EPSRC Innovate 11: Working with universities

London, 11th October 2011

Tim Stonor
Opportunities & barriers

Space Syntax Limited an SME working in the Creative Industries, specifically architecture and urban planning. A consulting company.

Engaging in projects from high value real estate developments in the City of London to the regeneration of slum settlements. Outside urban space & inside building space. Dealing with issues of movement & interaction and how these influence value: social, economic & environmental.

Specifically, engaging with the EPSRC in its key knowledge domains of:
Global uncertainties
Climate change

I suppose you can say I have a natural affinity to working with universities.

In the first instance I benefitted from an SERC studentship to undertake a Masters degree at UCL, where I worked alongside a research group that has benefitted from millions of pounds of investment from the SERC and, later, the EPSRC.

The Space Syntax Laboratory at UCL has developed urban modelling techniques that forecast the way that new buildings and urban places will be used by people: how many people will walk down a street, the likelihood of crime, whether property value will rise.

I was intrigued by the fact that this research group also engaged in commercial consulting.

As well as pursuing fundamental theoretical and technological development, it was also involved in urban planning projects throughout the world, working with leading architects and property developers.

This consultancy work wasn’t always there – it came in fits and starts- but, when it was, it seemed to add a new dimension to the research: an urgency, an edge, an obvious purpose.

I had no intention of pursuing an academic career. I wanted to work in what I thought was the real world.

But, upon graduating and moving into conventional architectural practice, where my day-to-day responsibilities involved designing toilet layouts and the insides of lift shafts, I soon realised that there was more glamour at UCL and, most importantly, more opportunity to create a more profound, larger-scale impact on the built environment.

I moved back with the goal of building up the consultancy arm of the research group.

As I’d hoped, this wasn’t too difficult to do – it was a question of tightening up our operation: better marketing, better administration, better overall management.

As a result of these business basics, the workflow improved an we soon could employ a group of part-time (mainly PhD student) staff. We were helped by an informal arrangement with the Head of Department by which we didn’t have to pay rent.

Our next big leg-up…The redesign of Trafalgar Square

Impediment: university administration system. Clients took us less seriously when the university administration didn’t raise our invoices!

Solution: independent administration. Run the consultancy through a provate limited company.

Downside: a more commercial attitude on our part led to the perception (among some people) on the university’s part that our interests were not aligned. Caution/fear/distaste about commercial exploitation. Fortunately those days long gone at UCL – although I see them in other universities around the world.

In the end, the company was asked to move out to make way for PhD students. Cash gain for UCL but research loss. Benefit for Space Syntax Limited: even greater commercial imperative: need to pay rent. Even stronger commercial attitude.

Downside – distance between academia and industry: slowdown in research & development: UCL’s test ground had left the building.

Response – creation of internal R&D programme by recycling company profits. Creation of twin-track process. Much harder to afford.

Recently – alignment of academic and business R&D priorities. Not the same but on the same path. Much closer contact. Much more positive.

Ideas & challenges

What should academia be doing? What should the EPSRC be doing?
I believe that the EPSRC should invest in UK industry as well as academia.

Why? To provide a place for researchers to be placed in industry and to receive a research training directly from industry. This has a value. Such training can’t be delivered within the walls of a university.

Research & training should happen within practice. In real time with commercial projects. Researchers get amazing training when this happens.

What can businesses do?
Businesses need to shape a set of questions to take to academia. Don’t go empty-handed. Academics enjoy questions.

Questions come from having a process of in-house research.

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