In selecting candidates largely on the basis of their ideas for generating a new business, Accelerators have focused more on quick-wins than on major social, economic or cultural issues. How could aspiring entrepreneurs be encouraged to work with issues of major strategic importance? EPSRC’s week-long ‘Sandpits’ are about identifying important areas for research, and Watershed, Bristol’s Sandboxes have aimed to identify problems or opportunities and to develop ways forward. Tom Inns work with AHRC takes such issues a step further forward – by building the specification for a programme and eliciting ideas. Several individuals and several organisations have used the internet with some success to encourage people first to identify ‘good’ issues – among them IBM’s UK Laboratories. And Future Centers have tended to focus on more complex and longer term problems. What can we learn from them?
EPSRC’s Sandpits – a process for identifying important issues
For ten years, EPSRC has run ‘Sandpits’ – week-long residential workshops, as part of their Ideas Factory. The objective of these is to bring together people from different disciplines, to work on significant problems, and by breaking down barriers and building new relationships to find new approaches and solutions and identify new areas for research.
Sandpits are distinctive in that they start with relatively large groups (20-30) of scientists, who do not know each other, selected from their own submissions – to achieve diversity in the group, and for their suitability for the process (‘arranged marriages’). They know that they will have to work on a significant ‘real world’ problem and that there is a considerable pot of funds immediately available – for those projects that will be decided upon by agreement at the end of the week.
The ethos is one of self-management, but the process is shaped by a Director, Mentors and Facilitators – leading participants through and on to an understanding of the opportunities and problems, and arriving at a Problem Statement; and thence to the formation of ideas, around which smaller groups begin to form. Finally proposals are short-listed and ranked before a final funding decision is made. Pre-work, speed-dating, site visits, games, challenges, visitors from alien fields (poets, ethicists, IT experts) are all designed to help with the process. They are run in various locations (including once at Royal Mail’s Creativity Laboratory at Rugby).
Originally designed to bring scientists out of their silos and to help them to think creatively together, the programme ‘has resulted in ambitious, innovative research without boundaries, and lasting legacies of new relationships and new ways of thinking’.
Watershed, Bristol – innovation in media and the arts
Watershed’s iShed takes aspects of the Sandpit concept and gives them a new and fuller life. It does this by:
– providing a much longer development period – of three months
– often (but not always) by extending the inter-disciplinary nature of the arena by
virtue of housing together and in the same big room a (carefully selected) number of
– by providing support that is relevant to the particular moment of each and
– by ‘curating’ a space and an ambience that includes happenings designed to
stimulate creativity, openness, sharing and development
– by requiring everyone to identify their learnings, which are then e-disseminated to
a wider audience.
Tom tends to run big workshops eg of fifty academics, mainly in the world of academia and quasi R&D (he has run a number of workshops for AHRC), where his aim is to build future platforms, interests and collaborations.
His work is in the field of inter-disciplinary initiatives, where benefits are likely
* to be different from those that are expected;
* not to be expressible in terms of the discipline that originated the initiative;
* to involve new questions, or reformulation of objectives;
* to be in the form of capacity to respond to future events, not past ones;
* to arise after a long time – perhaps long after the initiative has formally ended (‘Creating Value across Boundaries’, Nesta, 2010).
He talks about exploring a potential project; about building a specification for a programme; about eliciting responses and ideas about a possible project. He will often explore drivers of change and trends; and he sees the workshops he runs as themselves drivers of change; and as providing an opportunity for exchanges that would not otherwise happen eg people from different disciplines (arts and humanities), from different sectors (academics and industrialists), and around particular strategic issues that cross domains (eg climate change); and with people who are often notorious for working in silos.
Focusing innovations with the help of e-workshops
IBM’s UK Laboratories have a culture in which people work independently of one another, but they do use the net for what they call ‘jams’ – periods of time during which ideas are sought (on the intranet) – on any subject. Open for a limited period of time, they are said to capture thousands of ideas and to be used to fund sizeable innovation activity; and they are often used by very senior level managers.
Future Centers have focused on business, societal and organisational issues
The core business of Future Centers is developing innovative solutions to challenging business, societal and organisational problems – and especially solutions involving the active, intelligent cooperation of diverse stakeholders. There are more than 30 Future Centers in Europe and Asia, (of which two are in the UK: the Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab in Rugby, and BIS’s Future Focus in London) They are operating in government (in some cases they are embedded in government departments), in the private sector, and in the academic world. They deal with real issues relevant to organisations, projects and people; working in the area of economic affairs, transportation, public works, nature and environment, social affairs, education, and employment, pensions and welfare – to develop new products, services and work processes that enhance the innovation capacity of business, government and society.