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Three shifts in thinking that will enable a healthier impact culture to emerge around you

Dr Lauren Rickards and colleagues, in their 2020 publication Research Impact as Ethos, suggested that there are three generations of impact culture, and I think that most of us are stuck in first- or second-generation cultures. Building on Dr Rickards’ definition, I would describe these as follows:

  1. First-generation impact culture focuses on making rigorous research more relevant and accessible, promoting messages from research to a wide audience and encouraging end users to use it. As a result, first-generation approaches focus primarily on communication, equipping their most senior researchers to work with the mass media or social media to get their message across to as many people as possible. They also tend to focus on tackling visible impact challenges, such as the creation of new medical treatments or drugs.

  2. Second-generation impact culture is more two-way. It shifts the focus to working with partners to ensure research is both relevant and legitimate, and quantifies the value generated for these partners. For example, the “triple helix” model of the university has been extended to a quintuple helix model in which the activities of universities are conceptualised as intrinsically intertwined with those of business, government, civic society and the environment. Second-generation approaches focus on improving research impact literacy across the institution and equipping researchers at all career stages with the skills they need to understand and meet needs among stakeholders and publics. They are as likely to focus on more conceptual impact challenges as they are to tackle visible challenges, for example shifting behaviours or other causes of the symptoms for which others are creating drugs.

  3. Third-generation impact culture seeks to examine, and where necessary question, the assumptions driving the systems that both generate and apply knowledge, asking who generates what knowledge for whom, for what purpose and why. Third-generation impact culture doesn’t assume that universities are even necessary to generate the knowledge or impact that society needs. As a result, third-generation cultures are open to systemic innovations in the way researchers work, creating safe spaces in which researchers and partners can try out new ideas without fear of failure, and providing the support to refine, adapt and mainstream the best ideas, even if these disrupt the current status quo. These cultures are more likely to tackle existential challenges, for example, tackling the cultural drivers of unhealthy behaviour or trying to transform the medical model that uses drugs to treat symptoms because it is cheaper in the short-term than funding social prescribing programmes or “lifestyle medicine” that attempts to tackle the causes of poor health.


I call this third generation “emergent impact culture”. Partly, this is because it emerges naturally from first- and second-generation approaches. A mature forest contains most of the same trees that formed an impenetrable thicket when the trees were younger, but the emergent properties of the thicket and the mature forest are very different. In the same way, cultures often move through phases, and the later phases encompass but build upon what came before. I am not suggesting we should abandon any attempt to tackle visible or conceptual challenges, and stop engaging the public with our research. However, if that is all we are doing, we may in some cases miss the deeper, more important opportunities to effect more lasting change.


The other reason I call this “emergent”, is because impact is an emergent property of this kind of culture. According to the definition I have proposed in this book, impact emerges at the intersection between clear individual and shared purpose, and rigorous, ethical and action-oriented research, when researchers engage with the needs of those beyond the academy. The task of the university, therefore, is to create the leadership and capacity that will give researchers the freedom to pursue their purpose, equip them to do their best research and inspire them to be curious and engage empathically with the needs and interests of those around them. We don’t need more top-down systems, structures and extrinsic incentives. We need to reconnect with the intrinsic motives of the researchers in our care and the publics and stakeholders we serve.

Impact as an emergent property of a complex system


An emergent property is something that arises from a system that cannot be seen in any of the individual components of that system; it is the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. If you plant two or three trees in your garden, you do not have a forest. Neither do you get a forest if you plant a thousand trees in a thousand different gardens, or if you plant them all in a straight line. Even if you plant an entire hillside with young saplings, when you climb to the top of that hill, you will still not be walking through a forest – yet. Only when you plant enough trees densely enough in a contiguous block and they grow to maturity, do you have that unique sense of entering a forest. There are over 100 published definitions of a forest, but you don’t need to know any of these to know that you have entered a system in which those thousands of individual trees have together created a property that no individual tree possesses. That “forestness” is something you can measure scientifically, for example by studying the species of plants and animals that only exist in that forest habitat. A forest can create its own microclimate, and a large enough forest can influence the weather itself. You can also sense that “forestness” as you feel the crunch of leaf litter and twigs under your feet, smell the leaf mould and pine resin, and hear the sound of birds layered deep into the interior of the forest, far beyond sight.


You can also sense that “forestness” in deeper ways, the same way indigenous people across cultures and times have nurtured and protected sacred groves. It is no co-incidence that you get a similar feeling when you walk into a cathedral. The pillars leading up to lattice structures on cathedral rooves were modelled on (and sometimes built upon the locations of) sacred groves, but taken to new heights in stone, to create an exaggerated sense of that same wonder. That sense of awe arises in part from the knowledge that the lifecycle of the tree is far beyond ours, and the life of the forest will go on far beyond the life of any individual tree just as it stretches back in time beyond the memory of our own lineage. That is why, for me at least, spending time in an ancient woodland has a special “rooting” quality about it. Like spending time with a wise grandparent, learning from their sense of perspective and experience that stretches far beyond your own short life, you are humbled by a sense of your own fleeting unimportance as you stand next to the ancientness of your towering companions. So often, as I return from walking in the forest behind my house in rural Aberdeenshire, I feel like I am looking at the world with new eyes. There has been no cognitive process I have been able to detect, and yet, as I arrive back at my front door, there is a newfound sense of remembering my place and purpose in the world, no matter how deep the hurt may have been that drove me to seek the solitude of the forest.


The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each individual trauma and hurt can add up to more than just a hurting person who hurts others. The emergent properties of a life lived consciously, able to be present with both joy and pain, include generosity of spirit, gratitude and a nurturing humility that can build up others who are experiencing similar kinds of pain. It is this deep empathy, borne of vulnerability, that has made some of the world’s greatest leaders. It is this depth of self-awareness that we need at the heart of our interactions with others if we want to build a more compassionate culture around us all.


When you stop trying to control the outcomes of your research, and start following your innate sense of curiosity or excitement, impact is free to become enthralling, fun or just a natural extension of what you do. You need to ditch the “agenda” from the “impact agenda” and focus on your “why”. Why do you do what you do? What made you fall in love with what you do in the first place? What might help you remember why you love what you do again? Whether you throw yourself into blue-skies research in response to this question or you use your research to change the world, you will enrich your institution’s culture as you inspire others to fall in love with what they do, and you will strengthen at least one of the pillars of a healthy impact culture: the production of robust, ethical and action-oriented research. By authentically pursuing your purpose, you will have strengthened another of those pillars. And by building up and equipping those around you, you will have strengthened the third pillar. An institution that invests in empathic leadership and builds impact potential and capacity from the bottom up creates the conditions in which people can come to impact on their own terms. They don’t need an agenda to push them in the right direction. They are drawn to impact for their own unique reasons. And when you create a system like that, you can never predict what might one day emerge.

Three crucial shifts in thinking


If we want to move from first and second-generation impact cultures to third-generation, emergent impact cultures, we need to make three major shifts in our thinking. First, we need to move from counting the quantity of our outputs to weighing the quality of our research. It is important that we don’t assume that everyone has the same ethical grounding and capacity we expect, on the basis of their publications. For all we know, the most prolific researchers may in fact be those who have taken the most shortcuts. It is essential that we make no assumptions and ensure all new researchers who join us have a basic training in ethics, open research and evidence synthesis. The University may also have a role to play in creating spaces where people from different disciplines can have creative collisions, but as I described earlier, contriving this via sandpits and other highly structured activities is a bit like sending people on a blind date on the basis of their CVs. Some blind dates work out well, but the majority are just awkward.


Second, we need to move from ignoring and compounding, to tackling the deep causes of demotivation. In so doing, our goal is to move our colleagues from being disengaged and stressed, to feeling engaged and inspired. We need to create the head-room and academic freedom for people find and be themselves. And where necessary, we need to provide support for colleagues to do this inner work. Occupational health is good at providing physical and psychological care when things have gone wrong, but we do little to prevent the disasters we can see slowly unfolding around us. For example, in the same way the business world provides fitness and wellbeing coaches to work with teams to enhance their physical and mental health pre-emptively, Universities could hire coaches to work with their staff, team by team, building emotional and physical resilience rather than just being there to pick up the pieces. I was recently asked to run training and provide just this support to a research group at University of Helsinki, and sub-contracted a specialist to help work with the group on a follow-up day of training and over the longer-term, on the psychological issues that arose from our work together. I was struck by the openness of the group to this deep work, but then realised that the group leader, Professor Christopher Raymond, was a model empathic leader. In fact, it was his mindful awareness of his colleagues feelings and concerns that was the driver behind him reaching out to me in the first place. If impact emerges from pursuing your priorities more authentically than ever before – what are the unique things you are here to do? If you are not doing these things, what can you do to overcome the barriers that are preventing you from doing your best work? If we can enable people to overcome these barriers and do the best work of their careers, some of this work will include impact. There will also be inspirational learning and teaching, and ground-breaking research. On the other hand, if you try and contrive impact through incentives, detailed plans and monitoring key performance indicators, the evidence lying all around us suggests you are more likely to crush spirits, and both impact and research will suffer.


Third and finally, if we want to move from first and second-generation impact cultures to third-generation, emergent impact cultures, we need to transform our view of the role that Universities play in society. We need to move from seeing the University and researchers as a knowledge generation machines, to recast ourselves as knowledge brokers and boundary organisations. We need to move from studying problems with objective distance, to researching solutions in collaboration with those who are looking for answers. This means we need to move from consultation and participation towards ways of engaging as equals with our colleagues outside the University, facilitating deliberation and co-production. To do this, we need to seek out and build social capital on purpose with those we might be able to help beyond the academy. We need to systematically connect researchers with issues and people that will inspire them to get interested in new questions that they can research together with the people who need answers. In doing so, we need to move beyond what most researchers call co-production to what I call “extreme co-production”. Like extreme sports, there is a lot more risk and unpredictability when you switch from punting to white water rafting, but if you want to shake up your culture, you might have to take a few risks.

'3 shifts in thinking table' - click to view complete text

These three shifts in thinking require a balance between inward-looking initiatives to strengthen academic and disciplinary networks and more outward-looking activities to build social capital with the non-academic community. They also require a balance between collective action and personal agency, based on the identity, values and purpose of the individual and the institution. I have visualised this as two-by-two matrix with two axes, which can be used to characterise four types of impact culture:

  • Corporate impact culture: A large number of research institutions are currently creating impact culture from the top-down through the creation of institutional impact strategies. Although these often have significant buy-in from key stakeholders, for example around the co-creation of boundary organisations, they tend to be capacity-oriented rather than goal-oriented and focus on institutional strategy. While the corporate approach can lead to social identification and belonging around impact for some, it may lead to disidentification and loss of autonomy for others whose identity, values and beliefs do not accord strongly with key institutional impact initiatives.

  • Research “and impact” culture: The other common approach relegates impact to an afterthought in an institutional research strategy, either as a rationale or justification for research, or as an end (or by)-product of research, with limited development of specific impact goals or capacity, which tends to be aspirational, with limited active engagement or input from stakeholders. This can still result in social identification and belonging around research as a priority within the institution, but is unlikely to facilitate communities of practice around impact.

  • Individualistic impact culture: By empowering researchers to take their own approach to impact, it is possible to build individual autonomy, confidence and intellectual freedom with limited need for institutional co-ordination. However, impacts are likely to arise as a secondary consideration from research, in consultative rather than collaborative or co-productive mode with stakeholders.

  • Co-productive impact culture: This approach also fosters individual autonomy, confidence and intellectual freedom and requires limited institutional co-ordination, but specific impact goals are co-produced through active relationship and dialogue with stakeholders as a primary consideration in research.


Rather than viewing impact culture as developing through a sequence of stages, as suggested in the idea of first, second and third generation impact cultures, any one of the four types of impact culture above may characterise different organisational units or groupings of researchers within the same institution at the same time. For example, it is possible for an individual research group or Centre to have a strong individualistic or co-productive impact culture within an institution that promotes a corporate or research “and impact” culture which dominates other groups within the same institution. Impact culture may shift over time between any of the four types, depending on the extent to which groups within the organisation focus on building social capital with academic versus non-academic networks and promote individual agency versus collective action.

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