Research in times of Corona

Source: Clara Medina-García


These last months have been challenging for all aspects of life, world-wide alarm, lock-downs, challenges to most systems and believes we were taking for granted, and many questions and possibilities of change and adaptation towards the future. And in that midst, SI4SD research had to go on, only starting the important milestone of the International Module of Spatial Developement Planning Programme (IMSDP) that I was attending as the core PhD training for my research between March and June, what a coincidence! What was meant to be an intense team-working and immersing training and exchanging period in Leuven with other beginner researchers from around the globe, suddenly had to turn online only after the very intense week of lectures by Prof. Frank Moulaert introducing Social Innovation and Prof. Pieter Van den Broeck‘s explanation of research methodologies.

Without losing intensity nor work load the group and the programme were highly affected by the technological and social challenge of meeting online. However, with more and more international borders being closed, each of us, Professors included, kept peeking at Skype for every session as the window that kept us attached to the outer world and that helped us keep a routine that would easy the tension of the state of alarm. The combination of online classes with individual tutoring and seminar sessions required intense focus, a lot of reading and even more reflection but altogether gifted all of us with fresh concepts and theories from different disciplines and fields of research related to social innovation to enrich the topics and plans of each of our research projects.

The first taking from these months were THEORIES that revealed specially relevant to advance the SI4SD project, like Foundational Economy, explained by Prof. Flavia Martinelli and Andreas Novy, which acknowledges that some economic activities and fields like welfare services or energy and food provision can and should be subject for greater public control and development as they directly affect citizens’ well-being. Suddenly, an economic theory clicked in my head reassuring my intuitions about the link between social innovation, multi-actor collaborations and the role of public administrations in that context, as well as the appropriate choice of networks around food system transformations as case studies for my research.


In addition, the feedback from other professors like Yuri Kazepov and Andy Pike gave me good tips on how to stick to the “research gap” I had identified while providing new fields of research to enrich my theoretical framework: bureaucracy (to deepen on the mechanisms that explain how public administrations work and how they relate to other actors), (multi-level) governance and the role of state and nations, inter-organization collaborations (to understand how collaborations are establish as well as how they function internally), the city-region concept (to frame the comparison between Madrid and Flanders), but also democracy, democratic innovation and political ecology (for an understanding of the impact of these initiatives at the broader eco-socio-political level) as well as collective agency and collective leadership (for an internal analysis of the initiatives themselves).

SI4SD literature review plan as updated during IMSDP Programme in May 2020

The IMSDP also included a COLLABORATIVE WORKSHOP, planned as a week in May camping and interacting with local stakeholders in Antwerp, that, goes without saying, had to be completely reinvented in Corona times. Instead, we applied action research and interaction with affected actors to understand the effects of the COVID-19 emergency in different fields and the socially innovative initiatives that were spreading around the world to tackle such effects. In the end, the workshop was spread in several weeks in April and May where we started to plan the topics and groups, develop the research methodologies, collecting information and start thinking of the outputs (all of them with a written and an artistic component). Then, then last week of May was saved as the intense collective writing moment to turn our research and findings into a new issue of the online publication INSIST-4.


Looking back at those months, I realise how the topic of the IMSDP workshop and the research it implied, became therapeutic in the times of emergency. It was only normal that I would end up spending a lot of time weekly (and daily) surfing the news and trying to grasp an understanding of what was happening around the globe in such an unprecedented situation. But at the same time, having chosen the topic of food systems and bearing in mind that it was emerging social innovation that we were focusing on, my time checking the news helped me understand the intricate relations in food systems and socio-politics while stressing an optimistic regard towards the future. In addition, the fact of working with such an international and heterogeneous group – with students from all continents – pushed us to keep a broad scope of different situations all around the world and escape the “temptation” of “staring at our own feet”.

Solidarity-based initiatives and creative solutions to care for the most vulnerable, together with business innovations, new partnerships among agents in the system and improvised or speeded-up political transformations… they all stressed the power of collective action and gave hints of the transformations that are being triggered towards a more just and sustainable world in the coming days, months and years. Surely, many challenges remain and keep arising, and some actors and forces try to take advantage towards other types of transformations, but, as the results of the IMSDP workshop show, the hope and the foundations for a more sustainable and caring future are there for all of us to take.

For those who need a teaser of this research, here is the video with the results from the group researching on food systems. Enjoy.

Video on the effect of Corona in Food Systems, from chapter 2 INSIST-4 publication (by Mónica Martínez Fernández, Clara Medina-García, Hongkai Chen and Carlos E. Martínez Canavate)

It goes without saying that the further research on food systems also strengthen the basis of my own case study, and allowed me to keep advancing in the definition of my research. In addition, all this work also proved valuable to contribute to the emerging collaboration of my research group at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the Lab IPPU (Laboratory of Innovation and Participation in Urban Policies) , which joined the collective mapping of solidarity initiatives in times of corona, SOLIVID, started by the University of Barcelona.


In the meantime, the “opportunities” to span the hours of a day when meetings turn online and the transportation time is left out of the equation of a daily routine soon proved valuable to increase the intensity of this period. As if IMSDP was not enough… fieldwork also became online, and tons of events and meetings started crawling into my calendar almost without noticing, while action research in Supercoop, far from fading away as was expected at the beginning of March, only got more and more intense week after week during the lock-down.