Economic network for Made Smarter Innovation programme

A woman in a mask operating a machine

Almost £4m of funding has been approved for a new ESRC Network Plus to bring an economic and social science dimension to the £147 million Made Smarter Innovation programme. The new network will be led by Co-Directors Professor Jill MacBryde of the University of Strathclyde and Professor Jan Godsell of Loughborough University.

The Made Smarter Innovation challenge aims to help UK manufacturing become more productive and competitive through the innovation and diffusion of digital technology; made Smarter Innovation also supports manufacturing to achieve Net Zero by 2050. Whilst the much of focus of MSI is on industrial digital technologies, there is an awareness of how important social and economic insights will be in ensuring that the MSI challenge achieves its aims.

InterAct seeks to “pioneer human insight for industry” and is a call to arms for academics from the social sciences to support the innovation and diffusion of digital technologies that will result in a stronger, more resilient UK manufacturing industry. Working alongside other partners within the wider Made Smarter community, the long-term vision is to build a strong, vibrant, interdisciplinary community to support UK manufacturing.

Along with Professor MacBryde and Professor Godsell, supporting the programme is a dedicated Network Management Team and a core research team from Strathclyde, Loughborough and the University of Sheffield.

Professor MacBryde and Professor Godsell undertook preliminary work throughout the summer, talking to stakeholders, understanding their needs, and designing the network. Between March and July 2021, over 30 stakeholders from industry and academic were interviewed, along with other information gathering sessions, such as town hall events, workshops and a nudgeathon. The InterAct network and programme of activity will take these learnings to ensure it meets the needs of stakeholders.

There are five key elements to the 38 month programme of work:

  • A Commissioned research programme will provide the opportunity to curate, augment and amplify insights from the ESS to support the diffusion and adoption of IDTs. 5 different funding mechanisms have been adopted to broaden the appeal of the programme and increase participation. These include systematic reviews, small projects, a sandpit, Early Career Researcher (ECR) Fellowship programme, and an impact acceleration fund resulting in 18 interdisciplinary projects.
  • A Knowledge exchange programme is critical to the diffusion of ideas from the ESS to the policy makers, manufacturers and IDT providers who could benefit from the adoption of IDTs. The comprehensive programme includes a range of activities that amplify the core research programme (international webinars, discovery days, annual conference), provide education and insights (impact workshops, insight days, summer school), support academic publication (special tracks, journal special issue) and enable and amplify the diffusion of ideas (website and curation platform, mentoring programme, access to Emerald impact services).
  • The Core research programme compliments the commissioned research programme base by addressing more systemic problems that require a longer term and more in-depth research. It has the additional benefit of providing a common purpose to galvanise the team. Future focused it considers the future of manufacturing ecosystems (Prof. Jan Godsell and Dr Alok Choudray, Loughborough), future of work (Prof. Jill MacBryde and Prof. Colin Lindsay, Strathclyde) and the future of the economy (Prof. Vania Sena and Prof. Philip McCann, Sheffield).
  • An Impact acceleration programme. There are lots of ESS insights currently in existence, that are not in a form that is easily accessible to policy makers, manufacturers, and IDT providers. Researchers often lack the time and skills to turn their work into more accessible outputs. An impact acceleration programme has the dual benefit of building impact capacity within the ESS community whilst making the insights more accessible to end users.
  • A Storytelling fellowship programme. The ability to use storytelling as a methodology and form of dissemination is a key research skill for economic and social scientists. The storytelling fellowship programme has the dual benefits of building storytelling capacity within the ESS whilst using stories to make insights more accessible to the end users, the network and society at large.

Professor MacBryde, of Strathclyde's Department of Design, Manufacturing and Engineering Management, said: “Our long-term vision is to build a strong, vibrant, interdisciplinary community to support UK manufacturing in the adoption and development of digital technologies that will result in a stronger, more resilient, manufacturing base. We know that technology alone is not enough. We need to harness the knowledge of people and society to really reap the full benefits that technology can bring.

"Whilst there are clear advantages of this network for the economy, manufacturers and technology providers, there are also benefits for the academic communities. Collaborative working, new challenges and contexts will open up new avenues for world leading research.”

Professor Godsell said: “Looking to the future, our aspirations for InterAct is a community, with clear added-value for all, where stakeholder groups want to engage and be part of the network. We will embed diversity and inclusivity. Diversity of thought will bring benefits of multiple perspectives. Inclusivity will help us to embrace and collaborate with existing research groupings, rather than compete with them.

Participation will be based on expertise, not status, and we will seek to develop people at all stages of their careers. Our vision of success would be that the InterAct is seen as a partner of choice; easy to work with, welcoming, and professional. Ultimately, we would like to be a one-stop shop that curates existing & emerging knowledge and capabilities, research and education, and showcases leading practice.”

Chris Courtney, Challenge Director for Made Smarter Innovation, UKRI said: “Digital technologies have the power to radically transform how we manufacture and deliver the products and services of the future and deliver a more sustainable, resilient, prosperous economy with fundamental changes to the nature of work. A key part of delivering an optimal future in manufacturing will be enabled by harnessing the insights from the broader economic, social, regulatory, and political sciences.

"I’m delighted to see the launch of InterAct and to welcome Jan and Jill to the overall effort as co-directors, combining two of our leading academics in this space bringing leadership, insight with a passion for manufacturing. I’m excited to get this work underway and to support Jill and Jan as they reach out to the broad network of capability to engage and shape a vital and exciting programme of work.”

The InterAct network will officially launch during Digital Manufacturing Week which takes place in Liverpool from 9-11 November.

Strathclyde is the anchor university for the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), a group of industry-led manufacturing research and development facilities with a network of Partners across Scotland brought together to boost the manufacturing community.