How innovation communities can deliver more effective research

Peter Simpson, director of N8
Simpson: "I am really interested in those partnerships":
Successful interfaces between the third sector, business, and academia are becoming critical in research programmes. N8 director Peter Simpson describes how cross-sectoral ‘innovation communities’ can enable collaboration, producing more effective research and a wide range of other benefits.

Innovation is a team sport. Looking at a problem from multiple perspectives can help us to reach a better answer, quicker.

Taking this philosophy as a basis, we at the N8 Research Partnership have been taking collaborations forward that involve multiple disciplines, multiple institutions, the public and voluntary sectors, and businesses – with the aim of building “Innovation Communities”.

Co-production of research

Closer working between academics and non-academic research user groups – so called ‘co-production’ of research – is one approach that we are using for developing knowledge and insights. This is enabling us to address, for example, community and urban living challenges.

‘Making Knowledge That Matters’ is an ESRC-funded programme which addresses how academics, and non-academics, can collaborate better, to address big challenges facing society. The programme seeks to identify and demonstrate how research can both be intellectually excellent, and have public benefit.

All the research that is funded in this programme involves partnerships between researchers and groups and individuals within the policy community, the voluntary sector, and business . For example, a series of learning workshops have explored how the use of a ‘CityLab’ shared space for collaboration could be beneficial across Leeds.

The N8 Policing Research Partnership (N8 PRP) is another interesting co-production initiative. The N8 PRP incorporates academic experts from many disciplines – for example criminology, law, sociology, social policy, psychology, politics, business studies, management, technology, geography, urban studies, theology and cultural studies – brought together by their shared commitment to knowledge exchange, and research co-production, that impacts on real world policing.

As well as academics across our eight universities, this partnership programme  – part-funded by HEFCE – involves 11 police forces and offices of the Police and Crime Commissioners, all across the north of England, as well as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the College of Policing. N8 PRP provides a platform for the partners to identify major policing issues together, and then to co-develop research and knowledge exchange activities that strengthen the evidence base and support innovation within policing.

Partnering with industry

Collaborative research with industry, too, is undergoing a sea change. I spent the past 16 years working within the pharmaceutical sector, as it underwent a revolution in its thought processes. Pharmaceutical companies have moved from a protectionist IP and knowledge approach, to a much more open, collaborative approach – sharing skills and tools externally while looking for ideas from wherever they may be found. This new mindset proving to be a good foundation for stronger partnership with academia.

Across other industries, too, historical expectation, of industry providing funding that enables academics to work independently, has evolved into a much closer interaction. This brings mutual benefits: academics get to work on real-world problems with improved access to the insight of the business partner, and industry can see relevant and timely impact from academic collaboration.

Through N8’s Industry Innovation Forum (N8 IIF) programme, we have seen the direct, tangible benefits of this.

N8 IIF has staged events which have brought MNCs, SMEs and academics together in a series of facilitated forums. This format has enabled experts from across these sectors to partner off onto deeper interactions in areas of mutual interest. This facilitated partnering approach has already led to multiple new collaborative research projects, generating £10m of positive funding decisions from research councils to date.

Interdisciplinary, inter-institution collaboration

Of course, successful collaboration with the non-academic sector, and with business, is founded on academics being enabled to work across research areas, and often across institutions, in a truly collaborative manner. N8 is proud of its track record of senior university leadership support for academics working across traditional research boundaries, often involving experts within non-N8 universities, to build innovative programmes. This flexibility enables us to present a non-academic collaboration partner with a credible, coherent set of skills and knowledge, and the proven ability to work collaboratively without unnecessary bureaucracy.

In a recent example of multi-institutional, interdisciplinary collaboration, with direct industrial partnering at its core: N8 has received HEFCE funding for a new agri-food programme, which will build on the N8’s research strengths in science, engineering and the social sciences, to address key global challenges in Food Security. The N8 Agri-Food Resilience Programme aims to harness the strengths of what is the greatest concentration of bioscientists engaged in agri-food research in the UK, to work in partnership with farmers and agri-food businesses. Working together, these different stakeholders can increase resilience and economic competitiveness in pre-farm gate development, supply chain innovation, and reducing barriers to behavioural change.

Within this programme, the N8 universities are sharing access to their experimental farms – each having very a different focus and skills, which together create a coherent platform for industry to work with academia on a wide range on agri-food problems. Additionally, shared use of pathology suites, quarantine glass houses, pest research units, expertise in sensors, and so on within this programme, enables efficiency and productivity, to sit closely alongside the programme’s focus on innovative approaches to international food problems.

Innovation Communities

I like to think that these brief examples I have described are indicative of an ongoing wave, transforming our research and innovation programmes. Successful interfaces between the third sector, business, and academia are critical to successful and relevant research programmes for the future. I recognise, though, that such cross-sectoral “Innovation Communities” need time to be built, and each party needs to be able to learn from and trust the others.

In N8 we believe that learning how to do collaborative cross sectoral research in a more sophisticated way will mean that our research programs are perform efficiently; delivering high ‘bang for the buck’ in terms of productivity; and by working across sectors and disciplines we will deliver a higher level of innovation. The future is, I think, bright for innovation communities as a model for research.