Collaborating over clever ideas championed at Summit

Transformative innovation depends on removing barriers to new ideas and collaborating across traditional boundaries; something our recent Connected Places Summit heard. Here we reflect on the importance of different sectors working more closely together.

Breaking down silos across the transport sector and making sure to look beyond traditional boundaries are having a positive impact around decarbonisation, explained Network Rail’s head of strategy James Heslop, who spoke at the Connected Places Summit.

“For the past three years, my team and I have been looking to build more relationships with road, aviation, maritime and aerospace – and we are hoping that those relationships will really bear fruit,” he said.

“We’ve identified some common areas to start to engage on, especially around the use of new construction materials, operating processes and quantum computing. It’s a really exciting time.”

Network Rail’s head of strategy James Heslop (third from left), Department for Transport’s head of future freight strategy David Elvy (second from left)

The Department for Transport’s head of future freight strategy David Elvy recognised that siloed working does exist between different modes of transport, but also between Small to Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) and tier one suppliers; between SMEs and investors, and between the public and private sectors.

“We need to create ecosystems that help to break down those silos,” he said, pointing towards the Freight Innovation Fund “which tries to do exactly that”.

“Many times, large conservative and long-established freight businesses are not aware of some of the highly inventive things our local SMEs undertake. Through the Fund, we run trials of technology and partner those SMEs with tier one suppliers to provide them with access to potential customers,” he said.

“It is about taking learnings from one sector and applying them elsewhere. Although sectors may appear to be hugely different, they have significant synergies as well.”

Supply chain specialist Wincanton’s head of innovation Claire Charlton said: “People need to understand the importance of collaboration and the role that technology can have in helping people to collaborate, but it’s not just about talking. You’ve got to have a structure and some success metrics, and a plan to deliver something together. Sometimes it’s about starting small, testing and learning.”

Wincanton’s head of innovation Claire Charlton

Greater collaboration can help in the effort to decarbonise transport, she added, such as finding new ways and technology to reduce the number of heavy goods vehicles driving around empty.

“The industry can be siloed, but there is an opportunity for us to talk to each other. What the Department for Transport is doing in its Future of Freight programme is really helpful in closing some of those gaps,” she said.

But not everyone embraces collaboration so willingly, according to the University of Southampton’s professor of AI, Gopal Ramchurn.

“When it comes to AI, we see very little collaboration, and that is because the secret sauce is usually in the data collected. The deep tech sector very rarely engages in these conversations, and little is being done to engage with other parts of infrastructure.

“I’d like to encourage that conversation, through open debates around regulations.”

Innovate UK’s innovation lead for mobility and cities, Sophie Randall said it is very important to bring everyone together into the innovation space, including UK businesses, research organisations, local authorities and the general public “to make sure that everyone is engaged around transport decarbonisation and other net zero ambitions”.

Innovate UK’s innovation lead for mobility and cities, Sophie Randall

But she added: “We need to think beyond net zero, because at some point we are going to achieve it and we need to start thinking about tackling other things as well such as safety, air quality, congestion, accessibility and inclusion and other impacts that the transport system has on our people and on our places.

“We run a lot of collaborative competitions, and are encouraging organisations to work together in this innovation space, ensuring that everyone is getting involved.”

Learn about how SMEs work together through programmes offered by Connected Places Catapult.

Read more from the Connected Places Summit.

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