Gareth Mitchell moderating a panel discussion at the Tech Foresight 2034 event

Building networks across sectors, collaborating with competitors, universities versus ad-hoc research structures. These were just some of the themes at our Networked Science panel discussion at Tech Foresight 2034. And who better to pick through them than a high-flying cohort from business and academia.

“Imperial has strong links with industry and a pulling power in attracting prestigious sponsors for its students.”

This was a day to gaze forward twenty years. Though I found myself looking back a couple of decades. Imperial’s long history of collaborating with industrial partners also turns out to have shaped my own career.

In the 1990s, I was an Electrical and Electronic Engineering undergraduate at Imperial. My studies were supported by an industrial sponsorship arrangement with the then Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). So, my education in the lab and the lecture theatre was underpinned by real world experience and training in industry. It was an inspired combination.

The IBA ran the UK’s independent television transmission network, carrying ITV and Channel 4 via an infrastructure of hundreds of UHF masts and towers on the country’s hilltops. This was a large engineering organisation, specialising in telecommunications, satellite, spectrum planning and R&D. The IBA was funded by the independent television companies and also had a regulatory arm to monitor editorial and technical standards.

For me, it all goes back to a summer’s day in 1988. Returning from school that afternoon, I was greeted with my acceptance letter from the IBA. It was an exciting moment. But that same day, the Conservative government announced its White Paper deregulating the broadcast media industry. From there, the regulatory environment shifted rapidly. Long running independent television monopolies were dismantled, satellite tv was ushered in and the cosy structure of commercial broadcasting comprehensively shaken up.

“Just as I did in the 1990s, my students today enjoy the twin benefits of a rich academic environment and exposure to the industries in which they aim to further their own careers.”

My engagement with the IBA began with a pre-university year followed by paid internships in the summer breaks during my degree. What a time to be there. This was an organisation that was being broken up under the reforms in UK broadcasting. The transmitter side of the business became a privatised company with the unwieldy name National Transcommunications Limited. The name was eventually simplified to NTL, the firm that became the well-known cable and telecoms provider, eventually merging with Virgin Mobile.

I was thinking about all this in the run up to our Tech Foresight event as I contemplated Imperial’s long relationship with industry. Whilst I was at the IBA in the early 1990s, other engineering companies across all kinds of sectors were sponsoring my classmates. Like other students in those days, our common room conversations were about the Stone Roses, the Terminator movies and Vic and Bob. But, thanks to our insights from the world outside, we also found ourselves talking about things like research and development strategies, tendering, acceptance testing and project management. For my own part, I was able to share stories about life in an organisation in transition and about the business development meetings I sat in on as the firm planned for the decades ahead, gradually starved of its guaranteed income stream from the ITV franchises and forced to consider its core strengths as it geared up for life in the commercial world.

This was an education about engineering in its social context that would have been impossible without studying at an institution like Imperial with its strong links with industry and its pulling power in attracting prestigious sponsors for its students.

Roll on twenty years and my relationship with industry endures. My student days are long gone but now I am a lecturer in our Science Communication Unit at Imperial on our two MSc programmes. Away from the classroom, my principal administrative duty is coordinating our annual work placements. Each of our students typically completes a short internship in the science media or in related sectors like policy, museums or public relations.

Just as I did in the 1990s, my students today enjoy the twin benefits of a rich academic environment and exposure to the industries in which they aim to further their own careers. In a competitive media environment, it’s a relationship that suits the students well. But it’s good for their industrial hosts too, who increasingly see us as part of their recruitment apparatus. Our students possess a sought-after skill set, bringing together their scientific backgrounds with communication skills across varied platforms and genres.

“As you walk around Imperial College there is something about the atmosphere that reminds one that the commercial world is never far away.”

Most universities have links with industry these days but as you walk around Imperial in particular, there is something about the atmosphere that reminds one that the commercial world is never far away. In fact it is alive and well within the fabric of our faculties, departments and spinouts. In many ways the Tech Foresight events are just another day at the office around here. Don’t get me wrong, these are special days and all the more so for the array of attending stars from the upper echelons of research and industry. But they are also part of Imperial’s every day existence, bringing together bright people from all kinds of disciplines and all kinds of sectors. Based on my own two decades in this environment, I suspect it’ll still be the case in the year 2034.

Gareth Mitchell is a broadcast journalism lecturer in Imperial College’s Science Communication Unit. He also presents the technology radio programme ‘Click’ on BBC World Service and is an expert contributor to BBC Focus magazine. Gareth is an Imperial graduate, having studied Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the College and, later, the MSc in Science Communication.

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