Shelley Breckenridge: End users see the benefits of matching organisations with academics to turn ideas into reality

At this time of year our thoughts invariably turn to those less fortunate than ourselves, whether that’s buying charity gifts or cards, making donations, or volunteering our time to worthwhile causes.

At this time of year our thoughts invariably turn to those less fortunate than ourselves, whether that’s buying charity gifts or cards, making donations, or volunteering our time to worthwhile causes.

Many third sector organisations and social enterprises have great ideas, but don’t have the in-house expertise, resource or funding to take them forward. By working with Interface to identify experts in our world-class universities, research institutes and colleges, these ideas can become reality, with positive impacts for staff, volunteers, and service users.

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Networks4Learning, a Glasgow-based social enterprise, is developing smart greenhouse applications for farmers in Kenya.

They sought an academic partner to develop an affordable solution – using sensors, communication gateways and other accessories – which could improve the output achieved by farmers.

Interface matched the company to the University of Glasgow, which has significant research excellence in computer systems and networking, particularly low-cost single board computers like Raspberry Pi.

The initial phase of this project developed and delivered a prototype version of a smart greenhouse monitoring kit, which was tested at Edinburgh Napier University.

In the Highlands, Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust provided grants for vulnerable people to heat their homes through a programme called Cosy Homes East Sutherland Scheme, or CHESS.

They wanted to collaborate with an academic partner to help document, analyse and interpret data about how tackling fuel poverty was improving lifestyles and the health of residents, ultimately leading to fewer health issues and savings for the NHS. The aim was to use the information to present evidence of their achievements and outcomes to attract additional funding, helping even more vulnerable people in the community.

Interface matched them with a team from Heriot-Watt University including Dr Fionn MacKillop and Dr Fan Wang, assisted by Dr Paul Cosgrove, from the School of Energy, Geosciences, Infrastructure and Society (EGIS) to undertake the project.

The partners looked at developing measurement and evaluation tools to assess, record and evidence grant allocation and the achievements of distributing the funds. They also researched statistics supporting how Cosy Homes positively affected the mental health and wellbeing of residents who had benefited from grant funding, graphically showing long- term lifestyle improvements.

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The project produced a comparison of the achievements of Cosy Homes compared to similar national schemes and provided recommendations of how to maximise the positive influence of the programme, including developing a framework which could be used in other parts of the country witnessing fuel poverty.

The research conducted by Cosy Homes identified that many householders in the Kyle of Sutherland community were living in fuel poverty and feeling the adverse effects of this. To continue the service provided by Cosy Homes to tackle fuel poverty, the project’s framework has since been adopted by a successive project managed by the Trust called The Energy Advice Service. Community research and consultation by Cosy Homes highlighted the need for an energy advice service across the whole of Sutherland. Climate Challenge Fund awarded The Trust grant funding to deliver The Energy Advice Service across the whole of Sutherland, extending the benefits established by Cosy Homes to households across a wider community.

The academic team is still exploring possibilities to maintain the valuable collaboration between academia and innovative third-sector parties in order to deliver tangible benefits for quality of life in Scotland.

External validation through research was sought in a very different context when an arts company wanted to develop its network of community theatre companies in Edinburgh.

Active Inquiry engages with excluded groups using drama, as well as extending theatre to new and non-traditional audiences, to build the confidence of participants which can result in personal transformation and a greater awareness of how structural issues affect their lives.

Interface matched the organisation with the University of Aberdeen’s Community-University Collaboration for Social Progress. Academic Dr Aileen Ackland collaborated with the arts company to explore and validate the effects of theatre practice with community groups with a focus on whether participation enables people to be able to participate more fully in decisions that affect their lives.

This project helped participants to connect their personal experiences to structural inequalities, enabling them to understand problems not as personal failings but as systemic injustice. It also enabled Active Inquiry to develop their approach to be more responsive to current issues and needs of the communities we work with.

From its inception in 2005, Interface has been inclusive of all types and models of business, including social enterprises and charitable organisations. Their impact on the economy and society is 
hugely important and exchanges of knowledge like this are a win-win for the organisations and the academics, each learning and bringing something new to the table.

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This season is about giving and the team at Interface have been delighted to foster projects that support the spirit of kindness and community.

Contact [email protected] to find out more, or visit

Shelley Breckenridge, Business Engagement Manager and lead on Responsible Business, Interface