Guest blog: transforming systems through partnership

Don’t underestimate the modest engineering partnerships that punch above their weight on sustainable development goals, says Dr Keith Carter, consultant engineer and member of the steering group for the Engineering X mission Transforming Systems through Partnership (TSP).

There has never been a greater need for collaborative working to address our urgent development challenges. Engineers know that partnerships among the right people can help knowledge get to where it is needed and facilitate development of transformative solutions that will be required if we’re to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Engineers are adept at solving difficult problems but are often isolated from other people working in the field

Development and sustainability challenges arise from a complex set of relationships between many individuals and groups, and the environmental, social, technological and political contexts where the challenge is taking place. In a system, no one person or organisation is likely to have the necessary legitimacy, resources or knowledge to solve the problem.

Achieving the SDGs therefore presents engineers with complex challenges that require a holistic way of thinking and engagement with a broad range of stakeholders. Engineers are adept at solving difficult problems but are often isolated from other people working in the field and the long-term impacts of their work.

Engineering X is an international collaboration founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation. The Engineering X TSP mission is run by the Academy with funding from the Newton Fund and has been offering an effective and inexpensive way to support engineering teaching, research and innovation capacity in universities overseas so that they can collaborate with local industry and civil society stakeholders and UK academics in meeting local and global development challenges. The approach allows a wider range of projects to be funded and support is delivered in partnership with ministries and government agencies in Colombia, India, Jordan, Thailand, Turkey, and South Africa.

A formula for success

Over the past five years the TSP mission, which started as the Industry–Academia Partnerships Programme (IAPP), has supported over 250 projects. What is striking is how the relatively modest grants, typically of the order of £80,000, often achieve wider, ongoing socio-economic impact by building links to key industry and government players which lead to new commercial and research opportunities. For example, a collaboration between Mahasarakham University in Thailand, the University of York, and global hard drive company Seagate on magnetic medium modelling has brought closer the development of heat assisted magnetic recording (HAMR), creating economic wins for Thailand and the UK, and reducing the need for new data centres globally by vastly improving disk storage capacity.

Other projects have successfully embedded local universities and their UK partners into major in-country infrastructure projects, including new metro lines in Thailand and Colombia, ensuring that these projects benefit from the best sustainability research and practice, and that local universities can develop the talent pool to maintain, repair and upgrade critical infrastructure.

To date, grants totalling £15 million have attracted slightly more than the same amount in matched funding. The total of £32 million, has helped to build a network of over 400 overseas companies and 800 cross-sector institutions, and more than 1500 engineering academics, all working towards SDGs.

Sustainability is a key driver in the TSP approach and the communities built through the programme also represent a valuable route into emerging economies for UK businesses.

Conversations with partners indicate that it enjoys a very favourable reputation among their engineering communities and, given that each funding round has been oversubscribed, there is clearly an appetite for programmes like this.

What’s next?

The desire of the TSP programme is to continue to develop an understanding of the engineering requirements for sustainable development in the partner countries and champion a partnership approach to achieving national ambitions that harness the power of engineering.

TSP fits well with the UK government’s desire for the country to be a global leader in research and innovation and to build strong and varied networks of international science and technology partnerships to respond global challenges like achieving Net Zero.

Prof Brian Collins on the challenges of getting to grips with complex systems

Unfortunately, cuts to the UK’s Official Development Assistance because of the economic impact of COVID-19 mean the Academy’s international programmes have suffered a very substantial funding cut and new projects are unlikely to be funded until the situation eases.

The Academy is looking to mitigate the effects of these cuts and to secure funding from other sources. The TSP programme is planning two global online workshops on health and wellbeing and on decarbonisation to maintain engagement with TSP project communities in partner countries, and to showcase their work to those in a position to help fund the mission going forward. More details on the workshops will be available on the Academy’s events page later this year.

Hopefully the funding can be found to continue to support the strong relationships we have built up with research and innovation partners around the world. It would be a shame if one impact of the current pandemic was to close off a promising route for building alliances to address other global challenges.

This is the latest in a series of guest blogs from experts involved in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Engineering X programme, an international collaboration  founded with Lloyd’s Register Foundation that aims to bring together some of the world’s leading problem-solvers to address the great challenges of our age. Professor Brian Collins is chair of the case study selection panel for Engineering X Safer Complex Systems mission

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