Relationships are based on trust, communication, and mutual respect. The same can be said of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). Behind all the new ideas, it all boils down to a group of people, hailing from different walks of life, coming together to try and create a better future for everyone. At the fourth annual NUCLEUS conference, researchers, academics, science communicators, creatives, and business people flocked to the tiny isle of Malta to share their stories and attempts to embed RRI into their institutions and communities. As everyone settled in, dialogue flowed among delegates and the room was abuzz. University of Malta pro-rector Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino opened the conference with a question: How similar are universities and Valletta, the fortified capital that was hosting the conference? Having been constructed following Malta’s infamous Great Siege, the Knights encased Valletta in massive bastions, allowing only four small entry points. ‘Valletta is an island on an island,’ Baldacchino said. ‘Are universities the same? Are we trying to protect our own?’ The question had many heads nodding in response.
Most people in the room expressed a feeling of obligation to render knowledge more accessible, more relevant, and more digestible to a wider audience. But they encounter a myriad of challenges. Engaging with publics or policy makers isn’t easy. It means addressing different needs in different ways, sometimes even pandering to whims and flights of fancy. Most people noted issues with time, funding, and resources, calling for processes to be formalised. Others pointed to a lack of creative skills and, sometimes, general interest across the board. What also quickly emerged was frustration with the term RRI itself, creating confusion where there needn’t be any.
With all of these difficulties, however, came solutions. Dr Penny Haworth from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, said that in her experience ‘we need to look at what universities are already doing and work smart. Win hearts and minds.’ University of Malta’s Nika Levikov also pointed out that ‘there are a lot of people practicing RRI who are not conscious of it.’ And for those who do not believe it to be a priority, for those who do not want to engage? ‘You have to set them aside and show them it is possible in a way they understand,’ says Zoran Marković from MISANU, Serbia.
Picking up Baldacchino’s thread on bringing down the walls of universities and research institutions, Dr Annette Klinkert from Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Germany summed up her main takeaway from all the discussions. ‘What we can learn here is that it’s time to burst the bubble in which we work. Especially this field of RRI. It is time to leave our cosy little community with our results.’ The results are the various projects that NUCLEUS has been championing over the past years, bringing research to its audiences. ‘All the projects are useless if they can’t merge and get out [into society and communities],’ she emphasises. ‘If they don’t merge, they’re pointless. It is time to burst the bubble.’
Valletta should be a unique experience, open to all. This is Valletta 2018’s key vision for the bustling capital. A group of people focused on making this a reality is theValletta Design Clusterteam. Located at the Old Abattoir site in Valletta, the initiative is going to create a community space for cultural and creative practice. Words by Caldon Mercieca.
According to Anna Wicher from the PDR International Centre for Design and Research, design is ‘an approach to problem-solving that can be applied across the private and public sectors to drive innovation in products, services, society and even policy-making by putting people first.’ This people-centred approach to design is not just a theoretical framework, but a concrete method that engages people in a co-creative process.
By bringing together people active in the cultural and social spheres, we want to have a concrete and meaningful impact on Malta’s diverse communities. We aim to provide support for students, start-ups, and creative enterprises and give social groups the necessary tools to empower those with different interests who nonetheless share the common purpose of using creativity for the social good. We also want to provide a new networking space for everyone. From students, to cultural and creative professionals, to residents, budding businesses and civil society groups, everyone will be welcomed at the Valletta Design Cluster.
This philosophy of openness and diversity is one that has permeated every aspect of the project from the very beginning. Over the past three years, we have consulted with residents, students, schools, higher education institutions, artists, makers, and creatives to build the vision for the space. A range of public and independent organisations are also contributing to the project, providing both expertise and generous support.
Thanks to the support from the European Regional Development Fund, the physical space for the Cluster as well as the urban public spaces around it are currently undergoing serious regeneration. Once finished, the Cluster will have a range of facilities, which were decided on following consultation with potential users. It will include a makerspace, coworking spaces, studios, a food-space, several meeting rooms and conference facilities, an exhibition space, and a public roof garden. All of these facilities have benefitted from input contributed by various potential users, by residents, and by organisations that have been interacting regularly with the team working on the Valletta Design Cluster.
We believe that a community can only truly reach its potential when it opens itself up to collaborations which share a common goal. This does not mean turning a blind eye to the challenges faced by the community on a daily basis, or to the ever-evolving scenario that surrounds it, but rather cultivating a readiness to learn, an aptitude to develop networks built on trust, and a capacity to address problems with a practical, positive, can-do attitude.
One valuable experience we are developing with our community stakeholders is Design4DCity. This annual initiative, which the Valletta Design Cluster team started back in 2016, sees creatives, residents, and local authorities joining forces to rework and improve a public space. We worked with the Valletta community in 2016, and continued with the Birżebbuġa community in 2017. In 2018 we plan to work again in Birżebbuġa as well as in Siġġiewi, and will involve children and young people in our public space projects. Such initiatives are providing very important insights into the application of collaborative, co-creative approaches involving multiple stakeholders.
But the work of the Valletta Design Cluster is not restricted to the restoration or transformation of space. For the past three years, we have collaborated with the Malta Robotics Olympiad, teaming up with artistic curators and student organisations from the University of Malta (UM) to design and construct the pavilion for Valletta 2018. By the end of the project, participants had constructed a fully-recyclable 300 square meter pavilion and presented it to the public. This year we also supported SACES, the architecture students’ association at the UM, through a number of design and construction workshops. Branching out, we have done work with a number of creatives from various backgrounds in projects involving video-capture, artifact-curation, narrative development linked to cultural identities, and flexible use of available space through appropriately constructed spatial modules.
Several workshops have also been held where project stakeholders were fully involved in training sessions, with the aim of building skills in user-centred design, applied to specific contexts. This meant interacting with students, researchers, creatives, residents, and organisations in developing what the Cluster can offer. One tool used in this process is the construction of a user persona, where the characteristics, interests and concerns of the user are gathered through interaction with potential users of a service. Students from a number of faculties have also provided their input in this process through dedicated workshops at the UM.
They also stressed that the Cluster needed to serve as a catalyst for networking and for strengthening entrepreneurial skills for people working in the creative sector.
All of this has become possible thanks to continuous collaboration and international networks which have contributed their resources to our projects. To assist us in this, the Valletta 2018 Foundation has joined Design4Innovation, an Interreg Europe project bringing together eight European countries all working towards using design to benefit society.
While we have been on the receiving end of a lot of support, translating our philosophy of openness into practice involved an element of risk. During a series of tours that we organised on site for potential users of the Cluster, we had to be open to various views and perspectives about what the Cluster could be. Participants highlighted issues related to accessibility and affordability as key concerns. They also stressed that the Cluster needed to serve as a catalyst for networking and for strengthening entrepreneurial skills for people working in the creative sector. In some cases, we had to revisit some of our plans and open new discussions with the architects to made adjustments. On other occasions, we called people in again to discuss their ideas further and see how we could integrate their suggestions into our vision.
Although we speak of cultural and creative industries, we should realise that the average number of people working in any single company is two. Indeed, 40% of designers in Malta are actually freelancers. The challenge for the Valletta Design Cluster here is to ensure flexibility and adaptability both in the physical infrastructure as well as the management of the Cluster. In this way, we can make the facility relevant for our users’ current needs, as well as cater to future ones.
The next stage in understanding our community of potential users better is to work together on the creation of a Design Action Plan. The Design Action Plan will highlight concrete actions to be undertaken by the Cluster during the first three years of its operation. It will serve as the main reference tool to structure the Valletta Design Cluster’s interaction with its community of users, practitioners, enterprises, and beneficiaries. Based on this open process, the Valletta Design Cluster aims at establishing itself as a new community-driven platform for cultural and creative practice in Malta.
Start-ups to change a country. Lars Lorenz meets TAKEOFF Business Incubator manager Andy Linnas to find out more.
Start-up companies have evolved from being nice to have into a must have. Traditional business models cannot match their capacity to advance into uncharted territory and risk taking abilities. Banking, media, telecommunication, and manufacturing are only a few examples that have changed heavily since the start-up culture exploded. The rapid change has uncovered major challenges. Networks are lacking, allowing for no easy way to collaborate or share ideas, which is key for young start-ups to succeed. The gap between small businesses and established companies is undesirable to sustain a healthy economy.
The ZEST conference offers a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs, managers, students, and those interested in business to chat and share knowledge. The two-day event is organised by the Malta Communication Authority in collaboration with the TAKEOFF Business Incubator (University of Malta). Armed with their past experience the team invited more than 34 different speakers. Contrary to other events, ZEST throws excessive formalities out of the window and focuses on creating an enjoyable atmosphere instead.
The venue, Westin Dragonara Resort’s Conference Centre, is outfitted with a tech demo space, piazza, and co-working area. The setup encourages chats in breaks and between talks to share ideas and encourage participants to start working on their next big project. ‘ZEST tries to be an event not just for techies. It caterers to everyone’s interest,’ says Andy Linnas. Their unusual approach is clear: the famous tenor Joseph Calleja is opening the conference to talk about the classical music and opera industry.
Malta stands to gain by opening up internationally. The Islands can show what it has to offer, while local businesses can obtain fresh inspiration from abroad. Even established companies can benefit immensely, since they need start-ups to innovate. Conquering emerging markets quickly is essential to staying competitive, but big business cannot adapt that quickly. They need start-ups to go into these niches for them, and in turn large corporations need to provide the necessary resources to do so.
‘If businesses don’t prepare and become flexible and open to change, many may lose out on this revolution.’
Linnas experienced the possible impact of such events first hand during Latitude59, a big start-up conference in Estonia. It is now in its 9th year, but beforehand Estonia hardly had a start-up culture. Today the landscape has changed. Whole parts of the city have been refurbished into modern areas filled with restaurants, office space, and apartments, ready for people from all around the world to move in. Having that international talent intertwining with the Estonian community allowed start-ups to raise over €100 million of investments that created thousands of jobs. This movement placed Estonia on the map. ‘I believe society will always benefit from startup culture and we can make this happen in Malta,’ Linnas envisions.
ZEST is the first step in that direction. It will be happening from 27–28 June at Westin Dragonara Resort, St. Julian’s. Prices start at €149, while university staff and students are being offered special rates. For more information visit their website or contact ZEST directly.
Diseases and disorders plague humanity. They have the power to devastate the afflicted and those close to them. Globally researcher are fighting back. Recently, the Maltese branch of this international force came together at the 9th Malta Medical School Conference to present their most recent findings on matters from pediatrics and public health, to the minute mechanics of the molecular world that make us all tick. Outlined here are just two examples out of over a hundred presented on the day. Words by Scott Wilcockson.