In the Sandpit

At lunch, the participants seemed lighter, relieved. Their 10-minute final pitches for funding behind them, the weight of the week’s work had been shed. There was nothing to do but wait for the assessment team to finish their deliberations and in the meantime get a bite to eat and socialise with the others in the group, new colleagues who just four days ago were perfect strangers. This is what Fridays are like at a Sandpit, aka an Ideas Lab.

Twenty-seven people assembled at a conference hotel in Bath Spa, UK, to try their luck at getting funding to do research on user-centered design for energy efficiency in buildings. Their backgrounds were varied; a deliberate attempt was made to invite participants from a broad spectrum of academic and business backgrounds. Participants applied to attend, which means they were prepared to clear a five full days from their schedules and throw their lots in with a group of people they didn’t know, but with whom they’d have to partner in order to get funded. The amount of money on the table: up to 2 million sterling.

With the goal of inspiring more innovative and multi-disciplinary research proposals, the Sandpit was conceived by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in 2003. Knowinnovation helped with the early design, and we’ve been privileged to facilitate hundreds of these workshops, known for being extremely intense, interactive and demanding. We say privileged because it’s an amazing thing to witness what happens at this workshop: a group of highly intelligent people with academic and industry expertise come together around a serious topic to redefine the challenge and generate novel ideas to address it. Previous Sandpits have included topics like ensuring digital privacy and consent, understanding uncertainty in climate predictions, detecting terrorist activity, the application of synthetic biology, to name only a few. Other UK and US research councils have borrowed the format; we’ve facilitated Sandpits for the Technology Strategy Board (now known as Innovate UK), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Cancer Research UK.

The methodology crossed the Atlantic in 2009, and is used now — and called an Ideas Lab — by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the NIH and other US funders.

It’s not that research proposals solicited in a more traditional method haven’t been innovative or produced good science. They have, and they still do, and not every research topic merits a Sandpit initiative. But because the Sandpit format involves a diverse group of people and forces them to catalyse and collide and collaborate, the output is often unique and innovative. Questions arise that wouldn’t otherwise have been posed, and partnerships form between people from very different scientific disciplines, universities and stakeholder organizations. Part mix of people, part pressure, part incentive – the week ends up with a very dynamic collection of research teams and topics.

The workshop week

Participants arrive on Monday and most of the first day is spent getting to know the talent and expertise in the room. We use a number of low-risk activities to get people talking with each other so they learn more about how they might work together. In the afternoon, we start discussing the subject at hand, often inviting experts to make presentations. We ask participants to listen to those presentations a bit differently, in order to get to questions and problems that we might not have asked the same way before. On Tuesday this problem definition work continues; we take a lot of time for this because it’s often redefining the question at hand that inspires novel ideas.

Sometimes it isn’t until mid-day Wednesday that groups begin to form around different problems and start generating ideas. By the end of the day, very rough proposals are shaping up, but it’s still early; groups form and splinter and reform a number of times over the next two days. On Thursday, the working groups make two, sometimes three presentations of their thinking so far, and the rest of the group uses a peer feedback process to help enhance and critique the ideas to make them stronger. As a result, participants end up collaborating with people that they’re also competing against. It’s a bit awkward, sometimes, but amazingly, it works. Solving the problem becomes a priority. In that way, everyone at the Sandpit contributes to the solutions, whether they get funded or not.

Last Friday, five of the seven teams that formed over the week were given a positive head-nod. Now they have several weeks to put meat on the bones of their proposals and submit a more formal, comprehensive funding request. Those who didn’t get funded leave a bit disappointed, surely, but we often hear from unfunded participants that despite the fact they didn’t walk away with money, they significantly increased and enhanced their network of people and knowledge. And on many occasions, ideas born in a Sandpit are funded from other sources.

A different way to work

The Sandpit isn’t for everyone. Not every topic lends itself to this type of pressure and competition. Not every academic can perform when thrust in this intense environment, which has been likened to that of Dragon’s Den. But the research councils who’ve used the Sandpit praise the innovative results, and the participants, at the end of the week, are surprised at the ground they’ve covered in such a compact period of time. As one participant from last week’s event described it: “a crazy week but an amazing idea generator.”

Know further: Learn more about the Sandpit process here or email us with questions about how and why we do it. Read this case study about an Ideas Lab sponsored by the NSF. An interview with an Ideas Lab participant. Curious about what came out of this particular energy Efficiency Sandpit? These were the funded projects.