Taking the Whitaker approach


AN INSTITUTE with a different approach to academia was officially launched last week at NUI Galway. Formerly the Centre for Innovation and Structural Change (CISC), the opening of the Whitaker Institute signifies more than just a rebranding exercise. It will be drawing its research themes from nine schools and 22 disciplines in all areas of business and the social sciences.

In addition to this internal cross-collaboration, the new institute will engage with a variety of other sectors in society – policymakers, businesses, NGOs and the wider public. Cross-collaboration is an approach many academic institutions are now striving to achieve in the expectation that they might have greater impact on society. But how does it work on the ground?

“There are a number of benefits to the cross-disciplinary model,” explains Dr James Cunningham, director of the Whitaker Institute. “You get better insights into the problems you wish to address, and you get opportunities to collaborate with a broader set of stakeholders – companies, NGOs, the public. This develops into conversations that could lead to a greater impact on your results.”

That said, it’s not as simple as just bringing different groups together and hoping they’ll gel. Even between academic schools there can be communication breakdowns. “The biggest challenge is finding a common language between different groups,” says Cunningham.

“Some research projects could require the expertise and input from disciplines as diverse as psychology, business management and information systems. In situations like that there needs to be an openness on the part of the researchers involved, to understanding each other’s perspective and language.”

When it comes to industry, government and academia collaborating there are different issues. Academics might struggle with new jargon, but at least they can understand the pace and approach at which their colleagues work.

“Different actors lead to different kinds of relationships,” says Cunningham. “When you throw industry partners into the mix, it does add a new layer of complexity.”

“Industry and academia work on different heartbeats,” says Dr Pat Collins, senior researcher at the Whitaker Institute. “Very often we are aiming towards different goals. While I have collaborated internally in NUI Galway, this is my first time to push it outside the institution.”

Collins is part of the Creative, Liveable and Sustainable Communities research cluster at the Whitaker Institute. He is also senior researcher on the Creative Edge project that involves academic experts in geography, economics, business and the arts working with government bodies, companies and individuals.

“The research started a couple of years ago when we were looking at what influenced the location choices of multinational companies in Ireland or elsewhere,” says Collins. “We found that corporation tax was just one element to their decision making process. In many cases, they were motivated by culture and creativity within a society.

“We have a very culturally engaged workforce, which cannot be found, for example, in Asia. This makes the Irish stand out. We started looking at Galway in particular, and then the western region more generally, particularly outside the main cities, where there was a big gap in the research.”

The research team aims to encourage the creative industries in areas across the western region and are now working with the Western Development Commission (WDC) and South Eastern Economic Development (SEED), as well as a number of small companies and artists involved in 11 different creative industry categories.

“We think of the sector as a spectrum – on one end you have the high-tech creative technology companies, in areas like gaming, software and graphic design,” says Collins. “At the other end you have the more expressive artists – which could be anything from actors to poets to musicians. The common thread that runs through it all is creativity.”

The next step is to branch out and take their expertise abroad and Creative Edge has established links with similar bodies in Sweden and Finland.

There’s a lot happening in this cluster alone and the new institute will have several more projects going simultaneously. It will be the largest academic research body working in the realm of business and social sciences in the country.

On living up to Mr Whitaker’s name, Cunningham is confident they can deliver. “TK Whitaker was an individual that had a significant impact on a country and on a nation and we expect to have a similar impact.”

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