COVID-19 has changed our everyday lives. Whatever we have been able to experience and discuss in person so far must now take place in online meetings, webinars and webcasts. Especially for collaboration formats with external institutions, the personal exchange is one major pillar to build trust and create a vibrant and efficient environment. How can we frame this in a digital world and how does external collaboration in university-industry setting move on?
Collaboration with academia is increasingly shifting to this digital world.
Siemens University Relations (T UR), the corporate service department taking care of research collaborations with universities and research institutes on a global scale, has recognized early on that going digital in this context is without alternative. Working as an R&D strategy consultant for RWTH Aachen and collaboration partner consulting, I have experienced great changes during the last months.
Excellent student engagement and open mindsets @ universities and Siemens colleagues worldwide
The ones who adapted quite fast to the “new now” were the students. With lecture halls still being empty, they quickly got accustomed to learning in online classes and practicing in virtual tutorials. Being “digital natives”, it was easier for them to accept new virtual formats of university-industry-collaboration. Here are some examples from my daily business:
- The Siemens Energy Transformation Challenge in Mexico, looking for new opportunities for Mexico to transform its energy system and market, was entirely executed on a virtual platform instead of physical workshops with students of universities spread all over Mexico.
- The AI@Sustainability Virtual Hackathon powered by the Siemens AI Lab in Munich engaged over 50 highly talented AI hackers from different institutions in order to find AI solutions for a more sustainable society.
- At RWTH Aachen University a Siemens Principal Scientist based in Princeton, US and a Siemens Business Developer based in Munich together held an online guest-lecture about “Computer Aided Innovation”.
- The hybrid Summer Camp that our department organized together with Technical University of Munich has been very well received. In a mixture of online and on-site lectures and workshops, students learned about the “Digital Twin” and developed new solutions for different digital twin use cases.
- Since September, monthly Online Student TechTalks are bringing brand-new insights from Siemens’ innovation & technology right into the homes and studies of dozens of students.
- And the digital journey is far from over: scheduled for early December, Siemens Board Member Cedrik Neike will give a lecture on “Internet of Energy” to interested students of TU Berlin that will be streamed online.
Raising university-industry R&D networking and collaboration formats to the next level
Researchers didn’t hold still in the time of closed laboratories and further connected with Siemens to apply for new publicly funded projects, pushing their research fields and connecting with like-minded people from other universities and industry. Several Mobility Workshops are planned for November and December, with experts from TU Berlin, University of Oxford, RWTH Aachen University and Siemens to join forces to tackle innovative and sustainable mobility concepts.
One of the main pillars of university collaboration at Siemens is the CKI program (CKI = Center of Knowledge Interchange). At eight selected top-universities worldwide, CKI gives Siemens access to state-of-the-art research and a highly qualified talent pool. In the CKI office, an on-campus expert financed by Siemens manages the partnership in ongoing exchange with a dedicated team of Siemens research and talent acquisition experts. The annual highlight of the partnership is the CKI conference, bringing together university professors, students and Siemens researchers on a specific R&D topic. These previous on-site conferences were successfully converted into digital or hybrid formats:
- Graz University of Technology made the kick-start with its digital CKI Talk at the beginning of May, focusing on “Challenges of Industrial Cybersecurity”.
- Further virtual CKI conferences are yet to come: in October, the FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg will be holding its hybrid CKI convention on “Digital Disruption – Impact on Knowledge Management”, followed by an entire RWTH Aachen´s CKI conference program over two months in November to December on “Technology Architecture for applied AI” and TU Munich´s “Digital Twin” hybrid CKI conference in March 2021.
Going digital only works with powerful and innovative online tools. With the SharePoint Online environment arriving at Siemens, T UR as an early adopter has moved its internal communication activities to a modern, user-friendly platform where all information is bundled in one place. To get it all externally together, we are especially leveraging the new Siemens Innovation Ecosystem external platform to connect and host open innovation challenges and events. On the platform, external digital talents like students, academic researchers, customers, suppliers, and start-ups are invited to contribute their ideas and knowledge to solving industrial challenges.
No time zone limitations – Participating in conferences around the globe in less than 2s
Reconciling four different time zones, with participating universities from the US East Coast to Beijing, we will manage to bring everyone together in our first virtual gathering with representatives from our CKI universities in October. I personally experienced that virtually, there are no time zone limitations at all: I took part in a live webcast from Tsinghua University in the morning, presented in the European University Industry Innovation Network conference how we leverage an advanced data analytics tool to find academic partners at lunchtime, and finally dialed into an MIT conference on “Digital Ecosystems” in the evening – that would have been unimaginable for these types of collaboration before.
Each crisis hosts an opportunity. I believe that there’s a major potential in digitizing university-industry collaboration. Of course, virtual encounters will not be able to completely replace face-to-face exchanges, joint tinkering in laboratories, personal discussions about collaboration strategies or passing on knowledge to students in an on-site lecture. However, if we make use of the fresh impetus the digital transition has brought our collaborative efforts so far, I´m sure both sides will benefit – industry as well as academia.