We live in challenging times. From climate change to economic inequality and forced migration, the difficulties confronting decision-makers are unprecedented in their variety, as well as in their complexity and urgency. Our standard policy toolkit seems stale and ineffective while existing governance institutions are increasingly outdated and distrusted.
To tackle today’s challenges, we need not only new solutions but new ways of arriving at solutions. In particular, we need fresh research methodologies that can provide actionable insights on 21st century conditions. Such methodologies would allow us to redesign how decisions are made, how public services are offered, and how complex problems are solved around the world.
Rethinking research is a vast project, with multiple components. This new essay focuses on one particular area of research: action research. In the essay, I first explain what we mean by action research, and also explore some of its potential. I subsequently argue that, despite that potential, action research is often limited as a method because it remains embedded in past methodologies; I attempt to update both its theory and practice for the 21st century.
Although this article represents only a beginning, my broader goal is to re-imagine the role of action research for social innovation, and to develop an agenda that could provide for what Amar Bhide calls “practical knowledge” at all levels of decision making in a systematic, sustainable, and responsible manner.