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Living laboratories

Universities and science parks as engines for sustainable urbanisation. By Dr Robin Daniels

Dr Robin Daniels

The urbanisation of the world?s growing population is accelerating. People are justifiably migrating into the cities in the hope of improving their living conditions, employment, education and healthcare prospects. This is particularly true of the developing world, where the environmental implications of rapid population growth continue to be magnified by large and resource-intensive infrastructure projects.

Despite the seemingly long timeframe associated with many of these city developments, their implications are being felt now. A report produced this year by the Global Humanitarian Forum provided evidence that more than 300,000 people a year are dying from the effects of climate change ? a figure that is expected to rise to a half-million annually by 2030. Furthermore, 10% of the world?s population will be somehow affected by the climate change within the next 10 years. The economic costs of climate change are also steep, the report finds. By 2030, the economic losses due to climate change will have reached $340 billion annually.

The international scientific and business communities have pivotal roles to play in discovering, developing, commercialising and deploying the technology required to both significantly de-carbonise the world?s economies and mitigate the unavoidable effects of environmental change. Inside universities, companies and science parks around the world, scientists, engineers and business people are collaborating to accelerate critical technological advances.

Very significant public and private-sector investment into the development of energy, transportation and construction technologies in particular is stimulating much-needed and largely productive collaborative research across business sectors and between science domains. However, progress is just not fast enough. On average it still takes 10 years to take a physical science discovery with commercial potential to market. The number of lives lost during such a time lag is not difficult to calculate.

What is required now is a new model, which drives the robust and rapid scale-up and deployment of technologies. The traditional linear model of technology commercialisation consists of discovery, prototype, pilot, productisation and scale-up. We don?t have the time to continue with this model alone ? and this is where science parks and universities come in.

The engine rooms of new ideas, the well-springs of new talent to meet these challenges have the opportunity to become the proving grounds also. Universities and science parks, already practising open and collaborative innovation in many cases, must become living laboratories for new technologies, utilising their infrastructure and critical mass of captive consumers to trial, test and develop technologies for national and global markets. Such an approach would deliver multiple and significant benefits to those organisations with the courage to take up the challenge. Not only will they reduce their carbon footprint, thereby driving down energy costs, there is the opportunity to transform the way that research and education are conducted: aligning form with function.

The commercial potential is also significant. Turning a 20,000 student campus into a living laboratory provides immediate scale-up potential and the capability to accelerate not only the ?proof of concept? stage of technology transfer, but it even begins to drive down costs of delivery and commoditise specific elements. To take a simple example, estimate the number of next-generation low-energy light bulbs required to illuminate an entire university.

Now imagine those light bulbs being produced by a spin-out company from the university itself. Now that?s smart procurement. Finally, the positive effects on research quality, income from IP licensing and reputational value of the university or science park would individually provide significant justification for such a radical strategic innovation ? and radical innovation is what is required.

Robin Daniels is Chief Executive of the Norwich Research Park UK. The views expressed here are his own.

For more information, contact:
Dr Robin CE Daniels, Chief Executive,
Norwich Research Park
Norwich, NR4 7UH, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1603 450992

Added the 07 October 2009 in category Innovation UK Vol5-2

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