Research looked at what transformative social change means to people (jbdodane via Flickr)

It has been a year since I started leading an international network of researchers on a six-month seed-funded project* through the ISSC’s Transformations to Sustainability Programme. With a seed grant of €30,000, my role was to build and coordinate a network of multi-disciplinary researchers from four different parts of the world in designing a proposal for a €900,000 grant. Our aim in applying for this larger grant was to secure funding for a project which would explore the different needs for transformational social change through resource governance in the resource-rich countries of Angola, DR Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria.

I never really thought about the mark the seed grant project might make on me. Our concern was more about whether we would be successful in our application for the larger grant. Unfortunately, we did not succeed. However, looking back six months after the end of that “unsuccessful” application, I can say there has been one very critical advantage I gained from my involvement in the seed project. The project activities challenged my managerial, academic, networking, research, writing, organizational, internet media use and personal communication skills. Coordinating these activities stretched and expanded my knowledge, as well as my person-to-person and within-group skills.

We participated in the first of a series of annual Transformative Knowledge Workshops organized by the ISSC, organized two of our own workshops, built and managed a dedicated website for the duration of the project, published blogs, collected data in six countries across three continents and co-authored a paper submitted to the journal, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (COSUST), for publication in 2016.

Through all of this, we co-designed research. The key research questions investigated were:  What does transformative social change mean to the people in Angola, DR Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria? To what extent do prevailing natural resource governance frameworks shape the trajectories of transformative change? What are the drivers and who are the agents of transformation and resource governance? How can transformative social change be created in Angola, DR Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria? Activities involved included theming, theoretical and conceptual framing, co-creation of research question and objectives, co-creation of research methods, co-budgeting and co-production of the final research project proposal. This involved sharing knowledge among 17 researchers in 14 countries and four continents. Many of these activities were carried out during the active life of the project (six months). This makes the T2S project the most compact and intensive research and learning experience I have ever had.

As a group, we all gained much experience from the project. It exposed us to numerous aspects of research within a very short period. It was furthermore challenging to work with people from different language backgrounds, professions and cultures. These differences did slow down activities at different times during the project. They sometimes created conflicts in the implementation of activities, slowed down decision-making processes, impacted on the accuracy of outputs (due to loss of data in language translation) and put deadline pressures on us. So it was not all a smooth process.

However, anyone who has been involved in activities like this will agree that they constitute globally integrated project-based learning and experience.

In most cases our activities were co-produced and involved different persons at different stages of their research career. I have been in contact with most members of my T2S network since the end of the project, and I am still working with three of them on two different projects. Our discussions on their impressions and experiences from participating in the seed-grant project have been very positive.

“The project introduced me to networking with people in international research. I learned the art of networking with others from different countries, professions and areas of knowledge. It afforded me the chance to make independent decisions about my responsibilities. During that period I had a mentor and I learned from him,” said Zebad Alemayehu Mekuria, SNA & Associates consultancy, Ethiopia.

“I learned many skills from working in the project. It enhanced my communication, interaction, organization, grant writing and paper writing skills, to mention just a few… It enabled me to network with different people from various countries. Every discussion I had with them it was knowledge gained. Another key issue is that I learned the importance of transparency and accountability for every action or step taken,” said Peterina Sakaria, Ministry of Land and Resettlement, Namibia.

From my experience in coordinating the seed grant project, I came to conclude that there is no precise recipe for conducting social science research because society is always in a state of change. Transformational research should be about three things — innovative thinking, innovative thinking and innovative thinking. If the opportunity ever arose again, I would advise early career researchers to participate in such a “T2S seed grant challenge” for multifaceted project management exposure involving in-and-out-of-field grant proposal writing. For my colleagues and me, it was an invaluable research and networking experience – one I will always take with me wherever I go from here.

* The seed project was coordinated from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) under the Transformations to Sustainability Programme of the International Social Science Council (ISSC).