When it comes to making technological and scientific progress, we need one another more than we think. Some of the biggest innovations of recent times have come through multi-disciplinary collaboration. It’s time to get out of research silos and cluster up, writes Harwell’s Director of Clusters and Campus Development, Barbara Ghinelli.

Innovation is a contact sport. You only need to look at how organisations like Diamond Light Source, Rosalind Franklin Institute, Research Complex at Harwell, University of Oxford and Vaccitech, the creator of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, rallied together to help characterise the Covid-19 virus and monitor the different mutations, to see what’s possible when people work together towards a single goal. Private and public sector organisations, regulatory frameworks and academic institutions all pulled together under the Vaccine Taskforce to protect the public and seek new vaccines and effective therapeutics. They did it as part of a wider integrated cluster, those based at Harwell and those strategically linked to the UK’s leading science and innovation campus. And thanks to them, breakthrough science was accelerated and lives were saved.

The Covid vaccines epitomise the definition of innovation — technology or science adapted into something that can be used commercially for the benefit of society and economic growth. Though the impact from such Covid research is well-known, it’s not the only example: clusters are drivers of these kinds of breakthroughs, providing connection, collaboration, and competition that delivers progress that everyone benefits from.

The idea isn’t a new one. Alfred Marshall set out cluster theory in his 1890 book Principles of Economics — outlining the idea that, while individual organisations might be creative and successful on their own, collaboration with others makes them stronger in the long run. In more recent times, thanks to the work of academics like Michael Porter at Harvard Business School, it’s an idea that’s come into its own.

Harwell Clusters

From Hollywood to Silicon Valley, or from the vineyards of California to the leather workers of northern Italy, industries thrive when people work closely together. Even though
the world is more digitally connected than ever before, the ultimate achievements are reached when there’s a critical mass of interconnected businesses and organisations.

At the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) main campuses at Harwell and Daresbury, clusters are first centred around specific sectors. Diamond Light Source, for example, the UK’s national synchrotron, was critical to understanding and monitoring the Covid-19 virus. Working like a giant microscope, it harnesses the power of electrons to produce bright light that scientists can use to study viruses and vaccines.

Health Tech Cluster

The beauty of clusters is they’re not just single sector silos — they have the potential to be multi-disciplinary. Diamond Light Source is being used in the development of jet engines and the analysis of fossils. At Harwell, this incredible technology sits alongside many other facilities and supports work by a space cluster, an energy cluster and a quantum cluster too. Suddenly, the concentration of facilities in one place makes this one site an incredible platform for multi-disciplinary innovation.

Energy Tech Cluster

Innovation in clusters happens in two ways. First there’s the serendipitous. Clusters are a fantastic ecosystem where you can bump into the right person at the right time, and where people with the right knowledge can come together to seize the right opportunities. For example, Harwell has a higher concentration of space companies at a walking distance from each other than anywhere else in the world — that proximity makes all the difference.

Space Cluster

The physical structure of a cluster’s site plays a key part in this. The right amenities are so important in encouraging the connectivity that leads to innovation — yes, restaurants and coffee shops matter. How a cluster is structured is very much dependent on what you want to get out of it. Rather than thinking about buildings merely as offices or laboratories, applying this vision of collaboration transforms the way places are managed. By optimising the use of the space, it means the place itself plays a part in stimulating ingenuity and economic growth.

Secondly, innovation in clusters can be engineered. Beyond the physical space, one of the big differentiators of Harwell’s clusters is the presence of cluster managers who proactively enable connectivity. These people essentially act as matchmakers, bringing a trusted wealth of knowledge of each business and of the facilities, so that industry can come in, do a deep-dive into what’s available and immediately accelerate their organisation’s developments through established networks, and access to expert capabilities.

Clusters make available what would normally take months, if not years, to actually get together in different circumstances. For large organisations the benefit from cluster communities is access to agile innovation, the knowledge base of scientific organisations (like the Science and Technology Facilities Council), and the ability to work much more dynamically with academia. In clusters, where everybody’s working towards a similar aim, the link to the public sector provides large organisations with better understanding of elements such as policy and regulatory frameworks, all of which are important to developing new solutions and technologies.

Small companies, on the other hand, normally can’t afford the development of or access to large-scale facilities. Clusters provide this — work spaces, amenities, and laboratories — so businesses can get started, grow and become sector experts in that ecosystem. Clusters also crucially connect start-ups to investors so they can scale-up, plus investors find it easier to invest in companies in these ecosystems because it minimises their risk.

This means that clusters are low-risk places to do high-risk things, providing all the ingredients businesses need to achieve ambitious and high-impact goals — facilities, the knowledge to use them, and business support. Ultimately, this enables organisations to focus and deliver, setting them up with the best chance to have a greater impact in the future.

Clusters are an engine of growth for the country, but each cluster is unique, reflecting the ecosystem that supports it. For example, UKRI is developing a space cluster in the north-west of England, with a much wider geographical spread across five local authorities. Likewise, the Harwell Energy Tech Cluster has about 80 organisations based on campus but is connected to a network of over 100 organisations, proactively interacting across the UK.

Innovation is about creating a commercial world where businesses, public sector organisations and academia are able to draw from as wide a knowledge base as possible. Clustering is fundamental to this, creating a collaborative approach, making innovation happen, and seeing it adopted. Ultimately, this is how science and technology moves the world forward: clusters are catalysts for progress.