The RSA Trustees are keen that as well as our increasingly influential research and world beating online lecture offer, we aim to develop concrete innovations, our own equivalent of a website like Wikipedia, a resource like MySociety or a service like Southwark Circles of Care.
This is a big ask. Invention is a hit and miss (and miss again) business. But in our methods we are trying to make success more likely. Our research projects are focussed on working in communities to develop and test ideas, rather than writing pamphlets aimed at Government ministers. And the RSA Catalyst fund is giving Fellows encouragement to develop their own ideas and social enterprises.
The Trustees’ emphasis has encouraged me to keep an eye out for new ideas that could turn into viable products. Here is one I have hit on this week. I would really value readers’ feedback as to whether it is a new and good idea.
A few days ago a casual friend (we are united by our love of West Brom) emailed me. He is about to decide what should be the topic for the dissertation he is doing for his Public Service Management MA. ‘Do you have any ideas?‘ he asked. As it happens I did – something about the relationship between public policy and promoting elite, amateur and mass participation in selected sports and arts.
But this promoted a bigger idea. Every year tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of students have to undertake extended research projects for undergraduate or Masters degrees. A lot of those students are looking for good ideas and almost all of them would like a bit of cash and other support. At the same time lots of people would like to have access to some reasonably proficient research skills. This could be to help with any of the following tasks:
• Developing a business plan
• Exploring an idea for a book
• A local history project
• Writing a proposal for a project at work
• Developing a local social enterprise
• Scoping a longer research project
Imagine, for example, someone who wanted to get the community or Council to preserve a local building, or green space. How useful might it be to have a good quality research project providing the history of the site in question or surveying local people about their attitudes to it? The local activist gets some powerful information; the student gets a good topic and local contacts to help with the study. And it would surely be a bonus for any student to know there is at least one person (beyond their tutor) who is eagerly awaiting the outcome of their labours?
The relationship between sponsor and student might simply involve a shared fascination. For example, I would love to read a dissertation from a bright English graduate comparing Martin Amis' West London trilogy (Money, London Fields, The Information) with Philip Roth's 'American problem' trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain). I like the idea of having a bound copy of a dissertation I had helped to inspire and fund and with a dedication to me in the front.
So, this is the idea: a bidding and matching website in which people who would like research undertaken are matched up with students looking for topics, cash, an audience and other forms of support. As well as the basic matching service the site could also expand to include all sorts of useful advice on how to develop and structure a research project.
What do people think? If it holds water does anyone fancy working with the RSA to develop the idea?