SPROUTs of Hope in Times of Crisis

by Hendrik Wagenaar, Barbara Prainsack

[SPROUT] noun 1. a shoot of a plant. 2. a new growth from a germinating seed, or from a rootstock, tuber, bud, or the like.

[SPROUT] noun 1. Spontaneous Flexible, Pragmatic, Political, Rigorous projects creating opportunities in times of crisis

The desire to survive. The green sprout of grass growing to the light from the black pipe on the wall. Concept of hope

In March 2020, the world famous pianist Igor Levit was stuck at home, unable to travel and perform. His first reaction, as he said in an interview in the American TV programme 60 Minutes, was to worry about losing his connection to an audience and being confined to just making music for himself. Then he did something unusual: He decided to stream live recitals from his living room. He used an old form, the house concert, and brought it into the 21st century. He invited people into his living room by using social media. His live-streamed recitals immediately caught on. For 52 consecutive days his recitals were followed by hundreds of thousands of people. The reactions on social media expressed people’s gratitude; people were moved by the beauty of Levit’s piano playing, the choice of his repertoire, and his obvious engagement with the music he played. He managed to reach an audience infinitely larger than in the concert hall. Many also discovered piano music they had never heard of.

Levit had taken the classical piano recital to a new institutional form. The format was flexible; he frequently announced the programme on social media no more than a few hours before the event. He often performed in a sweatshirt and slippers, and he was never afraid to show his emotions during beautiful passages, giving the concert an intimacy that is rarely attained in the concert hall. He changed the boundaries between the performer and his audience. His concerts were also political: not so much in what he played, but in the larger context in which he did it. For many of his audience and followers, Levit’s musical performance could not be separated from the courageous political stances that he took against anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism. And for environmental causes: Recently he performed, amidst buzzing chain saws, in the Dannenröder forest near Frankfurt that is in the process of being felled to make way for the construction of a highway. His choice of repertoire in the forest leaves nothing to the imagination: Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’, a Chilean protest song. The live stream recitals had another subversive element: They offered content that could otherwise only be accessed via expensive tickets for the world’s great concert halls. Levit declared that the experience transformed him. It made him change the way that he thinks about music. That it is not a luxury but one of life’s necessities.


SPROUTing new initiatives

Early March 2020, in San Francisco, Tomas Pueyo, the Spanish-French vice-president of an online learning platform, found himself stuck at home with his three young children while his wife was hospitalised with suspected COVID-19 symptoms. He felt miserable himself, and was worried about the disease and that people were not taking it seriously enough. He had started to share his thoughts about the new virus on his Facebook page. In an interview with Sumiko Tan, editor of the Singapore Straits Times, Pueyo said: ‘One of the things I love doing is going into big, deep problems and really, really understanding them and then communicating them. That’s what I did for the coronavirus.’ When a friend asked him to bring his various Facebook posts together in a single blog post to help persuade his friend’s employer to allow people to work from home, it was read by over 40 million people. People from all over the world volunteered to join Pueyo in his mission to provide evidence-based reporting on the COVID-19 crisis. Pueyo went on to write seven more Covid-19 related articles, among other things, introducing the famous ‘hammer and dance’ metaphor.

One of us (Hendrik) first read Pueyo’s article in early April via one of Pueyo’s tweets. As life-long policy scholar Hendrik was enthusiastic about what he read and decided to write a blog post about Pueyo’s work. It had struck him that until then the media had published a lot of data but in a way that obscured rather than enlightened the issues at hand. Pueyo’s pieces were, in fact, remarkable pieces of policy analysis that, although chockful of tables and graphs, were always question-driven. The data were organised in such a way that the numbers told a powerful story, a story of the success or failure of policy making. Pueyo introduced creative measures (the ‘Hunei’) and used historical data to arbitrate in the vexing issue if lockdown kills off the economy.

Both Levit’s and Pueyo’s initiatives are example of what we have come to call SPROUTs: Spontaneous, Political,Rigorous, Opportunity projects. They both created pragmatic and at the same time political projects that created opportunities in the face of adversity. Relying on social media, they did not merely move something from the analogue world to the digital one, but they created a new form: Levit did so by harking back to an older performance practice that had long been overtaken by modern concert management, giving it a contemporary face. Pueyo took policy analysis out of the university and the government contract and showed how the clever organization of data can effectively address important practical and moral issues. He became a pop-up policy analyst.


Our own SPROUT: Solidarity in Times of a Pandemic (SolPan)

These SPROUTs were brought to life by two creative individuals — but SPROUTs can also stem from groups of people or even formal institutions. They can also be organisational inventions. We ourselves have been involved in one for the better part of last year. When the COVID-19 crisis started, a funding body invited Barbara to submit a project proposal on solidarity in times of a pandemic. Two weeks later Barbara and a small group of colleagues in the participating countries submitted a proposal for a qualitative, multinational comparative study on people’s experiences with coping with the pandemic. Just before the project was greenlit, the funding body pulled out due to doubts about the value of qualitative research; some of the decision makers preferred a quantitative survey instead. The news came as a shock. It would not have been the first time that a grant proposal of ours was rejected — but getting an invited one knocked back hurt even more. Instead of reconciling themselves to having lost a few week’s worth of their time, the research team decided to go ahead anyhow — without funding. After all, the research design had been finalised, a fine group of researchers in three countries was ready to go, and the research ethics application had been submitted. All members of the project consortium decided to remain on board, and start their work without funding. Members agreed that they would jointly own the research design and all other materials (topic guides, and so on) as well as all the data generated in the project.

When the word spread about the project — which gave itself the name SolPan (Solidarity in times of a pandemic) — colleagues from all over Europe were interested to join. A mere ten days after the decision to go ahead without funding, research ethics approval had been granted, a topic guide had been developed and tested, and interview teams in nine European countries were busy recruiting interviewees. We were keen on starting interviewing early April when in most of Europe lockdowns had just been put in place. We wanted to capture people’s experiences with having to go to work worried about getting infected, or with being cooped up in their homes, with working online, with complying with rules about physical distancing and wearing masks. We wanted to know what they thought and how they felt about this, and how they reacted to their governments’ efforts in managing the pandemic. We were surprised about the enthusiasm of the group (30+ researchers met in weekly online meetings to discuss progress and troubleshoot problems). So many people were spending time and energy on this project in times when life (homeschooling, online teaching, working from home, caring for children) was difficult enough without a new project to run.

Unbeknownst to ourselves the group had created a research commons. The well-known commons author and activist David Bollier describes commons as people who come together to “manage resources … that preserve shared values and community identity” in fair and participatory ways (Bollier, 2014, 175). The goal is not to chase private gain, but to meet the needs of a community while serving the common good. Particularly pertinent to SPROUTs is his comment that commons “generate value in ways that are often taken for granted — and often jeopardized by the Market/State.” (ibid.) In our case, the creation of a research commons was made possible by using established academic institutional forms and resources. SolPan would not have been possible if senior researchers did not have tenured positions and some leeway in using their time. Some of the senior members of the group were also line managers of colleagues who they could give time to work on this project. Junior researchers postponed work on their PhD research projects and other activites but in return obtained invaluable experience in leading task forces and other working groups within the consortium. Many junior colleagues have now become lead authors on publications emerging from the SolPan project. What makes working on SolPan gratifying is that it indeed restores academic values that have increasingly gotten lost in the corporate university.

Like Levit’s new form for classical music making, and Pueyo’s ‘pop-up’ policy analysis, SolPan has many of the characteristics of SPROUT. Although it arose spontaneously, like in any large-scale research project, the group takes great care to ensure reliable, precise data collection and analysis. Projects that secure funding prior to their kick-off lock the funder and the researchers into a set of contractual agreements and obligations. But when the world around the project’s remit changes, as it inevitably does, it is difficult to change course. The SolPan consortium does not have these constraints. Because SolPan is ‘owned’ by its members, the project’s design is more flexible. Decision making is participatory, inclusive, and deliberative (if not always friction free). Consortium meetings seek to be pragmatic, cooperative, and focused on problem solving. This has the added benefit that it creates strong engagement of many of the members to ‘their’ project. Besides in its aspiration to work as a research commons, SolPan is political also in the sense that does not merely seek to produce new scientific evidence. Solpan consortium members also write blogs and speak to policy makers and the media. We do this on the basis of evidence from our study, but we do so in forms and ways that go beyond providing morally neutral analyses. At the time of writing this blog, a sister consortium, SolPan+, had emerged that now includes research groups in 14 Latin American countries.


The New World of SPROUTs

The pandemic has imposed constraints and hardship on society. But out of the chaos and despair, new positive and creative forms have emerged, in music, research, and perhaps other fields. Using digital media, different kinds of SPROUTs are redefining established institutional forms and demonstrating new possibilities. In an important way they are reimagining and redefining the core values that govern traditional societal domains such as science and the music industry. Levit reminded us that music making is at heart an intimate process of communicating joy and emotion between musicians and an engaged, committed audience. This joint process gets easily lost in the concert hall or opera theatre with their exclusive and rigid rules and conventions. Similarly, science has once in the past been about two fundamental motivations. Curiosity, or the excitement of understanding the world around us in all its buzzing blooming confusion by discovering and interpreting patterns. And melioration, contributing to the betterment of the world by applying the results of our investigations. In the practices and conventions of institutionalised science, with its reliance on precarious work, its status hierarchy between theory and action, the jealous guarding of disciplinary territories, the outsized power of gatekeepers, the proliferation of auditing procedures, and the transformation of universities into businesses, these basic, generative passions are easily lost. Tomas Pueyo or the SolPan project show how they can be regained. How the joy of working to achieve understanding and contribute to problem solving can be organised in the interstices of traditional institutions. (Other projects in the domain of science that have several of the key characteristics of SPROUT are the CoronaPanel project at the University of Vienna, and the Recovery study at Oxford, a randomised controlled trials in real-world settings to test the effectiveness of Covid medication, just to name a few examples, and recently showcased in the Guardian as showcasing the strength of UK science.)

SPROUTs emerge because practitioners perceive opportunities in situations of personal and collective distress. SPROUTs represent hope. In his interviews, Levit frequently comments on how the live streaming of his concerts helped him get through the lockdown. The often moving reactions of his virtual audience show how people find comfort and solace in his music making. Despite the pressures and obligations that running a multinational comparative project doubtlessly imposes on the project teams, they serve restorative functions for the immediate participants. We found that working together with many of our colleagues in the SolPan project had an openness and generosity that are not easily found in grant-financed projects. Although we have of course also experienced our share of problems throughout the past months, we think it somewhat miraculous that an unfunded consortium of (now) over 40 members in several countries is still working together after almost a year (during which some country teams have been able to secure funding for parts of their work, but the consortium as a whole is still unfunded).


The spontaneity and improvisatory nature of SPROUTs is essential to their success.

Their very essence is that they operate outside established institutional conventions and form an implicit commentary on them. In that sense SPROUTs are, what we would call, ‘constructively subversive’. Their aim is not to destroy institutions — without institutional resources, SPROUTers could not exist. But SPROUTs seek to add to them, to remind them of their original mission by reimagining their latent possibilities. It is essential for this utopian function of SPROUTs to function, that they represent the best that the field has to offer: Levit’s stunning pianism, Pueyo’s brilliant analysis of data, SolPan’s rigorous research design and generous collaborative spirit. We think it is this combination of improvisation and quality that draws people to SPROUTs and enkindles a desire to be part of it.

Finally, SPROUTs are about action. They are pragmatic, actionable solutions to the everyday problems of working in a particular field. There are two sides to this. First, every institution requires ever larger maintenance costs to keep it operational. Concert schedules are set years in advance. Recording a musical performance in the traditional way is a major technical and marketing undertaking. Levit discovered that with a camera, a tripod and some basic streaming tools he could reach an audience of hundreds of thousands within a matter of days. He announced his program hours before the actual recital, contributing to the sense of spontaneity and surprise. Similarly, the usual road from idea, via project proposal, grant application, reviews, revisions, re-application, and award, can easily take a year or more. To have a fighting chance to obtain a grant, researchers needs to more or less specify their findings in advance. The unintended effect is that the world of grant application languishes under a thick blanket of conservatism and risk avoidance. If she is lucky enough to have obtained funding, stringent accountability requirements then distract the researcher from her main task of doing research and interpreting findings. SPROUTs strip away many of these opportunity costs and focus all that energy and creativity on that what matters.

Second, SPROUTs are action-oriented in the sense that they emerge from and contribute to real world problems. This quality is perhaps more apparent in science-based SPROUTs then in other domains. The conventions of academia require that researchers specify upfront what theory they draw upon. PhD students are trained to get their theory in order before they get out in the field to collect data. Obviously, we do not want to make small of theory. We need explanatory theories to understand our observations and to interpret the patterns we have inferred. But in institutionalised social science too often abstract theory has become a shibboleth, a marker that signifies to which academic camp we belong. Abstract theory becomes a way to police the boundary between supposedly serious science and the allegedly lower forms of empirical and applied academic work. SPROUTs are informed by theory and seek to contribute to theory — but they are essentially problem oriented. The questions they pursue and to which they contribute are the urgent issues of our time.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed many aspects of our everyday life. We have reduced commuting, conduct our meetings online, cut down on flying, and given up on living in overpriced apartments in big cities. Some of these changes will be enduring. We think SPROUTs are also here to stay. But organisationally complex SPROUTs cannot survive without the nourishing soil that they require to grow and flourish. SPROUTs show what untapped potential our institutions and our societies contain — but they also need a minimum of facilitation to stay alive. For institutions that are open to this, and willing to support their SPROUTs, SPROUTs can help to reconnect them with their original values. Alternatively, public support for SPROUTs could help societies to expand their organisational repertoires by including creative and innovative practices that break through the very institutional norms, forms and patterns that have led to the crisis in the first place.

We would love to hear from you how to think differently about SPROUT (also if you think we got it wrong!), or if you are aware of other SPROUTs that are worth adding to our list.

[This text first appeared as a blog post on Medium: https://medium.com/@hendrik.wagenaar/sprouts-of-hope-in-times-of-crisis-204aa8dffbec (11 January 2021]