What happens when you take the worldwide television phenomenon of Dragons’ Den - known in many countries as Shark Tank – and swap business entrepreneurs for social scientists, and business tycoons for donors and policy actors?
The team at the Impact Initiative for International Development Research, with our partners in ESRC and DFID, were looking for a new session format for the Power of Partnership conference which took place in Delhi in early December. We had over 100 researchers - funded through the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research - coming together with policy actors and practitioners to look at how the evidence cohered around key policy issues and the role of partnerships in achieving impact. The question was: how to bring these different actors together and connect the research with policy? For the Impact Initiative, which brokers knowledge between this diverse portfolio of research and policy and practice, we wanted to identify specific plans for policy events, publications, meetings and other forms of policy engagement to be delivered over the next year or so.
Using the Dragons’ Den format in an international delegation
The popular Dragons’ Den show has made entrepreneurs like Reggae Reggae Sauce inventor Levi Roots (and others like him around the world) famous. In short pitches to sometimes intimidating, and always critical, Dragons like Peter Jones and Deborah Meadon, business tycoon wanabes seek investment for their business start-ups. As well as success stories there have been quite a few blunders by the supposedly expert Dragons failing to spot business opportunities like the children’s ride-on plastic trunki suitcase - now an indispensable item of luggage for families with kids, and a multi-million pound business.
Having served on university panels that consider ideas for additional funding for impact activities as part of ESRC’s Impact Acceleration Awards scheme, I was excited by the suggestion we look at the Dragons’ Den format. It did not seem a great stretch to adapt the TV show idea so that teams of researchers, with much the same needs as the IAA applicants, replace the entrepreneurs. Plus, this show is known the world over – with versions in Europe, China, across South Asia, and even in Afghanistan. So we had something familiar to build on for a very international delegation.
We asked research teams to connect with at least one other project to form their pitch. This met our first objective – to form research partnerships and present policy actors with relevant knowledge rather than simply the results of a single study. Secondly, we told researchers to pitch for support for a policy engagement activity and not for more research. This met our second criteria – that we support brokering and uptake work not research itself. Finally we selected our Dragons from amongst the delegates in Delhi - all of whom hold senior positions in multilaterals, development agencies and bilaterals. This way the pitches would have to be framed for policy.
Bespoke support from the Impact Initiative to take ideas forward
Unlike the TV show our Dragons did not have a pile of cash next to them to directly fund the projects they liked. Instead the prize on offer was bespoke support from the Impact Initiative to take ideas forward - including resources for events and publications. Our pitchers had just 5 minutes with a bag of optional props and absolutely no PowerPoint. They delivered their ideas standing before our seated Dragons and in front of an audience of delegates. The Dragons then got time to cross-examine the team and express their views. Afterwards the Dragons met and, over a coffee, reflected on the group of pitches they had heard. (This part had more of a Bake Off feel to it…)
Bringing thematically diverse research studies around topical policy issues
In all we heard from 12 groups involving almost 30 projects from the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation’s rich portfolio of research, with exciting ideas ranging from: running youth workshops, to policy roundtables, panel events at key conferences, and the production and dissemination of research in policy, and practice-friendly formats. Our policy entrepreneurs had clearly been very busy networking since we had announced the competition during the opening of the conference just a day and a half before. They had managed to bring together geographically and thematically diverse research studies around topical policy issues. Research on food insecurity in urban centres was joined up with a focus on the benefits to the poor of motorcycle taxis; disability was connected into research on youth participation; various projects looking at the vulnerabilities of women migrating into urban centres were framed as relating to creating safe cities. In all, seven pitches met with the Dragons’ approval and will be supported to develop and deliver their plans.
However, the feedback and discussion this session produced was just as significant as the individual pitches themselves. The Den format provided a rich environment for reflection on the challenges and opportunities around coherence across research projects, and the framing of evidence for policy. Just like the TV show, I am sure that at least some of the projects not selected will still go on to achieve great things. As for using the Dragons’ Den as a conference format, I'd recommend adapting it for your own learning events. It makes a nice change to panels, elevator pitches, world cafes and fish bowls. If you want it to work you’ll need some policy folk and practitioners at your events but that is pretty essential anyway if you are in the business of connecting research with policy.