In this month’s episode, Prof. Bartel Van de Walle talks us through:
– The UN jobs available with our ‘Comprehensive Innovation for Sustainable Development’ research teams
– Our nascent research unit on ‘Computational Innovation’
– Our 15th anniversary of the cooperation agreement between UN University and Maastricht University
– Upcoming events in Vienna and Maastricht (COVID allowing…)
Listen to the audio above or see below for the lightly edited transcript.
HH: Hello and welcome to the UNU-MERIT Director’s Corner podcast. I’m Howard Hudson (HH) and today we’re going to talk about comprehensive innovation. We have the teams now on the website and we also have some vacancies coming along as well for these ‘CI’ teams. Can you tell us more about this, please, Bartel?
BVW: Yes, it’s actually pretty exciting to see what is happening on the comprehensive innovation frontlines. As we said in a previous podcast, our Comprehensive Innovation teams are actually the trailblazers to explore and build on that concept of comprehensive innovation. I was meeting with the team leads last week and they were telling me what they were doing in the meantime. And it was actually quite fascinating to see how they approached their challenge on comprehensive innovation. One of the teams was clearly targeting, for instance, academic publications in good journals, explaining their work and linking it to comprehensive innovation. Another team was really targeting projects and networking and trying to get into different networks to bring the message of comprehensive innovation. So it was really interesting to see all the developments going on. Each of the teams is extremely active, trying to build upon that brand new concept that we introduced here at UNU-MERIT of comprehensive innovation. So pretty exciting. I think everybody is off to a good start. And I’m very curious to see how things will further develop. Going back to the vacancies, we also clearly want to strengthen these teams so we are hiring three PSA positions, which we will advertise soon.
HH: Just to clarify, PSA stands for Personnel Service Agreement. It’s a kind of UN consultancy contract.
BVW: Yes, absolutely. Thanks for clarifying that. We get so used to all these acronyms at UN and organisations but indeed, we are going to hire three people with this type of contract, hopefully to start early in next year. We’re finishing the terms of reference or the requirements that we have for these positions. But we’re in general looking for rather young researchers close to a PhD or with a PhD that can contribute to our work on comprehensive innovation and also have some computational background.
HH: Yes, that’s exactly what we wanted to speak about for the next part of the podcast. What is this computational innovation unit? How will it fit in?
BVW: It’s an interesting time at UNU-MERIT. We’re developing a couple of new initiatives across the institute. I was just talking about comprehensive innovation and the teams that are leading that effort. Computation innovation is a different new term, if you want. It focuses on a new development in science in general, especially in the social sciences, where you see that computational things, data and methods to deal with data to simulate all kinds of processes using data to model complex systems, that this is happening all over the place in academia, and especially new for the social sciences. And that is that field that is emerging and that is growing quite fast and getting a lot of traction is broadly called computational social sciences. So it is social sciences with a focus on computational issues and data modelling, simulation and so on. For our institute, and we are of course very much focusing on innovation in a comprehensive way, comprehensive innovation, we use the term computational innovation. So that means we will look at how computational methods can contribute to our research on innovation. It is a pretty new concept but as I just explained, maybe not that new in a general sense, but we want to explore here in the institute how we can make better use of all these new developments, new data methods, new simulation methods. Quite a few researchers in the institute already are doing and we have people who develop agent-based models. We have system dynamics in place. We of course, work a lot with data. We have enormous data sets and an enormous variety of data sets. We have somebody here who is looking at open data and how we can make our data accessible to the world, which is by the way I see very clearly as a duty to this institute as a UN organisation. So these developments we want to capture that and we would like to structure that a bit better so that it becomes really part of the way we do research here. And that could mean that we position that as a separate research unit. We have two in place. As I explained last time, we have one on the Economics of Innovation, and we have another research unit on Public Policy and Governance of Innovation. In addition, there is now a possibility and we explore if we can establish a third unit that is focusing on Computational Innovation. The discussion just started in the institute after the launch of the strategic plan in which that was announced. We had a first meeting also last week, and a lot of interesting ideas came up. So there was an interesting exchange of thoughts on what is computational innovation to us. How can that help put UNU-MERIT again in the lead and as an excellence centre on computational innovation in that case? So the ambition is there, people were really actively interested in this topic. So we will carry that on in the next few months through a number of other additional steps. So very happy to see that engagement and I’m sure that we will work out how to best organise and structure that within the institute.
HH: So we’re getting a lot of traction on those two sides. Fast forwarding, we’re now also working towards a bigger event at the end of the year. Can we already announce this?
BVW: Yes, absolutely. As you may know, UNU-MERIT is in a very close collaboration with Maastricht University. And actually next year in May on May 1st, to be precise, 15 years ago, that agreement between Maastricht University and UN University was signed that led to the establishment of UNU-MERIT. So you could say UNU-MERIT was formally created, established, born on that day – and will turn 15 years on 1 May 2022. So I think that’s a great moment to celebrate that 15 years is quite something you know, there’s an institute that gets beyond its puberty and is growing into a mature adult organisation. Still a few years ago and they may not be the easiest ones, as everybody knows who has teenagers in house. But it’s an important moment to look back at what have we achieved. UNU-MERIT is a well-known institute, doing great research. It appears in rankings in top places on innovation. It has fantastic Public Policy and Governance group. So let’s look back at what we have achieved, but also let’s look forward what do we want to do next? What is our role in this changing world? How do we address grand challenges like climate change, inequality, the future of work – all these topics that are so important today? So I hope that on May 1st, which is a Sunday so we’ll probably do it the week after, let’s come together as an institute, let’s show the world what we do. Let’s invite the world to come here, and see what we are doing. And let’s prepare for taking on the leading role in the next few years that we that we have in the world. So I’m very much looking forward to that.
HH: We can also look forward to another event this year, COVID allowing. Can you tell us what we have planned for the winter break?
BVW: COVID allowing, indeed. Unfortunately, we seem to be again in a situation that a lot of things are not going into the right direction, to put it mildly. So government is still deciding what will happen in the next weeks and months. But I think we can safely assume that the events that we organise in the next few months will be either hybrid in the best case or probably online again. So we will have to deal with that. And that has, of course, a lot of consequences for everything we do in the institute, from education, to our research projects, to being together. That feeling of being in the same building, running into each other in the hallways, have a chat at the coffee machine. Perhaps we will have to put that on hold again for a bit we will see how things go. However, we had last year, a fun event at the institute with music and DJs that were online presenting their favourite music. And we would definitely like to do that again this year. So right before the winter break the week before, we will again organise an event where we come together as an institute. We are still hoping we can do that in a hybrid way. So we could do some things in the institute, but everybody who’s at home can tune in and join. But you will hear more of that very soon. So again, let’s see how the situation evolves. And cross fingers.
HH: And even before that, we have one more event, where you will meet the other UNU directors, I think, for the first time (again, COVID allowing) in Vienna. Can you give us a brief rundown, please on that?
BVW: Yes, absolutely. I’m actually pretty excited about that event, which is called CONDIR, that’s the Conference of the Directors of all UNU institutes. So besides UNU-MERIT, there are several other institutes 12 in total, more or less, I forgot the exact count, 12 or 13 institutes all over the world whose directors are meeting in Vienna this year. It’s an annual tradition. Last year it didn’t happen because of COVID. So I’m meeting my colleagues for the first time in real-life, in-person, hopefully in two weeks from now in Vienna. The programme is quite intense and interesting. We get to know each other better, obviously, but we also learn more about what’s happening in the other institutes and we try to learn from each other what are the developments in the institutes. How can we make UNU as a whole better? So I’m very much curious to see the others. I think we also are going to meet with the UNU Council for the first time. That is sort of the supreme advisory board for UN University. I’m very, very much looking forward to that. So again crossing fingers and that’s definitely going to be an interesting event for me.
HH: Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you again next time in December.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Pixabay / Skilsel