The ‘wicked’ challenges we face today – from climate change, to harnessing data for good, to addressing health inequalities – are called wicked because of their complexity. They have no obvious cause and effect, and no one solution. They require both collaboration and innovation for us to have any hope of meeting them.

For the university sector, innovation means the translation of cutting-edge ideas and research into real world impact, often via industry partnership or enterprise – and it always requires collaboration.

We often think of new technology, products or processes when we think of innovation, but innovation isn’t only technological. Whether or not a high-tech new invention actually benefits people depends on how it is implemented, understood, accepted and used. For that reason, innovation requires multiple partners from industry and across academic disciplines – not just science and technology, but arts, humanities and social sciences.

For example, the University’s Advanced Care Research Centre, in partnership with Legal and General, brings together robotics, clinicians and social scientists to rethink later life care. The Baillie Gifford-supported Centre for Technomoral Futures, part of the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI), integrates informatics and ethics to explore issues such as the adoption of artificial intelligence.

This multidisciplinary approach input can ‘futureproof’ innovation, so that it achieves what it sets out to do – improve people’s lives.

Here at Edinburgh Innovations, we recently profiled some of the work being co-created by the University’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences with Scotland’s public sector, creative industries and businesses in order to future proof society, and help companies adapt and thrive in the face of new challenges and risks.

Moderating AI

Artificial intelligence has the power to transform society, but for will it be for good or ill? Much discourse around it is utopian or dystopian, rather than focused on how to make it better. Dr Gina Helfrich, of the Centre for Technomoral Futures, advocates instead for the demystification of AI in order to facilitate honest conversations that could improve how we build and use it.

She takes new large language model (LLM) ChatGPT as an example, saying that, firstly, we need to understand what it is. “Like any AI tool,” she says, “it is essentially software that spots patterns in a huge amount of data. In this case, that data is text, made up of words and phrases written all over the internet. In order to produce the impressive fluency of a system like ChatGPT, AI software needs to be fed data, loads of it, until it ‘learns’ enough to be able to predict what word likely comes after the next one.”

She then explains how these models work – ‘scraping’ the entire internet for content – good and terrible – absorbing all the internet’s biases and obscenities as they go. “For example, when asked to write a piece of code to assess credit worthiness, ChatGPT quickly advised extending more credit to white applicants than applicants who were Black, Asian, or Hispanic.”

And to avoid ChatGPT spitting out obscenities, a filter layer was built, outsourced to Kenyan workers on $2 a day, who had to read and input all the horrors – child sex abuse, torture, suicide – so that the users of ChatGPT would not have to encounter them. So the AI is entrenching global inequalities as well as incorporating bias.

One solution would be to curate data sets to produce smaller language models for specific purposes. This would affect performance, but we need to have honest dialogue about the trade-offs involved. “In short,” she says, “we should resist the allure of AI for AI’s sake – for our own sakes.”

Climate risk to Scotland’s festivals

Dr Caitlin McDonald, from Edinburgh research and development programme Creative Informatics, has been working with EFI’s Traveltech for Scotland network, the University of Edinburgh Business School and the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute to kickstart a dialogue about the climate risks Scotland’s festivals will be facing in the years to come. 

She says that although Scotland’s cultural sector is working on reducing its own environmental impact, it hasn’t yet considered what the impacts of climate change will be on the sector itself.

Will Edinburgh’s August festivals need to be rescheduled in a colder month as global temperatures rise, putting performers and attendees at risk?

How will Scotland’s seaside festivals survive if all their venues are consistently flooded out from sea levels rising? Will some festivals need to take place on floating platforms due to rivers overflowing into floodplains that are now used as temporary events venues? With more days of high winds disrupting travel and outdoor activities, how will Scotland’s festivals cope?

Dr McDonald says: “Industries like banking and insurance are already using ever more detailed risk prediction mechanisms to decide where to put their money—and what’s just too risky to keep doing.

“When we talk about sustainability at Creative Informatics, we mean not only the environmental impact the sector has on the world around us, but also the long-term viability for the people and organisations working in it.

“The cultural sector, and the related planning bodies and agencies that intersect with it, would benefit from taking a leaf out of the insurance agents’ books in this case. We need a multi-agency approach to developing the appropriate infrastructure to sustainably continue the thriving world-leading cultural sector from which Scotland currently benefits.”

The partners hope dialogue during 2023 will lead to a multi-agency approach to develop the appropriate infrastructure to sustainably maintain Scotland’s thriving, world-leading cultural sector.

Servicing the circular economy

In 2021, Dr Lynn Wilson, a Creative Entrepreneur within the Creative Informatics programme, set up Circular Design Scotland (CDS), a training and consultancy service that supports particularly design-led enterprises to implement a circular economy business model.

This model means shifting from ‘take, make and dispose’, towards optimising the use of resources, taking responsibility for a product’s lifecycle, reinvigorating the environment and operating sustainably. From changing the materials used and the services provided, the agency hopes products and businesses can be designed to operate in a way that prioritises environmental and social good as well as financial growth.

Funding from Creative Informatics enabled CDS to develop the Circular Material Repository – a large database of materials and case studies of circular product and system examples, to provide a research and training resource for designers. The next steps for the company will be to develop a new software product for circular supply chain modelling. 

There are many examples, including work by Edinburgh Innovations’ Dr Kristy Docherty on collaboration itself, setting out how we can successfully work together. Spoiler – it’s all about relationships.

Kristy is currently working with partners in Police Scotland and Public Health Scotland to establish a ‘Prevention Hub’ to be based at EFI, which will be focused on reducing inequalities through actions to improve health and wellbeing. Building the capability and capacity for more effective collaboration across Scotland underpins its work.

As the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service, Edinburgh Innovations brings together a wide knowledge base from across the academic disciplines and our Data-Driven Innovation hubs to work with partners to address the challenges of today, co-create those solutions and make them real and relevant for society. Want to work with us? Get in touch!