectrum, I believe that we researchers all need to take some responsibility of arguing for reasons to do research, communicating to the world about its value (and demonstrating this), and ensuring that its application and funding is done responsibility. Otherwise, we leave its fate to a public unaware and constantly bombarded by other messages touting the value of other activities, both beneficial and banal. It is because other groups have been so good at communicating their message that science and research has been so hard hit. Last year, the federal budget for research was cut. This year, the increase barely (if at all) kept pace with inflation.
In both cases, the public outcry was non-existent. The reason, I believe, is that the public has little idea about what science means for them, why it is worth investing in, and what it would mean if it disappeared. It’s also because we researchers, programmers, and policy makers have done (collectively) a lousy job of translating what we know into what we do. As a researcher, I need to take responsibility for the part of the equation that falls within my sphere of influence and that means communication.
My message to my scientific colleagues is this: if research and its value is important to you, read the pamphlet and take action. Communication is the future of our profession.