Multiples: innovation, universities and impact

What roles can and do universities play in fostering innovation in their localities and beyond? What makes this sustainable in the long-term, and what challenges should and can universities even tackle? These were just some of the questions debated at the recent nesta / UCL event on ‘Responsible innovation’.

Instead of a purely innovation-led discussion however (‘innovation’ is often equated to a given university impact indicator), conversations began to revolve around a very familiar set of questions and challenges for anyone involved in translational research, particularly those involved in the translational research bermuda triangle: research – policy – public. As any exercise of translation, to remain with in the metaphor that keeps coming up as part of the phrase ’translational research’ (a phrase that I learnt originated from translational medicine), meaning can be lost, distorted and devalued in the process and at worst leads to scrambled or stunted communications. A recent literary anthology published under the title ‘Multiples’ (Thirlwell, 2012) took the idea of faithful expert translation and chased it through the prism of multiple sequential translations: from an english version of a short story writers translated into their native language, followed by another writer translating the translation into their language, followed by someone eventually translating this back to english, very often entirely transformed, encapsulating other traces of language, histories, meanings, and personal style within them. The book was fascinating, but not well-liked by the orthodox translation community – it had steered off course and departed too far from the initial author’s intended meaning – if meaning can at all be owned.

Where does this leave the idea of translational research? It’s a very clunky metaphor, and presumes a linear back and forth or entirely separate entities, trapped in their respective languages of practice. The speakers talked about theses divides and instances of overcoming them, despite the fact that in some disciplines there is little robust methodology on how to achieve this and many barriers to doing it well, some of which strongly related to organisational cultures, discipline-specific boundaries, and institutional practices.

Inter and cross-disciplinary work involves many challenges, some of which are related to cultures and practices of a discipline, some more fundamentally conceptual and epistemological: what processes and methodological paradigms are favoured for investigation and are these assumptions at odds with how different parties might want to approach a piece of work? What are the underlying epistemologies, theoretical, often socio-political foundations of each party, and how flexible are they in accommodating or being permeated by other frameworks while retaining their integrity? And would rushing into a fixed top down external agenda forego not only the sets of knowledge and their potential for interloping, tacit within the group, but also the knowledge integration process through dialogic transfer?

In interdisciplinary work or projects with ‘cross-functional’ teams knowledge differences are often said to disrupt team formation and progress of the project. To some extent this is dependent on different working cultures, but also related to questions of trust – trust in the other parties’ knowledge without knowing what they know, or sharing what one knows without fear of losing the tradable base of the world of research – ideas – requires leaving one’s comfort zone but also assurance of recognition of one’s efforts in some fixed mechanism. What to make of competition and conflict, and the way it impedes innovation in research? The levels of closeness or distance between disciplines come into play as well (and levels of career progression in relation to resource and continuity of contracts) – for instance, are too closely related paradigms too reliant on the integrity of their differences in their existence to be truly collaborative? And when is collaboration useful, instead of collaboration for the sake of it?

Different techniques exist for ‘action learning’ or knowledge integration, allowing team members to better understand each other’s different perspectives, practices and how they might interact. One opportunity lies with ‘traversing knowledge differences’, an in-depth process that involves the direct tackling of different sets of knowledge, confronting the differences and developing a set of convergent ideas and approaches on the basis of that. (Majchrzak, More, Faraj, 2012) The downsides of this process are summarised as having the potential to get stuck on this level and create more conflict by pointing out differences. An alternative is the process of ‘transcending knowledge differences’. This is done by dealing with knowledge integration through applied action learning on project elements, not explicitly debating the differences, but working through them in the form of a case study, or other applied dialectic processes, activities and events, rather than direct dialogue. (more on dialogue and interaction, see *1)

But work on interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams is not simply restricted by internal practices of exchange, they sit within a wider institutional and organisational framework which can enhance or restrict these processes. Speakers and the audience discussed in particular the categorical barriers of research funding in the academic field, departmental boundaries and fiscal control in the policy sphere; as well as issues of incentivising certain activities over others in fostering one’s career progression in academia. Is interdisciplinary work truly incentivised and reinforced by allocation of funds, and how does the impact and measurement of publication as a signifier of academic success compare to the less defined and more experimental nature of undertaking ‘impact’ or ‘engagement’ activities. Members of the audience outlined a need for there to be a space in the existing academic canon for new knowledge of a different nature to fit into, and a lack of established and tested methodologies across different fields to ensure that efforts spent on ‘impact’ are worthwhile for what success means in their respective discipline. “Who owns the disciplines?”, someone asked. “The institutes governing their respective disciplines must modernise to account for interdependencies.”

What potential relationship is there between academia and policy? Much has been written about the contested nature of the word ‘impact’ and how to measure it, alongside the question whether academia should ever step into a space of political discourse, alignment or even enabling. (#1, #2). Apart from ethical considerations, and questions around the promotion and measurement of said impact, there are organisational culture divides between academia and the policy domain when it comes to timelines, turn around, communication and what a good outcome looks like, in addition to a tradition of independent individualist working practices that characterise and make academia (Hotho, 2012). Should this impair the interaction between the two parties? In dialogue with the audience, Sophie Howe from Future Generation Wales, summarised the divide of practices: “policymakers don’t want long-term involvement with no concluding results, but rather pick your brain to understand the wealth of knowledge and context they operate in that can inform their work. Equally to academia, the world of policymakers, its structures and language also quite opaque and it’s often hard to see where and how one could add value.” More work needs to be done to create spaces and avenues for both dialogue and interaction from which a shared practice can emerge without loss of meaning, alongside methodologies that are specific in this for the discipline in question and what ‘impact’ can look like in different cases and for different realms of knowledge.

One such applied example, of the type that will likely gain in relevance with the restructure of the separate arms of RCUK into UKRI and the industrial strategy, was presented by Professor Richard Jones of Sheffield University, also part of the Industrial Strategy Commission. ‘The link between innovation and economic growth is broken’ he opened, ‘it does not translate.’ A capital science project to foster the local knowledge economy does not mean the same in Rotherham as it does in Cambridge – what makes the difference is the human and social capital, and that’s why intersection and interaction is vital. ‘What has the university ever done for Barnsley?’ Jones paraphrased the local communities’ stance on the university’s presence, but continued telling the story of the development of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre run by the university, and expanded into an Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, committed to working with local FE colleges, and now successful in attracting corporate investment in the region through McLaren.

As a capital science project connecting research, communities and industry, this is a successful example of what impact universities can have outside their perimeter. What about the transcending of the more general challenges – discipline-related differences, the relationship between academia and politics? ‘If social scientists could stop problematising, and engineers could stop solutionising’, Jones puts on his wishlist, followed with advice for ‘universities not to go with political whims, but decide on general challenge and priorities that are important and continue these through changing political tides.’

Considering the difficulties outlined above, why should we bother engaging at all, internally and externally? The underlying premise of ‘translational research’ is to connect research with the real world interdependent challenges and leave the perimeters of their discipline and institutions, seeing universities as part of the wider eco-system in localities who can influence and gain back through making their boundaries more permeable. Interdisciplinarity, all speakers agreed, is key to making this work – no discipline can exist in isolation when interdependencies permeate everything in the real world, and what is needed is more investment in the next generation of researchers focusing on findings ways to make disciplines not only talk to each other, but combine to create new sets of knowledge and solutions to complex problems. This is a process that will become even more pronounced with the launch of the industrial strategy and the industrial strategy fund, explicitly linking research and industry to have an impact on the economy. To avoid a skewed development that focuses solely on the explicit relationship between science and technology and the economy, a more inclusive approach is required in relating the scientific and technological with the social and cultural, and ultimately the wider societal eco-system. In this respect it is equally important to address the underlying systemic organisational and cultural parameters that generate ways of working and their impact on collaboration or competition, looking outwards or inwards.

Ideally then, more so than a question of ‘translational’ research implying a back (and ideally forth) dialogue, it is perhaps a question of ‘relational’ research, indicating an exchange creating a combinatory value that is specific to the disciplines in question goes beyond knowledge, but permeates the wider eco-system in which it operates and transcends ‘linguistic differences’.




Dialogue is often named as a primary driver for engagement, thought formation and ultimately decision-making (Laclau and Bhaskar, 1998), a necessary process to shape interaction between subjects and facilitate the sharing of information which, once combined and processed in new ways, can lead to the next steps and greater clarity. In contrast to the more monolithic self-reflective concept of consciousness in the leader-follower dynamic outlined by Driver (2012), or Hegel’s concept of the interactive self in interaction with another, producing the duality of ‘‘an I that is we and a we that is I’’ as postulated by Raelin (2012), the Habermasian (1999) idea of inter-subjectivity, is a less functional ‘I-Though’ (Buber, 2004) with a more loosely defined concept of ‘interaction’. Here a subject relates to another with reference to its own and the other’s subjective view point, and performatively with reference to a third party, through any type of interaction within a shared space. While each member is operating on a cognitively individual level, they nevertheless draw upon a universal cognition and create a thought community through interaction and do not remain separate sums of their qualities, but are transformed in the process (Raelin, 2012), although criticisms of this approach to account for the complexities of synthesis and structuration ensuring from dialogue and interaction exist (Strydom, 2006). Here, ‘synthesis’ is achieved momentarily, through cooperation and conflict and competition, as well as performative dialogue – as a ‘sequentially unfolding process that starts from individual contributions and then, through joint construction involving not only cooperation but also competition and even conflict, flowers into a moment of discursive structure formation giving rise to a shared collective outcome which, while differently interpreted by the participants, eventually allows them to coordinate their actions.’

The question of agency as an emergent quality of dialogue and interaction, with a potentiality for synthesised outcomes, is widely discussed (Taylor and Van Every, 2000;  Blomme and Bornebroek-Te Lintelo, 2012; Boden, 1994), and sits apart from a strategic choice approach in organisational theory. More akin to complexity theory, as applied to organisational cultures, organisations and the teams within them are understood as complex adaptive (Stacey, 2007), or complex co-evolving systems (Middleton-Kelly, 2003), with multiple networks of agents influencing each other, creating multiple iterations on paths that diverge and converge. The strategic choice approach suggests that organisational environments can form through an intentional and rational process (Zajac and Kraatz, 1993). Stacey (1995) however suggests that there are states of operating far away from equilibrium between states of stability and instability, influenced by both positive and negative feedback processes, and the most creative and innovative organisations or teams operate in the space termed ‘bounded instability’. The boundaries of the system are described by the project length, the institutional parameters and to some extent the outcome; however, the dynamics and feedback processes are emergent and not predictable at an early stage. A strategic choice approach might suppress emergent properties or self-organising movements between agents and lead to early bifurcation.