Bright SPARK: what does the future of social science research look like?

We hear from Professor Rick Delbridge on Cardiff University’s plans for a Social Science Research Park (SPARK) and how this ‘society super lab’ will drive interdisciplinary research and strengthen collaboration with higher education institutions, businesses and the public sector across the region. 

The increased emphasis on interdisciplinary research and the need to apply it to deliver societal benefit and public value has opened up space for social scientists to contribute to the great challenges of our age.

This very point was made by Sir Mark Walport, chief executive designate at UK Research and Innovation when he observed in the Times Higher: “The impact of anthropological studies funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council in tackling Ebola highlighted that social sciences and humanities are essential to informed policy development and delivery.”

SPARK is being developed as part of the University’s £300m Innovation Campus

Adopting a “business-as-usual” approach will certainly not realise the opportunities and aspirations of major contemporary research initiatives, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund or the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

While social scientists have been keen to emphasise the role that they should play in addressing societal issues, such as population growth, migration, poverty and security, this will not be achieved if social science does not mobilise and organise itself. This point was made explicitly by David Sweeney, executive chair designate of Research England, at a recent conference that we hosted in Cardiff, where he called upon social science and humanities to actively seek out opportunities for collaboration.

Universities must lead the way in adopting innovative approaches to supporting interdisciplinary research and industry-academia partnerships. At Cardiff University, the creation of a social science research park, SPARK) builds on our recognised strengths in social sciences and will be home to interdisciplinary research groupings with an outwardly collaborative ethos.

The mission of the SPARK is “to generate economic, environmental and social value through co-developing innovative and effective solutions to societal problems with the public, private and third sectors”.

Cardiff University has worked with influential stakeholders across the Great West region and beyond –  including Nesta, the Economic and Social Research Council, Cardiff Council, Welsh Government, the Office for National Statistics and IBM – to develop the concept of this ‘society super lab’.  A unique feature of SPARK is that we will be inviting some of our key research partners from the private, public and third sectors to co-locate on-site. We are very keen that SPARK will be a porous and inviting space that encourages engagement with our local communities and that the physical spaces and facilities (including events and exhibition space, a behavioural lab, safe and secure data facilities and visualization suite) will be used by a wide range of partners, including colleagues from across the GW4 Alliance.

The connections that we have with key partners exemplify some of the Great West’s greatest strengths, such as data science expertise and a booming digital economy. Our region also straddles two governments, meaning that social scientists based at SPARK will be in a unique position to conduct comparative research, build an evidence base and influence innovation in the public services. Our vision and ambitions for SPARK chime with the UK’s emerging place-based approach to innovation and economic development (including the Industrial Strategy and the Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU Structural Funds).

Many of SPARK’s future tenants have already been recognised for their interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to research. In the last academic year alone, these research groupings have attracted over £13m investment from research councils, Welsh Government and international partners, such as the US Department of Justice.

Welsh Government selected Y Lab, a joint initiative with Nesta on public services innovation, to run the £5m Innovate to Save programme. WISERD (the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data & Methods) was praised in the Welsh Government’s Independent Diamond Review as a “a major resource for providing knowledge transfer across a wide range of the social sciences”. Welsh Government also co-funded a £6m award with the ESRC to create the new Wales Centre for Public Policy, which will be based in the building.

SPARK provides vital infrastructure for three of the University’s research institutes (Crime and Security, Sustainable Places and Data Innovation’s Social Data Science Lab) enabling them to further develop innovative partnerships within and beyond campus. The ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership will also locate in the building, giving the social science researchers of the future first-hand experience of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary approach.

We think that SPARK could provide the blueprint for the future of social science research, founded on the principles for a successful social lab:

  • Social: bringing together diverse participants drawn from different sectors of society.
  • Experimental: taking an iterative approach to research challenges, prototyping interventions and evaluating various promising solutions.
  • Systemic: seeking solutions that go beyond dealing with symptoms to address the root cause of why things are not working in the first place.

I hope the vision of SPARK (described by David Sweeney as “absolutely brilliant”) inspires social sciences researchers and universities across the Great West to look beyond ‘business as usual’, and to take an innovative approach to developing collaborative and interdisciplinary social sciences research that addresses some of our greatest challenges.

Rick Delbridge is Professor of Organizational Analysis, Academic Lead for SPARK and Dean of Research, Innovation and Enterprise at Cardiff University.

Greedy for collaboration

How can research collaboration continue to thrive beyond its original objectives? We hear from Mike Allen, Chris Chuck and Tom Scott on how the GW4 AVARICE project, having reached its goal of solving the acid mine drainage problem in South West England, has developed in unforeseen directions – including coral reef mapping, deep sea robotics and more… 

Our story started a few years ago when we got together in Falmouth following the award of a GW4 initiator grant. There were about a dozen of us from the GW4 community sat around a table, meeting each other for the first time to discuss how we could go about solving the problem of acid mine drainage using microalgae.

With a mix of microbiology (Chris Bryan, Exeter), marine biochemistry (Mike, PML), molecular biology (Mark van der Geizen, Exeter),  bioinformatics (Ben Temperton, then PML, now Exeter), materials and physics (Tom, Bristol), chemical engineering (Chris, Bath), mineralogy and geotechnics  (Devin Sapsford, Cardiff), life cycle analysis (Xiaoyu Yan, Exeter) and even media and communications (Edvard Glucksman, Exeter) backgrounds present, the atmosphere was pretty vibrant and exciting.

Ultimately, the ‘AVARICE’ project (Algal Valorisation And Remediation of Iron Contaminated Effluents) was born and based on the concept of developing a ‘greedy’ process that would remove all the polluting metals in a way that could generate revenue. We were working as a regional team looking to solve a real problem in our region, but trying to do it in a way with potential for global deployment.

‘Greedy’ collaborators at work: some of the interdisciplinary, multi-university AVARICE team

The project itself was a great success and is still going strong. We have had some nice publications emerge from the project (with a couple more to come), plenty of commercial interest and it has been the basis of a range of further grant applications.

Yet, perhaps the greatest impact that the original Initiator grant had was entirely unforeseen. The AVARICE project was great as it kept us focussed on our original goal of solving the acid mine drainage problem in the South West.

However, it also provided us the opportunity and time away from our normal work routines to simply talk and throw ideas around. And when scientists from diverse backgrounds talk, unexpected things can happen. Friendships form and long term collaborations emerge. For the three of us in particular it has been quite a journey; with such different backgrounds we had no idea where we would find common ground.

But we have: we have found shared interest in monitoring, diagnostic and analytical research, but we have also broken new ground where we can each apply our skills and knowledge in ways we had not previously considered. We have gone way beyond our original remit and are now working together on marine robotics, bioreactor design, aerial drone mapping, additive layer manufacturing, nuclear waste clean-up, plastic production and recycling and genomics.

There are now three PhD studentships between us covering the diverse topics of coral reef health assessment using robotics (Tom and Mike, based in Bristol), the development of the marine biorefinery concept (Chris and Mike, based in Bath) and the study of algal-virus infection dynamics using atomic force microscopy (Mike and Tom, based in PML); as well as a plethora of great MRes and undergraduate projects covering topics such as jellyfish fermentation,  seaweed harvesting, coral reef mapping, deep sea robotics and electro-winning Sn from acid mine waters.

We also share a lot of infrastructure, either by providing access for group members to visit each other’s labs or by physically transferring equipment between labs. It has been an approach that has been really productive for us.

We have obtained funding for these activities from within our institutions (such as the Cabot Institute Fund and the Bath GCRF fund), from research councils (such as BBSRC and EPSRC), charitable foundations (Roddenberry Foundation and Seale Hayne Education Trust) as well as industry (Bristol Nanodynamics, Ascension Holdings Ltd and PetroVietnam).

We have also opened up our collaborative networks to each other, sharing ‘approved and trusted’ contacts who can unlock new industries such as nuclear, oil and marine. In total, in just a couple of years from a standing start there have been four publications and in excess of £250k of income generated to our combined organisations, and we’ve barely begun…

None of this would have happened without the original GW4 initiator fund which simply put us in a room and gave us the opportunity to talk. So, if you get the chance to get involved in one of these initiatives, make sure you do. Talk to crazy physicists, mad marine scientists and hipster-wannabe engineers and anyone else who is there and open your mind to working in areas that you may not have previously considered. You never know where you will end up and the journey can be a lot of fun.

Find out more about funding and publications arising from GW4 AVARICE.

Dr Mike Allen is a Microbial Biochemist at Plymouth Marine Lab, Dr Chris Chuck leads the Chuck Group at University of Bath and Professor Tom Scott is a Professor in Materials at University of Bristol.

Bringing major health discoveries to our doorstep

We hear from Professor Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel on the game-changing potential of a new GW4 shared facility for microscopy, and how it will accelerate cutting-edge research projects across the Great West.

Molecular processes decide whether we’re healthy or not. To really understand the cellular function or malfunction behind human health or disease, we need to be able to see the exact molecular processes at work – their modes of action and architecture.

Electron cryo-microscopy (known as cryo-EM) is a vital part of determining and analysing these intricate molecular processes.

The South West England and South East Wales region has long been home to notable and complementary expertise in human health and imaging, but not the state-of-the-art cryo-microscopy equipment needed to study molecular processes at this level of detail. Today, that all changes with the launch of the GW4 Facility for High Resolution Electron Cyro-Microscopy.

Joining the revolution

Electron cryo-microscopy has made incredible advances recently, with scientists hailing the “cryo-EM revolution” in accelerating insights into human health and disease.

Major improvements in microscope hardware, data-collection strategies and software have converged to catapult cryo-EM technology to a new level of precision. Molecular processes can be visualised at near-atomic resolution, opening up exciting new avenues for studying structure and function in unprecedented detail, from atoms to cells.

This means that researchers investigating biological function today must be provided with the opportunity to make use of cryo-EM technology if they want to advance their studies on regional, national and international levels.

Making the case

I joined with colleagues across the GW4 Alliance – from a variety of disciplines and academic/professional services roles – to develop collaborative proposals for support. The process of putting together these proposals identified clear complementary strengths in imaging and molecular biology as well as opportunities for research collaboration that would be created by shared access to cutting edge cryo-EM technology.

We were delighted to receive support from Wellcome and BBSRC and co-investment from our institutions to develop a GW4 Facility for High Resolution Electron Cryo-Microscopy. Their support demonstrated an overarching ambition that future scientific discovery will be a collaborative enterprise, and we are delighted to make this ambition a reality for our region.

A regional facility for the Great West

Today’s ceremony celebrates the installation of this state-of-the-art cryo-microscopy facility that will open up this technology to researchers across the South West and Wales. The event will bring together globally-renowned microscopy experts, doctoral students and senior university staff to discuss the future of imaging and share best practice and leading-edge techniques.

The GW4 facility will represent an important regional node to feed into the Wellcome-funded national facility for High-Resolution Cryo-EM at Harwell. We hope our high-profile resource for the Great West, together with the national facility, will entice researchers from diverse life-science areas and disciplines to join the cryo-EM revolution and generate new and exciting research.

Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel is a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Bristol.

Christiane led two bids to develop the GW4 Facility for High-Resolution Electron Cryo-Microscopy, alongside Professor Phil Ingham at the University of Exeter who led the third bid to support the facility.

How is colonial history represented in our regional heritage?

Recently the decision to change the name of Colston Hall provoked widespread debate. GW4’s Bridging the Gap project has now held a workshop at Dyrham Park, near Bath, to bring together researchers, participants from the heritage sector, community history groups and creative practitioners to consider how colonial history is represented in our regional heritage narratives. We hear from Research Associate Liz Haines about how history continues to shape today’s arts, cultural and heritage institutions across South West England and South East Wales.

The Great West region (South West England and South East Wales) has historically benefitted from the processes of violence, displacement, disfranchisement and unequal exchange that colonialism produced. Across the region there have been sustained efforts to reframe how those historical processes are presented, with historians and activists demanding that the public recognise a broader range of perspectives on Britain’s colonial past. This requires giving a platform to narratives that substantially address the brutality and tragedy that European colonialism left in its wake.

These demands are being met more often in public institutions such as universities and museums, and in black history community projects. Widely reported discussion around the naming of Colston Hall has brought Bristol’s slaving history more firmly into public consciousness. However, the work of generating public histories of colonialism that are more accurate, visible and inclusive is an ongoing and challenging project.

The group that met on 4th July were particularly interested in how collaborations could contribute to generating engaging and radical public histories of colonialism. Drawing together the expertise of academic researchers, museum and heritage practitioners, community historians and creative practitioners represented a starting point for such collaborations. We asked: what can each of these groups bring to the table to ensure that the region’s colonial heritage is narrated in ways that are accurate, challenging, moving, and meaningful?

Colonial networks of influence

The focus of the day’s discussion was the work of the National Trust at Dyrham Park, South Gloucestershire where the Trust is investing in new displays and strategies to present the history of Dyrham Park. Participants in the Bridging the Gap workshop were invited to ‘think along’ with the National Trust and consider what some of the challenges and opportunities will be in that process.

The group came to the workshop equipped with some reading about Dyrham’s history. The most important era for the house and gardens at Dyrham Park, was the 17th century, when they were owned by William Blathwayt (1649-1717). As Surveyor and Auditor General of the Colonies, Blathwayt oversaw a massive expansion of the colonial system, and an increase in revenues for the British government from plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. The splendour and luxury of Dyrham Park demonstrate the importance of this governmental post and its financial reward. More particularly, however, it reflects Blathwayt’s central position in colonial networks of influence.

Blathwayt’s position at the hub of British colonialism meant that he was able to accrue plants, materials, objects and works of art from the boundaries of European trade- across the Americas and Asia. In decorating the house and planting of the gardens, Blathwayt could use the rarity and novelty of these items to dazzle his guests. Yet the mechanisms underpinning the arrival of these luxury goods included the transatlantic slave trade, and the genocide of indigenous Americans. To date, the National Trust has struggled to address the history and legacies of colonialism head on, but it is now seeking to do so.

In the first part of the day the group began with a discussion of what they saw the challenges and opportunities of this project to be. In a collective brainstorming process it became clear that the group’s experience could be far more than the sum of its parts. From an academic perspective, the group identified key areas for more detailed research.

Specialist expertise was able to address specific questions and challenges… yet moving people into different environments generated new types of conversation

Bridging the gap between rural estates and urban communities

In order for the National Trust to clearly articulate the relationship of Dyrham Park to the history of the slave trade more historical research would be necessary. Current scholarship doesn’t adequately explain the role of governmental administrators in producing and maintaining the plantation system. From a curatorial perspective, discussion began about the levels of knowledge of colonialism in today’s communities and audiences, the difficulties of speaking with and working with new groups, and the processes of dealing with contentious competition between different interpretations of the past. Workshop participants who brought experience in working in education emphasised the importance of bridging the geographical ‘gap’ between Dyrham Park’s rural location and urban communities.

After outlining these possibilities and directions, the workshop broke into groups to explore the house and gardens. Equipped with a sketchbook, the groups took their own paths through the property. Through sketches, notes, diagrams and fragments of writing, they recorded what caught their attention. Reconvening as a group, we presented these fragments, and gradually some key themes emerged. Particular objects, materials and spaces had caught the attention of the group as focal points that could connect the remnants of William Blathwayt’s house and story to other lives and sites that were caught up in his colonial networks.

Some objects demonstrate that history directly and viscerally, such as a pair of carved slave-figure stands. Other objects might allow for creative or metaphorical narration from the perspective of the victims of colonial violence. Both birds and water played important symbolic roles for enslaved Africans, connecting them imaginatively to their homelands, their lost communities and to lost freedom. The workshop group pointed out moments where these motifs appeared in the house, and could be used to voice the loss, absence and disenfranchisement of colonial relationships.

Engaged collaboration

This led to further discussion about how a re-interpretation of Dyrham could be historically specific. What was it important to articulate about colonialism in general? What, on the other hand, was inherent to this site, and its particular history that couldn’t be told anywhere but at Dyrham? How should future presentations of Dyrham Park reflect popular understandings of colonial history. Where and how should they challenge audiences with new detail or perspectives?

In a final phase of reflection the group produced postcards from the future, and sketched out what they hoped a reinterpretation of Dyrham would achieve.These postcards sketched out scenarios in which reinterpretation could benefit a wide range of groups, making Dyrham an important site for both existing visitor groups and new communities to experience and understand history. These visions of future possibilities at Dyrham coincided with enthusiasm amongst participants to continue discussions, and possibly to begin an informal network.

For us at Bridging the Gap the workshop provided another fantastic opportunity to explore engaged, interdisciplinary, inter-institutional collaboration. We were able to observe moments when specialist expertise was able to address specific questions and challenges. Yet moving people into different environments generated new types of conversation, and there was a great deal of commitment amongst all parties to learn from each others’ experience.

Dr Liz Haines is a Research Associate for GW4 Bridging the Gap.

Civic data collaboration in Bath – a model for the UK?

Empowering the wider community to use and understand civic data is fast becoming one of the major challenges for local government today. Could a collaboration between the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research, Bath and North East Somerset Council and Bath and North East Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group prove to be an innovative model for other parts of the UK to adopt?

In 2012, the Harvard Business Review, seemingly without irony, declared the Data Scientist the “sexiest job of the 21st century”. This showed that complex data analysis had truly arrived as a tool of the future. That there is more data than ever before is surely the most self-evident truth facing anyone working in any field, let alone one in which data is an important currency.  This creates opportunities, possibilities and a popular narrative that something should be done about it all. Analysts are asked to anticipate this demand and help decision makers understand the opportunities, challenges and risks in all this data.

In local government, every service (from abandoned shopping trolleys to zoos) adds realms of transactional data to the corpus of local knowledge on a daily, if not instantaneous, basis. Cities are already using algorithms to predict crimere-route traffic and think about social care risk. It can sometimes feel as if any lamppost which isn’t wi-fi enabled is a waste. This execution has not been consistent, and the ability of city managers and local governments to realise the analytical opportunities inherent in this data is incredibly varied, with a number of different models emerging.

Analysing data in local civic spaces

Traditionally local government has run in-house analysis, often employing qualified specialists in fields such as demography, market research or public health. Teams are normally federated across an organisation or run through centralised units, and the relationship with IT services (the facilitators of access to data) is often unstructured. In-house analysis is currently characterised, alongside much of the sector, by increasing demand in the face of reductions in resources.

Some cities have already been thinking about the opportunities inherent in this more applied form of data for some time. Most famously, the New York model of an ‘Office of Data Analytics’ created a central space, outside of normal service delivery, to apply data science to public problems. The successes of this programme are widely documented. It is notable how similar in branding and involvement, how similar the look and feel of these narratives is, to those adopted by larger consultancy firms. Within the UK, NESTA have notably adopted the model and are rolling it out amongst a number of local authorities.

The use of consultancies is nothing new in the sector, and although expensive, is often preferable to employing rare skills in an organisation. Many of the larger consultancy firms are well established in the field of data analytics, often in association with an emerging ‘smart city’ agenda. These activities are often typified by a ‘black box’ approach to methodologies, accessed on a proprietary and paid-for basis. In some cases academic organisations themselves are incentivised to replicate this model, developing intellectual property and new methodologies with an eye to relicensing.

Finally, there are those areas adopting a more open model; the Data Mill North, originally in Leeds, but expanding fast; the Trafford Innovation Lab; and closer to home, Bath:Hacked have all provided a space localities can release data to empower the wider community to use local data. These models focus on an open data infrastructure, with Bath:Hacked being notable as having a local datastore owned entirely by the local community, rather than government itself.

It’s clear when looking at the exemplars in this area; that these innovations are often the preserve of larger or well-off cities. Innovation scales well, and those who have the money can develop, brand and sell their concepts and ultimately sustain the work through ongoing external investment. Those who can’t, won’t. Data ‘haves and have-nots’ may inevitably develop.

As public sector austerity remains one of the overriding forces of contemporary urban governance, there is a question about how it is possible to realise these benefits in places which might not have the advantages of scale or funding. It is too easy to finish any summary such as this with a passionate plea for government or some undefined higher power to provide funding for good data works, but in practice that is likely to be little more than an optimistic hope; instead we must continue to question if there may be another way.

An alternative way – towards partnerships of data and analytics?

In Bath and North East Somerset we think we have an interesting local approach, one which could perhaps scale without relying on ‘black boxes’ or extensive investment.

In 2013 a collaboration was established between the Council, Bath and North East Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group and the Institute for Policy Research. The aim of this collaboration was to try to help the Council access academic skills and knowledge and realise actual policy impacts. Simultaneously the Council supported the development of Bath:Hacked.

This collaboration is based open principles of open data and open source and makes a virtue of the varied skills held across our civic space. No one organisation has the ownership of the entire process, nor are the benefits realised by one partner alone.

The collaboration has been successful in attracting external funding for projects as wide-ranging as school’s energy efficiency through to uses of new technology in Social Prescribing services. This approach has helped all partners use their analytical resources differently without requiring significant additional investment.

Such endeavours also come with some degree of risk. Our work is reliant on the passion and dedication of individuals, within organisations and in the community at large and is vulnerable to people changing jobs, leaving the area or finding themselves with less spare time to commit to this work. In addition, as the collaboration emerged from fixed term funding, the work itself was constrained by time. In addition we have faced various issues of timeliness, access and relevance in ensuring that analytical outputs reach their desired audience.

The future of collaboration

For 2017 the collaboration will look to move onto a more formal partnership footing and examine options to do this. They seem to range from increasing the number and range of informal networks to a structured ‘front door’ model.

Focussing more on an informal footing means we increase the sustainability of the collaboration and its reach, but increases the reliance on goodwill and personal commitment from individuals involved.

As we progress, the main question remains whether this model can scale, not just in terms of engaging beyond the traditionally active data community, but also whether it might provide a model for other areas, potentially those without the scale or resource to attract high-cost innovation.

Jon Poole is Research and Intelligence Manager at Bath and North East Somerset Council, and works with the IPR on the project Connecting data across public services in Bath & North East Somerset

The original version of this article can be found at the IPR Blog.

SETsquared: Focussed on Growth

SETsquared is the world’s number 1 university business incubator. Simon Bond, Innovation Director of SETsquared, discusses the secret to their long-standing success, and what they plan to do next. 

Over the last 15 years, the SETsquared Partnership of the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey has established a successful track-record based on unlocking economic growth from the commercialisation of research, incubation and collaboration with businesses. During this period and in order to ‘feed’ these initiatives, the Partnership has also launched programmes to develop the business skills of its most talented entrepreneurial students and researchers.

From our base in the South of England, the impact of SETsquared has been measurable and it has helped to unlock over £1bn of private sector investment through its support of 1,000 science, engineering and technology companies. Many of these companies have continued to achieve great success as our alumni and gone on to have an economic impact that has been independently assessed to be worth over £3.8bn, and to have created 9,000 new jobs.

As pioneers, and because of the success of our member companies, SETsquared has been regularly acknowledged for its thought leadership and practices. Most recently it was commended for its work in the Dowling Review and also cited in the Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper. Since 2015, SETsquared has been ranked as the world’s No.1 university business incubator.

So far so good. But where do we go from here? Undoubtedly, these are extraordinary times and ‘business as usual’ and incremental growth is not enough. SETsquared does have the advantage of the long view, and survived and thrived through previous seismic shifts, with the 2008 financial crisis and the bonfire of the quangos and the reorganisation of our regional system that followed, being just two examples among many. In this context, Brexit and the likelihood of new trade flows in a new global economy is set to be ‘similarly extraordinary’. No one has come up with the winning formula yet, but I’d bet that our best chance of making a success of the present situation will come from an entrepreneurial and creative response from the kind people and companies that SETsquared has a track record of working with.

The good news is that we have a head start with this community. One of the benefits of pioneering is that many of the start-ups that SETsquared has worked with over the last 15 years have now matured to become substantial scale-up companies led by entrepreneurs with whom we have a long-term, trusted relationships. Earlier this year we celebrated the achievements of many of these good friends at SETsquared’s House of Commons Reception for our top 50 Entrepreneurs from the last 15 years. In the weeks that followed we carried out research based on detailed interviews with this cohort of scale up alumni and members and were delighted that they were very clear on how SETsquared should continue to add value to their ambitious growth plans – specifically our scale-up alumni and members told us that they are looking to SETsquared to support them via mentoring and critical business review, along with access to international customers and access finance for growth and innovation.

Alongside this endorsement of the SETsquared model, a further benefit of our track record in business incubation is that, through the activities of our member companies, we have built a presence and reputation in several key innovation-intensive sectors, specifically in: digital, data and communications; advanced engineering and manufacturing; health and wellbeing; and a spectrum of environmental and sustainable related technologies. The deal flow provided by our member companies in these sectors has caught the attention of large corporates including from the likes of Apple, Schlumberger, Huawei, Magna and Sony along with many more, especially since we launched the SETsquared Open Innovation Programme four years ago. Not surprisingly, the presence of consistently high-quality deal flow and corporate interest, has also caught the eye of specialist investors, from the City of London of course, but also from the East and West coast of the USA, and lately, from tech hot spots in China, who look to SETsquared as an access point to world-class new technology, innovation and talent.

Encouragingly, the nexus between scale-ups and these innovation-intensive sectors has also been picked-up as an opportunity for economic growth by the recent Science and Innovation Audits, in which GW4 was instrumental in South West England and South East Wales.

This has helped SETsquared to shape its own ‘extraordinary response’ to these extraordinary times and develop plans to power-up its proven ability to unlock GVA from private companies. We will of course maintain and continue to invest in our presence as the ‘go-to’ place for start-ups through our incubators. However, SETsquared will also launch programmes that will help the many ambitious scale-up companies in our networks and from across our region, particularly from the innovation-intensive sectors that are the distinct strengths of the South of England, to access innovation and R&D collaborations with our universities, access international customers and access investment in order to grow and build their businesses as an integrated part of the UK knowledge base.

Simon Bond is Innovation Director at SETsquared Partnership.

Cultural investment and collaboration in the South West

Arts Council England has just concluded its National Portfolio investment for the period 2018-22. In the South West of England, this means a commitment of £112 million across four years to 102 cultural organisations, from Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra to Cornwall’s Leach Pottery, Bristol’s Watershed to Bridport Arts Centre.

In the South West, we have sought to invest at scale in places such as Plymouth  and Southampton, levered by sustained investment from local authorities and robust higher education partnerships. We have also sought to invest in places of lower engagement, with National Portfolio Organisations for the first time in Torbay, Weston-super-Mare and Gloucester.

I can say with some confidence that the number of artists and organisations making work here is greater than it’s ever been. The inter-relationships within cultural and creative industries are more fluid and dynamic than ever before. Cities such as Bristol are net importers of cultural talent. And towns and cities across the region are hastening to acknowledge that arts and culture is the “rocket fuel” that drives place and identity.

…and yet – the medium-to-long term prognosis for cultural development in South West England is complex. Much of the art is fantastic. The reach and engagement of audiences is broader than ever. But levering investment into cultural activity remains sporadic.

The investment landscape for local government is incredibly challenging. Higher education has an offer to make to the sector, but it won’t be – and shouldn’t be – to provide an alternate grant funding system. Philanthropy is emerging as an important dimension, but is necessarily a long-burn game. The business community recognises cultural development as a driver for growth, but from a Local Enterprise Partnership perspective, it isn’t a sector that provides easy metrics around jobs growth and economic impact.

So that’s a notable feature of our investment for 2018-22 – the development of a “best practice” portfolio which features new and entrepreneurial business models, mergers, social investment and independent museums with sound commercial acumen.

Examples of this include:

These organisations are the outriders of the resilience revolution that the arts and cultural sector will need to embrace over the next few years, not just in South West England, but nationwide.

So the big challenge I’d like to throw down is to ask what relationship higher education in the Great West imagines itself having with arts and cultural organisations over the next decade.

There’s some fabulous best practice out there already, such as the co-investment of the two Bristol universities in Watershed’s Pervasive Media Lab. In similar vein, the REACT hub propelled higher education and cultural entrepreneurs towards each other and catalysed 53 new digital products and experiences.

It’s not all about product. Just as often, partnerships between higher education and cultural organisations can result in an enhanced sense of place. Since the its triumphant hosting of British Art Show 7, Plymouth University has played a central role in that city’s cultural revival, as a core member of the city’s culture board and partner in the iconic Plymouth History Centre project. Meanwhile, in Southampton, the two universities are actively reinventing the city’s identity through their financial and intellectual investment in the new cultural quarter, and the outreach which will arise from it.

But there is much more to be done, and in a spirit of provocation, I’d like to pose a few questions which might be useful in helping frame future ambition:

  • Should higher education consider a more philanthropic approach to investing in the west’s cultural organisations? (I’d suggest “Yes”) What benefits accrue from “soft” investment relative to “hard transactions”? (I’d suggest “stronger HE brands and higher student numbers”).
  • Do cultural organisations need to better understand the financial, social and institutional return on investment that higher education might be seeking from engaging with them? (I’d suggest “Yes, definitely”)
  • What do STEM-focused universities stand to gain from engagement with arts and culture? (I’d suggest “research value, brand firepower and a crucial lever for widening participation)
  • We live in a world where “content” is more fluid than ever before. Are traditionally structured artforms and degrees a vital underpinning to arts and culture, or an unnecessary confinement? (I’d suggest “increasingly the latter rather than the former”).

…all of which is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the deeper and broader conversation this territory merits. But the benefits are potentially huge – both for the undercapitalised cultural sector and the fiercely competitive higher education marketplace. From an Arts Council England perspective, we’re more than happy to join that conversation.

Phil Gibby is Area Director, South West for the Arts Council England. 

Image from The Rooms, a festival celebrating the work produced by REACT. REACT was a collaboration led by UWE Bristol and Watershed, with the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter. Photograph by Max McClure

Frontier thinking: exploring the West’s tech success

The ‘Silicon Gorge’ has long been hailed as a hive of creative and technological disruption – but what’s the secret to the growth of the UK’s largest digital cluster outside of London? We hear from Oracle’s Phil Bates on how start-ups, global businesses and universities are driving the South West’s digital economy through collaboration

Back in the 1990s, Oracle established an office in the South West city of Bristol – a time when ‘ubiquitous computing’ was the buzzword of the day, and organisations were just beginning to wake up to the potential of the region as a hub of technological expertise. Fast forward nearly 25 years, and that reputation is assured.

As a recent Tech Nation report indicated, the broader region is a powerhouse in terms of digital jobs (over 67,000 at last count) and digital revenue (£2.2 billion GVA). The explanation behind this success is complex: a perfect storm of target industries, supportive businesses, innovative start-ups and research-intensive universities.

A highly-skilled workforce full of ‘serial founders’

In Bristol, the intersection of high performance computing, cloud computing and digital media industries has led to an unusually high concentration of people with expertise in developing applications. When, in 2014, Oracle decided to establish our Strategic Cloud Development Centre here, one of the first questions we asked was: is there the talent we need to build our team?

So we did our research: we undertook an analysis of LinkedIn profiles and tracked Meetups in the area. We found serial founders on their second or even third start-ups who wanted to build in the city they lived in. It was evident that there was a rich seam of talent and enthusiasm, borne out by consistently high registration for developer events; indeed, Bristol and Bath has the greatest number of Meetups outside of London.

We aren’t the only global company to have noticed the potential of the South West’s highly skilled workforce – our bedfellows in Bristol include Amazon, IBM, Cray and HPE (Hewlett Packard) each with well established product development teams in the city.

Creative case studies

Oracle is always looking for innovative use cases to test our latest services and products. Bristol has a distinct advantage in that it is home to a large number of animation and digital media companies, from the world-famous Aardman to agile start-ups. Animated films can take up to one to ten hours to render each frame – at at least 21 frames a second. For companies producing animated films, computing performance is critical – as is the need for super fast networking and the ability to securely store huge volumes of media. These requirements provide a rich vein for collaboration between high tech companies like Oracle, and fast moving, creative and innovative Bristol film production companies.

We met local start-up Yellow Dog through reaching out to the Bristol developer community. They had found that rendering animation was an extremely time-consuming process, and involved delivering huge amounts of data onto a separate cloud service. Working together, we took only a couple of days to deliver a proof-of-concept solution using Oracle’s Bare Metal Cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), with ground-breaking performance, networking and file storage capabilities.

Collaboration has to be based on  a foundation of mutual benefit, and in this case, Yellow Dog were able to access cutting-edge technology before it had been made available to the market, and we were able to improve Bare Metal Cloud’s performance through a real-life user challenge.

The results were phenomenal – Yellow Dog reported back that they were able to increase the speed of rendering by up to 10 x faster for every single use case, making our service much more effective than major competitors such as Amazon and Rackspace. We wanted to share the credit for the success of this collaboration, so we ensured that Yellow Dog shared platforms with us at conferences and took part in joint interviews in the media.

Another great example of the collision between creative and digital economies includes an earlier collaboration between HP Labs and the University of Bristol, which combined on-demand computing with high speed networking and applied this to digital media. The technology developed through this partnership was later used by Dreamworks to produce Shrek, ushering in the next generation of animated films.

Alongside the creative industries, the region is also home to the UK’s largest aerospace sector and a growing expertise in new energy systems – providing companies like Oracle with hugely valuable user case studies, from fluid modelling and dynamics to virtual reality.

The next generation of innovators

Another important component of Bristol and the South West’s success as a digital technology cluster lies in its access to research-intensive and entrepreneurial universities. We have long worked fruitfully with academics and students across the region through a number of ways: we develop collaborative research, offer internships and hire local graduates. We liaised directly with higher education institutions, businesses, LEPs and the Welsh Government on the South West England and South East Wales Science and Innovation Audit and continue to champion science and innovation for the region together as the Great West Taskforce.

Our relationships with Universities in the region have evolved from informal collaboration on an individual level to a formal, organisation-wide partnerships. At University of Bristol, for example, we deliver guest lectures, consult on their curriculum to provide a commercial perspective and offer mentoring for student computing projects, from architectural advice to ensuring methodology meets the industry standard. Together with the University of Bristol and UWE we are pushing back the frontiers of technological achievement, from breaking the land speed record, to providing new applications for protein modelling and gravitational waves.

Supporting the local tech ecosystem

The potential of the South West as a powerful technology cluster has been well-documented. But there is no room for complacency – we must continue to nurture and grow our local tech ecosystem. With this in mind, Oracle has chosen Bristol, alongside Paris, Delhi, Sao Paolo and others, to launch Oracle’s Start-Up Cloud Accelerator.

The programme, which will welcome its first cohort this year, provides a distinctive approach to helping startups scale – technically and commercially. Startups in the accelerator programme, based at Bristol’s Engine Shed, gain access to state of the art cloud technology, technical mentoring and the ability to work closely with Oracle’s product development teams worldwide. In addition, Oracle provides training and support to companies to reach and sell to enterprise scale customers – including many of the largest companies and public sector organisations in Oracle’s impressive 400,000+ customer base. 

Our mantra: start small, grow fast

The South West has many of the elements needed to make a world-leading technology cluster: highly skilled, motivated developers, innovative start-ups, major computing businesses and target industries such as creative media and aerospace. The final piece of the puzzle is how these elements come together: the way we all collaborate.

We believe in rapid collaboration and in getting to success – or failure – as early as possible in a collaboration. Whether we’re working with students or start-ups, our mantra is ‘start small, grow fast’ and the success of our collaborations is a testament to this. Imagination, generosity and a willingness to experiment are values shared by many organisations around the South West, and they look set to sustain our digital economy for many years to come.

Phil Bates is an architect in Oracle’s public cloud development group, based in Bristol.

*These statistics collate Bristol & Bath, Exeter and Cardiff & Swansea tech clusters.

Image reproduced through Creative Commons: LukeAndrew94

‘Smart specialisation’ and building links with SMEs

The University of Bath will shortly hear from the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UK RPIF) and the West of England LEP, on whether its £50 million bid to build a new Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPs) facility at the Bristol and Bath Science Park has been successful. The main idea behind IAAPs is to bring together the university’s leading researchers (from the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Powertrain and Vehicle Research Centre), corporate manufacturers and SMEs to research and develop the next generation of low carbon technologies and more efficient combustion engines, alongside developing electric and hybrid systems and alternative fuels. If IAAPS goes ahead, it is estimated the facility will stimulate £67 million in new research and development between 2020 and 2025. In doing so, the IAAPS facility will seek to conduct transformational research in the automotive industry, to position the UK as a global competitor in the research and design of new environmentally friendly vehicles.

While the IAAPS proposal is primarily geared towards to the automotive industry, it offers the potential to engage with what might be described as a ‘smart specialisation’ process. This is where government funders – in collaboration with other private and public sector actors – identify and fund specific technologies, fields or domains where there is significant potential for technological development, knowledge spill-overs, scale and agglomeration economies and new market opportunities. This is the way in which modern industrial policy is conducted and is outlined in the UK government’s recent Green Paper (2017). The Smart Specialisation policy does not favour particular firms or necessarily sectors per se, but rather revolves around the private and public sectors discovering new opportunities, then identifying and supporting specific activities and/or technological domains with commercial potential.

A ‘smart specialisation’ strategy has a strong regional element, since it seeks to exploit existing regional competences and expertise, while empowering local actors to realise this potential and develop new (technological) specialisms. It is believed that such a ‘place-based’ approach can facilitate dynamic regional growth. If IAAPs goes ahead, it is speculated that it can open up a range of exciting possibilities for firms and other actors (such as scientific researchers) to exploit technological synergies in related sectors, such as aerospace and high tech engineering in which the South West region has existing strengths. Thus, it is hoped that IAAPs will enhance the South West’s cluster dynamic through innovation and improving productivity.

In making the case for IAAPs, it has been important to emphasise how these cluster dynamics may form and evolve within the wider South West region, and, in particular, the role of SMEs within the cluster. Last summer, on behalf of the University, we explored how SMEs might benefit from working with IAAPs and their possible use of the proposed facilities. We conducted a short survey of UK SMEs in both the automotive and aerospace industries. Overall, our results indicate UK SMEs – across both sectors – are positive about the prospect of IAAPS in the South West, seeing it as a conduit for accessing and sharing information relating to new technologies, accessing a wider network of industry contacts, and strengthening their supply chain relationships. Many SMEs also saw IAAPS as an opportunity to enhance their company image and potentially access public-sector funding. These benefits were enhanced further if IAAPS was associated with a global automotive manufacturer and the possibility of commercially oriented networking opportunities and knowledge transfer.

Following on from our research, the university has embarked upon a series of wider engagement initiatives with SMEs, providing more public information on IAAPS and conducting several focus groups with SMES and related stakeholders on designing an IAAPS facility that facilitates a collaborative and open platform for SMEs (and start-ups) that boosts their businesses, attracts new investment and enhances the cluster dynamic. If this can be achieved and the IAAPS facility goes ahead, it promises to be an exciting time for high tech engineering and advanced manufacturing in the South West.

Understanding and building the creative economy in the Cardiff capital region

For nearly a decade the creative industries and wider creative economy have been the fastest growing part of the UK economy. Recent figures published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport reveal that they generate nearly £9.6million per hour, contribute almost £90bn net to GDP and account for one in eleven jobs, a rate rising more quickly than all other parts of the economy.

It is also widely reported that the creative industries generate value that spreads far wider than the sector itself. They are a driver of business and activity for other sectors and support a wider supply chain; including the employment of over 800,000 creative occupations outside of the sector.

Hub Crawl SustainableAlongside this growth, there has been a heavy emphasis on place-based innovation and encouraging regional networks and clusters. We have known for some time that creative activity makes cities more interesting, liveable and vibrant. Initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine are developing their creative economy offering through better connectivity, brand, profile, cohesion as well as the ability to secure foreign direct investment, boost productivity and exports.

Trends in the growth of the creative economy are, for example, highly visible in the economy of Wales.  Identified as a Welsh Government economic development priority since 2011, there has been significant progress across the whole creative economy, from music and performance to digital marketing. In 2015 NESTA produced an estimate that the creative economy in Wales accounted for 77,483 jobs, including 22,324 jobs within the wider Cardiff Travel to Work area.

Cardiff has seen significant growth over the past decade. Our region is home to world-renowned creative industries and organisations, from major worldwide corporations to thriving SMEs and a rapidly developing digital economy. Alongside this, the development of the Cardiff Capital Region has also started to provide opportunities for greater cohesion, connecting the city to the regional economy, which is populated largely by small firms. But there is still work to be done to enable the wider Great West region to achieve its maximum potential with regards to creative economy activity.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council project REACT (Research & Enterprise in Arts & Creative Technology), one of four knowledge exchange hubs for the creative economy, began in 2012 with a goal to inject new depth and momentum into collaboration between arts and humanities academics and creative businesses. REACT brought together UWE Bristol and the Watershed with the GW4 universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.

Building upon the legacy of REACT, Cardiff University recruited a Creative Economy team in 2014 with an ambition to better understand, engage and enable the wider creative economy in the region. A central ambition of our work is for our city to be a capital of creativity. We’re sure the way to do this is by working collaboratively and playing to our collective strengths and this belief has formed the backbone of our approach.

In 2016 the team produced a detailed map of the creative economy workforce in Cardiff in order to understand the size, shape and clustering. The research identified 2,788 creative companies, organisations and freelancers in Cardiff and surrounding wards. The report, Mapping Cardiff’s Creative Economy, established that proximity to the city centre and the tendency of creative activity to cluster in particular neighbourhoods are the two main factors in the presence of creative activity. We hope to repeat this research in 2018 to include the city region.

Another issue identified early in this work was the lack of connectivity and silo working in different parts of the creative and cultural industries. We developed the Creative Cardiff Network to start addressing these issues and, 18 months on, we have an 1100-strong membership of creative people and organisations in Cardiff and the city region. Feedback from the network has highlighted the benefits for individuals – including the rapidly growing freelancer community – and organisations through better connectivity, engagement and networking opportunities as well as access to jobs.

Cardiff Creative CapitalWe have also recently embarked upon a partnership with Cardiff City Council, supported by Arts Council of Wales, to re-imagine and trial new approaches to promote and develop Cardiff’s creative economy. The main aim of this partnership is to work with, and on behalf of, the creative community in the city to ensure the opportunity for co-creation and co-delivery wherever possible. We are focusing on an agenda of practical initiatives which enable high impact contributions to the city’s creative economy in a time of tight financial constraints. Through Cardiff Council’s links to the UK Core Cities network of local authorities, we aim to learn from and to influence creative economy initiatives in other UK cities. The spirit of this ongoing collaboration was captured in a conference held at Cardiff University in December 2016:  Cardiff – Creative Capital.

We have also been undertaking work to explore and promote creative hubs and co-working spaces in the city region. These spaces have become essential to how creatives work and as such, to the growth and development of the creative economy globally. Over the past two years in particular, we’ve seen a number established – all differing in their offer. We have been doing work to develop our knowledge and understanding of these spaces. This is not limited to the physical space which they occupy, but by the services they provide and their contribution to the wider creative community including how and why they support the growth of this sector, at the same time as building a community of like-minded individuals.

In doing all of the above we have developed a clearer picture of the city itself as a creative space as well as the workforce driving this activity. But there is still work to do to clarify this picture and develop a long term strategy to support it in its next phase. Many have an intuitive impression of Cardiff as a city with a significant cultural sector, but less is known about the shape, character and breadth of the city’s creative economy.

There is great potential to develop this work across the wide region spanned by the GW4 Alliance. All four universities involvement in the REACT project have helped develop relationships between academics and practitioners in the creative and digital sector. We look forward to working closely with Professors Anthony Mandal and Tim Cole on GW4 Bridging the Gap to share good practice and take the work begun by REACT to the next level.

Sara Pepper is Director of Creative Economy at Cardiff University.