Knowledge, applied

I was knocked off my bike ten days ago, cycling back from our research nursery in Shirecliffe to city campus. There was more damage to the bike than to me, and I recovered reasonably quickly. Even so a longish wait in the Minor Injuries Unit and some painful bruising made it impossible for me to attend the openings of the Product Design final degree show and the Architecture show. I was incredibly disappointed not to be able to see them. I love both shows, just as I love all of our final degree shows, whether video production, fashion, fine art or jewellery. There’s always so much to engage: there is ingenuity and imagination, creativity and consideration, coupled with technical skill and real-world problem solving. In the Architecture show, which normally presents work from level four all the way through to postgraduate Masters in Architecture work, there is the added bonus of being able to trace complex patterns of progression: progression in the acquisition and deployment of technical skills, progression in the size, scale and complexity of the problems being addressed, and complexity in the user- and community-engagement. It’s all utterly absorbing.

Thankfully, this year, my inability to attend the shows didn’t entirely prevent me from being able to enjoy them. There are curated online exhibitions from both the shows I missed.  The Architecture show is curated online here and the Product Design show is curated online here at as part of the Future Now Festival of Creativity – in fact, you can explore all the dimensions of Future Now on our website. And what a joy it is. You can follow themes through disciplines, or, as I did, click through to the work of individual students. Superb photographs of portfolios take you deep into the design and creativity process and engage you with the challenges the students were seeking to address. Some are very striking attempts to understand in design and realisation terms tough problems for marginalised or excluded groups.

A few weeks ago, I brought a VIP who was visiting the University to look at the work of art and design students in the Head Post Office. It had been only partially structured, so outside of the planned sessions there were serendipitous encounters with students and staff as we walked the building. Some powerful themes emerged, which also – as it happened – enabled me to talk to our visitor about the way we work as a university and what we were seeking to do. Time and again, we encountered students looking to deploy their advanced knowledge and technical grasp to understand intricate problems which required a creative solution. User, and employer, engagement was at the very core of this, threaded throughout the process of design and realisation. We encountered students moving rapidly from advanced techniques through to creative solutions and using a variety of media. Technology was embedded in all this: virtual environments used for design, 3D printers allowing quick mock-ups and so on. Whilst those who theorise about higher education often talk about ‘interdisciplinarity’, the lesson of our visit was that that sort of thinking is just automatic. It was a powerful visit, and the VIP left with (rightly) a strong impression of what we were about. We are concerned to develop knowledge and understanding, combined with embedded technologies, grounded in user and employer engagement to produce things of great beauty with are imbued with creativity. We use a two-word phrase to capture that across the university: ‘knowledge, applied’, but it was deeply rewarding to see it exemplified.

There’s a deeper lesson in all this, and it is captured in the two-word title of the University’s Festival of Creativity: ‘future, now’. Our students, right across our engagements with creative and design challenges are drawing on a rich learning environment to – yes – create the ‘future, now’. And there is a lesson for policymakers too, who are simply behind the curve. So often, I find myself reading policy documents which set up false opposites, between ‘arts’ and ‘technology’, between ‘knowledge’ and ‘creativity’, between ‘imagination’ and ‘understanding’, between different academic disciplines.  Such documents describe a world that no longer exists. The reality of the world, and of the economy and society in which we all live is that we are way beyond that. We are way beyond interdisciplinarity too: talk of ‘interdisciplinarity’ too easily (if inadvertently) implies hard boundaries between academic disciplines which can then be crossed by deliberative thought and co-operation. But we live, work, and create in a far more porous world which requires endless plasticity of thought and application. If you aren’t quite convinced, then, when you have read this blog, make yourself a cup of tea, and click through the extraordinary work through the links above. Knowledge, applied.

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