Ken Scott-Brown: Sharing idea space makes for creative solutions

Researchers are increasingly getting involved in translating research into accessible innovations for the public. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Researchers are increasingly getting involved in translating research into accessible innovations for the public. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
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“Serious games” are helping Scotland’s research leaders of the future think outside the box, explains Dr Ken Scott-Brown

Some problems require hard work and effort (or money) to solve, while other problems seem to be fiendishly intractable. Social and health problems are examples of these so-called “wicked problems” that resist quick fixes. One way to tackle these is to take fresh insights and perspectives to the problem, to increase the total knowledge about the “problem-space”. These problems benefit from collaboration with people across traditional disciplines and require innovation and creativity. But how can academics, with their faculties, departments and specialisms, work this way?

Scottish Crucible is a response to the changing nature of problem solving. It is an award-winning leadership and development programme for Scotland’s “research leaders of the future”. Over the past eight years, the programme has selected 243 highly talented researchers representing all academic disciplines, universities and research organisations across Scotland to take part in its prestigious programme. Each annual cohort goes on to join the Scottish Crucible Alumni Network, continuing to work together to forge new ideas for pan-Scotland collaboration in research and innovation.

Scottish Crucible aims to foster development of four key attributes: collaboration, interdisciplinarity, innovation and leadership, inspiring researchers to be more ambitious, creative and innovative in their research and interdisciplinary collaborations.

The programme runs via a series of intensive, two-day workshops (called “Labs”) comprising a wealth of guest speakers, seminars, skills sessions, tours and informal discussions. Participants gain a unique opportunity to broaden their networks with senior colleagues from different sectors, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament, business and industry.

Thanks to support from Scottish Crucible, researchers in this area are increasingly getting involved in translating research into accessible innovations for the public using the vehicle of computer games. “Serious games” – and mobile games in particular – cut across demographics. They can be accessed anywhere, any time and need not rely on reams of text to get a message across. They are naturally suited to promoting learning – people generally get better they more they play. The challenge is to promote the “right” learning: to make a “Game for Good”.

At Scottish Crucible, groups of us were set some real-life health challenges to explore.  Our response –creating serious games – brought some of our ideas to life and enabled us to present them at both academic conferences and the Indiefest part of Dare Protoplay, Abertay University’s annual computer games festival. There is a steep learning curve for all of us involved, but the problem-solving approach is one of trial and error at the start.

We opened up new collaborations with the health sector, which is strong in Dundee and Scotland as a whole.

Since that time, I’ve increasingly become involved in working with the creative industries in Scotland, and I am delighted to see that more and more serious games are appearing and gaining traction. My colleague, Dr Robin Sloan, brought three new projects to Indiefest this year after his induction into Scottish Crucible. Mobile games companies such as HyperLuminal, Waracle, Future Fossil and Guerilla Tea all work out of Dundee in this field.

Scotland has a large share of this growing “opportunity space” thanks to the convergence and co-location of academic expertise and creative talent – we have multiple universities and creative hubs all relatively close together.

What is particularly enticing about mobile serious games is their scalability; once developed, their scope for growth is limited only by the number of handsets in circulation – which currently exceeds the number of people in the UK.

Pokemon Go can even be seen as a new way to challenge sedentary lifestyles.

To enable more growth in the field, we need the private sector, public sector and third sector to feel empowered to share their problems.

By giving creative freedom to the game developers and designers we can turn everyday challenges into puzzles and re-imagine the solutions in a games or interactive-media format.

For me, Scottish Crucible puts together a diverse range of open-minded academics and practitioners and, by giving us the tools and techniques to work together, it opens the door to wider engagement and impact.

For me, the definition of “academic enterprise” is the “readiness to undertake new ventures”. This is the most ancient of traditions in Scotland, and one that we continually seek to epitomise and enable by finding new partners with whom to engage.

If you have an intractable problem and if no one else can help, maybe you could contact a Scottish Crucible researcher and see what innovative solutions might result.

• Dr Ken Scott-Brown is Academic Enterprise Leader and a senior lecturer in psychology at Abertay University. He joined Abertay in 2001 and the Scottish Crucible network in 2011. He publishes collaborative research in psychology and human-computer interaction, and teaches psychology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.