Day in the Life of an Academic #15: The research sandpit

While the previous DITL post focused on something that I do regularly (i.e., teaching), this one looks at something that I had never done before: participate in a research sandpit. 

UKRI, the UK’s government main body for funding research and innovation, defines research sandpits as residential, interactive workshops bringing together “a highly multidisciplinary mix of participants (…) to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to address research challenges.” 

It was my former colleague, Danae Manika, that alerted me to the value of these workshops to develop research networks and grant proposals. So, when I came across the announcement for InterAct’s sandpit, I decided to apply, immediately.

As you can read in their About page, InterAct is a research “network that aims to bring together economic and social scientists, UK manufacturers, and digital technology providers to address the human issues resulting from the diffusion of new technologies in industry.” This is very much up my street. So, I was delighted when I heard that I had been selected for the sandpit, even though the date clashed with my marking season, and child two’s (aka, the kiddo) GCSE exams (cue: lots of guilt).

The day featured in this blog post is Tuesday, 16th May 2023, the second of the three days for this sandpit, which took place at the University of Loughborough.

7h00m – Wake up and go for a run around campus. I thought it would be deserted, but there were several groups training football, running, and doing other activities. 

7h40m – Call home to make sure that the kiddo is awake and doesn’t forget anything for his exam.

Go back to the bedroom, get ready, and head off for breakfast.

09h00 – Day 2 of the sandpit starts. During day one, we had heard testimonials from several managers about the challenges that they faced, and, as day two started, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number and complexity of the problems. I couldn’t help but wonder where we should even start, let alone how to make a positive contribution.

We split into groups, and went on to visit various research labs at Loughborough, to learn about work being done on technologies as diverse as:

  • Robotic arms
  • A framework to pull together robots, algorithms and other “pieces” to enable SMEs to access industrial robotics as a service
  • Sensor stacking, to augment robotic arms’ abilities to understand and manipulate an object
  • Human-robot interaction (and what it does do the humans – e.g., how they move, their heart rate, skills…)
  • Renewable energy (I finally understand how solar energy is stored!)
  • Portable batteries, powered by solar, to generate energy in developing countries

10h40m – Back in the room. We are put into teams, to formulate research questions pulling together the challenges that we had identified in day one and the technologies that we have just been learning about.

11h10m – Presentation by David Brackett, from the Manufacturing Technology Centre. Brackett’s presentation focused on digital manufacturing, which he defined as “extracting value from data in a manufacturing environment”. It includes applications such as insight into how people use our products, predictive maintenance, optimising the supply chain and workforce safety. I could see the link between this and some of the technologies that we had seen earlier in the morning; plus, how they could work together to solve some of the problems that we had identified in day one, which was very reassuring. My sense of overwhelm was being replaced by a sense of possibility.

11h30m – We moved into different, smaller teams, to explore how specific groups of stakeholders might be impacted by the technologies we had been hearing about during the morning. My group of three was focused on consumers. Each of us had to talk for 5 minutes about “What challenges do [consumers] face?” and “How might digitalisation help them?”, without interruption. I found this exercise really, really interesting, both when I was listening and when it was my turn to talk. Five minutes is a long, when you are talking without interruption. You quickly go past saying the obvious, and you need to start digging deep into the issues that you are considering, sometimes counter arguing what you just said. And, as listener, there is no point thinking about your reply, and you can’t even ask clarification questions. So, you have to really listen and think about what is being said.

Back in the room, each group summarised their discussions. Then, we headed out to:

13h00 – Lunch

14h00 – Workshop re-started. The facilitator announced a tipping point in the sandpit: until now, we had been on a divergent journey identifying all the possible issues and research questions we might possibly deal with. It had been almost like a brain dump. Now, though, we would be starting a convergent journey. We would be focusing on specific issues, and joining forces to explore how we might address them.

The leaders of the sandpit identified 8 challenges, based on what we had discussed thus far. Then, put us into 8 teams, each reflecting on one of the challenges.

My group was looking at the question “What is the role of the UK in a global circular economy”? [I quickly learned that, even though the term “circular economy” seems quite obvious it is, actually, very broad, going well re-using and recycling].

The groups had to work on a solution to their question in order to “create the digital future of manufacturing that we want”. Importantly, the future was 2040, and the solution would be one based on social-sciences, with the technology being the context.

After presenting our initial thoughts, we had a coffee break. Then, when returning to the room, we could choose to either continue working on that problem or change to another one. I changed to the group looking at “How might we use digital technology to decouple consumption from production?”.

18h00 – Session ended. Back to my room, to do flash cards with the kiddo about quotes from Macbeth and from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (none of which I have ever read, but which I could talk about at length).

19h00 – Dinner, with plenty of stimulating discussions.

21h00m – Quick call home, this time to go through flash cards about the Weimar Republic. Then, some prep for the next – and final – day of the sandpit, when we would be developing a research project idea related to our topic), before crashing down at around 11 pm.

I am now back home. Back to marking. And, delighted to say, also developing the project idea that we put together during the sandpit. Hopefully, we will be able to do something to tackle at least one of the many challenges faced by UK manufacturing.

Did you ever join a sandpit (or the equivalent in your area of work – e.g., hackathon)? What came out of it?

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