From sandpit to success: connecting problems and partners to drive social innovation

We are delighted to share the reflections of Dr Stephen Pihlaja, one of a number of academics at CREST member institutions who recently achieved success at the HEFCE Social Innovation Sandpit, a new knowledge exchange fund to address social issues designed in collaboration with the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE).Stephen Pihlaja

Stephen is a Senior Lecturer in Stylistics at Newman University and will lead the project ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’, a collaboration with Southampton Solent University, University of Brighton/Community University Partnership Programme, Liverpool John Moores University.

Sandpits are simple, in theory: bring together a mix of academics, practitioners, and mentors, give them a couple of days to talk and brainstorm, and then fund the projects that they are able to come up with. In practice, they are extremely intense events where participants work together and against each other, competing for funding in an extremely condensed period of time.

Following an application process, I was selected to attend the first ever HEFCE Sandpit on the theme of social innovation in January. There was a good mix of people from both the academy and community organisations, all looking to work together on social innovation projects.

The first day we spent our time with mentors and other participants talking about what motivated us and what we were interested in, although at this early stage there were no real conversations about actual projects. I went to bed in anticipation that something tangible would come together the following day.  

The second day started much like the first and by noon nothing concrete had happened in terms of putting a project together; I wondered how much was going on behind the scenes to steer and guide us towards that end goal. I came back from lunch and sat in on a conversation that didn’t seem to match what I was interested in and drifted over to someone I’d met the day before in one of the facilitated activities. We both talked a bit about our experience of the sandpit so far, and I asked her what she had originally had in mind when she came. And then we started talking.

Over the next two hours, we sketched out an idea on a flipboard sheet of paper, with people coming and going to contribute to the conversation. In the end there were four of us working on one project called ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’, a student partnership project aimed at getting students to talk about sexual violence using digital technology. At 6pm we pitched the project before the Sandpit attendees and then worked together to hammer out the details.

The following morning we finalised the budget and put in our paperwork at 10:50, ten minutes before the deadline, and less than 20 hours after we had started talking. I was shocked at how quickly it came together and how, when we were focused on the goal of completing the project, we were able to capture our ideas quickly and accurately.

Ten projects were pitched to the panel, including David Sweeney, Director of Research, Education and Knowledge Exchange for HEFCE. We had five minutes to pitch our idea, and then answer questions posed by the panel. And then it was done. We had lunch and waited, saying goodbye to the new friends we had made. Right before everyone left, we gathered to hear what had been funded. David Sweeney announced that the budget had been expanded to fund four projects, one of which was ours.*

In some ways, I feel extremely lucky: I fell into a group that ended up having the exact team members we needed, with each of us offering a different expertise to the project. At the same time, I’m not sure how much was luck: the organisers had designed the event in a deliberate way that meant we would mix and meet people with whom we shared interests. The event was designed to draw us together, and the organisers did an amazing job of keeping us on our feet and open to new, innovative ideas.

I learned a few important lessons during those 54 hours. Firstly, if you focus and work to a deadline, you accomplish much more than you think you can. We went from having no idea to having a fully formed proposal and budget in a half a day. This is a testament to how much you can accomplish if you put all your effort into one thing. Secondly, I learned that you can’t get innovative ideas by doing the same thing you have always been doing with the same people. You have to step out of your comfort zone. Thirdly, I learned that if you want funding, you need to look for problems and partners: real problems in the real world that need solving, and people you can work with to solve those problems. When you make those connections, the support will come to you and innovation will follow.
*An additional 2 projects were funded following the sandpit. To read more about the 6 projects funded through this social innovation call visit the HEFCE website.