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What’s it like to be incubated by an Innovation Centre?

To celebrate National Co-working Day, Alex Hutchison – the Delivery Director for the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF – has written about her experience of working with The Data Lab

The Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF is ready to go to school. The time has come for the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF to transition out of The Data Lab and across to the Edinburgh Futures Institute; a planned longer term move within the University of Edinburgh. The Data Lab have taken care of us from the outset. Having originally nurtured the idea of this unique partnership between UNICEF, The Scottish Government and the University of Edinburgh (pregnancy), to our launch in September 2019 (birth), through our toddler years and into early childhood. It feels like we’ve gone from being spoon-fed to self-led weaning to now being able to go into the cupboard and grab ourselves a snack. We can tie our own shoelaces – but we still know to ask for help if we’re struggling.

The Data Lab does more than just encourage collaboration between universities and businesses

The Data Lab has taken their remit of being one of Scotland’s seven Innovation Centres – set up to support transformational collaboration between universities and businesses – a step further. Not only have they been supporting transformational collaboration between universities and business, but they have incubated it in the hosting of our tripartite collaboration.

So what does the incubation of a pseudo start up entail?

The Data Lab have provided a warm, safe place for our Data Collaborative to develop. There are some key ingredients behind this growth:

  • Clarity of the idea and believing in the art of the possible in the Data for Good world
  • Passionate leadership which comes in the form of both support and autonomy; empowerment for the team to have the freedom to take decisions
  • A strong culture that puts people at the centre of the organisation and thereby motivating staff to deliver
  • Tried and tested business models, processes and infrastructure
  • A vast global network with a huge amount of good will towards The Data Lab based on both reputation but also on how ongoing relationships are fostered
  • An expansive knowledge of the data ecosystem and landscape.

What makes The Data Lab a good centre for innovation?

But the above elements could potentially be found in a number of different potential hosts, couldn’t they? Are there any slightly more nuanced elements that The Data Lab brought to the successful growth of a new initiative?

  • There are no hierarchies and no egos in The Data Lab. Sure, there’s a line management structure, but all staff are treated as equals in all interactions. You can’t force that to happen in an organisation – it has to come from the top. And it is one of Gillian Docherty (CEO of The Data Lab’s) numerous qualities as an authentic leader.
  • You are given a license to think differently and space to be creative. The clue might be in the name Innovation Centre, or even with the fact that we have the word “Lab” in our title. We’re encouraged to experiment and more importantly we’re not admonished if we make a mistake. You’re much more likely to hear the phrase “what can I do to help?” from colleagues rather than “how did that happen?”
  • The spirit of being curious and being encouraged to find out what’s going on elsewhere in the data sector runs across the organisation. This may be a by-product of running DataFest which sees The Data Lab curating a stimulating set of events with a massive range of experts in the field. But it doesn’t stop there. Interesting articles are shared (and discussed) and conference attendance is urged to hear those nuggets that can spark a new idea or a new connection.

The time has come for us to fly the nest and find our new home with the Edinburgh Futures Institute, whose ambitions chime perfectly with the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF. This exciting new part of the University of Edinburgh will build a challenge-led and data-rich portfolio of activity that has demonstrable, social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts. What better place to commence the next part of our evolution.

So with our newly polished shoes and neatly combed hair we are looking forward to entering the school gates (albeit from the same home offices) and we hope that we can make our parents proud.

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