Opening up academia at the Bayes Centre
Universities across the UK have faced a huge challenge over the past year. The pandemic has reshaped fundamental parts of university life, from academic collaboration to the campus experience.
We’re sharing stories from university students, researchers, and leaders – to explore how they’ve continued their learning and research in the face of unprecedented restrictions.
We’ll also look at the potential of technology to reshape campus life and university success in the future.
In this blog, Michael Rovatsos, shares his experiences creating and maintaining a sense of community for the businesses involved and how the digital transformation undergone can ensure flexibility going forward at the centre.
Collaboration at the heart
The opportunity to learn shouldn’t be exclusive to a select few. In fact, at the University of Edinburgh’s Bayes Centre, our recently established data science and AI innovation hub, which brings together several hundreds of people from 40 different organisations, we’ve found the best innovation comes when people from all walks of life interact, collaborate, and experiment.
Within the walls of our innovation hub are students, professors, and businesses engineering tech projects to add real benefit to our society. However, when the pandemic hit Scotland, the transmission of ideas became somewhat stifled. There were no more impromptu coffees resulting in freshly-sparked ideas, there were no casual conversations to provide respite from the depths of lonely research, and there were certainly no celebratory high-fives to mark another milestone achieved.
Like most universities, we had to funnel our processes and people into digital format. This has been a real research project in itself, in which we’ve spent a lot of time investigating appropriate technologies, and how to engage with audiences when the online world has made competition around virtual events so much bigger. However, it’s overcoming challenges surrounding connectivity that I feel will open up academia to the world more than ever, which brings multiple benefits for everyone involved.
A sudden disconnect
While communication has always been a key part of innovation at Bayes Centre, we had to come to terms with the reality of what connecting with people online or via email meant for our approach. We couldn’t simply replicate our day-to-day communications in a digital setting – it only results in long video calls which dull enthusiasm and drain inspiration. Alternatively, leaving members of Bayes Centre to innovate in isolation was equally detrimental to their work.
There needed to be something that offered a balance between the two. We needed to facilitate fleeting casual conversations as well as bigger boardroom-type discussions. We needed to use the appropriate channels, ensure everyone had the information they needed, use tech suited to everyone, and create a sense of community despite being apart. On top of this, students, professors, and businesses were now stationed from their homes – which in some cases were in completely different time zones. It meant we had to also factor-in people’s mental capacity during certain times of the day in order to meet their needs.
So, all in all, transitioning Bayes Centre to a digital-first approach was a tall order that needed to produce a more flexible version of the innovation hub.
A more connected future
At the heart of Bayes Centre is a sense of community, and although we can’t replicate exactly what we have within our four walls, we still need an anchor point – something people can connect to and dip in and out of. The first thing we had to do was cement the idea that working remotely didn’t mean members of the centre were missing out.
Here, the transmission of information was key. We didn’t want to overload members with information that wasn’t essential to them or was frustrating to access. Working with shared online documents, chatting to each other asynchronously online, and creating a whole range of different online formats for meetings, presentations, and showcase events played a vital role in ensuring collateral and data was easy to access and that updates were not onerous.
In addition, when attracting new members online we had to think about how to target the right people, with the right information, through the right channels, to make a good impression. So far, this approach has paid off. We’re not only surviving through the pandemic but growing new opportunities in the pipeline.
The changes that have been facilitated by the shift to digital have enabled us to find clients internationally. Being able to operate remotely around the world will have a big benefit on our future as it has cut down the overheads in terms of travelling. It’s also given us an opportunity to use our existing space more efficiently, which supports a future of hybrid working and greater agility to the way we operate.
For me, the vision is that universities will continue to open up to communities and individuals from all walks of life – not just researchers and students, but external people such as industries, governments, innovators, and entrepreneurs. In response, universities will offer a mosaic of activities and services that can be engaged with on different levels, sometimes in-person, and sometimes virtual.
The beauty of the digital transformation we’ve undergone is that we can have flexibility; we can work in multiple ways according to individual needs. Technology, of course, will play a vital role in this, and will continue to break down the rigidity that many associate with academic environments.
We do already offer easy access to academic expertise, online courses, start-up incubators, and plenty of other opportunities to embark with innovators in our ecosystem through joint collaborations and projects. However, my vision is one where ‘digital’ campuses enhance universities’ capabilities to be institutions that are truly open to the world, and provide opportunities for people from all of society to engage with our activities in education, research, and innovation.
The pandemic, and the technology it’s pushed us towards, hasn’t only changed our processes, but also our mindsets, towards a more inclusive education. The challenges have been tough, but being able to see Bayes Centre turn into a shop window of opportunity for the future will definitely be worth it.