A multidisciplinary approach to innovation
We often think of technology when we think of innovation. This erroneous view that innovation is limited to scientists and engineers developing and commercialising widgets must be challenged, says the Assistant Dean for Research in the Wits Faculty of Humanities, Dr Nicole De Wet-Billings.
“Innovation must not be restricted to digital transformation, technological developments, commercialisation, and entrepreneurship,” she says. “Other forms of innovation include policy creation and influence, interdisciplinary interventions to address the ‘wicked’ problems of our time through research, critical thinking, advancing citizen participation in all forms of social life, and the enhancement of the functioning of public institutions and organisations for societal development.”
Most importantly, she adds that innovation must be conducted in an ethical manner.
“Innovation must serve society through advancing knowledge and improving all aspects of lives and livelihoods. Creating a WhatsApp maths hotline for learners during a pandemic, increasing life expectancy and decreasing maternal and child mortality as well as addressing inequality and gender inequality from the perspective of the Global South, are all innovative solutions from the Wits world to address real world problems.”
Time to give innovation an artistic license
Today a multidisciplinary approach that brings contrasting fields together to solve problems is increasingly bringing innovation to the fore. This is realised at Wits University through many examples, with one of the most fascinating being the joining of forces between the Arts and Sciences. “There is now convincing evidence that Arts-Science collaborations can stimulate innovation at several different levels,” explains Christo Doherty, Professor of Digital Arts at Wits.
Well established programmes such as the Swiss Artists-in-Labs programme, the Art|Sci Centre at UCLA, Le Laboratoire in Paris, and the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Campaign have demonstrated that collaborative programmes that bring artists together with scientific researchers, have produced important benefits.
“These projects can transform the artists and scientists involved in them and can shape scientific and artistic knowledge, not only as developed in the project, but also broader knowledge-making practices across the institution. They can effectively reshape the institutional worlds in which they are situated,” adds Doherty.
In South Africa, Arts-Science collaborations can bring in “other” knowledge from outside the sphere of the project, such as community knowledge or political and ethical perspectives on the research. “The involvement of artists in Science and Technology can also increase the impact and public engagement of the research, allowing a wider audience to explore and understand the studies, through exhibition of the artistic translation of the research processes and results,” says Doherty.
Watershed, the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival, and the Rock Art Research Institute at the Origins Centre are intriguing examples of these successful innovative projects underway at Wits University. The Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival is rooted in showcasing and developing skills in Technology, Art and Culture in Africa. Founded in 2014 as a collaboration between the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct and the Wits School of Arts Digital Arts Department, the festival is rooted in the idea that for innovation with technology to succeed, a strong connection needs to be made to African cultural practices and creative encounters.
Innovation launchpads at universities
A strong voice in the innovation sphere at Wits is that of Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation. She believes that universities have a key role to play to meet society’s needs by turning knowledge into impactful solutions.
“It is important to create an environment that is conducive for innovation to take place. We need an innovation ecosystem that includes students and researchers based in institutional entities, physical and virtual hubs, accelerators, and incubators. This, coupled with research impact, entrepreneurship, commercial activities, external engagement opportunities and bespoke services for innovators, will undoubtedly foster innovation in a University setting,” she says.
“Innovation is what drives us forward and we have a responsibility to enable a space to create, collaborate, and engage in impactful innovation across disciplines and sectoral boundaries. We must use our knowledge for the advancement of our community, city, country, continent, and the globe to produce outputs, both tangible and intangible, for the benefit of humanity – for good,” concludes Morris.
Find out more about the Wits Innovation Centre (WIC) and the brilliant solutions being generated at Wits University: https://www.wits.ac.za/innovation/ DM