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Redefining the future of town and gown: the relationship between university and industry

Throughout history, education has been critical for economic growth, prosperity and social progression. Universities form a vital part of the educational continuum within a local community and are a catalyst for advancements in science and knowledge for industry to leverage.

The relationship between the university and its local community is symbiotic. Students, often considered the lifeblood of the university, come in large part from the local community. In return, the students provide the knowledge workers for businesses to grow. When businesses grow then societies progress.

The university, now operating in an increasing global market, attracts international students and academics, introducing a source of diversity and richness to our populations. They act as a conduit from which local communities touch the world. The university is undeniably a part of the fabric that makes up the tapestry of our cities. This relationship is interconnected and inexorably entwined. Universities, communities and businesses rely on each other for survival.

It is also a relationship that is subtle. There are elements that are obvious, like student education, however the true power in the relationship is hidden in the nuances that have perhaps not been appreciated or indeed by the unconventional connections that have not yet been fully explored.

A paradigm shift for academia and industry

The world, however, is changing. With that, so must the relationship between academia and industry if both are going to thrive in a disrupting world. The relationship must now become far more purposeful and intentional and it must be mutually reinforcing. In a globally interconnected world where competition abounds in ways never before contemplated, the university-community-business tripartite relationship must evolve.

As the weight of the fourth industrial revolution bears down on us, no business, community nor university is immune to its influences. As technology allows products to be easily replicated it will be supply chains that compete, and intellect and knowledge will be the competitive advantage. The way in which the university and industry come together in 20 years from now – 2040 – will be critical. The smart universities and businesses are exploring this now. No longer can universities see their core purpose as just the education of students or the advancement of academic theory.

Watch this video of John McGuire addressing 2017 graduating engineering students from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in which he talks about the current unprecedented period of change and the role engineers can play in finding innovative solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

By 2040, the things that are novelties today will be commonplace. The internet of things, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, robotics and autonomous vehicles will change the face of all that we know. A challenge facing businesses and government regulators in the next 20 years is how do we make the transition from a largely analogue world of today to a digital future of tomorrow, and how will we solve the interim problem of where digital and analogue systems must co-exist in our cities until the transition is complete? The problem facing us all will be how do we get there before our environment is irreversibly and irrevocably impacted.

We also face a world where government taxation bases are shrinking as our populations age. Public sector funding is retreating from education and privatisation is becoming a norm for public utilities and infrastructure.

Projects as ‘classrooms’

In this environment, universities and industry must unite to create shared value streams and new forms of revenue that never existed before. The boundaries must blur. Academics must become embedded in industry and industry must become embedded in the university.

The projects that create our cities’ infrastructure must become vehicles for upskilling of mature-aged workers. The projects our governments invest in must become the ‘classrooms’ through which learning is delivered to mature-aged workers whose current skills are in danger of becoming disrupted. These massive projects must become the real-time ‘laboratory’ where academic research is applied and true impact is felt.

This aspiration of infrastructure projects as an object of learning for workers and a deployment of applied research can only be realised through an informed debate by a committed university and a progressive set of businesses. It will be the universities and businesses that first make these unconventional connections and who throw off the shackles of their traditional silo thinking who will be the ones that create the new shape of academia and the new shape of vibrant cities.

For those that don’t, there will be an uncertain future. Universities will be forced into consolidations they may not want, and businesses will fail financially. Sadly, our communities and cities will suffer as a result.

Let’s work together to ensure this doesn’t happen to us.

About the Author

John McGuire is the global Managing Director for the Built Environment business at Aurecon. He is responsible for driving innovation, design and strategic new directions within Aurecon. Prior to his current role John was the Chief Innovation Officer for Aurecon, responsible for the organisation’s adoption of innovation as a strategy and a core way of doing and thinking. John is a mechanical engineer with over thirty years’ experience in the field of design. He is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne School of Engineering and a regular guest lecturer in the field of sustainable design and design-led innovation.

This article first appeared in The Future of Universities Thoughtbook – Australian edition.

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