View from the Academy: Building partnerships with mutual benefits

diversityBuilding bridges: two recent events in Brazil emphasised the importance of this country to the UK, which is likely to grow in the future. Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive Hayaatun Sillem discusses some of the innovations featured in the meetings

At the end of July around 100 early and mid-career researchers and innovators with links to engineering gathered in Rio de Janeiro for a pair of events organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The first event convened early career researchers from engineering and a wide range of other disciplines, from both the UK and the Global South, as part of the Frontiers of Development Symposia that we run in collaboration with the other UK national academies. The philosophy underpinning these Symposia is that by focusing on the problems faced in developing countries today, we can train a new generation of engineering researchers with the international, interdisciplinary networks and mindsets needed to solve the problems we will face tomorrow.

The theme for this Symposium was ‘coastal communities in a 3°C world’, referring to the United Nation’s Emissions Gap Report prediction that global temperatures are set to increase by 3°C above preindustrial levels by 2100, with 275 million people worldwide living in areas that are predicted to be flooded due to rising sea levels. Discussions were clustered around the use of the sea and its resources for sustainable economic development; protecting the marine ecosystem; and reducing the risk of, and building resilience against, climate induced disasters. In addition to building their own awareness of these issues and learning from researchers from other disciplines and geographies, participants will also have the opportunity to bid for seed funding to support collaborations arising from the Symposium.

The second, linked, event brought together alumni of the Academy’s Leaders in Innovation Fellowships (LIF) programme from Brazil, Colombia and Chile, to foster Latin American networks and share experience across this diverse group of talented entrepreneurs and innovators. Among the LIF alumni attending the event was Chilean engineer, Barbarita Lara, who has developed a quick, reliable and low-cost solution to communicate emergency information during natural disasters. Existing communications systems often fail during disruptive events such as earthquakes, making it especially difficult to provide vital information to those in remote areas. In response Barbarita, who was recently named one of MIT Technology Review’s Global Innovators Under 35, developed SiE (Sistema de Información de Emergencia), a smartphone app that uses long-reaching radio waves to transmit messages for public authorities direct to users’ mobile phones. As a result of her LIF support, Barbarita is in discussions with disaster management authorities in Chile about using SiE for future alerts, and with a leading telecom company about pre-installing the app on new smartphones.

The decision to hold these two events in Rio partly reflects the fact that this is UK-Brazil Year of Science and Innovation, a joint initiative of the UK and Brazilian governments. That in turn reflects the fact that Brazil is an important partner for the UK’s engineering community and is likely to become more so in the future. Brazil invests 1.2% of its GDP in R&D, making it the continent’s leading knowledge economy: in 2015 70% of Latin America’s science and technology investment was concentrated in Brazil. These investments tend to be clustered around agriculture, biology, environment and space sciences with pockets of excellence in aeronautics, oil and gas.

There is also huge enthusiasm in Brazil for promoting technology entrepreneurship – despite the financial crisis – and a clear desire by the Brazilian government to prioritise the development of home-grown tech startups that can compete against established industries and scale across Latin America. Brazil has been a partner for LIF from the outset and to date we have supported 75 Brazilian innovators through the programme, innovators such as Robert Speicys Cardoso- a smart cities specialist. Robert created the SciPopulis data analysis platform to improve mobility and public transportation in large cities and, as a result of LIF, has a thriving collaboration with the University of Southampton and has won a contract to provide the official travel app for Sao Paulo city – a real achievement for a startup.

Robert Speicys Cardoso, a specialist in smart cities supported by the academy, is developing an official travel app for Sao Paolo

Frontiers of Development and the LIF programme are supported by the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and Newton Fund respectively, both of which rely on international aid monies known as Overseas Development Assistance. Together these account for nearly two and a quarter billion pounds (over 7 years), which means it is not surprising that many discussions are had about the value for money the funds provide, and whether they represent appropriate ways to deploy development assistance.

Our experience as a delivery partner for both GCRF and Newton has been that these Funds have enabled us, and the researchers and innovators we work with, to form equitable partnerships and participate in capacity building activities in a way that has delivered tangible benefits for engineers in both the UK and the Global South. It is vital that development assistance does not become conflated with efforts to promote market access or trading relationships. But it is also undeniable that the strengths of the networks built from these activities, as well as the understanding of emerging economy opportunities, the goodwill earned and the positive profile for the UK’s research and innovation base, are all valuable assets that we can – if we are smart – harness to good effect in the future.