Bridging the Gap Between Research and Enterprise with Annie Thirwell-Hicks.
In this podcast episode, we discussed the world of research and innovation with Annie Thirwell-Hicks
- Annie Thirwell-Hicks
- 22 mins
Tom: Hello and welcome to the Make Things Better podcast. Today I'm joined by Annie Thirwell-Hicks, Research Enterprise Manager for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. Is that right?
Annie: Well done.
Tom: Thank you.
Annie: That's a difficult title to try and remember.
Tom: I know I’ve been practicing every night. No, I haven't really. Yeah. Welcome on the show Annie, how are you doing today?
Annie: I'm really well, thank you. It's nice to be here. I love Beehive Works, so it's always good to come down here.
Tom: Yeah. Do you want to tell us a bit about how you first visited Beehive Works you were just telling me?
Annie: Yeah. So within my role at the University, I've done some work with Hive IT. They've joined us on some projects to help some of our academics work through some digital solutions at various points throughout a project. So yeah, I've been a visitor here a couple of times and it's always lovely to come down and see old Sheffield.
Tom: Absolutely. Grade two listed building, very vintage Sheffield. So do you want to tell us how you ended up getting into doing what you're doing at the moment, a bit about your background and what you do now as well?
Annie: Yeah. So I'm a design researcher. My background academically was across arts, humanities and social sciences, which is fortunate because they're the two faculties that I support now. And I moved into working within the heritage museums and gallery sector because my academic background was various masters, which were around research methodologies in social sciences and in heritage and in the arts.
My PhD was around intangible cultural heritage, which is the stuff that goes on around the built heritage. So it's rituals, customs, the way people live, the music. So it gives context to a building. So I always say, first and foremost, I'm a design researcher and I'm really interested in contextual methodologies.
Tom: Yeah. Amazing. And how does that experience that you have in all of those things that you just mentioned help what you do today?
Annie: Yeah. So as I mentioned, I'd worked within the museum heritage and gallery sector and what I was doing there was working with research first, sort of museums and galleries.
So it would be people like the Science Museum, the Wellcome Collection, for example, Tate. And what I was doing was often evaluating and looking at design research in that space. Sometimes it was ethnography, sometimes it was digital and online, but it was really understanding why people do what they do, how they do it, how it can be improved and that kind of thing for those clients.
And then I was offered the role at the university to look at research that was coming out of arts and humanities and social sciences and work with that research and those academics to work it up into being something out in the world that can be applied in a way that can benefit society, become a spin out or whatever that might be.
Tom: Yeah. Amazing. And so what do you think some of the challenges are that researchers may face when they are actually trying to create a tangible product or service that's actually going to have like an impact on the world?
Annie: Yeah, that's a really good question. I think one of the biggest challenges is that the academics are that, first and foremost, they're academics. They sit and they conduct this really valuable research and their expertise grows around that particular area. They're not necessarily expected to know how to take that off into the world or even what it might become. It might not be something that's even been on their radar. And I think one of the biggest challenges for them is that there hasn't always been that support or anyone kind of taking them through a process that might help them with those building blocks of taking their research from one space and then working through the process of taking it out or creating something that people can use or benefit from. So I think that's the biggest thing – that that support isn't necessarily there for them.
Annie: There are programs that some of your listeners might know about which are accelerators and catalysts that are designed to, I guess, create businesses from a very low point and take them through that process. But in my experience, when I've supported academics on that program, there's massive assumptions about what their level of understanding is about creating a business or a product or service.
Those assumptions can be quite, I guess, demotivating for the academic that's taking part because it's a very new language for them. It's a new way of thinking about their research. So what I've done at the university using my experience before and bringing it into the space is - design research, methodologies, workshops, programs that help them to understand that.
Tom: Yeah, so it bridges the gap between research and the business world and that change in language, that shift that may come. Because I suppose, from a very simplistic perspective, I don't know much about this, but research seems to be really quite in-depth and about understanding, whereas the business world can sometimes be driven by profit and revenue. And so there's a total difference there.
Annie: Oh, yeah, 100%. I think it's accepted that across arts and humanities and social sciences, the services or products that are created from those areas may not bring as high a yield in terms of other areas of the university, such as engineering.
Some people might be familiar with our AMRC, Advanced Manufacturing Centre, for example. They're creating million-pound machines that people like Rolls-Royce and Boeing want to buy. Where the value is across my two faculties is that a lot of it has a lot of social value and has the opportunity to really create impact in terms of the communities and the areas that that service or product might be feeding into.
Tom: So what do you think can unlock some of the opportunities that are available for researchers when it comes to actually creating services or products?
Annie: I think having access to collaborative working. So what I try and do across the programmes that I've created for the university is to create a space where these academic researchers can come together that think, yes, actually, this is something that I want to pursue with my research and create that very open, exploratory space where they can bounce ideas off each other and go through a sort of building process together and work through the challenges together.
I think that is something that I haven't seen at university so much before joining. The way that the university process used to work for taking research out into the world as a product or service was quite prescriptive. There would be lots of business talk about, well, what's your value proposition? What different channels is this is going to do? If you use those words to most academics, particularly across my faculties, they have no idea what that means. So actually, to shift that language to say, OK, why is this different than what's currently out there? And luckily, with being a university, you've got a subject matter expert that's actually sat and researched this area for a very long time. And then you work through, well, who do you want to benefit from that? How's best to deliver that? Is it something digital? Is it something around consultancy? Is it a social enterprise? We explore every area of what a service or product can sit within. And I think that's something that's quite new to them.
Tom: Do you think the whole sort of landscape of research could be improved in a way if there's more collaboration between businesses and researchers
Annie: I think there is a space for that. I would say that not every piece of research is necessarily going to become a service or a product. It's just a great piece of research. Research that can inform policy, it can inform other areas, and collaboration I think is really important.
Multidisciplinary projects are often the most rich projects because they bring people in from very different areas that really add to, I guess, the richness of the product or the service that's being developed. There are collaborative tools within universities such as knowledge exchange where academics can work with people on the outside to co-produce or collaborate on something.
So I think it really depends on the research and it really depends on where you think that research might go as a product or service, but not all of them are necessarily going to be something that would be a collaborative thing.
Tom: Yeah, and I suppose is that because some research can be quite open, it's not really about creating a product or service, right? It's about actually how can we improve the world, how can we understand people better, how can we, you know, just get a better understanding of what's going on in the world.
Annie: Yeah, definitely. Not every piece of research is really destined to be a product or service and I think it's really important that that research that isn't necessarily going to become that also takes place.
The University of Sheffield is seen as a research-first university. What we create out of that is just, I guess, people like me and my colleagues and other colleagues across KE and other sort of industrial relationship and partnerships, we enable and we facilitate.
But I think the important thing is that the academic is able to really focus on what...
Tom: What they are an expert in
Annie: Absolutely, yeah. Because without that really rigorous research and that really nuanced expertise, then we can't be producing stuff that might disrupt a market or might bring something of really high value to a community or an area or sector.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. And as I think you said, you know, some of these researchers are spending like 10 plus years sort of studying a particular, very specific thing going on in the world and society.
How do you think design thinking can influence academics and researchers? Where does that sort of play a part in all of this?
Annie: Yeah, I think academics naturally have a design thinking brain because obviously when they are designing their research, one research piece might take them four years, for example, one research project. So they're having to map that out and what they hope the outcomes might be or plan into their timeline, you know, an outcome as something that's built into that.
So I think they're already attuned to that way of thinking. I think design research and design thinking, when they're in a room and I'm talking to them about what we're trying to do, the penny really does drop with them because across the two disciplines within which I work, and it being my background, contextual methodologies are a natural thing for them. I think understanding who you're there to benefit is a natural thing for them. I think most of it is around building what that thing, the thinginess of it, if you like, might be.
There was a bit of a fad with lots of people coming to me going, I had this idea for an app. And then what was the app for? It's for people that suffer with dementia and okay. So then I asked them, what is the digital literacy of the people that you're hoping will use this app? What setting are they in? Do they have access to Wi-Fi? Do they even have a smartphone? And then when you were asked questions like this, rather than sitting in front of them and saying this is design thinking, this is, you know, design research, you're posing those questions to them the other way around.
Tom: You help them figure things out for themselves that way.
And yeah, that's a really interesting point because it can be easy to think of ideas and it may appear at first quite glamorous in a way, like an app that helps people with dementia. It sounds attractive. It sounds, oh, that's quite exciting. But then when you actually kind of deep it and you understand it and you understand who are you trying to serve here? And you're going to come up with all kinds of problems and different ways of thinking about it.
Annie: Yeah. So sometimes I have to kind of, I guess, un-engineer what they think their idea might be. But the fact that they’ve even got an idea, I think is a really positive thing. And the fact that they're coming to me and saying, I want this to go out into the world. I just think, yeah, that's a win already that I've got an academic researcher that wants to go out and do something with this really incredible piece of work that they've done.
So, I'm happy to, yeah, to disassemble their ideas with them and then reassemble them in a way and go through that process with them that might make sense to the end user or the intermediary user or whoever it might be.
Tom: Yeah. I love that. That must be really useful to them as well. So when you're working with academics, is there any sort of buzz words that maybe come from the business world, which you have a slightly different opinion on?
Annie: Yeah. Cause I mean, usually a lot of them that have this idea of taking their research out into a space may have kind of scanned, you know, those sort of business terminologies, trying to sort of get their head around it.
I think one of the ones that I'm slightly allergic to is when people come to me and talk about lean like development. I know it's a really highly popular way of developing a product or service. And it's, you know, been used very successfully in some places.
I can't say that it's a methodology that I'm particularly keen on, simply because I just think it's a bit of a waste of the designer's time and the user of the first iterations time as well.
You know, how many people are you putting off that product by sending out perhaps a product that's not been fully thought through. So I'm a big advocate for having this very kind of front loaded, really rigorous research that encompasses usability, context, the best channel, and understanding all of that area before even getting to the point of actually putting anything together.
Tom: You know what that makes me think about - sustainability has been on my mind quite a lot lately and being really, really lean can actually be really bad for the environment as well.
Annie: I agree. Yeah. But also I think it's, I think it could be potentially quite demotivating, you know, for designers as well. I think if they're given that space to really sit and unpack what the, what a product should be and its most convenient use and ease of use for someone at that end point, then I think they'd probably feel a lot more fulfilled in their job. If, if they know that, they've not just quickly put something together, get it out there. Let's see if it works or not. No, it doesn't work. Send it back.
Tom: Yeah. So in a sense, it's like you're missing a crucial part of creating a tangible product or service if you don't go and understand users and iterate and work almost collaboratively with them to understand their needs and then put something out there, and lean is almost the antithesis of doing all of that.
Annie: Yeah, it really is. So yeah, that's just, I know it will be a controversial opinion, especially in the digital world. But I do, I've seen a lot of startups who, you know, have launched, with great intentions, probably a great idea for a product or business, but then it does fail. But they have spent an awful lot of money in that failure. And a lot of people's time and, and maybe just a little bit of their…
Tom: Their soul.
Annie: Their soul.
Yeah, that's a really interesting opinion. Thank you for sharing that with us.
Was there anything else at all that you wanted to get across in this podcast?
Annie: No, not really. Other than that, that the University of Sheffield is open to collaborating with people. We're always looking for communities to test prototypes, to go out and do pilots with. And Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is a really broad church. I mean, I look after everything from volcano sensors that are going down to South America, right through to sexual psychologists.
So everything in between, yeah, we’re someone to perhaps get in touch with if you're a business or digital business or otherwise, and then yeah, we're very open to those partnerships and collaborations.
Tom: Yeah, amazing, and so the final question, thanks so much again for coming on the podcast. It's been really interesting, and this one's a really broad question. So you can interpret it however you like. So the question we ask every guest, what can people do to make things better?
Annie: I guess in my field, I think more institutions should open their hearts and minds to adopting design thinking methodologies in helping academics who are at a very, very early point in their sort of ideation process and helping them through that so that when they do go to a catalyst or an accelerator program on the outside of the university, they've just got much more clarity about what they want to do and also understand some of that business speak that inevitably like feeds into it.
And to make things better as a Sheffield United season ticket holder, if this is going out after the Manchester United game on Saturday, I'd like them to win a game this season.
Tom: Well, I've not told you this yet, but I am a Sheffield Wednesday fan. So I can't say I vouch for the final part of that answer.
Annie: You're doing about as well as we are.
Tom: We're doing worse, a lot, a lot worse, honestly. That's why I can be more cheeky because it's like we're bottom of the Championship. I mean, right now I'd love to be bottom of the Premier League, you can put it that way.
But yeah, thanks so much for coming on once again. Where can people find you if they want to learn more about everything that you do?
Annie: Yeah, so if you Google my name and the University of Sheffield, I'm sure it will come up. I'm on LinkedIn if anyone wants to connect with me on LinkedIn, or I will be at matches crying into my pie.
Tom: Love that. Thanks a lot for watching or listening or reading. And I hope you have an amazing rest of your day.
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