When the Arts and Humanities Research Council announced at the beginning of 2011 that it would pool its entire knowledge-transfer budget to create a suite of "creative economy hubs", even the funder was not entirely sure what the phrase entailed.
However, Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, was clear that a break had to be made with the "fragmented and short-term" approach that had traditionally hampered knowledge transfer in the arts and humanities.
"I have always been struck by the fact that we have a world-class arts and humanities research base and a world-class creative economy. [The question was] how do you put them together for mutual advantage?" he said.
In keeping with its current emphasis on collaboration, the AHRC stipulated that each hub should involve networks of universities, cultural organisations and creative businesses. But applicants were given plenty of scope to define their own modus operandi within that framework.
According to Professor Rylance, that lack of a centrally imposed "blueprint" was reflected in the diversity of the four successful bidders (selected on the basis of anonymous peer review carried out by referees from the academy and business).
Unveiled at a high-profile launch in London late last month, they include the regionally focused Design in Action hub, headed by the University of Dundee, and Creativeworks London, led by Queen Mary, University of London. Lancaster University's The Creative Exchange - which will focus on the "digital public space" - and the University of the West of England's Research and Enterprise in the Arts and Creative Technologies (React) take a more generic approach.
Some of the hubs have their roots in previous collaborations and they vary in size: Creativeworks London involves 14 academic institutions, while The Creative Exchange encompasses just three.
All aim, in one way or another, to bring together academics, cultural organisations and small businesses to come up with potential research projects, the best of which will be funded out of each hub's roughly equal share of the £16 million put up by the AHRC.
According to Evelyn Welch, vice-principal for research and international affairs at Queen Mary and director of Creativeworks London, there has been no shortage of creative businesses interested in getting involved. One inducement is the access they will get to the "great stories" academics have to tell, she said. The AHRC funding also "took the risk" out of working with universities for small businesses, which often faced enormous pressures on time and money.
But the funding must be spent within four years and the hubs are required to begin thinking early about their "legacy".
For Rachel Cooper, professor of design management at Lancaster and director/principal investigator of The Creative Exchange, to secure longevity, businesses will have to derive such value from their interactions with the hubs that they are prepared to contribute to the costs.
Consequently, "issues" needed to be overcome, particularly the vast differences in the pace at which the commercial and academic sectors move. Already she had been working hard to maintain the interest of companies that, having lent their names to the funding bid more than a year ago, were incredulous at the subsequent long-term lack of activity.
"No one should underestimate how challenging this is going to be," Professor Welch agreed. Academics were also busy and the benefits, for example, to a medieval historian of taking two days out to talk to a digital media producer would have to be "clearly articulated", she added.
Fleet of foot
As well as building "partnerships and entrepreneurial capacity in the creative economy", the hubs also explicitly aim to increase the number of arts and humanities researchers "actively engaged in research-based knowledge exchange".
For Professor Welch, figures from the commercial sector were "some of the most exciting people" for humanities academics to work with because they were "fleet of foot and able to see all the myriad possibilities of what you can do with research".
Creative businesses could also help academics by challenging the way they think, she said.
Even academics from traditional subjects such as English or history would get "a great deal" out of working with business, she said, because such disciplines often had "excellent insights into contempor-ary issues in innovation".
For Professor Cooper, the hubs will allow universities to demonstrate their commitment to impact and help academics see research questions "from the outside in". Researchers would also be able to tackle "meta-questions", such as the definition of "digital public space" and the wisdom of attempts to carry out knowledge exchange and "co-research" with small companies.
Academics had not been backwards in coming forward, she added - including around 40 from disciplines and universities outside The Creative Exchange's core members.
Some observers remain sceptical, however. Kieron Flanagan, lecturer in science and technology policy and management at the University of Manchester, suggested that the "knowledge exchange hubs for the creative economy", as they are now known, were aimed primarily at convincing the government that AHRC-funded research had an economic impact.
"Given that actual knowledge exchange is hard to demonstrate, there is an understandable temptation to create structures and activities which you can then point to in lieu of actual evidence," he said.
Professor Rylance admitted that making the humanities' impact more "conspicuous" was one of his aims.
"Unlike other disciplines, we don't have a ready appearance of being involved in knowledge transfer and there is no harm in demonstrating to government that [arts and humanities research] produces effective results that bring cultural and economic gains," he said.
But he insisted the "buzz" around the hubs was "extremely positive", adding that he had been pleasantly surprised by the range of disciplines represented (about which there had been no stipulation).
Many of the 50 applications the council had received also contained "excellent ideas", some of which the AHRC was hoping to fund on a smaller scale, he said.
Professor Rylance also hopes the hubs will be replicated elsewhere. A national oversight body, containing business people and academics, has been set up to promote coordination and the sharing of best practice.
According to Professor Welch, even academics have largely overlooked previous knowledge-transfer work in the arts and humanities - partly because of a lingering sniffiness about involvement with business.
"But we should make people aware of the high-quality research that is helping cultural organisations and companies. Knowledge transfer is not a panacea for an economy that is struggling but it can be an important and exciting part of how we make a difference."