Discussion on Trinity's E3 (Engineering, Environment, and Emerging Technologies) Institute

University of Western Cape, South Africa

Friday 26th July 2019

Good afternoon,

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you about a particularly exciting initiative of Trinity College Dublin: our new Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies Institute, which we call E3. It will open in two phases over the next few years.

I’ll talk about our intentions for E3 – how we will research, what we will teach. But I want to start with how the idea for E3 came about and why I prioritised it.

***Global Challenges***

I’m a mechanical engineer by training and previous to taking on the leadership of Trinity College Dublin, I was Professor of Bioengineering in Trinity. Bioengineering is a ‘compound discipline’ joining engineers and clinicians and I was fortunate that it really began to take off in the 1990s when I was an Assistant Professor. So I was there from the beginning and was decisively involved with the development of bioengineering in Irish universities and the growth of medtech in Ireland.

I saw the impact of bioengineering on people’s lives – how multi-disciplinary teams could work together. That was inspiring.

Since becoming Provost in 2011 I’ve to think more about global issues that are impacting people’s lives at scale – issues like water shortage, energy provision, climate change, migration, inequality, biodiversity loss, the ageing population, conflict resolution.

These are the defining issues of the age. If we can’t come together to agree on how we will tackle these vital issues, then our future looks compromised. Most of the intellectual horsepower of the planet is located in universities, so it is universities that have to come together.

Universities have a responsibility to help solve vital global issues. Universities are centres of excellence, they bring the generations together into a single place and, at their best, they nurture ground-breaking ideas and encourage a radical approach to problem-solving. Through the ages, universities have helped nurture ideals of democracy, religious freedom and human rights.

Universities can play a decisive part in confronting the kinds of global issues that I’ve mentioned. Currently, universities already have a role here, of course. Many universities – including ours - have initiatives in, for instance, international development, gender equality, post-conflict justice, environment, biodiversity. The research and teaching coming out of all these initiatives is often superb.

At the same time, these initiatives have less impact than they might do because universities aren’t yet leveraging the huge opportunities for interdisciplinarity and for global collaboration.

In theory, as high-performing institutions, we could be addressing challenges wholescale - but this isn’t happening yet. That’s because of the way that academic research is set up, structured and funded. The approach to learning is still very much based around separate schools, disciplines and departments, while the recognition of research achievements are structured primarily around publications.

There are strengths and advantages to the current approach but in terms of solving global issues, I believe that we need to think radically and to find an approach which encourages our students in new and fresh ways of thinking and which really facilitates collaboration – that’s collaboration between disciplines, and collaboration between universities, industry, government, civil partners and other stakeholders.

All this was on my mind. Of course, I understand the scale of the task – we’re not going to solve global challenges in one institute or in one country! But I’m mindful always of the words of Trinity’s great graduate, the political theorist Edmund Burke. Burke said: ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.’

If as individuals and as universities, we all do our bit, then that will soon scale up. I wanted for Trinity to be part of the solution – to be open to doing things differently.

This is where E3 comes in.

***E3: sustaining natural capital***

Doing things differently, rethinking how we operate as universities, will involve really leveraging the n opportunities presented by interdisciplinarity. The most exciting discoveries today take place at the interface of disciplines.

 

In the 21st century, our planet is increasingly being shaped by technology, and it’s critical that we humans make technological interventions that increase the sustainability of the planet.

We need to use technology to sustain, rather than deplete, our natural capital.

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We need to create technologies in symbiosis with the natural world, so that technology becomes an ‘evolutionary force’ directed for the good of all life on earth.

We should be going further than mitigating emerging challenges. We should use technology to strengthen the resilience of our natural capital.

It makes absolutely no sense, in the 21st century, for natural scientists to be putting all their efforts into examining the natural world and advising on sustainability without reference to what engineers and computer scientists are doing and what resources are involved in creating technologies.

E3 will be one of the first institutes globally to integrate engineering, technology and the natural sciences, at scale, to address challenges of a livable planet.

It will co-locate staff from Trinity’s Schools of Engineering, Natural Science and Computer Science and Statistics, and it will link-up with our centres for nanomaterials and raw materials.

This diagram represents the idea

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E3 will be a key partner for government, industry and NGOs, in Ireland and internationally, in meeting the emerging opportunities in energy and engineering design, while sustaining, or perhaps replenishing, natural capital.

The following sequence of slides further explains the rationale for E3:

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Leading to our vision “Balanced Solutions for a Better World”.

***E3: funding***

Having identified the need for E3 – in Ireland and globally – and having received the support of the college community, the next step for us in Trinity was to work out what form the new institute should take and how to fund it.

We knew that we could not build it in the way we wanted through state support alone. We were fortunate – the project was compelling enough to gain the support of a particularly generous donor who gave the largest private donation in the history of the Irish state – a grant of €25 million. He contributed to E3 because he believes in education, and the transformative power of education for young people and society. Through his generosity, we were able to raise a further €15 million from the state.

This happened last year. It has been transformative. We are now able to create E3 in the way we want.

***E3: Learning Foundry and Institute***

E3 is being developed in two phases: the learning institute, which we’re calling the E3 Learning Foundry, and the E3 Research Institute.

The E3 Learning Foundry is already fully financed and it will open in three years’ time in a new building on our campus, subject to receiving planning permission. The E3 Learning Foundry will able us to create 1,800 new places for students in the STEM disciplines – that’s really important in terms of educating Ireland’s growing population.

E3 won’t just educate more students. It will educate them in a different way, changing the way that engineering, natural sciences and computer science students learn, both in terms of content – with more focus on the challenges of managing the earth’s resources – and in terms of methods and teaching techniques.

Following current trends in higher education, E3 will mean students spending less time inside traditional classrooms, and more time working on multidisciplinary projects outside these rooms. This means that students will develop transversal skills by learning and implementing.

To achieve this, we want to develop more student learning spaces. We’ve done our research, and we know that for the learning spaces to be effective, they have to be: student-managed, flexible, smart and innovative, and interactive and collaborative.

The spaces should give students access to new learning opportunities through innovative tools and technologies – we know that this makes students more self-motivated to learn new skills. So these learning spaces have to be ‘smart spaces’.

Here is an impression of the new building provided by the architects:

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Good interaction leads to collaboration. We will provide a crowdsourcing platform on the app so that students can engage in peer learning. Often the skills that are needed for a particular project exist already within the student population. Let’s tap into that. Crowdsourcing will give students the opportunity to help and share each other. This crowdsourcing will be facilitated by Tcoins – a virtual currency that students can trade in exchange for help with learning new skills.

The Foundry is the first phase of E3. The second phase is the E3 Research Institute which will bring researchers together with industry and policy-makers in an interdisciplinary environment. They will focus on bringing solutions rapidly to market and will be instrumental in the development of new energy solutions and a more sustainable approach to natural capital.

 

The E3 Research Institute will located in the Trinity Tech Campus, about 8 minutes’ walk from our main campus, on Grand Canal Dock, which is the area in Dublin where Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other tech multinationals have their headquarters, as well as Irish start-ups.

This is the area where we are currently planning to locate an innovation district to serve Dublin and Ireland.

***Grand Canal Innovation District***

An Innovation District is a new kind of urban centre where universities, high growth companies and tech and creative start-ups are embedded in an amenity-rich residential and commercial environment. Over the past decade the development of these districts in cities such as London, Barcelona, Toronto and Boston have enabled both rapid innovation and economic growth.

Innovation districts work by bringing together a critical mass of talent, finance, innovation and enterprise. They are located in a concentrated urban environment and provide the proximity, density and scale of activities that are essential for international competitiveness.

A new innovation district, with a new university campus at its heart, is a vital step in enabling Dublin to be ranked as a top 20 global city for innovation. Trinity has already signed an agreement with government and other Dublin universities and business stakeholders to develop what we are calling the Grand Canal Innovation District.

The E3 research institute will be the lynchpin of the second Trinity campus at the Grand Canal Innovation District.

This District will play a crucial role for Dublin and for all Ireland, connecting to global networks and promoting all types of innovation. I want to see Ireland taking leadership in the development of a low-carbon economy and E3 will be positioned to spearhead that development, contributing not only to growing the Irish economy but to meeting Ireland’s commitment to international development. E3 will help Ireland to capitalize on a fast-developing and fertile market for enterprise, product development and policy leadership in developing sustainable solutions for our planet.  

***Conclusion***

So these are our plans for our new Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies Institute. The plans are well advanced – the E3 Learning Foundry will open in three years and the E3 Research Institute three years after that. As you can no doubt see, I am pretty excited about it!

I hope I’ve shown how E3 links into our university’s approach to education, research and innovation and how it links into our plans for an innovation district for Dublin and Ireland.

With E3, we are hoping to do something transformative. I know that around the world, including here in the University of Western Cape, there are others of radical vision and ambition. I look forward to us all working together.

Thank you.

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