Harnessing and commercialising the power of social sciences, humanities and the arts

Published On: 22 February 2022|

While the commercialisation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies is well-established, research within the non-STEM disciplines such as social sciences, humanities and the arts is often ignored in the context of commercialisation or knowledge exchange.

However, this has started to change, and now, the commercialisation of the ‘SHAPE’ subjects  (Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy) is increasingly starting to harness their collective power to ‘shape’ a brighter and more prosperous future.

Dr Sarah Macnaughton (right) – Principal Consultant at Oxentia Ltd, who has worked in management consultancy and knowledge exchange and commercialisation for more than 20 years – led the short case study on SHAPE commercialisation as part of the Train-the-Trainer workshop last week, of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme that was funded by the British Council and facilitated by experts from Oxentia Ltd, Oxford University’s Innovation consultancy.

Dr Macnaughton introduced the webinar participants to the  Aspect (A Social sciences Platform for Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Transformation) programme – founded in 2018 – and now including a growing network of 28 UK universities and organisations and two international members, working together to support socially responsible innovation, entrepreneurship and research commercialisation through SHAPE innovation.

She continued: “Using the programmes and support of Aspect, Universities are able to introduce SHAPE into entrepreneurship, introduce it to student training, introduce it to the academics becoming involved as entrepreneurs so that they can extend the impact of their work in society. The impacts and challenges that SHAPE commercialisation can support, include addressing the major challenges of our time; we’re talking about achieving net zero by 2050; we are looking at issues such as biodiversity and ecosystem damage, which are enormous problems. These will never be solely changed by STEM innovation. They require SHAPE innovation alongside STEM.”

Aspect funds projects to test ideas and pilot new approaches while developing resources that share insights and learning with the broader community. It encourages SHAPE research commercialisation while developing and exchanging knowledge and good practice.

For its first three years it focused only on social sciences but is now wider and more inclusive and encompasses the arts and humanities.

Tools and approaches that capture the lessons learned during Aspect’s first three years, disseminating shared knowledge and providing practical guidance and case studies that other institutions around the world can use for inspiration in their own activities is available at Aspect toolkit.

Dr Macnaughton highlighted some successful Aspect-funded projects, including the Aspect Research Commercialisation (ARC) Accelerator. The ARC Accelerator is a first-of-its-kind opportunity specifically designed to help SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts) academics and researchers to develop ideas based on their research into businesses or ventures to help people, society and the economy. Learnings from the first iterations of ARC included the “the importance of ‘cohort effects’, bringing together social scientists, who may often work in isolation, in a cohort through which they can discuss and shape their ideas through ‘peer-to-peer’ learning in the accelerator.”

Two ARC projects were highlighted, information on which, along with many other projects in the accelerator, can be found here.

Part of the workshop audience that was attending in person at a Sandton-based facility in Johannesburg. Of the 160 participants who represented 25 of South Africa’s 26 public universities, half were virtually linked in.

Dr Macnaughton encouraged universities and higher learning institutions who want to commercialise their SHAPE departments to share possible opportunities and engage with both academics and businesses. But, when engaging with businesses, she reminded the delegates of the importance of not using acronyms, but being specific about the subject matter and where it might be applied.

“Acronyms don’t necessarily mean anything to industry. You also need to focus on the specific disciplines involved. If you’re talking about geography, talk about geography; if you are talking about the urban landscape, talk about the urban landscape; if you are talking about behavioural change, talk about behavioural change. Really be specific when you’re doing this, and speak in the ‘language’ that the market understands”

Lastly, Dr Macnaughton emphasised the benefits that come from being a part of a network or programme like Aspect.

“For a university, it’s access to best practice, support and funding and the opportunity to pilot new approaches to commercialisation. Researchers have access to inspirational case studies and events that will help develop the skills and contacts needed to maximise the impact of their research.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.