Meet the Gluon Researchers

In conversation with the revolutionary additions to the knowledge eco-system

Chuma Mbambo works as a Gluon for SPRING. The project focuses on how experts from different disciplines can work towards improving the lifestyles, living environment and life expectancy of residents of neighbourhoods like Rotterdam-Zuid.

Why did you apply for the gluon position?

I have worked as an urban planner in the research and policy development space for a good while. Over the years I’ve worked with people from various disciplines and backgrounds and had expected to integrate their knowledge. I often found that the outcomes we were working towards weren’t very useful as we rarely managed to develop products that were impactful enough for people to transform the way we think and work towards improving our cities. To me, it ended up feeling like the word integration would be thrown around but wasn’t actually being carried out in a meaningful way. When I found the Gluon position I was immediately interested because now there would be an actual person whose sole purpose is to find ways to meaningfully integrate knowledge.
It goes without saying that in this very complex world, we need to be working in an integrated way. To be the central person in that process really spoke to me. The role I applied for focused on health inequalities and wellbeing which I felt was a great fit for me, since I had been working with spatial justice and urban inequality issues in South Africa.

Failing is literally part of the job description – as uncomfortable as it sounds.

Could you explain your work as a Gluon Researcher?

I am involved in the SPRING Consortium which focuses on urban inequalities, specifically health inequalities and wellbeing. There are many disciplines that work towards the same goal when it comes to this topic, from citizens and researchers to practitioners and entrepreneurs. All these different are highly knowledgeable on issues related to health and well-being but are focused on their own little compartments. We all want to find a joined solution to move forward. When we stay in our own corners, we risk creating blind spots simply because we are not exposed to each other’s knowledge and work. My job as a Gluon is to experiment with various methods to bring different parties, and their knowledge, to work together so our solutions can have a much bigger impact.


As a trailblazer, how would you say the Gluon role differs from more traditional academic research roles?

I think a major difference is that there is no benchmark, since the work has not been done before. There is no practical example, toolkit or reference that can help you to say “Ok, if I face this type of challenge, then this would be a solution.” It is a very experimental role, an open game that is highly dependent on context. While that can be challenging at times, there is a lot of value in the process. As you grow and learn to navigate the uncertainty, you start to find yourself within the role which is so satisfying because you truly steered through the complex setting yourself.


What advice would you give to aspiring gluons who seek to make a similar impact in their respective domains?

To anyone who’s looking to be a Gluon in the future, be patient and try and fail until you get it right. While the role is new and at times a little scary, there is also one huge advantage; experimentation is part of the job. Failing is literally part of the job description – as uncomfortable as it sounds. So, better to try and fail, than fail to try. That is the beauty of it. I would advise anyone to take full advantage of that freedom to find new ways and solutions. As I mentioned earlier, often knowledge integration is merely an afterthought. By actively working on the integration during the process we have an opportunity to create greater impact in the work that is being done. The Gluon puts theory into action in a meaningful way, and that is the value we add to the whole knowledge ecosystem.