Grand Challenges

By Dr Siobhán Jordan, Director of Interface

When the UK Government launched the Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future document towards the end of last year, Prime Minister Theresa May said that it wasn’t enough to have scientists and universities renowned the world over if their ideas couldn’t be harnessed to create products and services on which future industries could be built.

I couldn’t agree more, which is why I see such value and huge potential in partnering businesses with our world-leading academic institutes, stimulating creative solutions to commercial problems (as well as creating some truly ground-breaking products).

Last month, the Prime Minister unveiled some of the Industrial Strategy’s “Grand Challenges” - missions which aim to keep the UK at the forefront of developing the industries of tomorrow.

The Grand Challenges invite business, academia and civil society to work together to innovate and develop new technologies and industries in areas of strategic importance to the country. Four key themes underpin the challenges: artificial intelligence and data; ageing society, clean growth; and future mobility.

I was interested to see that the initial four opportunities are areas in which Interface, our universities and so many Scottish SMEs have a significant track record of collaborating. For example; harnessing the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an ageing society is a challenge which has provided plenty of inspiration and innovation, producing solutions which will save lives and improve life for the older population.

When design agency Studio LR recognised that there was an opportunity for a fresh approach to helping people with dementia find their way around care homes, hospitals and other environments, Interface matched them with the Universities of Edinburgh and Stirling. As a result, StudioLR levering funding from Life Changes Trust developed a set of design guidelines for creating consistent signage, helping to increase independence and wellbeing for older people and dementia patients. 

The important role of creative industries has been recognized in the Industrial Strategy too, with the announcement that £33m from the Challenge Fund has been allocated to support immersive technologies, an area where Scotland punches well above its weight.

Virtual and augmented reality, and combinations of both, are changing the way we shop, learn and experience art and entertainment.

Of course, the cross-over of these mind-stimulating technologies into other sectors provides endless and exciting possibilities. The winner of Innovation of the Year at The Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards 2018 was a bespoke kit home building company, Norscot Joinery Ltd. The Caithness-based family-owned company partnered with University of Strathclyde to research and develop virtual reality show home software, combining advanced interactive visualisation of buildings with Building Information Modelling (BIM) data for the first time. It will allow clients to immerse themselves in a house before it is built, and interact with the design process, providing a better understanding of cost impacts of design changes.

Clean growth is another area which inspires Scotland’s energy entrepreneurs to come up with brilliant solutions.

Staying with the housing sector, ecological architects Sam Foster Architects and the Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit at the Glasgow School of Art developed an evidence-based approach to design by undertaking a building performance evaluation.

The collaborative project involved refurbishing a mid-19th century building owned by Arisaig Community Trust to improve its energy efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The information collected about the building’s energy performance before and after the refurbishment will help design decisions in future.

On a similar theme of making homes more environmentally friendly, Soltropy’s innovative solar thermal panel system benefited from early input from academic expertise.

The company, which won the Sustained Partnership Award with Heriot-Watt University in The Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards 2016 for their long-term collaboration, was helped by the partnership which provided significant evidence on the overall system’s performance.

Stuart Speake, who was recently named Inventor of the Year in the Made in Scotland Awards, cited Interface’s support during his journey from initial idea to validated, tested product.

Whilst it is heartening to hear that almost three-quarters of Scottish companies are classed as “innovative” (according to a recent report by tax relief firm Catax), there is still a deep pool of businesses which have not yet discovered the benefits of pairing with universities, research institutes and colleges. Benefits such as expanding into new overseas markets, securing employment in economically fragile areas, attaining funding for new areas of research and making the world a better place.

It takes gumption, determination, insight and vision to make inroads into solving the big issues that the Grand Challenges are aiming to tackle, not to mention a huge collaborative effort, but we can’t afford not to.

We may never get to “mission accomplished” but we can certainly adopt a “mission possible” attitude.