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  • Writer's pictureMarleen Wierenga

Sara Lindeman, Aalto University, Postdoctoral Researcher

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

“Having impact requires genuine intention: The will to have an impact, being committed, and making the effort,” says Sara Lindeman. Sara is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Aalto University School of Business. Her research interests include inclusive business, market formation, and systems innovation for sustainability in the Global South.

The New Global Project

Sara was the project manager of a large six-year interdisciplinary innovation and research project, the New Global. The project ran from 2014-2019. It focused on frugal and reverse innovations in a complex global system. Frugal innovations are simple, affordable and sustainable innovations, which are typically developed for developing markets. When these innovations transfer to advanced markets, they are referred to as reverse innovations. For example, within the project, one researcher started an interdisciplinary innovation project to design a maternity ward for providing quality care in low-resource settings, while respecting the local culture.

Researchers in the New Global project worked closely with companies, NGOs, governments, communities, funders, and universities in Finland, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Mexico, and Chile. The project created spin-off initiatives, and researchers in the project organized a wide range of events to disseminate knowledge to relevant societal actors. Research included fieldwork in collaboration with organizations such as the Federation for the Urban Poor Tanzania on issues such as access to clean water, sanitation, and market formation in impoverished communities. The fieldwork consisted of interviews, observations, and engaging with student groups during their field visits from Finland.

After New Global, Sara founded a mission-driven company Leapfrog Projects. The company facilitates systems change towards sustainability in emerging markets. Sara drew from her experience with the New Global project. “Often research findings are left to collect dust, I could not let that happen”. Leapfrog strives for impact and continuous learning and integrates research into practice by providing a platform for data collection and action research.

Impact as Giving Back: Translating Research Findings

Disseminating the findings of the New Global Project was important for Sara. So she went back to Tanzania in 2019 to share the research findings with the stakeholders who provided inputs for the research projects and others who may use these findings in their work. She participated in a local startup event and shared the findings with a variety of stakeholders including companies, students, as well as governmental and non-governmental actors. Sara also visited four communities that had been part of the New Global data collection and innovation work.

This dissemination work was not required by the funding agency, but Sara knew it had to be done for research to impact practice. She discussed with the community members issues important to them such as how to make progress on their current initiatives and businesses. “We had thought about the findings from the community’s perspective, and how to communicate those issues. Because we had done the background work, it felt that these sessions were really useful for the community members. Thinking back, we could have done it earlier so that we could better track the impact of this outreach.”

A dry toilet business jointly initiated by New Global and the community had been stuck between the city and the community, and our visit helped to resolve that. “We had maybe overplanned the community visits when actually the most important thing was to come back, sit down and talk with the people. We realized that many known universities had come to collect data in these communities, but we were the only ones who came back to share the findings. This was quite shocking.”

Advice for Early-Career Scholars

Fostering impact requires time, which is time away from activities leading to publishing. “It takes time to develop relationships and impact activities, which means fewer publications. And you do not really get any points when applying for an academic job. That is a risk one has to take. I do not like the distinction between applied research and hard research. I like to do very theoretical research, and I think being very close to the practical reality brings richness to the creation of new knowledge.”

Sara's advice to early-career scholars:

  • Translating your work and making it relevant to others requires significant effort. And the message you put out should be tailored to relevant stakeholder groups.

  • Learn to shift hats and perspectives when needed between research, practice, teaching, public speaking and so forth.

  • Bring not only your ideas and concepts to a research project but also your emotions and intuition. Emotions can help you develop relationships that are important when you face challenges of interdisciplinary work. Intuition helps you make sense of emergence and complexity in large scale systems change.

  • Engage with society: In action research, finding the sweet spot where research benefits practice and the collaboration makes sense is very important and not so easy because what is valuable for practitioners might be very different from what is valuable for you as the researchers. Listen carefully to the needs of others to find out how you can give the collaboration something concrete that is valued, while also communicating your needs clearly.

  • Be patient and take a holistic view on impact: When dealing with complex issues it is difficult to foresee which actions are impactful, so often impact is a leap of faith. “It is an ongoing learning process and slowly you’ll notice which activities are more impactful than others,” Sara adds. Where possible, follow up on impact over time to establish a deeper understanding of how your work is creating impact.

  • View each encounter as potentially impactful: Take the time to have genuine discussions with people from a variety of public and private organizations, and when possible bring people together to create new combinations of perspectives and knowledge.

Inspired by Sara's impact story, we encourage you to share your story and connect with academics and practitioners.

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