‘It Takes Two to Tango’ – Is There a Need for New Practices in the Universities?

NESTA and UCL held a joint symposium entitled ‘Responsible Innovation and the Role of Universities’ on 16th March 2017. It challenged many traditional practices and suggested that some are indeed ‘broken’. It reminded me of a provocative presentation of mine summed up by the tongue-in-cheek story below.

A fashion designer and a research scientist go on a camping trip. After a good dinner, they retire for the night, and go to sleep. Sometime later the fashion designer wakes up and nudges her faithful research scientist friend,

"Scientist, look up and tell me what you see?"

"I see millions and millions of stars, fashion designer" exclaims the research scientist.

"And what do you deduce from that?"

The research scientist ponders for a minute.

"Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe".

"What does it tell you, fashion designer friend?"

The fashion designer answered:

“Research scientist friend, it means that someone has stolen our tent!!”

This story indicates the general different viewpoints of the researcher in academia and the professional practitioner. It questions whether the relationship between the two cultures is as productive as it could be, and this mirrors the perceived situation within ‘Creative Industries’.

Questions worth asking today: Do many creative practitioners still have the attitude, ‘Why would creative artists and designers want to be interested in, let alone do, such tedious, mind-numbing, number crunching, data doodling activity anyway as research, normally going nowhere truly original, and very slowly?’ Are university research posts and funding grants still reserved for rationalist minds? Does the requirement to write and publish journal articles still dominate academia, disadvantaging the often-dyslexic creative practitioners with enquiring mentalities?

The requirement that design students have to pass a trans-disciplinary module in ‘critical writing’ to get an Honours Degree still persists at large (a condition brought in many decades ago to perhaps placate contemptuous sections of the university establishment with the view that if a student is not using words they are not thinking critically). That designing involves high levels of critical thinking, both tacitly and cognitively, was not then considered enough. Today I tend to support the trans-disciplinary idea that education should be well rounded for all, and ‘Art & Design’ topics should be taught to other disciplines. For example, I advocate that such students as those of English Literature should be required to demonstrate proficiency in articulating ideas within literature visually by passing an Illustration Module before being allowed to get their Honours Degree. In fact traditional Chinese culture maintains that to be a true scholar above all else one has to be proficient in siyi (四), comprising the four arts of qin (琴 qin), qi (棋 qi), shu (書 calligraphy) and hua (畫 painting); perhaps this should be resurrected and adopted today across the universities. Just joking (well… half joking!).

The evolution of attitudes to scholarship and research in universities has been interesting and ever-evolving. The ‘impact’ of university culture on the relatively new academic field of Art & Design has been substantial, some might say. However, others might add that the impact of Art & Design culture on traditional research practices within universities is only recently having some influence.


New Scholarship

It is encouraging that contemporary scholarship and research practices in universities are now being challenged from outside the Art & Design sector, many of which seem to be slowly evolving towards those used within Art & Design; for instance, the use of more project work, visualisation of ideas and data, and a more trans-disciplinary attitude. On the central pivot of the traditional research culture – the usefulness of the journal article has been challenged by Professor Andrew Pettigrew, University of Oxford, who highlighted something of anecdotal interest at a symposium - 90% of academic journal articles are never cited, 50% of journal articles are never read beyond the authors, referees and journal editors, and only one article in a journal is cited repeatedly on average. It is becoming clear that the prime purpose of this publishing practice is as an increasingly self-serving commodity market, where authors can gain ‘cred’ for university research assessment exercises and publishers' profiteer, rather than it serving ‘communicability’.

Similarly, the effectiveness of academic conference papers has been questioned, and radical alternatives proposed. The actual paper presented is often in a bound copy of the final proceedings which excludes a record of the actual ‘conferencing’ that went on in the typical five minute question and answer session - a mere token gesture to audience interactivity. Conference papers are often used as a side line income stream for journals, and this seems to be yet another commodity market.

However, the most important limitation of journals and conferences concerns the issue of ‘tacit knowledge’ – knowing through experience of new things: seeing, hearing, feeling and using them. Enquiry, especially within fashion and textiles, develops new tacit knowledge insights through experiencing new designs. To stress the point, let’s consider the buying of shoes. You can read all about the shoes in fashion magazines, but this is not usually enough – you need to try them on. The journal article and conference paper format excludes communication of new insights in tacit knowledge.

“Research scientist friend, it means that someone has stolen our tent!!”

Like the early days of the Royal Society – when scientists demonstrated their experiments ‘live’ to a hall of peers – many current day designers present their work at ‘exhibitions’ – the illustrative medium within industry trade shows. Fashion uses the ‘fashion catwalks’ too. These have real-time physical engagement and interaction with communication attributes of ‘ease of accessibility’ to full scale objects demonstrating the dynamics in a new design’s use, in addition to full colour information. It is therefore reasonable to infer that research work within design, and beyond, could also use these publication methods more as prime media for sharing new insights gained and as a prime research publication in its own right. This could be particularly useful for making academic research outcomes more ‘communicable’, especially to the professional design community, and for helping to make more impact outside academia generally.


‘It Takes Two to Tango’

Today there is an increasing concern to improve impact of university research outcomes, not only to justify public expenditure, but to mend ‘broken’ practices. For example, in the social sciences Professor Van de Ven, author of the book Engaged Scholarship (2007), highlighted at a recent symposium that impact involves two main issues – the use of language and the nature of engagement. Van de Ven raised the need for increased participation of different communities with ‘interaction expertise’ to facilitate engagement, stressing that researchers must ‘practice’ within their field in order to gain the required insights of language. Van de Ven also suggests impact is not just an outcome but the process of creating relationships during research. He advocates that it is more important to research WITH practitioners than FOR practitioners and there needs to be a ‘will to do’ for impact and engagement to happen.

One response to this is that universities could engage more with ‘professional bodies’ outside the academic community when assessing the value of research outcomes, especially when concerned with:

1. The general processes involved in the professional practice.

2. The outcomes of professional practice in terms of new products, systems, services and performances.

Excellence of research impact would be evidenced by:

a. Doing research WITH professionals and their professional bodies through ‘engaged scholarship’.

b. The quality of a research outcome as judged by the professional community.

c. The use of research findings by one or more members of a professional community for improving the quality of people’s lives, and other benefits.

The notion of ‘engaged scholarship’, along with some issues about the dissemination of research outcomes, are ways of improving the current situation in universities no matter how good or bad it is perceived to be. Nonetheless, collaboration between people with different attitudes and backgrounds is not a simple matter and has to be carefully managed.


In Conclusion

The way designers think and work has a valuable contribution to make in expanding the nature of enquiry within universities. Some in the ‘science of complex systems’ community are, for example, embracing design and acknowledging that designers understand ‘complexity’ in the dynamics of the socio-technical world well, within the design process. A design approach can help where traditional reductionist scientific methods of enquiry have limitations. The design community as a whole could be pioneering some new practices within universities, particularly within ‘research’ activity, not only on its own terms for itself, but for all.

In the meantime, I suggest that there is a need for a new research funding body with more empathy for the creative industries that will help it stay ahead of the international game of global economics - perhaps a Creative Economy Research Council (CERC).