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Exploring innovation in infrastructure with a focus on sustainability

Dr Natalya Sergeeva explains how the GEF opened doors to further collaborations and funding through enabling face-to-face meetings

Dr Natalya Sergeeva (right) and Svetlana Sabelfeld (left)

27 September 2021

Dr Natalya Sergeeva, Associate Professor, the Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, used Global Engagement Funds to meet colleagues in Denmark and Sweden.

These meetings helped to progress her research and the subsequent collaborations have resulted in the award of a £243k Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant.

Exploring innovation in infrastructure

Dr Sergeeva’s research contributes to innovation theory by arguing that narratives of innovation and their interactions at different levels play a vital role in constructing meanings, building innovative capabilities and shaping individual and collective identities.

An innovation narrative is part of an organisation’s culture that encapsulates employees’ beliefs about a company’s ability to innovate.

Narratives of innovation are consistently promoted by policy makers at the industry level to meet the targets set by the government. Yet, little is known about how firm-level narratives of innovation interact with industry-level narratives.

Most influential work on innovation narratives is theoretical in nature and there is a lack of empirical support. Dr Sergeeva aims to explore this area both theoretically and empirically.

The UK infrastructure sector, on which the ESRC grant will focus, provides a particularly rich setting in which to explore narratives of innovation, which have changed over time, with the focus on sustainability and climate change and digitisation as an enabler.

The team has conducted narrative interviews with senior managers and their teams from established partners within the UK infrastructure sector – from HS2 to Anglian Water – to understand their organisational culture of innovation.

How meeting face-to-face builds collaboration

A key part of her research was to explore and build on the established theoretical research.

The Global Engagement Funds enabled Dr Sergeeva to meet leading innovation narrative theorists in person. She spent a week with Professor Barbara Czarniawska, a narrative theorist, at the Gothenburg Research Institute, Sweden and a week with Professor Tor Hernes at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.

These meetings enabled her to understand and explore their research and develop collaborations, including the ESRC grant application and getting feedback on papers.

Dr Sergeeva commented: “The UCL Global Engagement Funds has enabled me to meet narrative theorists in person, as well as their colleagues to whom I have been introduced. It has been valuable experience to work in their environment and have a sense how Business Schools work. It has opened a great opportunity for cross-disciplinary research. I highly appreciate UCL to which I am committed and I will do my best to make contributions and impact in the future.”

“I feel that even a short one-hour meeting with world leading professors was beneficial because the feedback I got on the paper was spot on,” she added. “They can say just one sentence, which is ‘like a light bulb.’ I’ve also learned more about their work, for example narratives from a more processual perspective, exploring innovation events.”

A catalyst for research progression

As a result of the successful ESRC grant, Dr Sergeeva and her collaborators have employed a new Research Associate and are publishing several articles, book chapters and a book.

Following the original GEF-funded trips, their collaborations with researchers worldwide are expanding, including to Europe and Australia.

Dr Sergeeva aims to use the research with industry partners to enable information sharing and learning processes in the form of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and Industrial Case Studentships to achieve economic and societal impact.

More information


Caption: Dr Natalya Sergeeva (right) and Svetlana Sabelfeld (left) in the office of Prof Barbara Czarniaswska in a GEF funded trip to Sweden.

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