Catalyst is a £1.9M project funded by the EPSRC which brings together academics from social science, computing, design and management science to carry out transformative research on the theme of citizen-led social innovation. Based at Lancaster University, Catalyst introduces radical multidisciplinary working practices through a series of short-term research intensive multidisciplinary investigations that each tackle a key sub-question related to citizen-led innovation.
Catalyst defines citizen-led (social) innovation as the bottom-up creation of community-driven solutions to major societal problems. Citizen-led innovation has been an active ingredient of societies for centuries. However, technological developments such as online social networks and mobile computing have made it easier than ever before to initiate and nurture it; these technologies permit ‘ridiculously easy group forming’ and have led to civic engagement on a scale and with an efficiency not seen before.
Catalyst addresses two core themes that will maximize the opportunities for citizens to transform society: understanding behaviour (what stimulates people to participate and why) and tools for change (what next-generation technologies best support how people want to innovate). Although social technologies have been extremely effective in promoting citizen-led activism, they were not designed specifically for it; it is natural, therefore, to ask what the next generation of tools should look like and to design those tools with the wants and needs of participatory citizens firmly in mind.
Research questions being explored by Catalyst
- What is the role of technology in stimulating citizens to get involved (or not) in grassroots, community driven social innovation?
- What is the vision of next-generation technologies designed explicitly with citizen-led innovation in mind?
- How can citizen innovations be effectively scaled up and diffused beyond the original communities in which they were developed?
- How do we best reflect upon the process of multidisciplinary practice itself?
Catalyst runs two types of projects: research sprints and launchpads.
The Catalyst project is organised around a series of ‘research sprints’, in which academic staff from different disciplines form ‘collaboratories’ to address the two core themes mentioned above. Research sprints receive financial, human and technological resources for communities and academic researchers to work together for six to nine months on community-driven problems. Communities and academics involved in research sprints are able to draw on three post-doctoral researchers, the input from academics from a range of disciplines (computing, environmental science, design, management, social science) as well as equipment and resources for expenses.
Each sprint team formulates and implements a detailed plan of activities which includes:
- significant contributions to one or more of the key research themes of the proposal,
- immersion in each other’s research activities,
- continuous working with partner communities.
Each team is led by an academic at Lancaster University, with further mentoring as appropriate from the project PI and/or designated individuals.
Launchpads are similar to sprints but are typically smaller in size and/or more speculative. In a Launchpad some of the resources of Catalyst can be made available in a shorter time frame to help community groups find out how the sorts of problems they are facing might be helped through digital technology. It is hoped that Launchpads will work as a pilot for ideas that then lead to new activities involving digital technology – they may also lead to a bid for a Research Sprint.