Mutuality in research

Energysense is the context for innovation in research. Not only in the research that is conducted, but also in the way we enable research and shape the possibilities for creating knowledge. As such, Energysense can be seen as an instance of the ‘changing ecologies of knowledge and action’ that have recently come under academic scrutiny (see among others, the CEKA programme at Oxford). In this blogpost, I reflect on one of the lines of ‘innovation’ we have been developing, focusing on mutuality.

With the aim of making concrete the spirit of mutuality we hold dear, we recently organised an encounter with participants in Energysense. This was the occasion for us to experience a different kind of accountability, one that contrasts sharply with the metrics-rich way of working that now dominates the academic world. In this tense context, it is a true privilege to be part of such a pioneering alternative approach to research and to have the freedom to explore and develop alternatives.

Critiques of the current culture of metrics, for example, the powerful Leiden Manifesto, have provided useful tools for addressing accountability in science policy and in institutional practices. In writing about this event, I hope to show how concrete activities on the ground can further contribute to creating new frameworks for academic work.

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Over the past three years, Energysense has striven to implement a number of values in its activities. For example, privacy-by-design is a guiding principle in developing our ICT and processes, we’ve implemente ‘informed consent as an ongoing relationship’ (rather than a single contractual moment). And in all our communication, we take a personal approach rather than a formal one. Another value is that of mutuality. So far, we’ve implemented this by systematically including an opportunity to comment or ask question or provide feedback in our data gathering. Concretely, this means that there are ‘text boxes’ in our questionnaires and that we always follow-up fully on all input from Energysense participants. This may seem banal, but it at an operational level it requires attention and dedicated staff time—something we’ve been careful to ensure, in spite of our rapid growth, and across times of peak busy-ness.

Come visit us!

Last week, we took mutuality one step further: participants invite Energysense into their home to trace their energy use and behaviour, so in turn we invited participants to come and visit us in Energysense’s ‘home’.

Through our participants newsletter, we invited all current participants (close to 800 households) and received over 70 registrations. On Friday 10 March, we welcomed about 50 participants to our building, the new, award-winning Energy Academy Building at Zernike, the science campus of the University of Groningen.  The programme was varied: mini-lectures from energy researchers, demonstration of energy measurements, a tour of the building and of the energy exhibition Re:charge, as session on participants’ views of privacy and security of Energysense data and a ‘meet and greet’ with the

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Energysense team in our offices. A number of participants also took part in a research interview (q-sort) in the framework of Mufti Hasanov’s PhD project.We ended with a lively reception.

The afternoon was set up so as to allow participants to experience a diversity of aspects of Energysense. We also wanted to maximise the opportunities for interaction, so all activities took place in small groups of about 8-10 participants paired with a member of Energysense.

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With this event, we did our best to show our participants how much we appreciate their input to Energysense. It was also a fantastic opportunity for us to work as a team, each one of us contributing their expertise and skills to make the event a success. As a team, we also ‘exposed’ ourselves to all the participants’ questions, to their inquisitive perusal of our offices, to their advice, (counter-)expertise and criticism.

Accountable!

At the end of the day, we were very pleased but also feeling a bit raw. Why did we feel more exposed, more vulnerable? In spite of how much we try to be open in all our communication about what goes in Energysense, this face-to-face encounter felt closer, more intimate. These activities were therefore precious in revealing what it is that we tend to keep backstage.  Of course there is nothing wrong with work being in progress or in preparation, and we all like to put our best foot forward. But the presence and interaction with our participants created a particular kind of relationship to our research object that is not so present, not so tangible in our daily work–nor in most infrastructural projects for research.

Reflecting on this, I think that last Friday’s encounter with our participants created a particularly intense opportunity and obligation to provide accounts of our work, to be ‘accountable’. All these impressions, this intense experience of an encounter, form a basis for a different kind of accountability. The experience is a deeply enriching one that will stay with us and shape our work.

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