City University London’s ‘unruly’ pop-up in heart of Tech City

Cass Business School’s outreach sessions draw start-ups, scholars together

November 21, 2013

Source: Stephen McKay

A business school is running a free “pop-up university” to support entrepreneurs in London’s Tech City.

Although City University London’s Cass Business School is located near Old Street’s “Silicon Roundabout”, according to Caroline Wiertz, reader in marketing at the school, “Tech City had developed around us without us really taking notice. There were a lot of collaborative projects going on but not a concentrated effort.”

However, the university’s pro vice-chancellor for research, John Fothergill, and director of enterprise, Sue O’Hare, were keen to develop the links, so a strategic meeting was planned for November 2012. Dr Wiertz suggested it should be held at the headquarters of Unruly, set up as a global platform for social video marketing in 2006, whose co-founder Sarah Wood is also an academic. The meeting led to the creation of City Unrulyversity as a joint “outreach programme to help the start-ups in the area”.

There are now open two-hour sessions on Wednesday evenings for groups of 30 to 35 participants. Most are tech entrepreneurs, but the sessions have also attracted people hoping to set up everything from a candyfloss business to a fashion label. Dr Wiertz got the ball rolling earlier this year when she made a presentation with Bruce Daisley, now managing director of Twitter UK, on “Does chatter matter?”.

At last week’s event, Stephanie Wilson, a reader in City’s Centre for HCI (human-computer interaction) Design, explored the role of user research in creating “awesome user experiences”.

Drawing on her research background in technology in healthcare, she offered as an example a virtual world called Eva Park, designed to help stroke victims with language impairment regain the power of speech. The testing process relied on five people with aphasia offering feedback, including photographic diaries of the places where they found social interactions difficult.

After setting out the theory, Ms Wilson asked participants to develop scenarios to enable sample customers to test the process of customising a pair of trainers on the Nike website. Anyone planning to launch a new product or app should get at least five potential users to test it in the same way, she argued, ideally at prototype stage.

“It was difficult to know beforehand what to expect,” said Ms Wilson afterwards. “I normally teach postgraduates from a range of different backgrounds, arts, business and IT, but you can start the course by getting everybody up to speed and speaking the same language.

“At City Unrulyversity, I had to provide a two-hour taster of material that I would normally cover over a whole semester.”

On the benefits to her own teaching and City more generally, she said it was good to “forge stronger links between the university and businesses” and “hear about problems young entrepreneurs face”.

Although those working in Tech City have access to a range of seminars and networking events, often with presentations by practitioners, Dr Wiertz said City Unrulyversity offered both theory and case histories rather than just one person’s experience in a particular company.

“It gives us a chance to show that there’s a lot of useful and applicable knowledge in universities,” she adds, “and that the image people have of us is often completely outdated.”

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