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When we began the Innovate Project four years ago in 2019, Michelle Lefevre (the project’s Principal Investigator) gave each of the team members an acorn, inviting us to plant it and see if it would grow. In our end of project meeting on 12 December 2023, Michelle said that she had planted her acorn in her garden. Unfortunately, it did not grow but, unexpectedly, a small chestnut tree sprouted nearby. Michelle then, as part of an activity in the same meeting, incorporated this anecdote into the personal collage that each of us completed to represent our individual journeys and experiences of the project. Working metaphorically with this anecdote, it is possible to see how it speaks to innovation – something new emerging yet not quite as one might have expected it to be.

A collage of Michelle's journey through the project

Images of growth and nature have become a feature of the Innovate Project’s thinking, particularly in the Transitional Safeguarding strand.  As we have begun to synthesise our understanding of innovation, the eco-cycle model – associated with Liberating Structures thinking – has proved especially generative. Our researcher, Nathalie Huegler, created this vibrant double-loop image offering an ecocycle perspective of innovation.

The model has four cyclical and iterative phases that disrupt the conventional binarized thinking of success or failure, that is so often associated with innovation: emergence – maturation  – declining momentum  –  renewal. Applying this model to our own project process, , it is possible to see how we emerged, grew and matured, despite challenges which placed spokes in the wheel of our momentum at times. As we reach the end of the funded period for the Innovate Project, we are now reaching a point of creative destruction and renewal, needing to consider how we take forward the fruits of our labours and begin new research impact endeavours.  It is timely for us to step back and ask, ‘what have we learned?’ and ‘where are we heading?’.

Referring back again to our end of project meeting, one key learning was expressed in the familiar phraseology, ‘If we did it all again we wouldn’t start from here,’ which referred to the positioning of young people and their families in our project. Each research strand held young people firmly in mind throughout the course of the project but each one, for similiar and different reasons, encountered immoveable obstacles that meant young people and their voices were not included to the extent we all had intended. While some of these were outside of our control (e.g. the restrictions on face-to-face services with young people during lockdowns), most troubling was the observation by a team member that whilst we, with our site partners, were all so absorbed in what innovation might look like, the young people  and their families were largely unaware that our pre-occupation with innovation was directly related to them and the benefits it could bring for them. Moving forwards, our resolve is to ensure the participation of young people and their families is unequivocally front and centre from the outset.

And so where are we heading? Two specific area of activity are already being planned and no doubt more will emerge as we move into 2024. The first is an exciting  impact research project with North Lanarkshire Adult and Children’s Services to introduce Transitional Safeguarding into their services. As one of the trauma-informed research sites in the project, North Lanarkshire colleagues have worked closely with us already to establish Trauma-informed Practice at all levels of their system. The combination of their history of having previously begun to embed Contextual Safeguarding, and their recent experience of introducing trauma-informed approaches, has led to North Lanarkshire colleagues quickly realising that Transitional Safeguarding is an inextricable dimension of effective responses to extra-familial risks and harms. As a result of their vision, we are looking forward to beginning this impact work to introduce Transitional Safeguarding into their whole system, supported by monies from the University of Sussex Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fellowships, and continuing our collaboration with Research in Practice.

The second activity relates more broadly to our learning about innovation. We will collaborate with local authorities and social care sector organisations to pilot and evaluate the innovation tools developed during the Innovate Project, and which can be seen here.  Again, we are seeking funding to enable project partners, Innovation Unit, to support us in this work. We also have plans to further extend public engagement with our project findings and resources, including in the international arena, and to capture our progressive influence in the sector.

A picture of the Innovate Project team

So, it really isn’t goodbye in that final sense from the Innovate Project team, but rather au revoir – until next time, wherever that may be:  in research impact settings, knowledge exchange events or, in keeping with agile and open innovation mindsets, in another forum that we are as yet unaware of. So, here’s to the next seedlings….

Gillian Ruch, Professor of Social Work                                                                            University of Sussex

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Gillian Ruch