How to grow up yet stay the same?

UTC-Compiegne, as a Founder Member of the Sorbonne Universities Cluster, has opened its local innovation ecosystem, its experimental territorial infrastructure, for its partners. We recall that UTC itself benefits from an experimental university status and is now spreading its academic model outside France as it has already done in France. The thrust covers two strong concepts, one of which consists of boosting technological research (with UTT-Troyes) on complex systems already under development in Shanghai. The other concept revolves round its cursus based on flexible pedagogy which enhances training and aims at closing the gap with the entrepreneurial world with long placements and workshop projects. This is now being exported to countries abroad, such as currently to Brazil.

How to grow up yet stay the same?

When territories provide ideal ‘scale-one’ lab. experiments

In order to provide a new impulse to the establishment’s innovation policy, UTC is placing some of its stakes in the concept of the “Living lab.”. The underlying idea is to innovate more and more efficiently, by using the surrounding territory as a laboratory to carry out various new technological system experiments and utilizations on a scale-one basis. It is a project that calls for reinforce partnerships with all the actors of the local eco-system

Sustaining economic growth, creating new jobs, meeting and answering the challenges of energy transition issues, rarefaction of natural resources, ageing of our populations … the processes of innovation, faced with today’s societal challenges, appear increasingly necessary and are now integrated among the main missions of the Universities.

In its dual role as both an engineering school (grande école française) and a technology-intensive university, UTC has stressed the values of innovation ever since it was created. President Prof. Alain Storck emphasizes that “to innovate you need three vital ingredients - firstly your establishment needs to be multidisciplinary and the UTC model has always embodied this feature in its curricula; secondly, the university team must be committed to a pluricultural outlook: they must deal with a wide variety of profiles, as many as there are different ways to think in the professional world ‘engineers, philosophers, medical practitioner, artist …) which together become a self-evident factor for better creativity. Thirdly, a thing we call ‘partenarial culture’. When it comes to transforming new knowledge, new ideas into products, processes or services, identifying market outlets requires a pluri-actor network, mobilizing academics, entrepreneurs, territorial institutions it is these pluricultural and partenarial dimensions that underpin our university model”.

A major innovation actor in the “territory”

From its early years, UTC has always collaborated with the industrial sectors. Likewise, it established close links with the regional and territorial authorities in regard to various innovation-intensive projects. As René Anger – former executive director of the Regional President’s privy council- recalls “In essence, UTC was even initiator of the Region’s innovation policies? For the past few years, has also been engaged in the development of a local ecosystem for creativity and innovation. The University’s Innovation Centre is one of the key-stones of this successful venture. The Daniel Thomas Innovation Centre is a facility that focuses on maturation of projects, designed as it was to encourage and enhance exchanges among the various actors in the innovation field. But the Centre was only a first stage. The University is now seeking to provide an extra impetus to the local eco-system by setting up and implementing the Living Lab concept that is a direct spin-off of the open vista policies of UTC.

So, what is the underlying idea? It consists of involving all the potential partners for an innovation as of the design phase, beginning with the end-users, considered as key actors. To this end, the project must be tested in vivo, for example, medical monitoring equipment in a retirement medicated unit (Ehpad), or testing driverless cars in an urban environment. The aim is to find a best-fit for the final product to the real utilization conditions once the prototypes have left the labs.


Exploring new utilisations

Within the « Living lab », thematic platforms (health technologies, transportation and digital applications) can experimentally model the urban and the territorial milieus. “But at UTC we are currently envisaging to make the approach systemic, turning the local “territory”, so to speak, into a mega-living-lab.: a scale-one test-station for new technologies, but more than that, a place to explore new utilizations of the technologies. Innovation does not stop at technological breakthroughs.”

“Development of driverless cars, for example, will perhaps offer an opportunity to encourage mobility in the territory and also to rethink the connections between driving a car alone and taking public transportation,” explains President Storck, personally committed with the Compiegne townhall officers to explore this innovation possibility. “On the less busy routes, we could imagine a “door-to-door” service using driverless vehicles to replace public transport buses. The aim would also be to see this at least cost. And the most efficient way to validate the hypothesis is to test it scale-one with users, in a partnership with the territorial authorities in charge of transportation questions”.

Another example: to limit as much as possible the use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture, one of the ways considered is to increase the crop rotation rate and to adapt the farming processes to be adjusted closely to the soil conditions. The latter can vary quite a bit in a given field. The idea then is to subdivide the surface into micro-surface units and doing the treatment using drones to relay the information to a control system. To develop and test such a system, you need a “territory”, agricultural partners and, more than this, you need a team of research scientists who will commit themselves to this area of project.


A continuous ‘to and fro’ movement from real to virtual and back

“In fact, the territory is both a scale-one lab and a research topic in its own right”, asserts of the industrialists and member of our organization. “There is an added value, including in areas we ignore. By carrying out various experiments, the innovation designers will be in a better position to identify and analyses phenomena that they had not necessarily anticipated and the modelling of the system will become a continuous to-and-fro movement between real and virtual worlds. This should enable us to innovate better and more. UTC has two precious advantages to develop this approach. The first is its capacity to integrate engineering sciences and humanities, which fit in well with the philosophy of the living lab. – i.e., not to remain content with just technology for technology’s sake, viz., a technical device, but also as something in interaction with n a material, human and societal environment.

The second asset is the proximity of UTC with the territorial and regional authorities and the trustworthy relationships the university has built with these partners”, notes René Auger. “There is an obvious mutual benefit to be drawn both for the university and for the territorial actors if they commit themselves to an experimental approach that has benefitted all the participants”. 

Criteria under construction to pilot innovative projects

How are we supposed to assess a university in terms of innovative projects? Currently, the factors normally taken into account are the number of patents claims lodged and the number of start-ups created. To go beyond that restrictive view and to help the establishments to have a more accurate assessment of their innovation strategy, Prof. Storck and Prof. Hugh Gatignon, INSEAD-Fontainebleau have put together a grid with four groups of major pointers.

The first group refers to the instantaneous economic spin-offs of the innovation policy: the number of start-ups created, the number of innovation related patent claims (not necessarily with products ready for sale), either in new technologies, new business models ...

The second group relates to the longer term impacts, through the new training modules set up for the students: the number of courses or course modules on innovation and/or entrepreneurship, and specializations focused on these thematics ... "This is a very important factor", underscores Hugh Gatignon. "The universities contribute to innovation through their research activities, but younger, upcoming generations need to be educated to embody the spirit of innovation. This is especially true in France where we are efficient in terms of technologies and lodging patent claims, but less so when it comes to developing the economy and jobs created on the basis of these innovations."

The third group assesses research oriented to innovation and entrepreneurship: the number of laboratories, facilities, research programmes, papers published and books edited and printed ... The grid also includes a pointer indicating the university level international partnerships in innovation-intensive fields.