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New Institute at Aston University Develops Solutions to Societal Challenges Building on Strategic Partnerships

Not too long ago, universities were called ivory towers. An expression used to refer to the pursuit of research detached from everyday life that ended up buried in academic publications read only by a select few. Nowadays, universities must demonstrate their value by translating academic endeavors into real-world applications.


"Whatever work universities do within research labs today must meet the needs of societies and businesses and generate benefits to various communities," explains Prof. Abdul Sadka, Director of Aston Digital Futures Institute (ADFI), in Birmingham, United Kingdom.


Aston University, under the leadership of Prof. Aleks Subic, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Aston, and co-chair of the GFCC University and Research Leadership Forum, established the ADFI last year as part of the effort to fulfill its 2030 vision of leveraging digital technologies to transform the university into a digital enterprise.


The institute draws inspiration from successful models implemented in other British universities but builds on Aston's unique strengths and strategic priorities, considering existing partnerships in smart manufacturing, gaming, and creative industries, as well as prior community engagements.

ADFI concentrates on three key areas: AI and data, health tech, and gamification; which were identified as pivotal in addressing regional, national, and global challenges as well as potential opportunities.


Unlike other research entities, ADFI adopts a challenge-based interdisciplinary approach. "We identify a challenge that holds a large impact on society, and we develop solutions to it by gathering talent and expertise from different disciplines," explains Prof. Sadka. This methodology enables researchers to find comprehensive solutions encompassing social, business, and technological dimensions.

But it is not always easy to get this model on track. The primary hurdle lies in aligning the academic culture and mindset. Convincing individuals accustomed to theme-based departmental structures to embrace interdisciplinary research poses a significant challenge.

Prof. Sadka advocates for the creation of new tools and digital platforms to facilitate collaboration among researchers from various disciplines, enabling them to communicate effectively across disciplinary boundaries. Aston hosts multidisciplinary 'ideation' workshops centered on predefined priority challenges to provide opportunities for researchers to exchange ideas and brainstorm novel solutions.

Although the official business launch of the institute is slated for the European summer this year, ADFI is already building new multi-faceted partnerships in research, knowledge exchange, and skills development. Through these collaborations, the institute wants to accelerate innovation and bridge skills gaps in digital specialisms across large segments of employment sectors and society.

Aston University Campus

Aston University founded the Digital Futures Institute in 2023 to develop new digital solutions to societal challenges.

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