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Problems and innovation at the University of Bristol

In this video, we ask the University of Bristol research institute directors what they see as the biggest challenges and opportunities right now.
Society’s facing so many challenges at the moment and those challenges are going to continue. And I think what’s challenging is how diverse and complex they are, but also how often interrelated they are. So you take something like an ageing population, and we know there’s a lot of challenges that we face with an ageing population that are both healthcare challenges but are also challenges about just how we do family life, and society and the kinds of futures we imagine. And I guess I’m really interested in the way in which a challenge like that is then also connected to all sorts of other challenges.
About ideas of political citizenship, maybe; about housing and affordable housing; about politics, and economics; about ideas of what it means to be human, about human–technology relationships. Maybe about global societies, and about migration and the ways in which we negotiate that. And so you take any of the challenges, we can’t really look at challenges entirely alone, I think all of the challenges we face are these kind of really knotty, complex challenges. Which means that I think we do need to pull together multiple disciplines to address those, and I think we also do need to pull in expertise that lies outside a university.
And so I think that very much drives all of the University Research Institutes, you know, that commitment to ‘if we’re going to deal with complex global challenges we need to work together across disciplines and we need to work together across university–non-university divides’. So in society at the moment what we’re seeing is an ageing population and we know that ageing populations have particular health challenges, they maybe live with more than one health condition at one time. And it’s really important that people can be enabled to live well in later life. So, I think ensuring that healthcare is good and equitable throughout the life course is incredibly important at the moment in health research.
We’ve got an ageing population across the globe, healthcare needs to keep, up we’ve got increasing digitisation, in many ways, and many shapes and forms. And I think how we think about ensuring that digital technology can support older people, but that it does so in such a way that no one’s disadvantaged by not having access to digital technology is really important at the moment. So I think that’s one of the big challenges is how we marry up an ageing population with the really rapid advances in biotechnology and technology in general. I think the challenge is to really make sure that those changes and innovations reach everybody in our society and reach the population at large.
And I think it would be a real shame if innovation only reached a few and not the many. The 21st century is going to be interesting. Everything is moving so fast, the growth of the human population creates all these demands on
our planet: an exponential increase in our demand for food production, an exponential increase in our exploitation of fisheries and the natural environment. We sometimes forget that that’s an exponential increase of brain power, of capacity, you know, to create opportunities. So I think when we think about the future is it almost impossible to predict. But there’s a few things that we know are going to happen that will be the main challenges. We know that population is degrading the environment and we know that as humans we’re always going to need to depend on that environment.
We’re going to need food, we’re going to need water, we’re going to need energy, and we’re gonna have to get those things without degrading the environment even further. Climate change is a great example of that, it is not the only example. It is simply one symptom of how we are degrading the environment in which we have to live. So one of the grand challenges will be procuring what we need from the Earth without causing it any more damage or harm. And there’s going to be all sorts of solutions that relate to politics and our behaviour but are also going to be related to technology and innovation. Well, actually all of those are going to be innovations.
We have to come up with innovative new politics, innovative new behaviours and ways of acting, and ways of financing. And also innovative new technologies. The opportunities I think often go hand-in-hand with the needs and the challenges. We’re going to create new things in order to tackle them. I think one of the great opportunities will again be the computational revolution. Our ability to harness a vast amount of data that we’re creating. I think other opportunities are going to emerge from, from the fields of genetics and biology as we really, really begin to tackle what life is.
So I see a huge range of opportunities and challenges and what I’d really like to think is that those are not two separate things, that they’re synergistic. The challenges inspire us to come up with new solutions and new ideas, and who knows where they go. The one thing I can safely say is that the future will contain things that I don’t think it will contain. So if I think historically, you know I’m really interested sometimes in the kinds of ways in which people imagine the future. And it says a lot, I think, about a society and its ideas and its thinking.
And what’s very interesting I think, as a historian, is looking back and seeing how different the future is than anything that people thought it would look like. So there’s sometimes little bits where you think ‘oh yeah they kind of got that right’, but most of the time I think we get most things wrong. Now, I think that is both terrifying and also quite positive actually, because it means that the future is going to be something we we none of us can guess. Now, that could make you terrified about the fact that it’s, like, unknown, or it could actually make you pretty excited about the fact that it’s unknown.
It’s probably going to be better than we imagine, and maybe it’s also going to be worse than we imagine. One of the amazing things about health research at the moment is that we’ve seen so many things translate from the laboratory into real healthcare practice. So when I think about the future what I’d really like to see is equitable access to healthcare and equitable access to innovations in healthcare. And I think it’s really important that the kind of research that we do focuses on making sure that happens, so that we don’t have losers in society, so that everyone’s benefiting from innovation.
When I think back to the days when I was a student we didn’t have internet, you know internet was just starting out. So to see the changes now that have happened over the last few years are really exciting. And I think the pace of change in digital innovation is actually going to speed up. The risk there is that things become digital when we don’t want them to be, and that maybe we need to make sure that digital innovation maintains the human touch as well, and that we don’t lose the social connections that are so important to our health and our wellbeing.
I think what scares me the most about the future is - and they are somewhat related - is, who’s going to bear the burden of these challenges, and what will be the consequences of that? To me, from a climate change perspective, personally I’m most concerned about how climate change affects people and how environmental degradation affects people. I do care about how it affects the planet, this is a crucial issue, but it’s not what scares me, it’s how it affects people the most. And to be fair, if it affected, if every single person on the planet degraded the environment the same and was affected the same …. But it’s not.
Some of us degrade it a lot more and other people are going to bear the burden. I don’t think that’s fair, so it infuriates me, but it also scares me. I think what I would like to imagine is that for as much innovative energy we bring to the creation of ideas, and to thinking about how to exploit them, and celebrating how amazing they are, we should be devoting the same amount of energy to anticipating the potential problems and challenges that they would create. And being a little bit ahead of the curve, and ultimately taking on some responsibility for that.

There are problems, big and small, at all levels of society. Here at the University of Bristol, research institutes have been set up to pool ideas and knowledge from different disciplines and fields to try and tackle some of these problems and challenges.

We asked the directors of some of those research institutes what they think the biggest problems or challenges are to society, what opportunities they see developing from those challenges, and what scares or excites them about the future. Before you watch, note down some of your own initial responses to these same questions.

In this video, you hear from the following people:

  • Tim Cole, Professor of Social History, is the director of the Brigstow Institute, which brings researchers from different disciplines together with a range of partners across the city and beyond to experiment in new ways of living and being.

  • Professor Rachael Gooberman-Hill, Professor of Health and Anthropology, is the director of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute. She talks about local problems in terms of health, and how we as a society can move towards tackling those problems.

  • Professor Richard Pancost is director of the Cabot Institute, which explores approaches to understanding and responding to environmental uncertainty. Richard talks about environmental and sustainability challenges and what we can do to move towards a more sustainable future.

Thinking about what’s been said in the video, consider these big questions and discuss your ideas in the comments section:

  • What will society look like in 50 years?
  • What will cities look like in 50 years?
  • What will institutions like universities look like in 50 years?
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