Why Universities Need Places to Think

By Nanjira Sambuli
iHub Research
  Published 18 Dec 2015
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This post, is part of the iQuarterly publication by iHub Research, a series of reflections from the team on our work, and on technology and society. Wambui Wamunyu, a Research Fellow, reflects on the value of the fellowship program at iHub Research, and how universities can create spaces for more ideas, research and innovation.

I’ve been thinking how universities could benefit from having places where people can float, develop, and test ideas. Literal think tanks. These places would be large, open-plan rooms where anyone - regardless of title, rank, or academic qualification – could come in to sit and think. These two activities are luxuries in academic institutions, which are managed by timetables and deadlines. I’ve worked at one for several years and between preparing for classes, grading a constant stream of assignments, attending to assorted administrative duties, and interacting with students, I often have little room to sit, leave alone think.

My research fellowship at iHub has allowed me to evade the tyranny of the timetable to come sit and think. The wonderful thing is that other people are right alongside, sitting and thinking about their own projects and ideas. Occasionally, some sharing or cross-pollination of ideas happens, and something new comes out of this. I’ll use an incident that happened recently to illustrate.

On Dec. 11, 2015, I came by iHub to do some reading related to my doctoral study on the use of technology in journalism. I’d also been puzzling over how to handle one aspect of data collection for my study. Then Nanjira and I started chatting about this and before I knew it, she’d invited Sidney into the conversation because of a related program that he’s been developing, for the Umati project. In five minutes, I had a potential homegrown methodological tool to handle the data I intend to collect. I like what I saw in that interaction: a sharing of information, and collaboration and experimentation in the developing of the tool. There was also a sense of confidence, from thinkers with good ideas willing to expose their work and thinking to others.

Those traits – collaboration, sharing, experimentation, and confidence – are not always found in the same measure at the university. It is easy to find examples of collaboration such as inter-disciplinary conferences, co-authoring of academic papers, and so on. We are less efficient at sharing that information. Our theses and journals are often hard to access. Many will be found in dusty hard copies, not online. Our institutions often talk about the need for research, but aren’t always quick to fund it or avail time to conduct it. So when we hunt around and find time for research, we often play it safe. We don’t have the time, the resources; I’d say even the confidence, to experiment. Safe is easy, relatively cheap, and doesn’t ruffle any waves. Safe is dull and limiting.

I’m increasingly convinced that safe happens because we don’t have places to share our ideas. We work in silos – enclosed spaces such as the library, the office and the classroom. Those are formal, self-contained units that appreciate predictable and clear outcomes. Yet a lot of ideas, in their early stages, are unclear, unpredictable, and potentially failures. So the silo is no place for them.

Enter the think tank. Or as I like to think of it, pahali pa kutumia bongo. Kutumia bongo  - to use your brain – is a phrase we hear, often when someone is doing something particularly foolish. Anyway, call them what you will. These large, rank-free zones would allow anyone from a senior professor to the security guard at the gate to come with an idea. They could sit in that place and see what happens if they shared and tested their idea, be it about a research study or about how best to handle security at the institution.

I’m convinced those rooms would get a lot more innovative research done and applied locally. It’s an idea I’ve seen work at iHub. I think it’s worth sharing with our universities.

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