A creative ‘toolbox’ for social science research and innovation is taking shape in the heart of Cardiff. Over the next few weeks, new labs are being fitted out inside Cardiff University’s £60m sbarc building. The future home of innovation will eventually host up to 400 academics and their collaborators. Here, Professor Chris Taylor, Director of SPARK – the world’s first Social Science Research Park – outlines why pooling expertise in bespoke places can shape society after Covid-19.
“We’re about to do something that’s never been done before. Bringing expert social science researchers together in a brand-new place to test and trial solutions to society’s problems. And we can only do it by breaking down academic boundaries and building bridges where none have existed. The pandemic may have helped us by shifting our horizons.
Combining expertise from 12 specialist academic groups in a vibrant bespoke hub will help us tackle major challenges – climate change, young people’s mental health, crime and security, sustainable places. Designed to create a new community of researchers, policymakers, practitioners, commercial organisations, NGOs and charities, SPARK will provide a new spatial meaning to interdisciplinary and collaborative working.
We will curate our ideas inside sbarc – a seven-story centre with visualisation and behavioural lab, a policy library, data hub, offices and presentation spaces.
And instead of working within the traditional contours of academic departments, researchers will be encouraged to work in ways that do not recognise disciplinary boundaries.
The co-location of the University’s leading social science research centres and institutes, many of whom already work in interdisciplinary ways, will further advance that cause by identifying areas of common interest and concern. The focus will be tackling the societal challenge itself, not boosting the fields of expertise.
SPARK brings together the track records of 12 social science research centres in winning successful competitive research funding and wide experience in collaborating with the users of their research.
We are not starting from scratch. Neither are we propping up the social science research. Drawing upon and further enhancing existing expertise will be critical to its success. Learning from the past, listening to experience, reflecting on successes and failures: these are all key ingredients to advancing the way we work.
How will we transform the working environment? Through the co-location of a wide variety of public sector, private sector and third sector organisations inside SPARK. Some will be tenants of SPARK, moving some or all of their organisation into SPARK.
For others, involvement will be in the form of membership, giving their employees access to dedicated or co-working spaces.
We believe this will encourage a move away from the traditional division of labour between research experts and end users towards an integrated way of working, where both are engaged in all aspects of the research and design process.
All will have access to new state-of-the-art sbarc facilities. And just like more traditional science parks, there will be dedicated staff inside SPARK to help broker relationships, support new collaborations and build communities of practice.
However, co-location is just part of the vision. Connectivity, community and culture are also central to SPARK’s goals. This requires finding new ways of working, typically outside the usual constraints of the university.
Working closely with non-academic partners will help here too, learning from one another about how best to encourage creativity and innovation.
It will also require creating an environment where common interests can develop and be encouraged, where residents are encouraged to contribute in social and civic ways, as well as in their professional capacities, in short a place for communities and local expertise to engage and find new ways of approaching old problems.
This will create a ‘safe space’ where dialogue between researchers, policy-makers and other stakeholders can take place freely and constructively. Hopefully it will also provide a welcome respite from the dominant, restricted and occasionally hostile modes of academic communication (peer review processes, advisory boards, social media, news media and funders’ meetings) that social scientists more commonly find themselves engaged in.
The space to challenge and critique one another is important for the successful design, conduct and use of our research. A place of trust, understanding and mutual respect can reinforce our strength as we work to shape post-pandemic recovery.
Professor Chris Taylor, Director, SPARK.
This post contains extracts from a recent LSE blog by Professor Taylor.