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Why partnerships are so vital to the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute (part 1)

Launching VENTURE during Bristol 2015 


Nishan Canagarajah, PVC for Research at the University
of Bristol, launched VENTURE on 18 March 2015.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy
VENTURE is a new collaborative framework for the Cabot Institute and some of our key corporate partners. Building stronger partnerships with our City has been the major theme of our engagement with the European Green Capital year. VENTURE, then, represents the latest step (including Bristol is Open, the UK Collaboration for Research and Infrastructure and Cities, and the launch of a new project on Re-Distributed Manufacturing and the Resilient, Sustainable City) in the progression of how we are engaging with Bristol and the South West Region.  This is the first of two blogs that explore the intrinsic value of partnership to the Cabot Institute, what we have achieved and our aspirations.

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On 18 March, the Cabot Institute and the University of Bristol PVC for Research launched VENTURE, a new initiative and network that will facilitate the partnership of Cabot Institute academics with key corporate partners.  The focus of VENTURE is on the risk, insurance, future cities and infrastructure sectors. Those areas do not represent the entirety of the Cabot Institute remit, but they are particularly central given the challenges of environmental change and the need for cities and society to become more sustainable and resilient. These needs are also central to our City and Region, exemplified by the Green Capital agenda but also a long history of social and technological innovation.

The first VENTURE workshop held at the
University of Bristol in May 2015. Image credit:
Amanda Woodman-Hardy
We are very excited about VENTURE – it is a chance for the Cabot Institute to build stronger links to our external partners and our City and it is will inspire exciting new ideas and solutions. Increasingly, our corporate, governmental and public partners have asked for a conduit to the more diverse, multidisciplinary and sector-appropriate communities that sprawl across multiple Schools or even Faculties.  That is one of the primary reasons that the Cabot Institute was founded, and as such VENTURE is the logical progression in supporting and nurturing those relationships.  

In a subsequent blog, I will discuss the history of our partnership and some of the other initiatives that excite us as part of the Green Capital year and its legacy.  Here, however, I’d like to discuss exactly why partnerships are so important to the University of Bristol and particularly the Cabot Institute. This may seem obvious: we work together to procure funding and to conduct research.  It is taken as read that Universities must be engaged and work closely with stakeholders, and this is enshrined in the University of Bristol’s engaged University vision and Engaged University Steering Group.  However, the rationale for specific partnerships vary and they bring different types of values and motivation.  Moreover, there are legitimate questions about engagement. Who should our partners be and who should Universities serve? There is a strong push that Universities provide value for the UK, but who determines ‘value’ and how do we avoid becoming overly focussed on one stakeholder at the expense of others? 

What does partnership mean to the Cabot Institute?  


The Cabot Institute’s main goals are to build a vibrant and new multidisciplinary community and stimulate new ideas; in turn, these will position us to conduct novel research that addresses 21st century challenges.  External partnerships are key to all of these aims.  They are part of that multidisciplinary community and they stimulate academics to collaborate in new configurations.  They ask those studying hazards to work with those studying risk perception, and they demand that engineers consider how infrastructure is occupied and navigated by people.  In doing this, they create the environment to generate fundamentally new ideas and forge new intellectual ground; these creative, occasionally disruptive, interventions and requests stimulate, challenge and inspire new directions of research. 

Bringing together experts from different disciplines to tackle
global environmental problems at the Cabot Institute.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy 
This is an aspect of collaboration and partnership that means a great deal to me, personally. I have used the challenge of working with other disciplines and with people with different skills (and more importantly different perspectives and preconceived notions) to invigorate and continually refresh my research. Those experiences have allowed me to work in teams that developed new approaches and made new breakthroughs. It is not my own special abilities but rather the cauldron of brilliant but often contradictory and occasionally tangential ideas that has led to the findings of which I am most proud. Partnership is good because collaboration is good – and not just because you need to collaborate to achieve your goals but because the very act of collaboration is intellectually invigorating.

Those new collaborations and ideas are helping us make a difference, addressing the global environmental challenges of the 21st century.  Clearly, if the Cabot Institute research aspires to solve societal challenges it has to be strongly connected to those who can make good use of it.  However, this requires more than translation; it requires close collaboration during inception and development of ideas, such that discoveries, inventions and conclusions are useful and relevant. Partnership is also crucial to ensuring the wider community co-owns an idea.  The world is facing difficult challenges that will require paradigm shifting ideas and difficult decisions. Acceptance of radical new proposals or difficult compromises requires an inclusive and engaged public – from the very beginning.  This is why we need VENTURE. 

For all the rewards of a vibrant partnership, we cannot pretend that it is easy. Different organisations have different priorities, stakeholders, responsibilities and interests.  In my experience, University – Stakeholder partnerships can too easily fall into one of two, equally unsatisfying scenarios.  At one extreme, academics ‘push’ our research out into industry or government, arguing for its relevance, hoping it is used and allowing us to claim a positive social or economic impact.  At the other, industry or government partners approach us with a project or consultancy, often with an unrealistic turnaround time and not inspiring our interest.  

Fostering a more creative partnership atmosphere is why the University created the Research Enterprise and Development division in 2000, and VENTURE will build on that legacy, ensuring more long-term, broader and deeper relationships.  It will develop genuine partnerships, in which we work together on challenges that represent both fundamental, intellectual advances but also have deep value to the partner. We will write grants, co-supervise students, publish, advise and share our findings together.  Specifically, VENTURE will fund and support the Cabot Institute to more effectively guide our partners to the specific knowledge, expertise and skills of our academic community. It will facilitate access to our resources, whether that be computer models, materials analysis or infrastructure resilience. It will create a network and enable a higher degree of partnership and mutual profile-sharing, as we not only work together but share common messages.

Crucially, VENTURE will be the nucleus of the wider portfolio of partnership required to face the environmental and sustainability challenges facing Bristol, the UK and our planet.  The corporate members of VENTURE will be integrated with our other partners: the civil organisations that want to govern their own energy futures or instigate new social movements; government agencies, like the Met Office or the Environment Agency, who have their own expertise; Bristol City Council but also the Bristol Green Capital Partnership with whom we are working to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for our city; and many others. VENTURE will focus on our key corporate partners but it will be part of a wider, University subsidised portfolio of civil and government partners in the city and region.  It will be a network whereby these corporate partners develop stronger relationships with Cabot but also the City and in which our community can challenge and champion interventions. 
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This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost
Read part two of this blog.

For further information on VENTURE please email cabot-business@bristol.ac.uk

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