THE BLOG

Why Collaboration Is Key to Tackling the World's Grand Challenges

13/10/2014 13:43 BST | Updated 12/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Globalisation has rendered us increasingly inter-dependent with massive opportunities and also risks/challenges as a result. Driven by technological advances from transport, to communications, and electronic networks, globalisation has delivered important advancements in terms of movement and exchange of people, ideas, values, resources, commodities and finance.

However, globalisation has at the same time also brought new threats and challenges, or intensified existing ones. For instance, it has left nations and peoples ever more vulnerable to phenomena such as international crime, terrorism, cyber-attack, health pandemics, food security, energy and environment crises, and wider resource shortage and financial crises.

These challenges are already unprecedented in human history. And they will be exacerbated by world population growth from 7 to 10 billion people by 2030, much of it in the developing world where rapid urbanisation will add to the challenge.

There are 6 common characteristics to grand societal challenges: their global scale, their reliance on technology, the huge costs involved, their complexity, their long lead-times, and their direct impact on people's lives. So how should we best tackle these challenges so that we can build a truly sustainable society?

These are issues that at Delft University of Technology, one of the world's top engineering science universities where I am President, we are working on to create path-breaking new ideas for the benefit of the planet and mankind. Common to the vast majority of the solutions in train is the need for intensive, seamless cooperation among states, industry and universities/ knowledge institutions to tackle these challenges in partnership.

In terms of cooperation between and within these three sets of actors, knowledge institutions are the most prone towards international cooperation. If I use the example of academia, today's research is enormously international and collaborative.

National governments also have a high propensity for international cooperation through international institutions in the UN-system or through regional arrangements. Obviously states are not without competitive drivers as they are also in search of prominence and influence.

On balance, the least likely actors to cooperate internationally toward the mitigation or resolution of grand societal challenges are private industries. The latter instead excel at competition which, in all fairness, can be a significant driver to ever higher performance. However, private sector-driven competition will not alone be enough to solve the range of mammoth challenges we face.

Instead, corporates, states and knowledge institutions will increasingly all need to pool their ingenuity to innovate and deliver solutions. All three sets of actors must achieve the right balance between cooperation and competition in a way that best delivers breakthrough new ideas.

At present, knowledge institutions are closer to that balance than state or industry-actors. Not only are knowledge universities first class at international cooperation, they marry this with a commitment to competition founded on excellence and admiration.

In turn, this success serves the objective of cooperation as a means to improve the base for excellence. So, knowledge institutions underline that competition and cooperation can go hand in hand and can create important added values.

While global industries set much best practice too, they would benefit from increased, more meaningful cooperation. However private sector incentives (including profits) do not naturally encourage substantial levels of cooperation.

This is a point that was recently made by Wolfgang Eppenschwandtner, Executive Coordinator of the Initiative for Science in Europe, who asserted that "many pressing societal needs simply do not evoke commercial interest in the mid to long term, so other mechanisms need to be employed to achieve progress", and I would add better utilise private sector ingenuity.

One way to promote cooperation between global industries is closer links with the research community. Quite aside from commercial benefits that industry could secure from greater cooperation with knowledge institutions and government, there is another compelling argument to work together.

That is the complexity and multidisciplinary nature of the global challenges we face. The nature of the research community with its focus on cooperation will promote inter-industry cooperation since academic collaboration, as a matter of principle, will not be specifically tied to one industry. This, once again, can be a very significant benefit to the private sector.

One mechanism to catalyse the innovation of the private sector in a cooperative

context are Public, Private Partnerships (PPPs). PPPs commit industry, knowledge institutions and the public sector in a joint effort to push the boundaries of knowledge and enhance competitiveness too.

In Europe, for instance, PPPs have been very successful and only a few weeks ago the European Union announced an investment of some 7.3 billion Euros in seven new PPPs as part of the Horizon 2020 research funding programme. This money will be catalysed by an additional 12.2 billion Euros from industry.

The PPPs cover grand challenges that include: Innovative Medicines (tackling

healthcare challenges by tackling new diagnostics, vaccines and treatments); Fuel Cells and Hydrogen (improving the efficiency of fuel cells and developing a hydrogen economy); Clean Sky (developing a greener, more sustainable air travel); and Bio-based Industries (increasing the proportion of bio-based chemicals produced, and increasing the re-use of waste and by-products). These are topics that will help make for better tomorrows for hundreds of millions, if not billions, across the world.

Taken overall, in the increasingly complex and uncertain times in which we live, abundant with both opportunities and risks/challenges, our goal must be ensuring that government, global business and academic institutions can not only cope with, but flourish, in these increasingly uncertain times.

For this to happen, we need more extensive and deeper cooperation. While the obstacles are sizeable, the prize for success would be nothing less than a foundation stone of global sustainable development for many billions of people for decades to come. That is surely something we all should want to work hard to create.