The Imagine project is a five-year project that ran from 2013 to 2017 bringing together different research projects working together across universities and their local communities. Using the new knowledge we gathered, together we imagined how communities might be different. We researched and experimented with different forms of community-building that ignite imagination about the future and help to build resilience and a momentum for change.

We demonstrated the potential (or not) for community-university partnerships to bring people from very different backgrounds together to make better and more resilient collective futures. Community partners from Greece, Sweden, England, Germany, Wales and Scotland worked with academics from each of these countries.

Coordinated by Professor Angie Hart, the University of Brighton’s research looked at ‘The social context of civic engagement’ using the concepts of Communities of Practice (CoP), resilience, Community University Partnerships (CUPs), and co-production.

The first project ran throughout 2013 and 2014 and involved community researchers from Greater Manchester’s Centre for Voluntary Organisation, Boingboing, and the Community Partner Network based at the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement working alongside academics. We completed a series of qualitative interviews with community partners and academics to better understand and capture the key elements of resilient community-university partnerships and to understand how community is (or is not) created through them.

The second project from 2014 to 2016 used a Communities of Practice approach to frame the study. The CoP approach to CUPs brings people together to develop shared ideas and views on problem-solving, practice and theory development. By working in partnership with others from different settings (for example voluntary, statutory and university sectors), CoPs are particularly valuable for making connections and learning within and between participants from different backgrounds and expertise but sharing a mutual interest. To accommodate social and economic differences, and diverse opinions, a CUP needs to be resilient and take into consideration social context and issues such as inequality, power and voice. Professor Hart and colleagues have used the CoP approach previously and are excited about other people exploring its potential.

This project coordinated a range of CUPs in five international sites using a CoP approach to explore ways to build child and family resilience, including the development of resilience in workers and volunteers supporting children or other family members. These CoPs brought together people with very different backgrounds, power statuses and experiences, including parents, young people, practitioners and academics.

This research project commenced in January 2013 and ended in December 2017.

Project aims

Essentially, we aimed to answer the following questions:

  • what are the best ways of thinking about, researching and promoting connected communities which can accommodate social and economic differences and diverse opinions?
  • what role can imagining better futures play in capturing and sustaining enthusiasm for change?
  • is community research being transformed by developments in social research methodology, particularly development of collaborative methods?

We used the CoP approach to bring together different historical learning, cultures and perspectives, to imagine better futures, and consider how to best build the resilience of community-university partnership working for the future.

The initial study gathered data in three ways:

  • qualitative interviews with both university staff and community partners from 23 community-university partnerships across England and Scotland
  • three focus groups with community partners
  • memory stories provided by community partners and academic staff.

Project findings and impact

Publication cover with a cross section of a tree showing rings. Title reads What Works in Sustaining Community University PartnershipsProject teams of community organisations and academics set up opportunities for people having tough times to learn about resilience-based approaches, and in some cases to try them out. Resilience-based approaches support individuals and communities to navigate stressful and challenging life situations and maintain or develop their wellbeing in spite of threats to their development.

Boingboing was the lead community partner organisation on this project, and those involved share a passion for the value of community partner involvement. Other Boingboingers have experience of using the CoP approach to help achieve lasting joint work that benefits both the university and its community.

The findings of this first study suggest that successful community-university partnerships have a set of characteristics that include the following:

  • partners accept that partnership working is an ongoing learning experience
  • partners manage to reframe differences into an opportunity, rather than an obstacle
  • partners make an effort to become aware of power dynamics underlying their CUP and take practical steps to address these
  • partners pay attention to the social aspect of the partnership
  • partners play to each other’s strengths and acknowledge that equity and fairness in the partnership is compatible with different levels of involvement by different partners and, if applicable, varying levels of involvement over the course of thepartnership
  • partners choose a level of formality appropriate to their mission.

Read the Greater than the Sum of its Parts: What works in Sustaining Community University Partnerships report for further information.

Research team and partners

Angie Hart
Suna Eryigit-Madzawamuse
Becky Heaver
Josh Cameron
Kay Aranda
Anne Rathbone
Josie Maitland

Andrew Church (School of Environment)
Carl Walker (School of Applied Social Sciences)
Phil Haynes (School of Applied Social Sciences)
Nick Gant (School of Art and Design)

Maria Georgiadi, Child Development Centre, Rethymno, Greece
Stefanos Plexousakis, Child Development Centre, Rethymno, Greece
Ulrike Graf, University of Heidelberg
Ulrike Becker, University of Osnabrueck
Wassilis Kassis, University of Osnabrueck
Elias Kourkoutas, University of Crete
Brigid Daniel, University of Stirling
Sally Wassell, independent social worker
Susanne Martikke, Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Newport Mind
Rethymno Council
Sussex Partnership NHS Trust
Culture Shift

Research output

Martikke, S., Church, A. & Hart, A. (September 2015) Greater than the sum of its parts: What works in sustaining community-university partnership. Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations.

Eryigit-Madzwamuse, S., Hart, A., Gagnon, E., Buttery, L., & Hensley, J. (2014, Nov) Building resilience: A strategic approach to addressing the needs of disadvantaged children and families. Poster presented at the BSMS Integrated Health Care Research Day, Brighton- Sussex Medical School, Brighton, UK.