Building bridges: Solving complex societal challenges like a cooperative game

As an early career researcher in the field of developmental social neuroscience, every day the papers are full of societal challenges and cases that could benefit from our field’s frontier science. Think of health inequality, physical and mental challenges in childhood and adolescence, juvenile delinquency and so on. These challenges are multifaceted and too complex to solve from a single viewpoint. As a board game geek, I like to view what is necessary to address these challenges as playing a cooperative game. In these games, everybody has the same complex end goal, just like societal challenges for a healthy start with equal opportunities, both for children and youth. In a board game, each character has his or her own strengths and expertise, but cannot solve the end game alone. They need to find a way to optimally collaborate, using each other’s strengths. In this metaphor, Healthy Start is the game board and the end games are these complex societal challenges. As such, Healthy Start creates a semi-structured playing field for each character to freely do what they are best at and collaborate towards their common mission; improving the health of future generations.

In cooperative games, there are always expedition leaders; for Healthy Start these are excellent researchers from medical, social and technical sciences who perform frontier science, as evidenced by the many ERC grants that Healthy Start researchers hold. In order to cooperate, the characters should have diverse talents and expertise with a common mission, where the game board – ultimately in the form of a Healthy Start institute – supports and fosters the characters to connect or build bridges; 1) bridges between different disciplines of frontier science, 2) bridges between frontier science and societal stakeholders, and 3) bridges between established and early career researchers. We believe that this integrative approach will lead to groundbreaking solutions for complex problems, strengthening the mental, social and physical health from conception to young adulthood.

First, Healthy Start bridges disciplines, all driven by a common mission – improving the future for new generations – in which frontier science plays a central role. We want to attract disciplines across the full range of fields and across institutes. I’ve experienced that, when talking about my study on social development and my ambition to obtain the perspective of teachers, a researcher from technical sciences recognized this as a user-centered approach and turned out to add a lot of value. In order to add value to each other’s disciplines, we therefore need space and time to explain about our research, sometimes in different ‘languages’, to find a common language or method. This is possible within Healthy Start work forms.

Second, Healthy Start bridges science and societal stakeholders, again driven by a common mission. These involve for instance policy makers, practitioners and youth workers; any stakeholder that plays a role in the life of children and youth and can therefore benefit from novel insights from research. This of course also involves youth themselves. Following an iterative approach, we involve these stakeholders in different steps of the research cycle. This increases commitment, facilitates the implementation of knowledge into society and increases the impact of our research. Within Healthy Start, we experiment with creative ways to engage societal stakeholders while keeping a primary role for frontier science.

Third, Healthy Start bridges researchers in all stages of their career. This progressive and strong focus on learning and pioneering, both bottom-up and top-down, appealed most to me. Early career researchers like me are encouraged to experiment with new ways of collaborating, both inter- and transdisciplinary. We can make this as easy as possible by investing in a community and simply talk to each other. I feel so much positive energy around me to go out and learn from each other. Healthy Start and the broader convergence provide the room and freedom to pioneer with creative new ways of collaborating and see what works best. I believe this freedom to be creative and pioneer is fundamental to move forward. For me and many other early career researchers, Healthy Start provides a unique opportunity to work on the science of the future; interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and pioneering. And just like with playing cooperative games, we enjoy the journey!