This week’s interview is with Professor Andrew Beer of the University of Adelaide. Professor Beer is Director of the Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning – its vision is to undertake and disseminate research on housing, cities and regions for the betterment of society.
The Centre led by Professor Beer, is highly acclaimed for the incredibly practical and immediately useable outputs it creates. Here Professor Beer discusses his background, the connection between social sciences and entrepreneurship, and his unique approach to outcome-based research.
Q. The work your Centre engages is renowned for being very impact focused, with the research conducted not just being theoretical but accessible for immediate implementation. That is – you have been very strategic in being clear on a problem and providing a workable, realistic solution. This is not something researchers are typically associated with, yet it’s an approach that is in high demand. How have you been able to achieve this so successfully?
A. I didn’t start out working at a University but came from a background in government. Outcomes were very important and I carried that experience with me. I became an academic not with a specific career path or search for status in mind but because I enjoyed researching, thinking, answering questions and then, providing a practical solution. It’s not a better or worse approach than being theoretical or idealistic – it’s just how I like to work.
When working with clients we sometimes need to help reframe the problem so that the answer is researchable. And then we aim to provide a solution which can be implemented. We would never offer an impractical recommendation…
It is important to really listen to your client and stakeholders and seek constant feedback. You also need to be accepting of change, for example even in the delivery of our results, the format needs to be accessible and presented in a method consistent with how information is currently consumed by your intended audience. We always keep our end-user in mind and constantly confirm that our assumptions about them are correct.
Q. Was there a standout change which occurred as a result of your research which brought you the most satisfaction?
A. In terms of stand outs, perhaps the work my team and I conducted in relation to the closure of Mitsubishi, a major automotive plant in Adelaide, South Australia and the effects this had on the well-being of workers and their families including their health, housing and the community. The study was conducted over a three year period and the final report was completed in 2006. Based on the findings practical, impact orientated recommendations were made and subsequently adopted by government. What is even more gratifying is that report continues to be regularly requested and referred to by policy makers and media. It remains a relevant tool for assisting in providing better outcomes when a community suffers from mass redundancies and retrenchments.
Q. When the subject of using “entrepreneurial skills” as an academic in the area of social sciences, what has been your experience?
A. The culture of social sciences has been to not see it as commercial in that it does not produce hard intellectual property such as patents but rather know how. However we need to recognise that what we are producing is knowledge-based services.
In light of predictions that knowledge and the service industries will push economic growth the way manufacturing and resources used to – the question we need to ask ourselves is “What form will our services take and how will they be disseminated?”. It’s an area where innovative thinking and the creation of new business models need greater focus.
Social science academics have a major role to play in addressing social, environmental and economic challenges. It’s time to combine the functions they already serve, which are;
- being holders of; knowledge, history, networks and connections (as governments and industry players come and go); and
- providing a voice for communities, special interest groups, intuitions and individuals;
with entrepreneurial and enterprise skills to increase the impact, engagement and sustainability of their expertise for the betterment of society.
Q. For early career researchers do you have any advice on how to distinguish themselves and create real impact through their academic life?
A. Whatever area you are focusing on at any one time be it teaching, research (both theoretical or applied), writing publications, giving presentations or engaging with the community and industry – you need to ensure you bring quality to what you do and ensure you are adding value. Don’t just go through the motion.
If you want to increase your opportunities to work directly with public, private or not-for profit organisations you need to get out your door and start talking to people. Engage with the stakeholders and customers in your discipline and start building relationships. You might do this through offering free services initially; providing a presentation; going on a committee. But again – only do so if you can add value, otherwise you are wasting their time and yours.
It is also important to make sure you carefully think about and be clear on what you are willing and not willing to do. Make sure you are strategic with your time and think through the long term implications some affiliations might negatively have on career.
So, set boundaries; ask yourself “how can I best contribute?”. Ensure that you are adding value, bringing your skill set (know your weaknesses and strengths), and follow through on commitments.
Thank you Professor Andrew Beer for your time. For more information on the Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning please visit https://www.adelaide.edu.au/churp/. For any further questions on thinking big, feel free to email me personally at email@example.com.