Redefining the Town and Gown in 2040

Redefining the Town and Gown in 2040

John McGuire

Throughout history learning and knowledge have formed a building block of economic growth and societal progression. They have been key components to long term growth and prosperity. Universities form a vital part of the educational continuum within a local community and, in addition, they have been an advancer of science and knowledge for industry to leverage.
The relationship between the university and its local community is symbiotic.
Students, often considered the lifeblood of the university, come in large part from the local community. In return the students provide the knowledge workers for businesses to grow. When businesses grow then societies progress.

The university, now operating in an increasing global market, attracts international students and academics introducing a source of diversity and richness to our populations. They act as a conduit from which local communities touch the world. The university is undeniably a part of the fabric that makes up the tapestry of our cities. This relationship is interconnected and inexorably entwined. Universities, communities and businesses rely on each other for survival. It is also a relationship that is subtle. There are elements that are obvious, like student education, however the true power in the relationship is hidden in the nuances that have perhaps not been appreciated or indeed by the unconventional connections that have not yet been fully explored.

The world however is changing. With that so must the relationship between academia and industry if both are going to thrive in a disrupting world. The relationship must now become far more purposeful, intentional and it must be mutually reinforcing. In a globally interconnected world where competition abounds in ways never contemplated the university community-business tripartite relationship must evolve.

As the weight of the fourth industrial revolution bears down on us no business, no community and no university are immune to its influences. As technology allows products to be easily replicated it will be supply chains that compete and intellect and knowledge will be the competitive advantage.
The way in which the university and industry come together in 2040 will be critical. The smart universities and the smart businesses are exploring this now. No longer can universities see their core purpose as just the education of students or the advancement of academic theory.

By 2040 the things that are novelties today will be commonplace. The internet of things, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, robotics and autonomous vehicles will change the face of all that we know. A challenge facing businesses and government regulators in the next twenty years is how do we make the transition from a largely analogue world of today in to a digital future of tomorrow and how will we solve the interim problem of where digital and analogue systems must co-exist in our cities until the transition is complete. The problem facing us all will be how do we get there before our environment is irreversibly and irrevocably impacted. We also face a world where government taxation bases are shrinking as our populations age. Public sector funding is retreating from education and privatisation is becoming a norm for public utilities and infrastructure.
In this environment universities and industry must unite to create shared value streams and new forms of revenue that never existed before.

The boundaries must blur. Academics must become embedded in industry and industry must become embedded in the University. The projects that create our cities’ infrastructure must become vehicles for upskilling of mature aged workers. The projects our governments invest in the billions must become the “classroom” through which learning is delivered to mature aged workers whose current skills are in danger of becoming disrupted. These massive projects must become the real time “laboratory” where academic research is applied and true impact is felt.

This aspiration of infrastructure projects being seen as an object of learning for workers and a deployment of applied research can only be realised through an informed debate by a committed university and a progressive set of businesses. It will be the universities and businesses that first make these unconventional connections and who throw off the shackles of their traditional silo thinking will be the ones who create the new shape of academia and the new shape of vibrant cities.

For those that don’t there will be an uncertain future. Universities will be forced into consolidations they may not want and businesses will fail financially. Sadly, our communities and cities will suffer as a result.
Let that not happen to us.

John McGuire is the Managing Director for the Built Environment business for global engineering consultancy Aurecon. Reporting directly to the Global Chief Executive Officer and a member of Aurecon’s Executive Committee John is responsible for driving innovation, design and strategic new directions within Aurecon. Prior to taking his current role John was the Chief Innovation Officer for Aurecon responsible for the organisations adoption of innovation as a strategy and a core way of doing and thinking. John is a mechanical engineer with over thirty years of experience in the field of design. He is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne School of Engineering and a regular guest lecturer in the field of sustainable design and design led innovation.

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