University stresses collaboration for a green future

University stresses collaboration for a green future

Jim McDonald, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Strathclyde, outlines the university’s strategy to grow its industrial clusters and steps governments should take to update the global energy industry to meet sustainability goals.


How does the University of Strathclyde differentiate itself from other global universities?

The Scottish higher education system ranks exceptionally highly in terms of global competitors in research, publications and student satisfaction. While Scotland is a small country, it is a country open to international connectivity. We are especially well connected to our counterparts in Europe, and our students are well-positioned for placement on the continent. University of Strathclyde is a European technological university based in Scotland with a 225-year history. We drive the place like a 200-year-old startup organization. We have around 800 academics in a total staff community of 5,000 with over 24,000 students. Our value-led strategy is an important part of the fuel for Strathclyde’s recent development. Our values include being people centric, innovative and ambitious. We try to focus on high-quality academic endeavors while remaining a strongly connected institution. We also pride ourselves on being collaborative and taking risks. Being bold was how we became the Times Higher Education’s U.K. University of the Year, the only university in the U.K. to have won that award twice over the past seven or eight years. Our motto ‘Useful Learning’ was established during the Enlightenment and remains our driving ethos. While our education and research programs are of the highest quality in terms of academic content, we try to translate what we do to have an impact on our students and the global communities we serve such as particular industrial sectors. Our deep collaborative relationships with industry and businesses to drive innovation has evolved comfortably over the past 50 years. We incentivize our academics to work with public sector. We have very high employment statistics because we produce graduates that are highly motivated and ready for professions; they understand they must go out into their careers and make an impact through their professional and personal development.

We have major capabilities in industrial informatics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. We are working with banks and their supply chain partners in the fintech sector. We have major capabilities in advanced manufacturing technology. In November 2021, Strathclyde won its third Queen’s Anniversary Prize. The first was for power engineering, the second was for energy innovation and our recent prize was for our work in advanced manufacturing. Strathclyde alongside its partners is reigniting Scotland’s proud history, not only in designing but of making things and generating a high-value manufacturing economy. This is helping to restore capabilities ranging from energy technologies and aerospace to automotive know-how and textiles. We are successful based on high-quality innovation and a prodigious talent base. We have the means to create innovation districts including academics, companies and supply chain partners.


How significant is research to University of Strathclyde’s operations?

Strathclyde is a research-intensive university that has tripled its research income in the last 10 years. This year, around €130 million will be coming directly into the university for research funding out of our overall €300-million portfolio. Our substantial research program covers our four faculties: science, engineering, business and—like any good technological university—strong humanities and social sciences. Over the past 10 years, we have been running a global talent program. Every year, we hire around 50 senior professors and early career researchers. Even through the pandemic year we hired around 50 new academics to bring in fresh ideas. They are hired based on their academic excellence but are attracted to Strathclyde because of our distinctiveness as a technological university and clear purpose and values. We take a holistic systematic approach while protecting academics’ freedom of intellect to pursue particular channels of research. It has been working effectively over the recent years and has been well timed to address several global challenges.
Our focus over the past few years has been to create major thematic clusters of research activity. We have created a framework where we encourage multidisciplinary engagement. For example, we do a lot of world-class work in renewable energy from offshore wind and advanced smart grid technologies to hydrogen production and energy storage. Through our clustered approach we focus on understanding economic, policy and regulatory requirements to successfully deliver a low carbon, net-zero future alongside technological challenges. We also drive understanding in behavioral psychology. A net zero future is not achievable unless society engages with the journey. Our clusters bring multidisciplinary teams together at scale and engage with governments, agencies and industries.


What kind of advantages have Strathclyde University’s unique innovation districts brought to Scotland?

While there are few good examples of how innovation can be implemented to extract economic and social value, the Strathclyde innovation district model is referred to as a national and international exemplar. Our two large innovation districts have been driving unprecedented value into the economy. We have the Glasgow City Innovation District adjacent to our campus and the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District Scotland. The local and national governments committed over £100 million to help create these clusters. They are a highly integrated ecosystem. Strathclyde owns and operates much of the real estate and infrastructure. It is populated not only by the academic community but by large companies and supply chain partners. We are attracting a lot of entrepreneurs and innovators. The ecosystem was recognized in the U.K. Government’s research and development roadmap and the U.K.’s recently published innovation strategy.
This conducive environment for collaborative research and innovation has resulted in a vibrant ecosystem around these two innovation districts. We have attracted the U.K.’s only Fraunhofer Institute, which is now based at the university. We also have five of the U.K.’s catapult centers headquartered and working with us. These are similar to the Fraunhofer Institute but funded by the U.K. government. We also have four of the Scottish innovation centers on campus. We are seeing these becoming an international reference, both in Asia and North America. They are coming to see what we are doing, and they are expressing interest in collaborating with us.


How has the COVID-19 crisis changed the way universities administer education?

The pandemic will be seen as one of the biggest accelerators of both digital transformation and reaching our net-zero carbon emissions goals because it has decoupled productivity from travel. After going through the challenge of pivoting to digital learning in the second quarter of 2020, we are now reaping the benefits beyond the COVID-19 crisis. The blended learning model has been well-proven through the pandemic. Our students appreciated the support they had from the university and the value of our digital underpinning. However, it is clear they still want the campus experience. Students want to work with each other, engage with professors and be in seminar rooms, lecture theaters and laboratories. The next couple of years will optimize the balance between digital and in-person experiences. We must evolve into a new model that has been informed under the difficult circumstances presented by the COVID-19 experience. We need to extract value from our experience and take it forward into the future.


How is the University of Strathclyde promoting sustainability in its curricula?

Students have a large appetite to learn about sustainability, societal impacts and opportunities in contributing to a net-zero future. It is less about being idealistic and more about students having the drive to leave the university with a good degree and make a difference. According to the Times Higher Education, we are now placed fourth in the U.K. for student satisfaction. This is quite encouraging given the difficult year we have had. We must be innovative—not only in terms of research, technology and systems but also in the delivery of the educational experience. Two years ago, we created the Center for Sustainable Development that is focused on the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and conducting social sciences and technological research. We also created a new program on sustainability, including a new suite of educational modules. The demand for more programs like this from the students in engineering, science, business and humanities is enormous. We have begun the journey in creating a horizontal program of sustainable development materials that all students have access to. We also have a program called Strathclyde Inspire and within it a program called Entrepreneurship for All. Every one of our students gets access to specific experiences to understand how to innovate and behave like entrepreneurs. When they leave Strathclyde, we want them armed with a great degree and understand they are global citizens with individual responsibilities.


What is the University of Strathclyde’s medium-term strategy?

Strathclyde has managed to position itself inside a strong collaborative network with other academic organizations, industry, business and government in the U.K. and worldwide. We want to push our strategy for the two innovation districts and reinforce our international collaborations. While Brexit has brought additional challenges, academic institutions including Strathclyde are committed to ongoing partnerships. We have many friends in Europe that we continue to work closely with despite challenges. We are centered on a journey of co-creation in the educational experience we offer our students. We are focused on making sure the industrial and business connections we have made through our innovation districts will be effective. Between the two innovation districts, we will be generating somewhere between £2-3 billion in gross value added. This is an enormous contribution to the Scottish economy and a terrific way for the university to attract and retain students and staff.


As co-chair of Scotland’s Energy Advisory Board, what opportunities do you see in Scotland’s transition to a low-carbon economy?

One thing that has impressed me is the consistency of the Scottish government’s focus on low-carbon energy infrastructure and decarbonizing the economy. The public sector has provided a consistent message nationally and internationally. We must turn our political commitments into investments, jobs and a reality. In August 2021, I led the publication of a government commissioned report on the potential in Scotland to create a floating offshore wind industry. The immediate economic value between now and the next five to six years is around £1.5 billion to £4 billion in gross value added to the Scottish economy. We made a set of recommendations to the Scottish government to create a port cluster in Scotland where our ports do not compete against each other, which was accepted. We are leaning into the idea of a cluster underpinned by collaboration and strategic focus, including Nigg, Aberdeen, Dundee and Leith harbors.
Scotland should be kept in mind when major developers pursue global offshore wind projects. We have the largest developers accessing the supply chain—including Scottish Power and SSE. A lot of infrastructure can be enhanced by our subsea engineering capabilities we have because of our oil and gas industry. There is an atypical commitment by our industry to create a collaborative framework where everyone looks at the bigger picture and global market opportunities. Developers, original equipment manufacturers and supply chain partners are keen to work together with Scottish and U.K. governments. ScotWind’s leases and projects will be officially announced by Crown Estate Scotland. We expect about 10 GW of offshore wind projects. We hope two-thirds of that—somewhere between 6 GW or 7 GW—could be floating wind. We need to be ready to capture the economic value of this new line of projects as we did not in the first wave of proposed wind power projects 10 years ago. Back then, we did not receive adequate project flow or consistent policy commitment. The next two to three years are critical for Scotland to build capabilities in offshore wind. It will then set up Scotland to address a global market, which will create about 25,000-30,000 jobs and many billions of pounds of gross value added.

The Scottish Energy Advisory Board will remain focused on the transition to bringing about net-zero carbon emissions. As Scotland focuses on achieving this by 2045, we must make sure that the transition works for everyone. We need to make sure consumers are involved and that we invest in a way that brings all parts of society with us. We need to focus on the grid evolution in Scotland. There are some fundamental issues in the energy retail market that the U.K. is going to have to fix. Over the past few months, we have had almost 20 supply companies fail because of the wholesale energy price and the structure of the retail market. We must consider this and engage with the regulators. Moreover, we are going to have to capture opportunities in floating offshore wind segment, focusing on delivery and working with industry to make this port cluster and industrial collaborative framework a reality. We will continue to work with our colleagues in oil and gas as they make the energy transition in terms of investment and transfer of know-how.


How can Scotland’s robust offshore oil and gas industry help the country transition towards renewable energy sources and lower its carbon footprint?

The oil and gas industry will be critical in our energy transition journey. The major oil and gas players are committing to the net-zero journey over the next 30 years. They have good balance sheets, understand major project management and have great technical capabilities. By working with these entities, we will accelerate the investment and reality of creating decarbonized infrastructure. The Oil and Gas Technology Centre, which was created through the Aberdeen City Region Deal in July 2020, transitioned to become the Net Zero Technology Center, a clear signal of a change in focus from improving production of oil and gas to decarbonization and energy transition investments. They shifted to help the industry move to a different future in the following decades, including the introduction of hydrogen and ammonia production, carbon capture utilization and storage and the decarbonization of their current production processes.

Another example of the oil and gas industry moving in this direction is called Project Orion. It is based in the Shetland Islands and involves Shell, BP, Equinor, SSE, the Shetland Islands Council, the University of Strathclyde and several other industrialists as part of the engineering design group. They are moving to decarbonize the Shetland Islands by 2030 through offshore wind production, hydrogen production and low-carbon transport of hydrogen. The hydrogen will then be used for transport and industrial processes. As was recognised at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, we must come to a watershed moment where there is a clear and consistent commitment to achieving a net-zero future. We must work together using multiple technologies and an energy systems approach to get projects moving. The time for talking must move to a time for action. The climate change conference gave us a clear signal that we are now agreeing on what the future will look like.


What is the best pathway for governments to meet the targets set down by the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow?

We have been talking for several years now about the need to take a systems approach to achieving net-zero carbon emissions. We must understand the multiple technological requirements from electrification of transport, production of a hydrogen system, carbon capture utilization and storage and deployment of many GW of offshore wind across the U.K. and around the world. We must understand the interaction between policy systems. We need to regulate and protect society and make sure it is a fair and just transition. We need to facilitate the creation of a new industry, new supply chains and new markets. A systems approach means that we understand the engineering of the infrastructure and the deployment of technologies to decarbonize. We need to inform governments on the best cross-government approach. Governments are good at working in silos but not so good at working in an interconnected and systematic way.
In the U.K., the academy is encouraging the government to take this approach and make investment structures and incentives consistent with net-zero objectives. In many ways, we need a plan. We must de-risk investments between the public sector and the private sector. We must create a structure to support low-regret investment options at pace. For example, we should accelerate large-scale demonstrations of hydrogen technology. France is doing a fantastic job in this segment with many hundreds of MW of hydrogen planned around Paris and beyond. Scotland recently announced its own hydrogen action plan. The U.K. government announced its net-zero strategy including decarbonizing transport and moving away from coal in the next five years.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Conference was different because the finance community was there in force. The investment community was there not just to observe but to participate and identify opportunities. In addition, the industrial community was there, not just directors of sustainability but CEOs and the chairs of the board. It is now understood that we need to move to action. Between now and 2030, we must start making major investments in Europe, Asia and the Americas. We must commit to investments in low- and middle-income countries so they can join our journey towards a decarbonized future. What we are currently lacking is a clear pathway to deliver this net-zero future. We require an early, stepwise approach between now and 2030. If we cannot deliver large scale energy transition projects by 2030, the jump to 2050 will be extraordinarily difficult. We must make large advances in major projects and infrastructure investment in this decade to have the confidence and the learning to take our journey forward towards 2050.

None of these global challenges will be addressed without strong collaboration and a shared vision of what we are trying to achieve. No single institution or country has the answer. There must be in-country and international collaborations to address current issues while keeping our eye on the prize to capture opportunities. We should also be upbeat and optimistic about what we must do; the best sustainable fuel is optimism. Young people in society are huge drivers for the future. If we keep in mind the picture of what we can achieve and put in place measures of accountability and delivery through collaboration, it should set the stage for tackling global climate change. In doing so, we will build an economically sustainable future.