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Ethics case study: Catalyst! Citizens transforming society

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Brief description of the project

Catalyst is a 3-year interdisciplinary research initiative funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) where community-academic partnerships explore how digital tools might facilitate social change by addressing three research goals:

  • What motivates citizens to participate in civic change?
  • What are the next generation of digital tools that might support change in a civic setting?
  • What lessons can be learned from reflecting on interdisciplinary research?

Who does it involve?

Catalyst commissions a series of 6-9 month projects that develop novel digital technologies to address a social need. Through calls for proposals, ideas labs and community-led networking events, community-academic teams form to investigate Catalyst research goals with mutually beneficial outcomes. Disciplines involved include Computing, Design, Environment, Sociology and Management. Catalyst is governed by an advisory group of Lancaster staff and community representatives offering strategic advice, monitoring impact and generating and sharing lessons learned [2]. A year on, there are four projects: Local Trade: a system which tracks trading patterns to encourage locally beneficial trading behaviour; Access ASD: enabling civic participation of people on the autism spectrum; Success in activist tweets: real-time predictions of the influence of activists’ tweets based on their language and Patchworks: using frugal (cheap) technology to encourage the homeless to access support services [3].

Ethical issues anticipated in the project

The original bid considered ethics around informed consent and working with vulnerable adults. Ethical issues are raised with the advisory group and project teams must consider ethical issues as part of their proposal. Catalyst uses PROTEE, a management tool to learn from failure / success and hosts an annual knowledge exchange event to reflect on lessons learned. Through team dialogues, PROTEE, draws out insights to support innovation, project management and interdisciplinarity.

Ethical issues emerging and developing

Mutual Benefit: Achieving mutual benefit is challenging. Whilst Catalyst aims to develop academically novel technologies, often community organisations need ‘basic’ technological solutions, e.g. a new website or practical prototype. Project teams negotiate this by addressing additional needs alongside prototype development, but this is often not planned at the outset. Through PROTEE dialogues it was recognised that the social value of Catalyst also lies in a ‘social’ prototype or way of ‘co-working’ that builds trust, mutual respect, confidence and presents opportunities to learn, explore and experiment through the making of the physical prototype.

Time: Catalyst was designed around short project timeframes to maximize participation. However, project teams found it challenging to get to know one another, carry out in-depth research on social issues and co-design prototypes in such a short time span.

Ownership and Intellectual property: It took time to navigate institutional and departmental barriers (tendering policies, allowable research expenses, preferred suppliers) to award allocated funds to project partners and to agree fair intellectual property licensing. Consequently the first project teams were unclear about ownership or roles and responsibilities, which created tensions along the way.

Sustainability: Catalyst began at a time of significant budget cuts to capacity development in community organisations. The advisory group proposed that community-led support help address sustainability and capacity issues, particularly as Catalyst requires a significant commitment from community organisations. Follow up support was delivered by two community organisations (Shared Futures working with Latent Promise).

Learning from the experience of working with these ethical issues

  • Offer support to build community capacity before and after projects are selected to help community organisations consider if a research partnership will work for them and to pick up ethical issues during the lifetime of the project. With a community partner leading on this there can be a frank exchange that might not be possible when talking to the people funding your project.
  • Use the CBPR ethical guidelines to guide project development, selection and planning so that it is embedded as part of the research process and time is given to consider, address and resolve ethical issues.
  • Embrace the social prototype: develop participatory approaches to project planning, budgeting and allocating roles and responsibilities based on passions, interests and abilities. Include budget and time allocations for training and support to achieve this. This has been valuable on Access ASD, which involves many different organisations.
  • Learn from projects and project resources that address similar ethical challenges. EPSRC helpfully signposted us to other projects and networks they had funded facing similar challenges including FRIICT [4] and CC Network+ [5]. Attending NCCPE and AHRC connected communities events, has also been of value. This helped the Lancaster research support office implement a procedure for awarding projects, which included use of a generic public license to ensure communities could afford to develop their prototypes further and a work plan with roles and responsibilities, key contacts for project support and the budget outlined.

A key learning point has been the benefits of co-working between community groups and the university via the advisory group. Community representatives from both the advisory group and the individual projects have been encouraged to attend and present at conferences along with academics, extending and deepening insight on both sides.

Catalyst is still reflecting on best ways of working and will publish interim lessons learned shortly. The ‘social’ prototype in particular may well be expanded upon and developed into a set of principles that can help create an environment conducive for desired behaviours to take place. This could form part of a creative design approach to social or citizen-led innovation that would feel less academic-led.


Mandy Naylor, Latent Promise (, Rebecca Ellis, Lancaster University ( from Catalyst advisory group [6], Debbie Stubb, Catalyst Project Manager (

Further details:

[1] Catalyst Website:

[2] Whittle JW, Ochu E, Ferrario MA, Southern J and McNally R Beyond Research in the Wild: Citizen-Led Research as a Model for Innovation in the Digital Economy Proceeding Digital Futures 2012, Aberdeen 2012

[3] Patchworks video: (produced by Robert Potts and Daniel Morrell)

[4] Framework for Responsible Research & Innovation in ICT website:

[5] Communities and Culture network+ website:

[6] Catalyst Advisory Group web link: