The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 21, 2016

How can researchers work with practitioners to help Detroit’s comeback?

As Detroit recovers from the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, the city stands at a crossroads.

Detroit can reshape itself to be inclusive of all of its citizens. Public infrastructure can be redesigned, vacant properties can be repurposed or redistributed, and public budgets can be altered. But these changes come with new questions that need to be answered: Where should the city invest its public dollars? How can the real estate market and local economy best be revived? And how can the current administration best engage its citizens in the process?

Finding the best answers to these questions requires looking to research and to practice. But too often, researchers and practitioners arrive at answers independent of each other, and true collaboration—the kind that could transform a city—never happens.

One barrier to collaboration is the pace of work. Research can be slow. Researchers cannot always respond to issues on the ground and generally pursue standards of proof that preclude providing answers timely enough for practitioners to act on.

Finding locally applicable research can also be difficult. Practitioners cannot always act on research conclusions from a policy or program that worked somewhere else, and researchers do not always have incentives to replicate studies in different places and contexts.

Finally, practitioners, particularly in underresourced cities, often have time constraints that don’t allow them to share data and information with researchers. This can make it difficult for researchers to do locally relevant work.

Because of these mismatched timelines and resource constraints, research questions are often formulated without practitioner input, which can result in less-useful insights. Additionally, research is sometimes written in a way that is not accessible to practitioners and not easily understood by community members.

Though these issues present significant barriers to researcher-practitioner collaboration, practitioners and researchers can better align their interests and the community’s interests:

  • Engage community members early, and include them when designing and developing research projects. Community members should be partners, not just subjects, in the research, because they know what their communities need. This engagement will make the research more useful for practitioners.
  • Explore methods beyond traditional evaluations. Community-based participatory research is a great place to start, because its methods focus on engaging the community equitably in research design and execution.
  • Build short-term research questions into longer-term longitudinal studies. Providing continuous data to partners on the ground can ameliorate the challenges of lengthy research timelines.
  • Use publicly available local data where possible, as these data are generally the most attuned to local specificities and don’t require a large time investment for practitioners. Practitioners can also make local data available publicly.
  • Prioritize research translation (i.e., providing findings that are easily understood and accessible to practitioners and community members) in research dissemination.

Funders and academic institutions can also help by developing more opportunities for researchers and practitioners to craft policy research agendas together and by breaking down the barriers that impede them from doing so. For example, the insights above were developed at a Kresge Foundation-funded roundtable that brought Detroit-focused researchers and practitioners together to identify research needs and inform Detroit’s comeback.

Even though researchers and practitioners often have different interests, goals, standards of proof, and timelines, the benefits of collaboration are clear. In Detroit and similar cities, recovery and regeneration depend on developing innovative policies and programs. For both, policy informed by research and research that is responsive to practice are critical. 

People board a public transit bus on September 6, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.