Connected Nation - Interview: Richard Harper, Social Shaping Research

Supplementary content information

Richard Harper is a sociologist and scientist who studies how new technologies shape us and how we in turn shape our technologies. He works at Social Shaping Research, before which he was Principal Investigator of the Microsoft Research group, led research teams at Xerox (Euro)Parc and was the director and founder of The Digital World Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

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Richard Harper, Social Shaping Research

I think what I am discovering is the wide range of different research projects, but also the wide range of different personalities and characters and sets of aspirations behind the projects. I come to an event like this not just to see what the projects are but to see the people behind the projects, and then on that basis both project and a sense people – I figure out what kind of relationship I might develop with those people in the future, because I think it's about relationships in the longer term rather than taking a project that's interesting.

I think the Research Councils, not just the EPSRC, but the ESRC and the AHRC, are all endeavouring to link academic and scientific research to a wider community, business in particular. And it's not merely a question of developing and exchanging intellectual property, it's about creating connections. So the vibrancy of scientific life can share in the vibrancy of business life and vice-versa, and they can create new connections which means that as the UK tries to develop a new digital future, it does it through a web of different connections and I think the research councils have been terrifically effective at doing that, and I think England and Britain will generally be terrifically more effective if it leverages those connections, those webs of relationships which transcend what have hitherto been silos - academic life and business life.

For me, the thing I find most encouraging is objectively looking at all the projects. Some of them seem quite left field, some of them seem very long term, but in balance what you feel is a sense of wonderful creativity that the future is up to be invented and it doesn't matter how you invent it or where you're going but it's going to be an interesting place, so I leave quite excited. If people outside of academic life, outside of science wanted to engage, I think they should not be put off by particular projects they see described. There are lots of reasons why particular projects have the shape that they do and oftentimes the researchers involved have other aspirations which are bigger, more profound. They should just use those as gateways those projects to introduce themselves and start conversations.

Collaborations with science and collaborations with science businesses take many, many months, sometimes years to develop and it's about having that first cup of tea, first cup of coffee, learning to see if you can collaborate, learning to see if you can see the world similarly, figuring out on that basis how you might work together in the future. So in the short term, don't worry about particular projects, use the projects you can read about as doorways into another world.