Collaboration is a universally accepted mantra in today’s modern tech economy. It is much mooted as a catalyst for business growth, with whole industry sub-sectors spawned to facilitate collaboration.
Collaboration began around campfires and in academia took a more established shape inside the Senior Common Rooms of Oxford and Cambridge; with names like Hooke, Wren, Carroll, Ruskin and Einstein all on the roll call of just one such room. Today, collaboration is the lifeblood of tech hubs from Silicon Valley to the UK’s Golden Triangle. We now have business collaboration tools from Slack to LinkedIn and coworking spaces popping up all over the world. The sharing of knowledge, ideas and resources can open up unexplored paths for a company or technology, plus new revenue streams.
However, collaboration is often fundamentally flawed due to a lack of diversity. Tech hubs, collaboration tools and coworking spaces are heavily targeted towards a particular type of person and technology startups. Too often, it is tech people talking to themselves. How often have you been to an event with a near identical list of speakers and topics to the last one?
If each new company’s plan is to be “like Uber but for [insert industry here]” it won’t take long before all of the opportunities in that particular business model are filled.
Instead of increasing the diversity of ideas and “disruptively” finding new areas for research, development, and business growth, companies in these communities often remain homogeneous. Forums quickly become echo chambers where the same ideas are perpetuated and innovation stalls because there are fewer routes to follow. For example, if each new company’s plan is to be “like Uber but for [insert industry here]” it won’t take long before all of the opportunities in that particular business model are filled.
This, of course, is not to disparage tech companies — quite the opposite. But these companies are losing out by being kept in silos, and the wider sphere of innovation — be it in academia, corporate enterprise, government, science — is also losing out on opportunities to collaborate with one of the fastest growing and most innovative sectors in the UK today. So how can the echo chamber be overcome?
Going beyond an echo chamber
The importance of fostering true collaboration between different groups and industries is a recurring theme in the UK’s Industrial Strategy. In fact, the words collaboration, collaboratively, or other variations of the word, appear more than 70 times in the document, which outlines the government’s strategy to “create an economy that boosts productivity and earning power throughout the UK”.
But note: the collaboration the Industrial Strategy advocates is not between tech companies and other tech companies. It emphasises collaboration between sectors, between academia and private companies, between different regions in the UK, between the UK and other countries.
To truly deliver on its vision, collaboration needs to be more diverse. Traversing the standard industry boundaries and encouraging multi-disciplinary cross fertilisation and collaboration between sectors — for example, with people working across space, life sciences, and energy — is where true innovation can be found because it comes from different people who have an alternative perspective and can provide unexpected solutions.
Tech companies should be looking for environments where this type of collaboration is possible and where there are resources that can help them expand their boundaries. This is something we have seen work to great effect time and time again on Harwell Campus.
Harwell Campus is a science and technology campus in Oxfordshire in the UK, set up as a public-private partnership between Harwell Oxford Partners and U+I, the property developers, and two UK government-backed agencies, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) It offers a large number of open access science facilities, which are helping create cross-industry collaboration.
The Diamond Light Source on campus, for example — which works like a giant microscope by producing a light 10 billion times brighter than the sun — is being used by organisations creating everything from jet engines to vaccines. Everyone walks into Diamond through the same front door and you cannot tell who is from one of the 30 university teams, who is from industry or a research council.
The result of all of these companies working in close quarters is that innovative solutions cross sectors. For example, it was recently announced that scientists on Harwell Campus have discovered a way to repurpose space technology, used to scan stars across distant galaxies, to create a 3D medical X-ray machine that can be used to detect cancer. The project is now funded in a joint venture between the UK Space, European Space Agency and the NHS. Health and space-heritage technology may seem like unlikely partnership, but it is one that has led directly to life-saving technology.
We must keep going to unexpected places, to meet unexpected people.
Or take the case of startup Mirico. In developing its laser gas sensing technology on campus, originally designed to measure atmospheric constituents in space, it found that the technology actually had commercial ground-based applications. Mirico’s technology could be perfectly deployed to accurately measure atmospheric pollutants for energy companies, helping them to determine where to focus their efforts in improving the efficiency and safety of operations. After finding this revenue stream, Mirico has already deployed this technology in trials with major energy companies and is scheduled for full commercial launch in 2019.
The lesson, therefore, is that if you want to find every opportunity for your company or innovation, you have to break out beyond your immediate sphere. It is harder work, but we must keep going to unexpected places, to meet unexpected people – whether they be the scientist, writer, architect, artist, mathematician or philosopher of the old senior common room. That is where true collaboration lies and where there are opportunities to open doors to innovation that you would not have even known were there.
Angus Horner is director of Harwell Campus