DIT is a project supported by the university, because the platform has promised it will result in impactful studies, which is voiced as a priority by the university. For now, the project is expected to run until the end of 2024, and eight academics representing various disciplines are involved. Furthermore, the project has its own project assistants and a designer in residence. The project (which includes the development of a new Master’s degree programme) will cost €4 million.
The platform claims to oppose the way in which academic research is generally conducted. What is that all about?
“In the social sciences, research projects often start with a description, in which researchers seek to formulate things as neutrally as possible, analyse data and formulate recommendations. Generally, they are inspired by social issues of which policy-makers wish to gain a better understanding or for which they wish to receive solutions.
When this method is used, academics often don’t penetrate into the essence of the issues, and researchers mistakenly believe that their suggestions for improvement will be easy to adapt to the situation at hand. But all too often these suggestions are ignored, because they are not in line with what the parties involved actually want.”
“In addition, the disciplines that are prominent at our university are largely based on the idea of monitoring, control and risk management. Take economics, business administration, law… In the past, knowledge gained from these disciplines formed the basis for growth and innovation, but it also came with severe social and ecological sustainability issues.”
Can you give us an example of this type of research?
“One example would be the study on the socio-economic problems of city dwellers. We know that many people are in problem debt and that the health inequalities between various groups of people living in cities are enormous. Instead of believing that we must ‘solve’ aspects of these inequalities, we must try to identify the fundamental factors that cause these problems to be persistent.
For instance, they may be related to the way in which municipal authorities impose fines and levies with retroactive effect, or to the way public space is designed, which doesn’t allow for healthy types of exercise, or where you’ll only find unhealthy food. Once you’ve identified these factors, you can start making sustainable changes.
“It’s not much use isolating these kinds of problems and analysing them in isolation. We must join hands to tackle the issues in a holistic manner. We can do so by experimenting with research projects in a systematic manner.”
So how do you do that?
“We believe that what it takes is support for a more designing, proactive and transition-oriented type of research. When it comes down to it, we know a lot about what needs to change, but we don’t know how to change until we actually start doing it.
In other words, we must work the other way round. Recommendations shouldn’t follow from a study. They should be the point of departure for studies. And then we can learn and change on the job. We call that transformative research.
Wasn’t the DRIFT research institute doing something like that already?
“The platform supports research projects, degree programmes and engagement in and on social issues. As far as research is concerned, we are seeking to establish a scientific basis for transformative and interdisciplinary work – which is to say, involving multiple disciplines. A method we previously developed at the DRIFT research institute.
In this method, we contemplate which ethical principles must be considered and which methods we can use, and we also contemplate how this type of research is to be conducted in actual practice. What is required in terms of collaboration, roles and competencies?
“In both our research projects and degree programmes, we actively collaborate with external parties. Our goal is to have a positive impact on social transitions – for instance, by performing a system analysis with people from the business community, identifying the forces that might cause change and then jointly experimenting with interviews and learning from this.”
Since research conducted in accordance with DIT principles constitutes applied research, is there no risk of the research projects becoming ‘research on demand’, where clients have a large say in the study results?
“This is exactly why we use DIT to establish a scientific basis and methods for this kind of research. The great thing is that if we do this well, researchers remain in charge, because it is they who decide the framework of a study and the conditions on which external parties are allowed to join in. So this won’t be a matter of: tell us what you want and we’ll get it for you. No, we are guided by the research question: why can’t we seem to solve this issue? People working for companies and municipal governments, too, really benefit from reflecting on their own performance, which will allow them to really learn things and change.”
The platform’s first specific step is to establish an interdisciplinary minor. The co-ordinator of that minor, ecologist Ana Vasques, told us that students taking the minor will be taught by lecturers representing several disciplines, and the focus will be on analysing and solving problems such as food waste and transport.