Based at Newcastle University’s School of Computing Science, Open Lab first began in 2008 as the ‘digital interaction’ group inside Culture Lab. Led by Professor Patrick Olivier, it’s remit is to explore cross disciplinary research in digital technologies, and particularly in the fields if the digital economy, user-centred health and social care. It is now the home of over 160 researchers that include human-computer interaction specialists, product designers, electrical engineers, fine artists, psychologists and sociologists.
Approaches to innovation
Participatory design and user driven innovation are key approaches at Open Lab, and runs inside research that explores a more technical agenda. Increasingly, projects are exploring commissioning and civic engagement, and put the user and the crowd at the centre of any product or service that emerges.
Using the example of Bootlegger – crowd-sourced and crowd-generated video platform that allows users to create a filmic version of an event through combining multiple streams of footage, Professor Patrick Olivier explains: “We’re thinking about platforms that make it easy to commission content from citizens. Users can commission it from each other – create short video clips with meta data on the shot, they can edit it together easily on the mobile and the app.”
The App-movement platform follows in a similar vein.
“It’s a similar idea. If you want a trip adviser-like app – a location based review system – you can go here and propose one. People support it online, and if you get enough support through voting, the app is automatically generated. There’s no specific developer [as the infrastructure is already there], it just gets generated and appears in the app store.”
Open Lab’s approach contains two final elements. The first is that all outputs are open source, and therefore freely available to the world-wide community, and all work is designed can be scaled, rather than limited to small numbers or products or individual prototypes.
Industry collaborations, and scope for innovation
Research at the Lab spans a number of local and national organisations. From a news media perspective, it has links with local and national publishers. It also has a user engagement partnership with the BBC. As such, it can collaborate on a number of levels – which include specific projects, internships and PhDs. This raises interesting opportunities and challenges from an innovation perspective.
Professor Olivier explains: “When we work with the BBC, we work with their R&D teams and there’s a huge gulf between them and the actual journalists. Sometimes we have students go and do internships and they’ve done interviews with journalists about where they’ve found their stories and the real people they speak with, but in most instances there’s quite a big disconnect between research and the actual producers and creatives.”
“This is a negative thing, and the BBC are constantly thinking about how they can create real content channels… the clash between innovation, research and actual content production is the issue around quality. The anxiety they would have about experimenting and the resulting editorial quality they would want.”
Looking at potential solutions to this anxiety, Olivier suggests that media provides need “channels that are more experimental that you could try some of these more innovative approaches through – that’s a key thing newspapers could consider.
“Local newspapers could be the key places to do this experimentation. What you need are side channels for these organisations that could be experimental. But you do want that channel out to the public, even if it’s experimental. “
Funded by all the UK research councils ranging from Arts and Humanities to Biotechnology and Biological Sciences, the current active fund stands at £10.3 million. In addition to the research councils, Open Lab works with companies and charities to fund PhD studentships. Olivier also suggests that European funding is also in the pipeline.
The centre for doctoral training also receives match funding, but rather than direct monetary investment, this support generally takes the form of access to time or resource of the specific partners.
Challenges to industry collaboration
Olivier suggests that a main challenge to industry collaboration is intellectual property and where it resides. This is becoming less of an obstacle for Open Lab as much of the output is now open source.
A further challenge is that how the research divisions and the product division, particularly within large organisations, are a long way apart. “We tend to be collaborating with other researchers rather than those doing the content delivery or products.
Professor Patrick Olivier