RMIT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation and Vice President, Professor Calum Drummond addresses several frequently asked questions about the new Enabling Capability Platforms (ECPs) which are designed to utilise RMIT’s leading edge research to address social, environmental and economic issues. Each Enabling Capability Platform will be led by a thought leader in their respective field. Learn more about the ECP directors here.
Prof. Drummond: Since it was founded as the Working Men’s College in 1887, RMIT has sought ways to engage with and benefit our community. The ECPs bring researchers, including higher-degree students and faculty, together across our three colleges — Science, Engineering and Health; Design and Social Context; and Business — to create enhanced sources of value.
All of the ECPs are multi-disciplinary and built to draw in partners from industry, not-for- profits and government. We see the ECPs as a whole-of-university springboard from which we can further advance the delivery of value to others beyond the university sector.
Prof. Drummond: In a review of our capabilities, we looked at the number of RMIT researchers, including PhD students, working in different areas to see where we had enough activity to create impact. When we found critical mass in an area we asked if it was any good.
If we deemed the work high quality, we incorporated a third dimension: were the capabilities in an area differentiated enough to deliver value that other institutions could not? If they were, then we would ask the most important, question: would anyone actually care? Was it deployable and would a platform actually deliver the benefit we wanted for others?
Prof. Drummond: At the end of that review we decided on eight ECPs (as outlined above).
Four of the ECPs are broadly in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Three of the ECPs are in the HASS field humanities, arts, and social science), and one in business. We have ECPs on: Advanced Manufacturing and Fabrication, Advanced Materials, Biomedical and Health Innovation, which primarily focuses on devices, materials, clinical science and service provisioning, and Information and Systems, which encompasses systems engineering, systems integration, data analytics, and other big data applications.
We have a Design and Creative Practice ECP, which emphasises design thinking and is focused on creative industries, and one called Social Change, which helps support the creation of good policies, regulations, and programmes through social research.
We also have an ECP called Global Business Innovation, where affiliates — what we call researchers that join an ECP — use entrepreneurial and innovative approaches to positively impact business activity.
Lastly, we created a platform called Urban Futures to address the mega-trend of global urbanisation through planning, policy input, infrastructure, data science, and sustainability. This one rings particularly true for us. The university has 87,000 students, major teaching facilities in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Jakarta, and we’re the largest landowner in the Melbourne Central Business District with a 7% holding. We are a large urban university by anyone’s standards.
Prof. Drummond: We only kickstarted this year, so we’re still in a fairly embryonic stage, but the platforms are virtual. They have a director and centralised support but no hierarchy.
We wanted everybody in a platform to be equal, so anyone could contribute. We also encourage flexibility. Researchers can join any platform, and even more than one. The boundaries between the eight platforms are not brick walls. We’re encouraging platform directors to collaborate. We don’t want the ECPs to be captured by one college or school or specific interest group. We want them to be operating across the university and in the external world.
Prof. Drummond: The ECP structure hangs together through the funding model. Funding can be activity-based, so researchers must show that they will grow or nurture internal capabilities and research excellence, or it can be project- based. In that case, the path to impact needs to be outlined. The clearer the articulated path to impact, the better chance a team will get funding. That could mean partnering with the end-users, and others in the value-creation chain to determine where RMIT can best contribute benefit. It will frequently mean finding co-investment, which we find is a good indicator of how others assess our potential contributions. While the ECPs are constructed as a democracy, the funding approach ensures that we also have a meritocracy.
Prof. Drummond: Just by setting up forums for people to gather it was as if we gave researchers from different colleges and schools permission to explore beyond their walls. We’re excited to find that people with different areas of expertise have rapidly come together around new ideas for delivering enhanced impact.
Prof. Drummond: Neither myself nor RMIT’s Vice- Chancellor and President Martin Bean are career academics. Martin worked for Microsoft and other big firms, and I came from CSIRO, where I helped Australia’s national labs translate research and advised government to create policy and programmes that benefit industry. We bring external customer – focused backgrounds to RMIT. So, in five years I would like to see more of that. When I ask researchers what they’re working on, I’d like them to be able to describe the externally relevant need or requirement they’re focused on, how their work might address it, and what value they will create if their work is successful. If I have a lot of partner success stories to tell, we’ll have done our job.