Imagine for a moment that the Open Innovation and Access to Resources Programme (OIA2R) is a biscuit tin. From the tin’s label you might think the programme’s mission was no more than to increase access to resources using collaborative techniques producing open source platforms. What the forthcoming synthesis report reveals inside the biscuit tin is an Aladdin’s Cave of innovative projects that offer tantalising glimpses of the future benefits of mutual engagement between universities and the communities that surround them, re-engineering worldviews (more Christmas assortment than boring old Digestives!).
While engagement beyond the boundaries of the institution has been embedded in the strategic priorities of higher education for some years, the meaning and value of engagement has not always been well understood. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) suggests that it “…generates mutual benefit – with all parties learning from each other through sharing knowledge, expertise and skills” ; while the Community University Partnership Programme at Brighton University is even more succinct, engagement having, “…positive effects in terms of health, stability and happiness…” .
Jisc’s Business and Community Engagement Programme (BCE) has a mandate to translate such aspirations into practical, sustainable applications; to use techniques like open innovation and wider access to resources as the means to achieve long-term socially and economically significant objectives. OIA2R projects were, thus, funded to develop new online platforms to remix and evolve academic and business knowledge systems, community relationships and social networks of exchange, to demonstrate the practical value of innovative and sustainable mutual engagement.
Following the successful funding of eight OIA2R projects in 2011, a second phase was launched in 2012 with emphasis on the creation of demonstrators using web technologies to address known problems or market opportunities. A very practical and outcomes-focused point of departure. In addition, projects were required to place emphasis on links with local and sectoral strategic objectives and the plans of Local Enterprise Partnerships, underlining the importance of understanding the needs and aspirations of communities for the earliest stages of the development.
Beyond this practical demonstration of innovation within a place-based or topic-based community, Jisc required the projects to show the potential for transferability across regions and nationally. This might be either through the opening up of the demonstrator service for others to use directly or through the availability of the open source code for other institutions and communities to use within their own local or regional setting. Great examples of the potential economies of scale and benefits of wider knowledge sharing are currently being gathered together into a synthesis so the lessons learnt can be applied across the sector.
It is, of course, the case that in the process of building these kinds of socio-technical demonstrators it is not always possible to predict what might be the outcomes. The importance of the process of synthesis is to shine a light on the long-term potential that the demonstrators offer while, at the same time, illuminating the practical challenges that have been and will be faced by those involved in making engagement work to mutual benefit.
It has been the task of the four critical friends involved in this second phase to fulfil a number of roles; sometimes interpreters of requirements and priorities, sometimes negotiators, sometimes offering an external perspective and just occasionally acting as the third umpire. One thing upon which we all agree is that at no time has there been any need to urge greater motivation. Both project teams and the JISC managers were highly energised and energising throughout. They could see, as I believe the reader will realise from exploring inside the ‘biscuit tin’, just how much mutual value can be created by stronger community engagement and what potential that offers us all for a sustainable and better future.
Chris Batt OBE
PhD Researcher, University College London, and Critical Friend to OIA2R