Catalyst is a £1.9M project funded by the EPSRC which will bring together academics from social science, computing, design and management science to carry out transformative research on the theme of citizen-led social innovation. Based at Lancaster University, Catalyst will introduce radical multidisciplinary working practices through a series of ‘research sprints’, or short-term research intensive multidisciplinary investigations that will each tackle a key sub-question related to citizen-led innovation.

Catalyst defines citizen-led (social) innovation as the bottom-up creation of community-driven solutions to major societal problems. Citizen-led innovation has been an active ingredient of societies for centuries. However, technological developments such as online social networks and mobile computing have made it easier than ever before to initiate and nurture it; these technologies permit ‘ridiculously easy group forming’ and have led to civic engagement on a scale and with an efficiency not seen before.

Catalyst addresses two core themes that will maximize the opportunities for citizens to transform society: understanding behaviour (what stimulates people to participate and why) and tools for change (what next-generation technologies best support how people want to innovate). Although social technologies have been extremely effective in promoting citizen-led activism, they were not designed specifically for it; it is natural, therefore, to ask what the next generation of tools should look like and to design those tools with the wants and needs of participatory citizens firmly in mind.

Research questions to be explored by Catalyst


  • What is the role of technology in stimulating citizens to get involved (or not) in grassroots, community driven social innovation?
  • What is the vision of next-generation technologies designed explicitly with citizen-led innovation in mind?
  • How can citizen innovations be effectively scaled up and diffused beyond the original communities in which they were developed?
  • How do we best reflect upon the process of multi-disciplinary practice itself?

There are two principal ways in which academic staff can get involved with Catalyst: research sprints and community launch-pads.

Research Sprints


The Catalyst project is organised around a series of ‘research sprints’, in which academic staff from different disciplines will form ‘collaboratories’ to address the two core themes mentioned above. Research sprints will provide financial, human and technological resources for communities and academic researchers to work together for six to nine months on community-driven problems. Communities and academics involved in research sprints will be able to draw on three post-doctoral researchers, the input from academics from a range of disciplines (computing, environmental science, design, management, social science) as well as equipment and resources for expenses.

Each sprint team will be expected to formulate and implement a detailed plan of activities which will include:

  • significant contributions to one or more of the key research themes of the proposal,
  • immersion in each other’s research activities,
  • continuous working with partner communities.

Each team will be mentored by the project PI and relevant coIs as appropriate to ensure that the team receives quality time for creative thinking, follows the objectives of the sprint mechanism and delivers concrete results.


Launchpads are community led activities that are typically smaller in size and/or more speculative than sprints. In a Launchpad some of the resources of Catalyst can be made available in a shorter time frame to help community groups find out how the sorts of problems they are facing might be helped through digital technology. It is hoped that Launchpads will work as a pilot for ideas that then lead to new activities involving digital technology – they may also lead to a bid for a Research Sprint.