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How analysing co-creation during the Covid-19 pandemic offers insights on the simultaneous generation of academic, social and business value

Dr Muthu de Silva from the department of Management gives an overview of the findings of two recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports, published with her co-authors, about the role co-creation played during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how it can shape innovation going forward.  

Co-creation is a mechanism of simultaneously generating academic, business and social value. During co-creation actors of the innovation ecosystem – such as businesses, universities, governments, intermediaries and society – act as collaborators to integrate their knowledge, resources, and networks to generate mutual benefits. The idea behind co-creation is that the joint efforts towards change or impact can lead to lasting and effective innovation.  

As an institution, Birkbeck is committed to delivering theoretically rigorous research with real-terms, practical impact, and a concept like co-creation is a really great way to facilitate this. Co-creating with non-academics enables academics to integrate needs and resources of both academic and non-academic communities, enhancing the reach and usefulness of their research.   

Over the years, I’ve published about 20 journal articles on the topic of co-creation and received eight best paper awards for these publications. In 2019, I was invited by the Working Party on Innovation and Technology Policy of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to develop a conceptual framework on co-creation between science and industry. This meant publishing a high quality journal article and leading their 2021 – 2024 co-creation project that directly influences the strategies of innovation agencies, and ministries of 37 countries who belong to the OECD, and a wider audience that benefits from OECD publications.  

This work resulted in two reports and a journal article designed to influence innovation strategies of OECD member states. It has also resulted in leading another project regarding the importance of university and industry co-creation for a societal and economic green transition.  

Based on evidence gathered from 30 COVID-19 co-creation initiatives from 21 countries and three international cases, the two reports showed that co-creation was widely used to respond to the challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. What was evident through the reports was that existing co-creation networks enabled the rapid emergence of new initiatives to address urgent needs, while digital technologies enabled establishing new – and, where necessary, socially distanced – collaborations.  

For instance, co-creation of medical innovation relied on substantially larger existing networks due to the complexity of medical discovery and manufacturing processes involved in developing these innovations. The COVID-19 Türkiye Platform, the transnational Exscalate4CoV, and the UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca initiatives are examples of this. Digital tools were also used in numerous ways. As an example, the COVID Moonshot project which aimed to develop antiviral drugs against COVID-19 by identifying new molecules that could block SARS-CoV-2, involved three scientists who organised a hackathon inviting researchers/virologists to submit molecules, donations and assays (testing) via Twitter, resulting in over 4 000 submissions.  

Aside from funding initiatives, governments engaged actively in co-creation by granting access to their networks, advising on initiative goals and offering support to improve quick delivery.  The role of civil society was important as well, and the socially impactful nature of research and innovation was a motivating factor for engagement. For example, the Austrian COVID-19 Pop-up Hub initiative; the Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology co-developed the themes (Digital Health, Distancing, Economic Buffers and State Intervention) for public virtual discussion and participatory policy idea development taking place via the Hub.  

What emerged from the reports, were the following lessons for the design and implementation of future policy programmes for co-creation:   

  • Purpose is the strongest driver of co-creation; incentives to support co-creation should go beyond facilitating access to funding.  
  • Crisis-specific programmes may not be needed out of the crisis, but networks and infrastructures should be strengthened during “normal” times. 
  • There is room for building new collaborations between researchers and producers to accelerate innovation during “normal” times.  
  • Policy should support wider development and use of digital tools for co-creation.  
  • New approaches should be leveraged more to tap into the large pool of diverse and readily available capacities in the economy.  
  • Governments’ involvement in co-creation activities as network builders can help speed up solutions; enhanced agility in their operations should be encouraged.  
  • Public engagement in co-creation can help market uptake of new solutions. 

  Further information 

 

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Birkbeck mathematician receives EPSRC grant to explore Critical Groups

Dr Steve Noble has been awarded an EPSRC Mathematics Small Grant entitled ‘The critical group of a topological graph: an approach through delta-matroid theory’. The grant of £31,231 was part of a  joint application with Professor Iain Moffatt, Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr Noble explains the background for the project.

Dr Steve Noble on a country walk

The Sandpile Model is a widely studied model in physics and used in economics to model the consequences for a network of banks when one of them defaults. It has a simple intuitive description as follows. Suppose we pile up grains of sand on a number of sites. At some point one pile becomes too large to stay upright, it topples, an avalanche occurs and sand gets transferred to adjacent sites. What happens next? Is the amount of sand transferred to the adjacent sites enough to make them topple? For how long does the process continue until all the sites become stable again and what configuration of grains of sand do we end up with? What are the systems and patterns underlying this situation?

Now suppose we have a network (comprising, for example, computer servers or wind farms connected by cables). How many cables must fail before the network becomes disconnected? If each cable has a certain probability of failure, what is the probability that the network becomes disconnected? What are the systems and patterns underlying this situation?

It turns out that the patterns underlying these two situations and many others are closely related to algebraic structures called ‘Critical Groups’. Networks are modelled in mathematics by objects called ‘graphs’. Each graph has a Critical Group associated with it. Critical Groups arise in many different ways and in many different applications of graphs in mathematics and physics; for example, through Chip-Firing or the Sandpile Model, Flow and Cut Spaces, counting spanning trees and even mathematical models of car parking.

In the situations we have described so far there is no geometry: all that matters is adjacency and which sites receive extra sand when another topples and which pairs of computers are linked by a cable. The way that the networks look is not important for the models we have described.

However, in many settings a graph comes equipped with geometric structure provided by an embedding of it in a surface (for example, a network may come drawn on a torus), and the geometric structure as well as the adjacencies determine the key properties of the graph. Examples include graphs that model the actions of enzymes or certain forms of DNA strands.

Some recent work has hinted at the possibility that there are deep links between the geometric structure of graphs and Critical Groups. When one moves away from graphs that can be drawn on a plane, some of the fundamental objects associated with the graph change profoundly: specifically one studies spanning quasi-trees rather than spanning trees. So far, the study of Critical Groups for graphs embedded on surfaces has not taken into account these changed fundamental structures.We aim to explore this space, realising the full potential of the geometric structure by developing a theory of the Critical Group that takes into account the embedding.

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An ode to illustrating academic work

Part-time PhD student, Sarah Golding shares her thoughts on how to make academic work more engaging and accessible through illustrations.

 

How to make research interesting, relevant, funny, useful, or just understandable is a problem many academics struggle with. Researchers are passionate about their projects and want to tell the world, but are they explaining it in a way that the world can understand?

Trying things differently 

I am a part-time PhD student who works full-time as an Engagement Specialist and I have been determined to find a way to communicate my academic project to the widest possible audience, especially to the people that are the heart of my work. I noticed that I spent so long explaining the ‘why’ of my project that I lost my audience before I got to the exciting part.  I wanted to practice what I preached, so rather than providing just academic text to my work, I thought, would a visual aid help?  

Below are two options for communicating my work. Option 1 is the academic summary and Option 2 is an illustrated version. I know which one I prefer, please let me know your thoughts! 

Option 1:  

The paradox of women’s activism in the Republic of Ireland 1970 – 1989 is a thesis that will highlight the problems that currently exist in the historiography around women and their experiences in Ireland. As it stands, the historiography charts a clear progress towards equality only through the lens of political success. This does not take into consideration the role external factors, such as the EU, played and credits the women’s movement entirely with its own successes. However, scholars who examine these political achievements fail to explore the cultural and social expectations of women in this period. They do not take into consideration the stagnation of gender roles, limited opportunities for women and the rural – urban divide. What might be seen by the women’s movements as ‘liberalization’ tended to affect only the metropolitan lives of the middle-class women organisers within the women’s movements. 

This thesis explores whether there were other types of activism happening in Ireland during this time, that has either been overlooked or ignored. It will focus on four groups of women: the women’s movement, the lesbian liberation movement, the Legion of Mary, and the women of the Magdalene Laundry. It will apply a new theoretical lens that integrates Collective Memory Theory, Social Movement Theory, and the Theory of Everyday Resistance to highlight the ways in which individual actions could be seen as acts of resistance. By looking at these groups of women, the thesis explores women that are grounded in the social framework of the country, it will decentralize the narrative from Dublin and provide a rural voice to the narrative of women’s lives in Ireland.

Did you skip any of that? I would be impressed if you didn’t. 

Large sections of text are not that engaging; people used to skim reading for the most useful sections will not see the nuances of the work.  

Let’s try again with illustrations… 

Option 2: 

What is the paradox of women’s activism? The accepted history of women in the Republic of Ireland has been one of progression since the 1960s. But this considers only one group of women, the women’s movement, because of their success of moving into politics.  It does not consider the rural-urban divide, traditional gender roles or the subversion of other groups.  

To understand more about the activism happening during this period, this thesis will focus on four groups of women.  

 

It seeks to understand if the women’s movement, in a bid to be deemed successful, unintentionally excluded other groups of women from the historical narrative and to bring all four groups under the same umbrella term of ‘women’s activist’. 

 

Better? I think so. 

Speaking across the academic divide

One might argue that the same level of detail is not given in the second option compared to the first. This is the point; Option 1 provides no space for natural interest or for your audience to want to ask questions. Option 2 on the other hand, is eye capturing and the audience are likely going to want to know more about how I think I can bring the women mentioned under one umbrella.   

Illustrations are a useful tool that have better enabled me to communicate my work. They speak across the academic divide and create opportunities to start a dialog on your work that is interesting to all parties and not just to people who feel the same passion as you.  

Commissioning the artwork 

Finding an artist whose work I liked was the hardest part of the process. I found Lesley Imgart through the Wellcome Collection. It was her ability to add emotion into her art that enticed me. I reached out via email and briefly told her my idea. We agreed on the commission price and the expected outcomes. The process was fascinating to a non-artist like myself: the work she put into understanding the clothing and colours of the period was unexpected but very beneficial. She also provided me with two colour options, as seen below. If you would like to know more about Lesley, you can find her website here. Alternatively, she has a specific blog about the creation of my artwork here 

 

Written by Sarah Golding, PhD Student in the History at Birkbeck, University of London.
Twitter: @sarahgolding923 

Illustrations done by Lesley Imgart
Twitter: @imgart, Instagram: @lesleyimgart
 

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Championing a more inclusive post-pandemic digital investment landscape

In this blog, we hear about the efforts of  Professor Kevin Ibeh, from the Department of Management, to encourage inclusivity in the post-pandemic landscape. 

A man with a book under arm.

Photo by Ilyass SEDDOUG on Unsplash

Birkbeck Professor of International Business, Professor Kevin Ibeh, is among a select group of international business scholars recently invited by the official journal of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Transnational Corporations, to offer perspectives on the longer term implications – global, regional and sectoral –  of the COVID-19 pandemic for international production and investment flows.

The Focused Section on COVID-19 published in September 2020 comprise insightful contributions from leading international business researchers and policy thinkers based in Denmark, Geneva, New Zealand, Republic of Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The themes addressed include the balance between globalisation and regionalisation in the post-COVID-19 world; human rights issues, efficiency and resilience tensions and digital transformation of global value chains; and digital investments in Africa and a more inclusive post-pandemic world.

Professor Ibeh’s contribution focuses on the last mentioned theme and advances policies for promoting the intraregional and international investment prospects of African digital multinationals in the post-pandemic era. These policy ideas are organised around four main areas, organizational capabilities, funding access, digital infrastructure and regulatory environment, and they seek to promote a more globally inclusive investment landscape in which African-born digital multinationals would no longer be a rarity. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic’s amplification of humankind’s shared and digital future, Professor Ibeh calls on policymakers and influential stakeholders at all levels to intensify the push for a more inclusive global digital economy.

This work is part of Professor Ibeh’s influential and continuing research on African multinationals, which has attracted coverage in international media outlets such as The Economist and the Global Finance magazine.

 

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