For me, one of the most exciting aspects of working at UCL is being surrounded by so many brilliant minds with such an abundance of original ideas – and then seeing people realise the potential of those ideas and take them out into the wider world for the benefit of society.
There are many ways to achieve this, including partnering with charities or businesses; developing short courses for professionals and organisations; providing consultancy to industry, government and policy-makers; and commercialising discoveries.
Importantly, these activities, which UCL Innovation & Enterprise facilitates, bring tremendous benefits to academics and their research and teaching work. They can enhance and expand existing research projects, facilitating access to data and helping to frame new questions in a way that would be difficult in a purely academic context. They also help build personal and professional reputation and extend networks, introducing new people who can bring fresh perspectives to research and teaching. In some cases, innovation and enterprise can generate additional personal and institutional income too.
Occasionally, I speak with colleagues who struggle to see how innovation and enterprise are relevant to their particular areas; but I firmly believe there remains a wealth of untapped potential across all areas of UCL to help drive positive change.
In this piece, I’d like to illustrate some projects that attest to the sheer diversity of impact we already have – which might challenge some existing notions around innovation and enterprise and even provide some inspiration.
You may have recently seen some powerful advertisements across the tube and transport network, as part of Holland & Barrett’s ‘Me.No.Pause’ campaign – profiling a diverse group of women going through the menopause.
The campaign was in response to research led by Professor Jessica Ringrose (Institute of Education) commissioned by the Greater London Authority (GLA), showing less than half (48%) of Londoners feel that ads adequately reflected the capital’s diversity. The ‘Me.No.Pause’ campaign is running for 12 weeks, and is bound to start a fresh debate about diversity and advertising. For Jessica it was an exciting addition to her existing research around digital feminist activism and involved adopting some new research methodologies. She is now exploring a multitude of partnership opportunities that have resulted from the campaign.
Another example of external partnerships enhancing research comes from the lab of Professor Brad Love, who was approached about using Tesco’s loyalty card data to better understand why customers switch products. Human decision making of this kind is well understood in the lab environment. But analysis of Tesco’s real-world dataset of 280,000 anonymized individuals revealed some surprising findings, going against established thinking – for example suggesting that the very act of purchasing can make novel products more desirable. The project not only helped Tesco better understand consumer behaviour, it also led to a paper in Nature Human Behaviour and funded a PhD studentship.
Innovation and enterprise can have a profound impact on practices and processes in a variety of professional sectors.
UCL’s Integrated Legal Advice Clinic (UCL iLAC) takes a holistic approach to legal problems, acknowledging that they tend to cascade into other areas of life. Since 2016, over 75 students have worked with the centre’s solicitors and advisers, providing pro bono support to over 200 clients – for example in tribunals to secure benefits or overturn pending evictions.
Another example of transforming practice comes from Dr Parama Chaudhury and her colleagues from the Department of Economics and Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics. They are delivering specialist training to diplomats around the world, who work out of the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The training covers labour markets, exchange rates, financial and macroeconomic crises and regulation, amongst other economics topics, and could ultimately have a far reaching impact on local economies around the world as well as global policymaking.
Both these examples also point to the great benefit innovation activities have in extending networks, meeting new people and gaining different perspectives. Students from the Legal Advice Clinic go on to work in various fields of law, but retain and apply that sense of social justice and perspective inspired by their often disadvantaged former clients. Meanwhile, Parama and her team are afforded an insight into the challenges of applying economic theory in a turbulent political climate.
It’s important that we see the world from other people’s vantage points.
Collaborate to innovate
I would argue that addressing Grand Challenges such as Global Health, Sustainable Cities and Cultural Understanding needs not only UCL collaboration across different academic disciplines, as already happens, but also collaboration with users – businesses and industry, governments and the public.
One prolific collaborator at UCL is Dr Kenneth Tong (Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering) – who has pioneered many new developments in the telecommunications industry. More recently, Kenneth realised that his technologies could have a transformative impact on global food production, through monitoring localised weather patterns, soil conditions and crop quality – ultimately to increase the efficiency of harvests and maximize crop yields. To bring this vision to life, Kenneth is now collaborating with colleagues across UCL as well as externally with Rothamsted Research.
Collaboration also flourishes at the interface between arts and sciences – two sectors that can learn much from each other. The growing UCL Dance Network partners UCL academics and students with organisations including the English National Ballet (ENB), Sadler’s Wells, Studio Wayne McGregor and The Place. Current projects include exploring the potential benefits of dance in Parkinson’s disease and new digital approaches to choreography. Dr Robert Thompson (Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering) spent three months as an Innovator-in-Residence at the ENB, and shared some insights:
“Unless you open yourself to the idea of engaging with different audiences, you’re never going to be inspired as to where your work can have further impact. All the pre-existing ideas I had for collaboration had totally changed.”
Help at hand
As Vice-Provost (Enterprise), more than anything, I want to encourage and champion a culture of innovation and enterprise across UCL. All of the areas highlighted in this piece have received some combination of guidance, support and funding from UCL Innovation & Enterprise. Of course, innovation also happens independently at the individual, research group, department and faculty level; but we are always here to provide advice to make sure that academic benefits are realised. With all the capabilities that UCL needs to support this agenda now sitting as one under UCL Innovation & Enterprise, it’s never been easier to get involved and make these activities integral to teaching and research at UCL.
Challenges and opportunities ahead
Capturing the sheer breadth of innovative activity that takes place at UCL – and other institutions in the UK – will be a key aim of the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). It aims to assess, quantify, understand and ultimately improve all the many ways in which we interact with the wider world. It will sit alongside the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in assessing the three core activities in the higher education sector. Indeed, the KEF is very much at the heart of the Government’s Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the future.
These are challenging times, and the uncertainty that has marked the wider political and socio-economic landscape over the past few years shows little sign of abating. But what we do know is that the UK, along with much of Europe, will continue moving towards a knowledge-led society and economy in which universities can and should play an increasingly important role.
The radical thinking and innovative culture that is part of the very fabric and history of UCL provides us with the ideal platform to respond to the challenges ahead. There’s a tremendous opportunity here for us to re-shape our society and economy, into one that is healthier, happier, more equitable, productive and resilient. It’s never been more important for us to engage externally to achieve this.
Find out more about how your work can benefit from UCL Innovation & Enterprise and the services we offer: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/enterprise/staff