Published on 7 April 2020
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Knowledge exchange in an age of disruption

Owen Garling comments on how the current global disruption has effected knowledge exchange across the University of Cambridge.

Back in the distant past of 2019, I saw a job advert for the role of Knowledge Exchange Facilitator at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. That looks interesting, I thought. Maybe I can learn something about the policy-making process whilst also having an opportunity to see what happens behind the scenes at the University of Cambridge. It also felt like a particularly dynamic time with all the comings and goings of a hung parliament and the Brexit negotiations. My work at the County Council had given me a feel for the dynamics of working in a complex and ever-changing environment. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to develop this viewpoint.

Jump forward to January 2020. I started at the Bennett Institute in the middle of the month. Just before Christmas, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives had won a historic victory in the general election. The Brexit Withdrawal agreement was passed four days after I started and discussions around Brexit were moving forwards. This created space for the focus to shift to some of the policy promises made in the tory manifesto, such as levelling up. Interesting times, I thought. Working at a county-level had given me an appetite to use concepts such as place to help transform how we worked. Perhaps ‘levelling up’ would represent our best chance as a country to really engage with issues of inequality, productivity and wellbeing. I looked forward to the opportunity to work across the boundaries of academia, national and local government. It felt like a good opportunity to bring together some thinking and doing in a practical way.

Jump forward to now. Like the rest of the country the Institute is in lockdown. We’re communicating by video conference, email and weekly e-newsletters. Our annual conference has been postponed. In the space of a few weeks it feels like the world has fundamentally changed. Amongst other things we’ve seen massive government intervention in the economy and society; communities adapting to supporting each other; and the acknowledgement of the importance of key workers in keeping us all going. Policymaking is no longer a remote thing that happens somewhere else and at a glacial pace. Instead there are daily live updates from members of the government supported and guided by members of the scientific community. Here we go again, I thought.

Across the university there is a network of Knowledge Exchange Facilitators. The urgency of the Coronavirus pandemic has (virtually) brought us together. I have spent the last couple of weeks sitting in the back row of various video calls listening in to the examples of practical work to support the mission to tackle the pandemic that have been happening across the university. From Homerton College re-branding itself as a PPE collection hub for the university, through to data modelling and the development of testing machines for COVID-19. In a recent meeting, one of my colleagues spoke of the ‘many flowers blooming at once’ approach of Cambridge. It certainly feels like a huge amount of energy is being devoted to an array of projects supported by ever-increasing networks of support. 

This made me think, where does the Bennett Institute fit in with all of this? Like lots of people, I thought how can I do my bit? After a couple of weeks of feeling inadequate, it struck me. I realized that we are in this for the long haul and that although people spoke about ‘getting back to normal’, there is no normal to get back to. Things have fundamentally changed, yet all the challenges that attracted me to the role and the Bennett Institute had not gone away. More than ever, the relationship between academia, the public sector and society felt vital. Issues of inequality and wellbeing would be colouring people’s experiences of the country’s response to the pandemic. With the economy on hold, questions of productivity take on a whole new light.

More than ever I’m looking forward to exploring public policy in an age of disruption with colleagues at the Bennett Institute and beyond. Seeing how our work on the Wealth Economy can start to shape a different understanding of the world around us. How our work on Townscapes and the Left-Behind across Europe help to explain the ways in which the social and economic impacts of Coronavirus play out across different geographies. How the work on the Digital State and data can harness and support the quiet digital revolution that has been taking place during the response to the pandemic. As Diane Coyle and Michael Kenny have set out, the work of the Bennett Institute will continue to evolve and change over time to help us both respond to and shape these turbulent times. This series of blogs will be one way in which we can engage the wider community as our thinking develops.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Owen Garling

Knowledge Transfer Facilitator

Owen Garling is the Bennett Institute’s Knowledge Transfer Facilitator and he provides an important conduit between our own researchers and policymakers in the UK and internationally. His work helps to...

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