Engage 2022 – Changing Universities…..an Edinburgh perspective

Following a two-year hiatus, the NCCPE’s Engage conference took place in Bristol in December 2022. Dawn Smith (Edinburgh Napier University) and Laura Wicks (Heriot-Watt University) travelled south to Bristol to join around 200 people who work in public engagement across the sector. It was invigorating to see colleagues in person once again and to pick up conversations about the changes we have seen since December 2019.

The theme of the conference was Changing Universities which has led us to question what changes have taken place, to whom, and how this has affected our practice in public engagement. It was inspiring to have the opportunity to reflect and consider how to recharge our batteries for the challenges ahead.

In the first plenary session, we heard about how the funders have pivoted towards a more community-centred, place-based approach. UKRI have recently launched both their high level strategy and public engagement strategy, which demonstrate they are moving towards a strategic and unified approach to engaging society. In addition to traditional dissemination, UKRI are championing a culture of authentic partnerships and sustainable collaborations, favouring relationships rather than discrete projects. Example projects discussed include The Ideas Fund, who have developed a framework of indicators of a healthy public engagement system, which will be useful for both universities and communities wanting to work together.

The ‘Alliance for Change’ session looked at the various formal networks which bring together universities with different sectors (arts organisations, business, civic partners) and encouraged us to consider how we might work more collaboratively to support engagement. The positivity in this session demonstrated the huge potential for working together for the benefit of society, and we will be looking to see how we can support these alliances in our universities back in Edinburgh.

In the final session, we enjoyed hearing from three speakers with their provocations about ‘Re-imagining the Future’ for public engagement. Cassie Robinson’s gave an account of the New Constellations project in Barrow, which called upon local residents to consider ‘What’s your boldest dream for Barrow?’ at the height of the autumn 2020 lockdown. The project made us consider how more analogue methods of engagement (billboards, bus stop posters, and setting up a phone line to capture people’s ideas) were still effective in this time of digital prevalence.

Stephen Hill reaffirmed Research England’s commitment to fairness and power-sharing with its funding, encouraging universities to ‘seize the agenda’, and we look forward to seeing how Scotland’s funding landscape pivots to address this. Nick Ishmael-Perkins from the International Science Council sparked discussions on alternate frames of reference, with examples of ‘story-listening’, rather than simply ‘story-telling’; framing the need for effective public engagement to be two-directional. We’re going to be thinking more about his reference to the Overton Window, and how this frames our perspectives of our practice.

Finally, a quote shared at the conference resonated deeply with the sector and sets the scene for a new frame of reference as we enter 2023:

“If we haven’t specified where we want to go, it is hard to set our compass, to muster enthusiasm, or to measure progress. But vision is not only missing almost entirely from policy discussions; it is missing from our culture. We talk easily and endlessly about our frustrations, doubts, and complaints, but we speak only rarely, and sometimes with embarrassment, about our dreams and values.”

“Envisioning a Sustainable World”, Feb 12, 1996

Donella Meadows