Research & Development

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You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Richard Buckminster Fuller

SPEC's research and development methodology is focused on the practical application of critical systems thinking and participatory action research in the areas of sustainability, social justice, and community development. It encourages researchers to seek to understand the world by working collaboratively to change it, and reflecting critically on their efforts.

SPEC develops projects and partnerships with community organizations to create solutions to real-world problems while creating paid work experiences in research, development, and community building. SPEC's approach is designed to build radically transparent, sustainable and, equitable systems of living and working. The methodology draws upon many areas and concepts from social science and systems research.

  • Systems Thinking

  • Critical Systems Thinking

  • Action Research

  • Participatory Action Research

  • Community Based Participatory Research

  • Open Collaboration

  • Collaborative Innovation

  • Collective Intelligence

  • Agile Development

Systems Thinking

The term "systems thinking" is understood to have different interpretations for different people. Some people see systems thinking as just a collection of tools and methods with an underlying philosophy. Others understand systems thinking as a "sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realization that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to." Systems thinking can also be considered disciplined approach for examining problems more completely and accurately before acting. Good systems thinking should help you ask better questions before jumping to conclusions. In practice, systems thinking requires observation of events or data, identification of patterns of behavior overtime, and surfacing the underlying structures that drive those events and patterns. It helps us understand and change structures, including our mental models and perceptions, and discard knowledge that is not serving us well. Systems thinking can expand the choices available to us and create more satisfying, long-term solutions to chronic problems.[1]

Critical Systems Thinking

Dr. Gabriele Bammer describes Critical Systems Thinking (CST) as an approach to intervention that "aims to combine systems thinking and participatory methods to address the challenges of problems characterized by large scale, complexity, uncertainty, impermanence, and imperfection". It allows nonlinear relationships, feedback loops, hierarchies, emergent properties and so on to be taken into account. CST has particularly problematized the issue of boundaries and their consequences for inclusion, exclusion and marginalization.[2]

Action Research

Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.

Kurt Lewin

In 1944, MIT Professor Kurt Lewin, first coined the term "action research". In his 1946 paper "Action Research and Minority Problems", Lewin described action research as "a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action". He described this process as a "spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action". Richard Sagor, defines action research as "a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action". Action research is conducted with the aim of assisting in improving and/or refining one's actions. It seeks to create transformative change through the iterative process of taking action and doing research. An individual's actions and research are linked together by critical reflection.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to action research that was developed in the 1940s. It is a form of collective self-experimentation backed up by evidential reasoning, fact-finding and learning. This methodology involves researchers working together to understand a problem and develop solutions. It focuses on social change that promotes democracy and challenges inequality. It is context-specific, often targeting the needs of a particular group. PAR is an iterative cycle of research, action and reflection. It often seeks to help participants develop a greater awareness of their situation in order to take action. [6] PAR uses a range of different methods, both qualitative and quantitative. PAR practitioners make a concerted effort to integrate three basic aspects of their work:

  1. participation (life in society and democracy)

  2. action (engagement with experience and history),

  3. research (soundness in thought and the growth of knowledge).

Community Based Participatory Research

Community Base Participatory Research (CBPR) is a type of action research that focuses on community, equitability of partnership, and an ongoing commitment to the core principles of CBPR.[5]

  1. Recognizes community as a unit of identity.

  2. Builds on strengths and resources within the community.

  3. Facilitates a collaborative, equitable partnership in all phases of research, involving an empowering and power-sharing process that attends to social inequalities.

  4. Fosters co-learning and capacity building among all partners

  5. Integrates and achieves a balance between knowledge generation and intervention for the mutual benefit of all partners

  6. Focuses on the local relevance of public health problems and on ecological perspectives that attend to the multiple determinants of health

  7. Involves systems development using a cyclical and iterative process

  8. Disseminates results to all partners and involves them in the wider dissemination of results.

  9. Involves a long-term process and commitment to sustainability.

  10. Openly addresses issues of race, ethnicity, racism, and social class, and embodies “cultural humility.”

  11. Works to ensure research rigor and validity but also seeks to ”broaden the bandwidth of validity” with respect to research relevance.

Open Collaboration

Open collaboration is a system of production that relies on loosely coordinated participants who interact with a shared goal of creating a product or service, which they make publicly available to contributors and non-contributors alike. An open source product or service is one that is released under a license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to use, study, change, and distribute and its designs, blueprints, data, content, or source code.

Collaborative Innovation

Collaborative Innovation is a process in which multiple contributors work towards creating new products with customers and suppliers. Collaboration can occur in all aspects of the business cycle including procurement and supplier collaboration, research and development, marketing, distribution and commercialization.

Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence (CI) is shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals. It may involve consensus, decision making, social capital and systems such as voting, polls, social media and other means of quantifying mass activity. The term appears in sociobiology, political science and in context of mass peer review and crowdsourcing applications.

Collective IQ is a measure of collective intelligence, although it is often used interchangeably with the term collective intelligence. Collective intelligence has also been attributed to bacteria and animals.

Agile Development

An agile approach to development is intended to improve the effectiveness of software development professionals, teams, and organizations. It involves discovering requirements and developing solutions through the collaborative effort of self-organization, cross-function teams, and their customers.


  1. Michael Goodman, Systems Thinking What, Why, When, and Where, The Systems Thinker

  2. Bammer, Embedding Critical Systems Thinking in the Academy, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, The Australian National University

  3. Wikipedia, Action Research

  4. Indeed Editorial Team, How To Demonstrate Collaboration in the Workplace, (2021)

  5. Participation Research Cluster, Participatory Action Research - Glossary Entry, Institute of Development Studies

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