Tag Archives: collaborate or crumble

university to business

Bringing business to uni

Prime Minister Turnbull coined the catchphrase “collaborate or crumble” in December 2015 as he launched the $5 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA).

The phrase replaced the longstanding “publish or perish” dictum to engage university researchers with NISA’s ambitious goals. Since then, universities have implemented several of the recommendations from the Watt Review, which was tasked with bringing into force changes to university research funding models to incentivise collaboration with business.

NISA simultaneously introduced financial incentives and initiatives to boost the innovation performance of Australian business.

Some of these opportunities can be leveraged within the framework of the business to business (B2B) model. Considerably more could be leveraged from the still relatively unexploited university to business (U2B) model.

Bringing university to business

A key advantage of the university to business model is that universities aren’t driven by the company bottom line. In principle, this should make cooperation and collaboration significantly easier to manage than in the B2B model.

To take advantage of the NISA incentives and initiatives, however, new U2B collaborations need to be established.

This is a challenge, because university research and Australian business have traditionally existed in parallel universes. One practical strategy is universities opening the doors to their own research hubs.

Established as “knowledge transaction spaces”, similar to industry-led Knowledge Hubs, university research hubs are ideal for university to business interactions because they engage researchers from a broad range of disciplines, with diverse skills sets – a veritable smorgasbord of intellectual resources all in one place.

The Charles Perkins Centre Hub at the University of Sydney, for example, is a melting pot of researchers in metabolic disease, and was established deliberately to be highly interdisciplinary and de-shackled from conventional biomedical research approaches.

Indeed, its approach is strongly aligned with the “convergence” strategy advocated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in their 2016 report, based on an earlier white paper.

The University of Sydney’s newest research hub is the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, part of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. Although STEM-focused, nanoscience and nanotechnology involves diverse disciplines and has broad applications, some of which cannot even be imagined.

While quantum computing is attracting enormous interest from business, some researchers are looking to biology for inspiration to design next-generation nanotechnology devices. Why biology? Because every interaction between molecules in living organisms occurs on nano-scales.

In fact, some proteins are even referred to as “nano-machines” and because they operate so efficiently in such a busy, compact environment, they potentially hold the clue to discovering how to make practical quantum computers work in the real world.

Similarly, bio-inspired nanotechnology devices, designed to emulate brain-like adaptive learning, open up the possibility of neuromorphic “synthetic intelligence” hardware in next-generation autonomous systems.

Such synthetically intelligent robots could be sent to remote, unexplored places, such as the deep ocean or deep space. They could be used in place of real humans without requiring any pre-programming; information processing and critical decision making would occur on the fly, in real time – just as if they were real humans.

Collaborate and accelerate

The benefits of collaboration may seem obvious, but sometimes it is worth stating the obvious from different perspectives. When people interact, they self-organise, forming groups that operate collectively to achieve imperatives as well as unexpected outcomes.

These outcomes would otherwise not be possible at the individual level – the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. We experience this every day now through social media.

In the internet age that we find ourselves in today, it has never been more important to collaborate, simply because of the sheer volume of information we have access to and the increasing rate at which this data is growing.

We cannot feasibly keep up with this as individuals, but as teams, we can.

Knowledge can be gained by individuals much more effectively through interactions with others than by searching the internet or reading a research publication.

That new shared information can be applied more efficiently. This means that through collaboration, researchers and business can accelerate their progress on the path to success, however they each choose to measure it. 

Professor Zdenka Kuncic

Founding Co-Director, Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, The University of Sydney

Read next: Professor Andrew Rohl, Director of the Curtin Institute for Computation, compares academic collaboration with partnerships that involve industry. 

Spread the word: Help Australia become a collaborative nation! Share this piece on the university to business collaboration model using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Digital Disruption Thought Leadership Series here.

partnerships

Coming to the table

While it may not be immediately obvious, universities and industry have a shared purpose: universities focus on educating people and creating new knowledge; industry seeks to be more innovative, productive and diverse. Our shared purpose is in delivering solutions to help tackle social challenges and drive economic growth.

We’re in the midst of a global knowledge economy and universities are a vital centre of competence for end-users such as industry. Industry and the professions get the benefit of universities’ research and intellectual capacities. Universities get access to stimulating questions, new challenges and opportunities for our students.

Collaboration works when you have something the other party wants. Being open to collaboration begets other collaboration and it leads on from there.

That being said, universities are a business like any other. We may not be commercial organisations but we’re pro-commercial. And in business you have to supply what the market wants.

The European universities where I began my career are active collaborative institutions and I saw an opportunity to bring this ethos to the University of South Australia, an institution that has a history of working with industry and the professions.

In the four years that I have been Vice Chancellor of the institution I have seen the growth of more than 2500 partnerships that range from guest lectureships to program advisory boards to co-creators of program content.

One great example of collaboration is the one we have with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). We co-developed a 4-year Honours degree, the Bachelor of Information Technology (Honours) (Enterprise Business Solutions) which offers 12 month paid internships for students. HPE has also become an Anchor Industry Partner in our Innovation and Collaboration Centre for students and start-ups and they’re a Foundation Partner in our new Museum of Discovery that’s due to open in 2018.

I have also seen the breaking down of silos within my own institution as we plan our new education precinct, which will be a focal point of educational innovation and enterprise.

The first partnership is with the State government, the schooling sector and the university. This was followed by partnerships between our engineering people, our environmental management experts, our architects and interior designers to build a precinct that will ultimately accommodate all facets of education.

We’re extending transdisciplinary approaches to education by engaging social work, psychology and other areas to contribute to the learning and holistic development of young people.

Having sat on both sides of the table I have seen collaboration work, and not work. It works when you have a shared vision of the project and you can see what each party stands to gain. You also need to know to walk away early if you know something is not going to work.

Ultimately collaboration allows you to do what you do even better.

I don’t know if the question is ‘Collaborate or crumble’. Collaborate or become increasingly irrelevant might be more apposite.

Professor David Lloyd

Vice Chancellor, UniSA

Read next: Hon Philip Dalidakis MP, Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade, discusses cybersecurity as a perfect example of turning a challenge into a collaboration opportunity.

Spread the word: Help Australia become a collaborative nation! Share this piece on university partnerships using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Digital Disruption Thought Leadership Series here.

Collaborate or crumble

Collaborate or crumble

Bookshelves in offices around Australia groan under the weight of unimplemented reports of research findings. Likewise, the world of technology is littered with software and gadgetry that has failed to gain adoption, for example 3D television and the Apple Newton. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Adoption of research is a critical success measure for Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs). One CRC in particular, the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, has succeeded in having its research adopted by governments, companies and even the United Nations. Its secret is fruitful collaborations spanning diverse academic disciplines to deliver usable results. These are the kind of collaborations CRCs are well placed to deliver, argues Professor Rebekah Brown, project leader and former Chief Research Officer of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities and director of the Monash Sustainability Institute.

The best are not always adopted. To change that, says Brown, developers need to know how their research solutions will be received and how to adapt them so people actually want them.

“Physical scientists, for example, benefit from understanding the political, social and economic frameworks they’re operating in, to position the science for real-world application,” she says.

The big-picture questions around knowledge and power, disadvantage and information access, political decision-making, community needs and aspirations, policy contexts and how values are economised – these are the domains of the social sciences. When social science expertise is combined with that of the physical sciences, for example, the research solutions they produce can have a huge impact. In the case of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, such solutions have influenced policy, strategy and regulations for the management of urban stormwater run-off, for example. Brown and her colleagues have found it takes a special set of conditions to cultivate this kind of powerful collaborative research partnership.

The CRC for Water Sensitive Cities has seen considerable growth. It started in 2005 as a $4.5 million interdisciplinary research facility with 20 Monash University researchers and PhD students from civil engineering, ecology and sociology. The facility grew over seven years to become a $120 million CRC with more than 85 organisations, including 13 research institutes and other organisations such as state governments, water utilities, local councils, education companies and sustainability consultancies. It has more than 230 researchers and PhD students, and its work has been the basis for strategy, policy, planning and technology in Australia, Singapore, China and Israel.

in text green corridor
Blue and green corridors in urban areas are part of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities’ research into managing water as the world becomes increasingly urbanised.

In a 2015 Nature special issue, Brown and Monash University colleagues Ana Deletic and Tony Wong, project leader and CEO respectively of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, shared their ‘secret sauce’ on bridging the gap between the social and biophysical sciences, which allowed them to develop a partnership blueprint for implementing urban water research.


8 tips to successful collaboration

Rebekah Brown
Professor Rebekah Brown, courtesy of the Monash Sustainability Institute

Cultivating interdisciplinary dialogue and forming productive partnerships takes time and effort, skill, support and patience. Brown and her colleagues suggest the following:

1 Forge a shared mission to provide a compelling account of the collaboration’s overall goal and to maintain a sense of purpose for all the time and effort needed to make it work;

2 Ensure senior researchers are role models, contributing depth in their discipline and demonstrating the skills needed for constructive dialogue;

3 Create a leadership team composed of people from multiple disciplines;

4 Put incentives in place for interdisciplinary research such as special funding, promotion and recognition;

5 Encourage researchers to put their best ideas forward, even if unfinished, while being open to alternative perspectives;

6 Develop constructive dialogue skills by providing training and platforms for experts from diverse disciplines and industry partners to workshop an industry challenge and find solutions together;

7 Support colleagues as they move from being I-shaped to T-shaped researchers, prioritising depth early on and embracing breadth by building relationships with those from other fields;

8 Run special issues of single-discipline journals that focus on interdisciplinary research and create new interdisciplinary journals with T-shaped editors, peer-reviewers or boards.

Source: Brown, R.R, Deletic, A. and Wong, T.H.F (2015), How to catalyse collaboration, Nature, 525, pp. 315-317.


A recent Stanford University study found almost 75% of cross-functional teams within a single business fail. Magnify that with PhD research and careers deeply invested in niche areas and ask people to work with other niche areas across other organisations, and it all sounds impossible. Working against resistance to collaborate requires time and effort.

Yet as research partnerships blossom, so do business partnerships. “Businesses don’t think of science in terms of disciplines as scientists do,” says Brown. “Researchers need to be able to tackle complex problems from a range of perspectives.”

Part of the solution lies in the ‘shape’ of the researchers: more collaborative interdisciplinary researchers are known as ‘T-shaped’ because they have the necessary depth of knowledge within their field (the vertical bar of the T), as well as the breadth (the horizontal bar) to look beyond it as useful collaborators – engaging with different ways of working.

Some scholars, says Brown, tend to view their own discipline as having the answer to every problem and see other disciplines as being less valuable. In some ways that’s not surprising given the lack of exposure they may have had to other disciplines and the depth of expertise they have gained in their own.

“At the first meeting of an interdisciplinary team, they might try to take charge, for example talk but not listen to others or understand their contribution. But in subsequent meetings, they begin to see the value the other disciplines bring – which sometimes leaves them spellbound.

“It’s very productive once people reach the next stage in a partnership where they develop the skills for interdisciplinary work and there’s constructive dialogue and respect,” says Brown.

In a recent article in The Australian, CSIRO chief executive and laser physicist Dr Larry Marshall describes Australians as great inventors but he emphasises that innovation is a team sport and we need to do better at collaboration. He points out that Australia has the lowest research collaboration rates in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and attributes this fact to two things – insufficient collaboration with business and scientists competing against each other.

“Overall, our innovation dilemma – fed by our lack of collaboration – is a critical national challenge, and we must do better,” he says.

Brown agrees, saying sustainability challenges like those addressed by the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities are “grand and global challenges”.

“They’re the kind of ‘wicked problem’ that no single agency or discipline, on its own, could possibly hope to resolve.”

The answer, it seems, is interdisciplinary.


Moving forward

Alison Mitchell
Alison Mitchell, courtesy of Vitae

There’s a wealth of great advice that CRCs can tap into. For example the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems CRC approached statistical consultant Dr Nick Fisher at ValueMetrics Australia, an R&D consultancy specialising in performance management, to find the main drivers of the CRC’s value as perceived by its research partners, so the CRC could learn what was working well and what needed to change.

Fisher says this kind of analysis can benefit CRCs at their formation, and can be used for monitoring and in the wind-up phase for final evaluation.

When it comes to creating world-class researchers who are T-shaped and prepped for research partnerships, Alison Mitchell, a director of Vitae, a UK-based international program dedicated to professional and career development for researchers, is an expert. She describes the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which is a structured model with four domains covering the knowledge, behaviour and attributes of researchers, as a significant approach that’s making a difference to research careers worldwide.

The RDF framework uses four ‘lenses’ – knowledge exchange, innovation, intrapreneurship [the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working with a large organisation] and entrepreneurship – to focus on developing competencies that are part and parcel of a next generation research career. These include skills for working with academic research partners and industry.


– Carrie Bengston

watersensitivecities.org.au

www.acecrc.org.au