Reflections on returning to the Prevention Centre: 2013–2019

Many of us find the end of a year is a good time to reflect and review how things are going. I’m sure others have also experienced that strange phenomenon of not noticing change when it occurs incrementally. For example, when you see a person every day, but time apart gives you a completely different perspective or suddenly you appreciate how a child has grown, or a gawky adolescent has become a confident and empowered adult.

In the nine months since I returned to the Prevention Centre after three years away, I have observed some significant developments and a strong sense of presence and value. The Prevention Centre has become an established and recognised part of the Australian prevention landscape since its establishment in 2013.

It is a large and important collaboration creating new opportunities for innovative partnership research, contributing valuable forms of knowledge to inform prevention policies and programs, and providing unique avenues for early and mid-career researchers through its many projects, scholarships and networks.

“The Prevention Centre has become an established and recognised part of the Australian prevention landscape since its establishment in 2013.”

The unique qualities of our partnerships and work are recognised overseas. On a recent visit to Europe I was invited to speak about the research and operational model of the Prevention Centre by the Danish Intersectoral Prevention Laboratory (IPL) – a recently established consortium of researchers, practitioners and policy makers from some of the Danish regions.

The IPL has been inspired greatly by the wealth and quality of the work on our website, and asked me to speak to a hundred or so colleagues across their networks, as well as to a political meeting of their regional Members of Parliament and advisors, with one primary aim: “we want you to inspire our prevention research community and political partners to set up a Danish version of your Australian Prevention Partnership Centre!”.

The first session was recorded and a video of my presentation on the Prevention Centre – who we are, how we started, what we do and what we’ve learned – is available on the IPL website (video on top right).

That others are inspired by the Prevention Centre is primarily due to our many investigators and partners, who report how their work is enriched by the relationships and expanding networks that our collaborations have been able to support and nurture. It is wonderful to witness the open dialogues between colleagues and partners from many different backgrounds.

The apparent levels of trust are evidenced by the ways that so many of our new research projects are developed – often taking a different path from what was first envisaged as a result of the input of collaborators from policy and practice settings.

“It has been a real pleasure returning to the Prevention Centre after three years away to a stronger, more confident and exciting collaboration that is transforming the landscape of prevention research in Australia.”

We all know that working within a network of established relationships opens the doors for constructive debate and creativity. Honest dialogue is far more valuable than the quiet distancing that can occur in unfamiliar or imposed collaborations. This is accompanied by a widely-held respect for the value of ‘co-production’ through partnership research – despite it sometimes being a slower and more meandering path.

I have heard on many occasions that the Prevention Centre offers a valuable mechanism for convening about prevention – across institutions and jurisdictions – exactly because it is a shared endeavour. This is a valuable ‘common good’ that many of us believe we can expand and develop further.

Others have commented on their growing confidence in using the tools and language of systems thinking. Many of us in the Australian prevention research community came to this work with little formal training in systems science or systems theory, and there remain diverse opinions and interpretations of their definitions.

But it is clear that as a discipline we are maturing in our study of complexity and our understanding of how to apply systems approaches to identify the opportunities for systems change. This all feels quite different from the Prevention Centre’s early years, when we had a new funding model and high expectations – but many of us were on a steep learning curve about how to operationalise a systems approach.

At that time, we weren’t sure whether the new partnership models would live up to expectations about generating valuable policy-relevant knowledge. It has been inspiring to hear our funding partners speak about how much they value their engagement and investment in the Prevention Centre’s work.

In addition to the research, some of the other important assets enabled through this model are science communication, knowledge mobilisation, cross-sectoral networks, and opportunities to support early and mid-career research capacity.

As we continue to grow and evolve, it is interesting to reflect on the Prevention Centre as a complex and dynamic system; self-organising, with positive and negative feedback loops, and numerous leverage points for change. I am excited by the many conversations I have had in the past nine months about the potential in the years ahead.

There is much enthusiasm for building on our work in chronic disease prevention systems, and exploring further the ‘co-benefits’ of prevention and the ‘triple bottom line’ of health, economic and environmental outcomes. There are also prospects for new capacity building partnerships with Centres of Research Excellence and other research groups.

It has been a real pleasure returning to the Prevention Centre after three years away to a stronger, more confident and exciting collaboration that is transforming the landscape of prevention research in Australia.