Think family

It would seem that even the big television networks are creating programmes around the concept of ‘the family’.   From The Simpsons, Shameless, Rome, to the Tudors some very popular series have been made.  But why are they getting such great ratings?

Perhaps it’s because everyone can relate to the idea of a family.  But are families the bedrock of society that politicians believe?

One of my research themes that I work on with colleagues – James Cornford and Susan Baines – revolves around the family, and in particular how the government uses information system to ‘think’ family.

As we all know from our own personal lives: the idea of a ‘family’ – never mind the reality – can be very complicated.

Historically, under previous administration public bodies were asked to ‘Think Family’.

This has led to a number of government programmes that have encouraged services to integrate their facilities around families in order to co-ordinate support and intervention. This has led to a range of interests attempting to make sense of what to do about families.

Our research has shown that only when the government starts to grapple with the complexities of the ‘family’ will we really make progress with all sorts of families, including those who need the most support from our society. 

However, this is not a jigsaw where the problem has a boundary and is solved by integrating pieces together.

Different bits of the state see different versions of the family – and different things entirely for one department a jigsaw for another a crossword puzzle.

For instance: schools think family in terms of parenting; social services in terms of potential risk; child support agency in terms of fatherhood; and parts of the NHS in terms of genetics, the police in terms of crime and so on.

Rather like our own families it is the stories (often supported by artefacts such as family albums) and the changes that happen that potentially brings these strands together.

So when we come back to examining what the government is doing with its troubled family agenda, we might ask the questions: what interventions are being delivered, using which version of the family, to which of the family members benefit, and with what accounts?

It is clear that rather than families being the static structures we think about in terms the way a family trees represents them, they are lived projects (rather similar to real trees and their ecologies) which evolve over time. 

So in terms of family policy and practice those thinking about families need to have a more elastic idea of what families are to help those working with them and the families themselves to cultivate the best conversations they can have.

If you have a chance, you can read our recent research paper on the topic by clicking here

Dr Rob Wilson
Director of the KITE Research Centre and Senior Lecturer, Newcastle University Business School

We love TED(x)

If there’s one thing better than a free lunch, surely it’s a free lunch sandwiched between talks from some of the world’s most inspiring people.

That was Wednesday in a nutshell, thanks to Digital Union and TEDx Gateshead, who streamed TED Global 2013’s sessions into the Northern Design Centre in Gateshead, with food kindly provided by lunch sponsors Ward Hadaway.

The sheer depth and diversity of this world-famous conference makes it impossible to choose ‘favourite’ speakers as such, but we found ourselves really moved and amused by the ‘Listening to Nature’ segment.

Kicking things off was Bernie Krause, whose Wild Sanctuary project records soundscapes from natural habitats all over the world, giving us humans a fresh sensory perspective on the damage we are doing to many vulnerable species.

And we heard about bees and the massive role they play in our own, precariously balanced food chain. Marla Spivak brought to life the plight of this industrious and ecologically vital creature (of which there are over twenty-thousand species, by the way) and we were reminded of the global-headlining-grabbing research being carried out at Newcastle into the relationship between pesticides and bee pollination.

From there on, speakers and topics diverged and delved into wild animals’ sexual behaviour, Middle-Eastern politics, urbanization in Latin America, post-Chernobyl societies, and many, many other realms.

That’s the great thing about TED: regardless of your chosen career or hobbies, just one afternoon of talks broadens your frame of reference, connects issues you might never have thought about at once, and leaves you feeling that little bit more inclined to change the world for the better.

If you haven’t already, check out the videos from this year’s TED Global and if, like us, you want to take part but can’t make the main event, keep in touch with TEDx to find out when and where your next local screening is happening.


Gateshead students take the chequered flag at F1 in Schools North East England Regional Finals 2013

Newcastle University Business School hosted this year’s regional finals, which saw a team of students from Emmanuel College, Gateshead, celebrate a win.  The winning team are through to the F1 in Schools™ UK National Finals after an intense and hard-fought North East England Regional Finals. This Formula One™ inspired educational challenge has captured the imagination of students up and down the country and with a place on the grid at the F1 in Schools World Finals 2013 to be held in Austin, Texas for the UK National Champions, every team put in hundreds of hours of work in their pursuit of the prize.
Red Kite Racing, a team from Emmanuel College with team members: Emily Miller, Team Manager, Elliott Johnson, Design Engineer; Jack Collier, Design Engineer and Rhys Rogers, Manufacturing Engineer, proved that hard work pays off as they collected the 1st Place F1Class trophy, as well as the Best Engineered Car Award and Fastest F1 Car Award, with the team’s car racing down the track in a time of 1.166 seconds.
Elliott Johnson said of the team’s success, “I think we took the top award because there was a lot of teamwork, working to our strengths, many hours of hard work put into our design, our presentation and sponsorship. Now we’re looking to the National Finals and hoping to improve our design for it. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to be going there, so we’re really looking forward to it.”
Red Kite Racing were one of three teams who raced to victory at the Regional Final and will be representing their school at the F1 in Schools UK National Finals which takes place at the Big Bang Fair, ExCel, London on 15 and 16 March.
F1 in Schools challenges students to create their own Formula One team which is commissioned to design, construct and race the fastest miniature Formula One Car of the Future; a 21cm long scale model built from a block of balsa wood and powered by a compressed air cylinder. Each team of between three and six students creates a ‘pit’ display at the Regional Final and showcases their work in developing their race car, with a verbal and written presentation for the judges. The teams then race their model cars on a specially designed 20 metre test track, with the cars covering the distance in just over one second.
The competition links closely to the research of Professor Pooran Wynarczyk, of Newcastle University Business School, who studies gender within innovation, and the uptake of STEM subjects. 
Professor Pooran Wynarczyk, director of the Small Enterprise Research Unit at Newcastle University Business School, commented:
“Working with the F1 in Schools UK team to host the regional finals at the Business School is a highly valuable exercise, as it brings together research and practical learning to enhance a young person’s education.
“My research is all about encouraging, and increasing the uptake of, young people into the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and allowing them to realise the potential careers, and paths to such careers, that sit within these subject areas.
“It’s always an enjoyable and exciting atmosphere at the event for everyone, and we hope the activities of the day translate into a buzz of new ideas and enthusiasm, from the pupils, towards STEM subjects and activities.”

In addition to representing their country at the World Finals, the F1 in Schools UK Champions and runners up will receive tickets to the 2013 FORMULA 1 BRITISH GRAND PRIX at Silverstone. The National Champions will also win a Red Bull Racing F1 team factory tour and a TW STEEL Watch for each team member.
Andrew Denford, Founder and Chairman, F1 in Schools, said of this week’s North East England Regional Finals, “We’re experiencing significant growth in the schools entering the challenge this season and the standards are extremely high. The students had to cope with the nerves of presenting to a panel of judges and the pressures of putting their models to the test against the best of the region and all the teams put up a great fight, with only a few points separating the top contenders for a place at the National Finals”.
Denford adds, “The challenge not only tests the students in many key areas of educational study such as the STEM subjects, but gives them an opportunity to gain experience of many life skills which will be invaluable in their future careers.”
The North East England regional finals took place with the assistance of a host of sponsors and supporters. Amongst these are the IET, Denford, and City University London all of whom are continuing their support of F1 in Schools for the coming year.

Photos from the day can be found by clicking here >


Research reveals skill spillover between online gaming and real work life

Virtual worlds could be used to develop new staff training techniques, as a recent study revealed that skills used in role-playing games spill over to real-life employment

SPENDING your free-time playing online games can positively impact your leadership skills and learning behaviours at work, according to researchers at Newcastle University Business School and the University of Crete.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) – like World of Warcraft, Lineage II, and The Lord of the Rings Online – involve thousands of players from all over the world, and have been the centre of a study looking at the impact these virtual spaces can have on an employee’s behaviour at work. 

The one month study – carried out by Dr Despoina Xanthopoulou, from the University of Crete and Dr Savvas Papagiannidis, from Newcastle University Business School, of a sample of employees who were also gamers, revealed that playing MMORPGs can have beneficial effects on real-life work through the transmission of virtually practiced leadership skills and active learning behaviours (learning by doing), according to the research published in the journal, Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 

In the achievement-orientated world of MMORPGs, many of the combat-related activities needed to gain points, solve quests or enhance the social capital of an avatar1, hold similarities to common work tasks. From collaboration to meeting targets, team work to resolve complex missions, strategic planning, allocating resources, to recruiting new players to form groups, there is a clear link between the skills needed to enjoy a good game performance, and the real corporate world.

For this reason, the players who have had to manifest good leadership skills and gaming behaviours to succeed in MMORPGs, were more likely to see these characteristics spill over from games to their real work-life. This spill over effect was particularly evident when combined with high performance standards in the game.

The researchers – using self-perception theory – argue that when players see their avatars acting in a certain way, it is highly probable that they will change their behaviour in the real world to be consistent with their online self.

The study revealed that it could be viable for organisations to develop staff training methods within specially designed metaverses2 to help employees harness leadership skills, active learning behaviours and professional development.

Dr Despoina Xanthopoulou stated: “Despite the fact that the literature on the negative (addictive) effects of games is quite rich, research on the potential positive effects of gaming is scarce.

“This is one of the first studies that investigates how online games can be beneficial for our real-life employment. One of the unique features of this study is in the finding that in-game leadership skills and learning behaviours spill over to work, particularly when combined with high performance in the game. When certain leadership skills and learning behaviours are combined with feelings of competence and success, these are highly valued, and that is when people tend to mimic them outside the game environment.” 

Newcastle University Business School’s head of innovation and enterprise and senior lecturer, Dr Savvas Papagiannidis, said: “As a ‘gamer’ myself, I have always had an interest in how gaming behaviour can transcend the borders of the gaming environment. The results from our research support the connection between in-game transformational leadership, and active learning, spilling over into work. 
“As the working world demands international collaboration across continents within online environments like emails, webinars and e-conferences, we are more virtual than ever before.   Through this increase in interactive business activity via the evolving information systems available, and our research findings, I believe that MMORPGs could be a viable training method used by corporations to aid staff development, and hone good leadership skills.”


What a difference a year makes

Dr Tyrone Pitsis discusses last year’s riots:

This time last year the UK witnessed unprecedented public rioting. One year on, and in the midst of Olympic jubilation, Dr Tyrone Pitsis, Newcastle University Business School, looks at the reasons people revolt and how collaboration and hope promote social cohesion.

As the UK remembers the rioting that tore through towns and cities a year ago, the Government has released a report exploring the reasons why they happened. Unsurprisingly, the causes were found to be complex and deep-seated: problems that go back generations.

My own research work into social economics addresses some of the issues to which the Government’s experts attribute last year’s riots. Why have so many of the young generation lost hope? Why is social mobility so difficult in the UK? What can we do to stop history repeating itself in the form of future generations with similar problems? There will be no easy answers to these problems.

While Newcastle and the North East were happily not affected by last year’s riots, we still see some of the social issues that precipitated them. First, I want to cut through the hype. The riots were not the evidence of the steady decline of society. It is much more complex than that.  Some may have rioted because they feel alienated from society.  For others it was opportunism, for others still it was about being in ‘the flow’ of things: or what is referred to as being in the moment – caught up in a sense of something that would be ‘fun’ or daring.  The remarkable thing about the riots is that most people, and especially young people, did not partake.  So, we tend to focus on what people did, rather than what they did not do.

Even so, the riots were real, and they do point to the fact that something needs to be done in the UK.  My opinion is simple: once people lose hope anything goes, and hope transforms into hopelessness.  This is destructive and self-defeating – it offers answers that lie in taking short cuts, in crime, in just taking what you want. We cannot separate human action from the social context within which it occurs.  All human action is a dynamic political process.

I am interested in the idea of hope, and because of that my research concentrates on the idea of designing society: the concept that we ourselves can design how society’s institutions, its policies, regulations, social norms and its infrastructure and even buildings are integral to the kind of community and society we live in. 

Universal design is a simple principle, originating in Japan, which is underpinned by the idea that when designing products and services they should be designed to be inclusive rather than exclusive.  This is a straightforward idea and applies to societies and communities.  If you design cities with all activities occurring in one space, you cannot complain that other parts of the city and country suffer. For example, a risk to the North East is that we depend heavily on the public sector for employment; similarly London, having been “designed” as a financial centre, has a strong reliance on that one sector.

The UK, compared to other parts of the industrialised world has a poor level of social mobility – which put simply means the opportunities for people to make better prospects for themselves. I believe this is because the whole social and economic infrastructure has not been best designed to offer opportunities for growth at a personal, interpersonal, community and national level. Social mobility is about access, democracy, and a vibrant and sustainable economy and society.

While there may be no simple answer to such complex issues, I am however convinced that the idea of design thinking is a process well worth investing in at all levels of government and industry. There is a critical factor here called “inter-organisational collaboration” – that is, collaboration between governments, industries and different sectors to design the future of the UK, its cities and its communities, and more importantly its place in a global economy that is undergoing ambiguous and uncertain transformation.

I’ve long been interested in how collaboration works in mega-projects, for example the delivery of the Olympics. Those involved would attest to the fact that different parts of the system are so fragmented that it’s a real challenge to get different organisations, departments and institutions to talk to each other, let alone work in unison.

My research over the years has shown that collaboration is a creative, dynamic process and requires very different skills and capabilities from those which we currently demand of organisations and society.

But there is real hope here – one only need look at the Olympics to see an example of how collaboration can really engineer success. Just one year on from the riots, the energy and optimism from London 2012 can be harnessed to bring people together to make real change. There is a general mood of positivity in the air, which can be turned into something tangible.

Collaborative design and relationships, however, are only part of the answer when it comes to designing society.  The big questions include what kind of economy are we designing and how do things work? How do the financial systems work, and how are they regulated?  How do universities and schools work? What will the infrastructure look like?

To my mind there are two key areas that the UK must attend to: technological innovation (from medical to information technologies), and cultural innovation (such as the arts and cultural diversity). I believe that if you want a smart society, you have to encourage a culture of doing smart things.
Problems of inequality, lack of opportunity and how communities can adapt in times of rapid social and economic change, are exactly the sort of issues that prompted Newcastle University to launch the Institute for Social Renewal this year. As a world-class civic university, we have focused a large part of our research efforts into tackling profound global challenges – known as the societal challenge themes, they include ageing and health, sustainability and social renewal. We take very seriously our duty to make a difference to the world around us; not only to be a leader in thinking, but also in action.

The new Institute, led by by Professor Mark Shucksmith OBE, is intended to be a dedicated centre for research into some of the biggest problems faced by individuals and communities today. The Institute brings together the expertise of academics from across the University, to tackle the “big questions” faced by society.

For further information on Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal, visit

For further information on Dr Pitsis and his work, visit