A Sandpit Tale

Knowinnovation has been facilitating Sandpits and Ideas Labs for a number of years, and this has has given us the opportunity to witness the emergence of some fascinating science. In many ways, KI is like a midwife, creating an open environment for different perspectives to collide, which leads to new questions that ultimately provoke new ideas for innovative research. We get to see all these ideas come to life, but then what? Lately we’ve been trying to find out.

In December of 2008, KI facilitated the Digital Economy Sandpit, a 5-day event sponsored by the EPSRC and the TSB. An unusual point about that Sandpit merits mention: every proposal was strong enough to be funded and all the participants left with at least one role in a funded project.

One of those proposals was called TOTeM, Tales of Things and Electronic Memory, had to do with tracking the electronic memory of tangible objects. This description is excerpted from the proposal submitted to the funders just after the Sandpit:

The principle aim of the research project is to provide a platform to allow memories to be attached to objects that already exist in the world. The project identifies a significant gap in the emerging aspect of the digital economy known as the “internet of things,” which as new objects are tagged there is a real danger that old ones will not be.

The TOTeM project is concerned with the memory and value of ‘old’ objects…[I]n almost every household there are a selection of objects that hold significant resonance, and will already connect them to an Internet of memory and meaning. An intrinsic human trait is the process of imbuing meaning onto objects so that they provide connections to people, events and environments. Artefacts across a mantelpiece become conduits between events that happened in the past, to people who will occupy the future. These objects become essential coordinates across families and communities to support the telling of stories and passing-on knowledge.

A little over three years later, the project, now called Tales of Things, has produced results. In a partnership with Oxfam International, a mobile phone app lets customers find out the stories behind the second-hand goods they buy. The phone app, called Shelflife, helps people create a written history for their objects, wich Oxfam believes adds value to them. Each story is captured using QR code, and Tales of Things already has over 6,000 items tagged with stories.

The Sandpit participant who became the PI of that project is Dr. Chris Speed, from the University of Edinburgh. KI asked him to reflect on his experience as a participant in the workshop, and the lead on a funded Sandpit project.

What’s been positive about the experience?

Chris Speed: We would never have put ourselves together had it not been for the Sandpit. The names on this proposal, they wouldn’t have been in my address book. We came from different disciplines and we had to listen to each other differently. We had to stay open. It’s not like one person had this idea in their pocket and drew the others in. We had do a dance around the idea together, as it emerged.

It also changed the way we worked. We had to stay open and listen to each other when we first started working together, and that’s carried forward. On our calls, instead of one person with an agenda, we go around and everyone goes over what they’ve done and what they’re thinking. It’s been a very democratic way of working.

As a young academic, I would never have had the opportunity to do the things I’ve done. The Sandpit shifts the decision-making on funding and removes some of the traditional hierarchy and gatekeepers. To have been awarded this project meant I could get funding that really launched me forward in my career. I think for all of us, this funding has allowed us to do other things too, and to network with people who offer us other opportunities. We were young Turks and we got 1.4 million pounds. All of a sudden we could start to do the things we’ve envisioned. Without the typical professorial hierarchy and funding gatekeepers, we had a chance to do something really exciting.

What about potentials? What came out of participating in a Sandpit that maybe you didn’t expect?

For me, it opened my eyes to the possibilities of the Sandpit experience. I’ve since attended other Sandpits and gotten additional funding that I wouldn’t otherwise sought. For instance, I attended the Transportation Behaviors event [in 2010], I wouldn’t have even thought to apply. But having done a Sandpit that I understood that you didn’t have to be someone who was expert in transportation, you just had to be who be willing to look at transportation through a different filter.

We’ve gotten tremendous press and publicity for the Tales of Things project, and this could lead to additional partnerships and funding to continue the project.

Once you get a grant, you have resources to do things. And then you write papers and then additional opportunities come to you. It’s opened many doors.

What concerns and challenges have you had?

Even though the Sandpit starts on Monday and by Friday you know whether you’ve been funded or not, it still takes months for the final proposal to be pulled together with enough detail to satisfy the funders. There was still a lot of work to do after the week was over.

You also have to manage the personalities of a diverse group of people whom you really only got to know for a week. So there’s some risk involved with building trust with those people. It’s easy to really like someone in the bar at the Sandpit, but you have to work at keeping the relationship and the communication for the next three years of the funded project, and that’s a long time to be working so closely with people you’ve only met during one week.

In our proposal, we didn’t allocate enough money for transport, so we’ve had to rely on Skype conferences. It works, but sometimes face-to-face is necessary. If the idea is born from a “people event” you need to keep that contact moving on.

Knowinnovation is privileged to witness the nascent stages of research projects like TOTeM; it’s inspiring to see people like Dr. Speed and the members of his team come together with open minds and keen questions that lead to never-before-imagined outcomes. We try to stay in touch with the scientists and academics who’ve come through our events – not always easy to keep up – not only to track the progress of their projects but to monitor the impact of the Sandpit and how it accelerates scientific innovation. Watch this space for more Sandpit tales.

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Know further: More stories about Tales of Things here and here, and follow it on Facebook. Get the iPhone app or the Android app. More about Sandpits here and here.