Taking on society's big issues

Mon, Nov 19, 2012, 00:00

Innovation Profile NUI GalwayThe economic and social changes of the recession present significant challenges in how Irish business and society responds and recovers in a globalised world. NUI Galway has been addressing many of these challenges for some time and has recently brought these research efforts together under the aegis of the Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Societal Change.

Inspired by legendary public servant Dr TK Whitaker, the institute aims to adopt an innovative, multidisciplinary and transformative approach to business and society at home and abroad.

“Irish society has been deeply impacted by domestic and international economic changes,” says institute director Dr James Cunningham. “An effective response to these economic and societal challenges requires a deeper understanding of business and society, new insights and approaches.

“Pursuing these insights is the core mission of the Whitaker Institute. Our research agenda recognises the areas where transformation is needed. The broad-based and multidisciplinary focused research on business performance, agility and governance, innovation, environment, gender, conflict and collective action, health and wellbeing will provide insights and propose innovative responses.”

The institute has more than 200 members, making it the largest critical mass of business and social science researchers in Ireland, with expertise across business, public policy, law, arts, social sciences and Celtic studies. NUI Galway’s long established Centre for Innovation and Structural Change (CISC) has been subsumed within the institute which builds on a decade of research excellence and policy-focused contributions supported by over €11 million in research funding.

Among the key aims of the institute is the promotion of a sustainable and inclusive society.

Research clusters

The institute houses 12 research clusters under six priority research themes including business performance, agility and governance; conflict and collective action; environment, development and sustainability; health and wellbeing; and innovation and structural change.

The Work Society and Governance research cluster aims to support and encourage research into social, cultural, political and economic issues relating to the world of work, society and governance. Topics include industrial relations, workplace resistance, employment engagement, identity and culture at work, workplace regulation, organisational governance, international business and society, workplace diversity, workers’ rights, trade unions and corporate social responsibility.

The cluster draws on research strengths across NUI Galway including management, sociology, political science, law, economics, psychology and health promotion, and supports and enables exchange of knowledge and ideas between members.

“We are interested in showing the world of work and organisations as more than just a management problem and to support the development of better, healthier, more fair workplaces,” says cluster leader Dr Kate Kenny.

A timely piece of research led by Dr Kenny involves the organisational culture in banking and how it makes it difficult for individuals to speak out. “For the past two years I have been speaking to whistle-blowers in the banking sector in Ireland, the UK, and the US who have been unsuccessful in being heard in their own workplaces and have had to go to the media. What I have found is that the most important and difficult change to make will be to the culture of the organisations themselves.”

Sustainable communities

The Creative, Liveable and Sustainable Communities cluster promotes research and public policies that focus on the importance of place, creativity and quality of life in cities, towns, and regions for people and the economy. Successful economies flourish in places with a creative, flexible, healthy, and innovative population and where cities and towns have a real sense of place and cultural distinctiveness.

Of interest are linkages between sustainable land use and transportation design, the mitigation of climate change, social capital, health and wellbeing, creativity, active transport, public policy, urban designs that enable ageing-in-place, culture, the arts, and economic vitality. In addition, the cluster focuses on Ireland’s transition toward smart cities and towns, and a low-carbon economy and society.

“We see too often what’s important about people’s daily lives being separated into different silos,” says cluster leader Prof Kevin Leyden. “What we are trying to do is bring all the different elements together. A great example of this is the Smart Cities movement where IBM and other companies and organisations are re-examining cities and their importance. The number of cities globally is growing and the number of people living in them is also growing. Our research is aimed at making cities more efficient and helping the people in them to live better. Overall, we want to contribute to creating smarter more liveable cities.”

One concept being worked on by the cluster is bringing cities with similar problems together to share solutions. “Galway has a traffic problem and one way to address this better would be to connect it with other cities that have successfully addressed the same problem,” Leyden explains. “Similarly, Galway is good at arts and cultural ventures and it could share knowledge with other cities on that.”

The vision is to have a large group of cities working together sharing ideas on a social enterprise model with an independent broker bringing partners together when needed.

“We are creating new ways for cities to share information. Cities are growing and they can be tremendous places to inspire creativity and social innovation. There is no reason why people can’t be born, grow up and live out their lives in the same place in a city. By bringing cities together to share solutions we can address these issues.”


The Health and Wellbeing cluster is using behavioural and social sciences to improve health and wellbeing across people’s lifespans. The outcomes sought include ways of measuring health gains at the level of the individual, family, community and society, plus appraisals of wellbeing and life satisfaction. This is related to the “wellbeing movement” which focuses on those measures outside of GDP which can indicate an individual’s or a society’s overall wellbeing.

“Part of our research is supporting work ongoing at national and EU level to develop a wellbeing index which looks beyond GDP,” says cluster leader Dr Mike Hogan. “We held a very successful conference on the topic last June where we looked at the barriers to wellbeing and how we could use our collective intelligence to help overcome them. We are planning to hold another conference next June where we will bring key stakeholders together to discuss what should be included in a wellbeing index. ”

And the benefits of wellbeing are well documented. When applied to workplaces, productivity and creativity increase while absenteeism decreases. Similarly, in schools the concept of strength-based wellbeing – in this case character rather than physical strength – has been shown to lead to a decrease in bullying and anti-social behaviour.

This is just a small flavour of the research activity ongoing at the Whitaker Institute. See iti.ms/QIS44N

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