Feeling safe: what makes us feel safe and what does that look like?

Crime and risk are often at the forefront of research into safety. Self-titled ‘happyologist’ and researcher Dr Ilona Suojanen has researched promoters of safety and the factors that increase the perception of safety. These are the ‘positive safety’ factors. When do we feel safe? Why do we feel safe? Ilona sought to answer these questions in her two years of post-doctoral research at RSM’s Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM).

What is it about your effort that makes a positive change?
“A lot of research looks at safety from a negative perspective or in terms of what is missing. Even the definition of safety is the absence of threats and risks – it focuses on what is missing. A lot of existing research is about objective safety, about different measurements, types of defence, how to secure places; all the restrictive aspects. I wondered about the feelings that people have and the experience of safety, so I didn’t want to focus on the lack of safety, but the presence of safety. That’s where my research idea to look into the positive side of safety took off.”

“The bulk of the research we do at CESAM has positive impact – if not all of it. The centre has a great group of people from diverse backgrounds and interests that value co-creation and collaboration.

The conference on the refugee situation that CESAM organised is a good example of how we collaborate with other organisations, share knowledge and try to facilitate co-creation. Attendees were practitioners in law enforcement, researchers and people who had been at refugee camps and seen the challenges first-hand. Even though the topic and situation in itself is tragic, we asked people to tell their positive experiences, too. We need the negative experiences to be aware of what is happening, but we hope that through group work and broadening people’s networks we can contribute to finding out what has worked, and to build on this.”


"Use your own inspiration, your own hobbies, whatever ways we collect understanding like smells or even music."


Why do you do it?
“One of the first things I did when I started researching safety at CESAM was go to an English bookstore in Amsterdam and ask for books on safety and how to feel safe. The store clerk gave me a Buddhist book that covered the concept of safety and that was it. I thought to myself ‘this can’t be everything’. Why isn’t there a guide or a book with tips for feeling safer?

“Research is often looking at what doesn’t work; what I’m researching is looking at what works and helping to boost them and help them grow.

“When I meet people who tell me that they’ve never heard of the concept of positive safety or have never thought of safety as a feeling, it’s an assurance that what I’m researching makes a difference.”

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring researchers?
“For those people looking to go into research, look for answers to questions that you find relevant yourself. Look for different ways of collecting data. For example, I started using visual methodologies a lot and it not only ties into what I’m researching but makes it relatable when telling others about my research. Use your own inspiration, your own hobbies, whatever ways we collect understanding like smells or even music. I found that safety can be studied from so many aspects. It’s more than just the numbers. While the numbers do give us the average, they don’t tell us the nuances nor the stories behind those numbers.”