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Marta Fernández: innovation with real impact

Tags: 'Blockchain' 'covid 19' 'Data ethics' 'Digital transformation' 'Ética de datos' 'Future of work' 'Innovación pública' 'inteligencia artificial' 'Tecnología'

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Marta Fernández Bertos is the director in Europe of the the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Together with The Collider, Marta examines European and Asian-Pacific innovation ecosystems and Barcelona’s position as a European innovation hub. She also shares the key factors involved in innovating and creating real impact.

What does RMIT Europe do and what are your main functions as its director?

RMIT Europe is the European hub of the university Royal Melbourne, the largest higher education institution in Australia. We have 100,000 students and 11,000 staff and rank in the top 1% of universities around the world. The university excels in art and design, architecture, computer science, engineering and communication systems. It has very strong internationalisation ambitions, with presence in Melbourne, Singapore and Vietnam and the Barcelona hub, which covers Europe. 

My role is to design and implement the innovation hub’s strategy, based on establishing research and innovation collaborations with companies, technology centres and universities in Europe. As well as offering our students international experiences linked to the industry. 

What are RMIT Europe’s main areas of research and what technology do you work with?

We are focused on urban and sustainable development; digital transformation and industry 4.0; and design and creative practices, three areas in which we have cutting-edge research capabilities that set us apart in the European market.  

To give a few specific examples, we have developed a project on disaster resilience to better predict the dangers of climatic events. It includes a cognitive reasoning model, human behaviour understanding and a traffic model in order to analyse impact and mobility. We have also spearheaded a project to design buildings that generate energy based on climatic and cultural differences in Europe.  

RMIT Europe connects research, industry, companies and governments in order to boost innovation. In what way do you work on technology transfer?

Like The Collider Mobile World Capital Barcelona, we strive for impact by collaborating with stakeholders from the public-private sector, academia and civil society. We do this through research projects with European, national and local funding in order to advance in the areas in which we work. We are based in Barcelona’s [email protected] district, an area with high permeability and potential for collaboration with other actors from the innovation ecosystem such as the technology centre Eurecat, among others. 

One example of this is OpenInnoTrain, a research project that we coordinate at RMIT Europe with 22 members from different countries, centred on open innovation and the translation of research between the university and industry in the FinTech, Industry 4.0 CleanTech and FoodTech sectors. 

What are the limitations and barriers to tech transfer?

Taking the technology to market requires significant investment for actual implementation, as well as assuming the associated technological risk. This is not within reach of all investors and companies, so a strategic fit, capacity and an objective must be sought. As an applied university, we have our own resources at the business development level to understand the needs of companies, based on a model of technology pull, not technology push. We always try to make sure that our work has real impact.

What is the innovation ecosystem in Australia and Asia like and in what way is it different from the European model?

When we speak about the European model we have to differentiate between countries: you cannot compare investment and public spending in Spain with that of Germany or Finland.  

As a whole, Europe has the largest R&D funding programme in the world, together with China and the United States. European companies account for a quarter of industrial R&D worldwide. But if we want to sustain the long-term growth model, we cannot lag behind. The United States has increased its participation and secured its leading position, and China and South Korea are in very advanced positions when it comes to investment in innovation and are challenging Europe’s capabilities.  

Australia has a highly-skilled workforce and academic and scientific institutions that rank among the best in the world. Despite the fact that Australia accounts for just 0.3% of the global population, 7% of the 100 best universities in the world are Australian, contributing to 4% of the total number of publications and research. Nevertheless, scientific production does not mean transfer onto the market, as is the case in Spain. 

What should we import to Europe from the Asian-Pacific model?

The concept ofimpactthat is now being implemented in Australia and some European countries. It consists of regularly analysing the impact of research conducted by universities. Based on this impact, the government decides what financing to provide to universities as core funding. Universities must justify the return on investment and strive to ensure real impact. 

RMIT Europe is head-quartered in Barcelona. Is the city a talent and innovation hub, ahead of other European cities?

Barcelona is a leading city in smart city initiatives and one of the most important tech centres in Europe. It ranks among the ten European cities that received the most technological investment in 2021 and has a strategic location and fantastic infrastructure. Barcelona is a magnet for qualified international talent and larger companies and has all the potential to compete with other major European cities. But to my mind, public-private investment must be strengthened, bureaucracy and administrative processes must be simplified and it should be made easier for entrepreneurs and new companies to set up in the city 

What are the biggest challenges facing humankind and how can we address them?

That’s the million dollar question! In terms of global trends, if we think optimistically, there have been improvements in well-being, quality of life, GDP and access to education. But some trends point to a darker future: those related to the environment, climate change, socio-economic and political instability, etc. It is important to consider all these trends in order to imagine the role that all of us play in building a better future for everyone. It is up to us to make that transformation and we must start now. 

Can you share the motto that best defines you?

Be passionate, energetic and inspired and fight for your goals. And never give up.