On 23 January 2015, researcher Pieter Heringa was granted a doctorate by Delft University of Technology for his research into the question as to whether or not proximity matters in collaborative knowledge production. In his thesis, entitled ‘Proximity and collaborative knowledge production in the water sector’, he demonstrates that there are still a remarkable number of lacunae in our understanding of the effect of proximity in collaborative knowledge production. Heringa was supervised during the course of his research by Wim van Vierssen, KWR’s CEO and professor at TU Delft.
Water sector as object of study
Heringa consciously chose the water sector to be the object of his research into proximity. Water management is generally organised at a national level, but the challenges it faces are often specific to the local environment. Furthermore, water is an international issue: it cannot be contained within administrative or cultural borders. Heringa not only studied geographical proximity, but also organisational, cognitive and social proximity.
The effect of proximity
The study shows that social and cognitive proximity have a positive effect on the outcomes of collaborative research. Geographical and organisational proximity, in contrast, have a negative effect on explicit outcomes of collaboration, such as joint publications, and have a very limited positive effect on tacit outcomes, such as the informal sharing of ideas. ‘Knowledge users are more susceptible to the positive effect of proximity than are knowledge producers,’ according to Heringa.
Among the recommendations Heringa makes on the basis of his conclusions, is that policy-makers in knowledge production networks with a stable and relatively homogenous centre – like the water sector – should stimulate the most important network players to further build and strengthen the network. This would improve the network management.