Discovering solutions for global grand challenges
Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar is associate vice president for strategy and partnerships at the Nanyang Technological University. His main areas of research comprise perovskite solar cells, light emitting devices, and printable electronics.
As the executive director of the Energy Research Institute @ NTU, he’s pushing forward interdisciplinary research and coordinating all activities within the university pertaining to energy. He will be moderator at the “Sustainable environmental technologies to create sustainable, resilient and livable cities of the future” event at the Pujiang Innovation Forum.
Q: You have been pushing forward interdisciplinary research within the university, what’s the benefit for that?
Typical university departments focus on educational disciplines, e.g. electrical or mechanical engineering; whereas solutions for global grand challenges need system-level solutions that cut across multiple disciplines.
For example, energy efficiency solutions for a smart city needs expertise from teams that understand sensors, machine learning algorithms, energy flow analyses and materials for heat rejection. This is possible only with multidisciplinary teams that would focus on domains such as energy, water, info-comm and digital media, and consumer insight.
Multidisciplinary research allows researchers to hone their skills in missing oriented, use-inspire research, problem solving and team work. From a scientific breakthrough perspective, we see that breakthroughs are more and more seen at interfaces of different disciplines — for example, new biomedical devices need engineers and doctors to work together, agricultural breakthroughs rely on nanotechnology, and energy efficiency measures often need social scientists to identify ways to use “nudge theory” to influence human behavior.
Q: What’s your experience for collaboration between college research bodies and commercial companies? What can Chinese research institutions and startups learn?
Over the past several years, Singapore has promoted a model of “corporate laboratories.” In this model, companies such as HP, Rolls-Royce, Wilmar, Singtel and many others have set up laboratories on the campuses of universities in Singapore. These laboratories can host more than 100 research staff who work in partnership with professors and industry professionals, and accelerate the transition from basic research to product development. These labs also play a critical role in talent development and allow staff to pursue technological innovations.
Over the past decade, China has led the way in renewable energy, battery technologies, and electromobility solutions. China is also well positioned from developments in artificial intelligence and extending them to autonomous vehicles, robotics and drones. These game changers will define the quality of life in our cities and improve sustainable development.
Chinese universities and startups have shown the courage to push into new areas and have set the pace of technology developments worldwide. These include solar cells, where China is top in the world, electric vehicles made by BYD, and artificial intelligence startup Sensetime.
Q: What are the advantages for universities and research bodies when they launch interdisciplinary projects? What areas can be improved?
The strong partnership between the government, universities and industry is a clear advantage. Of course the plethora of local industries allows a close partnership in technology transfer and outreach to the large consumer base available in China.
One of the opportunities in multidisciplinary projects that is often undervalued is the diversity of thoughts and diversity of approaches. Another factor that is often overlooked by research teams is the clear understanding of the value proposition from the perspective of techno-economic analyses of the solutions being developed and to ensure that solutions being promoted would have wide user acceptance.
Q: What’s your ideal model for smart urban development and what’s your understanding of the theme “New Vision and New Future of Science and Technology Innovation?”
The ideal model for me of smart urban development is a people-centric approach to solutioning — underpinned by technological advances, enabled by innovative policies that support sustainable development and green growth.
My understanding of the theme is on how to promote public-private partnership in leveraging science and technology to benefit humanity. The theme also underlines the fact that challenges faced by different countries are not unique, and innovative solutions developed by one country would find deployment opportunities worldwide.
In this era where climate change is an imminent threat for future generations, technology innovations will be our primary arsenal for mitigation. And smart urban cities are the ideal living labs to test and demonstrate the solutions before scaling and mass adoption.