Professor Steffen Lehmann, Director of the Innovation Cluster for Sustainable Cities at the University of Portsmouth, talks about his work with local community and industry to develop strategic guidance and impact for Portsmouth’s urban future and regeneration
What is the series of Urban Breakfast events you have recently organised?
The Cluster for Sustainable Cities is initiating and moderating three high-level events, chaired by our Vice Chancellor, Professor Graham Galbraith, on the topic ‘The Urban Future of Portsmouth’. It is a series of strategic events with invited speakers and open debate involving local community leaders and representatives from industry and government with the aim to forge new strategic alliances, raising the engagement profile of the University.
Two events were organised in 2016 at Spinnaker Tower and Guildhall, leading towards the event in June 2017, where we will launch the ‘Urban Manifesto for a regenerated Portsmouth’. It consists of a set of guiding principles outlining how the Island City might become more liveable and resilient.
What exactly is discussed at the Urban Breakfasts and what are the benefits of working with external partners for your research and innovation profile?
The events involve a group of about 150 urban experts and decision-makers gathered to discuss the future of our city. The invited experts deliver inspiring presentations of best practice in urban regeneration in other cities, and we use public dialogue to discuss visionary but grounded ideas for the possible future of Portsmouth. Exploring the city’s transformation to a knowledge-based city, and presenting our vision for a new University Quarter, integrated into the surrounding community, helps us to ensure everybody is on-board.
The University is growing rapidly and we are a major stakeholder in this city. The University supports the local and regional economy, especially in relation to innovation and research, with experts recently calculating this annual contribution to be around £300 million in benefit to the local community. The close relationship of the University and the City of Portsmouth is much like a symbiosis, the city centre and the University Quarter are more or less the same thing.
The impact from bringing people together has been profound, and a number of new Research & Innovation opportunities have arisen out of it. There is real appetite for this timely topic as people can relate to it.
A good example of the direct outcomes is the collaboration with a number of companies we teamed up with. The initiative is also closely connected with our research theme ‘Sustainability and the Environment’, which is part of our R&I Strategy. The engagement events are also about inspiring staff to collaborate and meet new external partners. Once researchers, industry and community leaders have come together to collaborate on real challenges, they tend to work productively and efficiently.
Why is the theme of urban regeneration important for the University?
Urban regeneration is a key research strength of our University and it offers our architects, geographers and engineers an opportunity to collaborate on the creation of new research with real impact. A UK-wide paradigm shift in urban thinking is happening, where cities become urban laboratories, highlighting participatory planning processes and the greening of inclusive public space. This new urban agenda sets a high benchmark for the type of urban development we should strive for, as well as a clear accountability framework for achieving it.
Today, urban regeneration is seen as the 21st-century’s most transformative trend, but we must also be aware of the limitations of design. Professor Galbraith recently outlined the University’s ambitious estates masterplan, which will lead to significant investment in the city over the next decade. The urban future of Portsmouth is closely entangled with our own masterplan and requires us to work together and support local leadership to develop better strategies, policies and projects that will help to address and resolve some of the core challenges. To achieve all this, our collaborative networks and partnerships are crucial, including closer collaboration between all levels of government, community, the private sector and academia, to enable peer-to-peer learning networks and information sharing. We have developed nine high-level strategies of good urbanism that will guide the regeneration of Portsmouth and we believe their implementation is critical. Collaboration can, of course, be challenging, but if it works the benefits greatly outreach the risks.
What advice would you give to someone seeking to work on collaborative projects?
It’s essential to know people outside the University in key roles in local government and community leaders, and listen carefully to their concerns. My advice would be: Get to know the leaders in your field and team up with them. Secondly, it’s important to be ambitious and have an international outlook.
Thirdly, these collaborative external partnerships enrich our own work and can raise its relevance and impact. Building a large professional network and knowing the players in industry and government enables researchers to build strong consortia for proposals that are mutually beneficial and supported by like-minded people to increase the success of funding applications, which allows us to do the research we really want to do.