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Smart technology calls for smart policies

Urbanisation is continuing all round the world. This sets challenges to reaching the global sustainable development goals and Paris Agreement on tackling climate change. New smart technologies offer enormous opportunities, but not purely on their own. They must be combined with smart policies.

Renewable energy is getting cheaper all the time. This also includes the price of batteries, which provide greater opportunities to store energy and for the electrification of the transport sector. Within the construction sector, new materials and technologies are being developed. Already today, houses can be built with half the climate impact of traditionally constructed houses. In area after area, we can see how new technologies offer new opportunities.

Does this mean we can sit back and think that technology will solve all the sustainability challenges we face? Sadly, the answer is no and this is due to a number of different factors, such as:

  • The time factor. If the climate goals are to be achieved, society needs to halve its emissions every decade to become climate neutral by around 2050. However, developing new technology takes time and phasing out old technology also takes time. If we are to succeed, not only must new technology be developed, but old technology must also be replaced more quickly.
  • New technology is often more expensive when it first arrives. Developing new technology is therefore only part of the story, political instruments will also be required, to make it profitable. The general costs then gradually sink as production is increasingly scaled up. However, the initial additional cost must be paid for somehow.
  • Knock-on effects. In time, new technology often leads to products becoming cheaper and more efficient. Electric cars are one possible example. They are (to date) expensive to buy, but cheap to run. If electric cars become mainstream, this can result in a sharp increase in road traffic. Even though electric cars have less environment impact in general than petrol and diesel cars, they have another environment impact related to the production of cars, batteries and electricity.

Sustainable urban development concerns many things, including zero emissions of greenhouse gases, better air quality, stronger ecosystem services, access to housing, healthcare, education and other basic services, opportunities to participate in decision-making processes and reduced divisions in society.

“Smart cities” have emerged as a concept that is sometimes used almost as a synonym for “sustainable cities”. However, it is by no means certain that “smart solutions” lead to reduced emissions or less segregation, for example. In addition to phasing out fossil fuels, energy efficiency measures and new smart technology, changes in practice are also needed, such as reduced demand for unsustainable products and less divisions in society.

And this will also need smart policies that can see and exploit the potential in solutions based on new technologies.



Are the European university networks forcing Sweden to promote internationalisation?

With plenty of pomp and circumstance, the EU Commission has introduced the European Universities Initiative. In two rounds in 2019 and 2020, a total of 41 networks have been established including almost 300 universities. KTH has joined UNITE!, which was announced in the first round.

Unlike other European countries, there has not been much talk about the European Universities Initiative in Sweden. The majority of other EU member states have contributed with national supplementary financing to universities that have joined the Initiative and the subject is very definitely on the political agenda. Sweden has remained largely silent. Our debate has mainly concerned Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Tests and basic education.

On October 15 I listened to a Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR) webinar, and even though a few participants tried to raise the issue, it is still primarily those that are most affected that are informed on the subject and who see both opportunities and obstacles.

The most important issue concerning networks and in KTH’s case UNITE!, is naturally that we can build an organisation within the alliance where students, teachers, researchers and administrators can take advantage of the mobility that is the basis for these alliances in order to enable even better education and research. Within UNITE!, we have identified a large number of obstacles standing in the way of realising these aims.

These concern for example, accreditations, qualification rules, student funding and insurance policies. Despite being a member of the EU, political interest in and understanding of these needs has been virtually non-existent to date, not least the realisation that there has been no follow-up to the Internationalisation Inquiry presented three years ago.

And yet. In the short term, the most significant effect of the European university networks will perhaps be the necessary changes that will be made in our Swedish regulatory framework. Anything else would send very strange signals.

Academic leaders need split vision

Leadership is a popular subject that is alive and flourishing in both theory and practice. Wherein lies the force of attraction?

This can be explained in many ways, which has also been done in research and popular literature. Many people are convinced that it resides in proximity to power and influence. Leadership therefore becomes important to people who have or want to have power, and for people who feel they are powerless.

Many different types of enterprises consider leadership to be the key to success and the future. In academia, how academic leadership can be structured to live up to academic independence, creativity and critical thinking, has been a hot topic for several years.

Research into academic leadership has also become a growing area, not least in relation to an ongoing discussion on the role of universities and the importance of this in a democratic society. How can independent and unrestricted research be promoted at a time when universities are being steered in the direction of exacting aims and visions of social benefits and contributions to sustainable development?

What sets academia apart from many other sector is thoughts of meritocracy and collegiality. That the quality of research and education should be safeguarded by those that are most knowledgeable and conversant with their subject areas. Collegiality must therefore be built into academic leadership that is in tune with the university’s aims.

Academic leaders need training in both monitoring scientific development in their own area and to lift their head up to see the whole picture. They must also act as leaders of people and workplaces, and contribute to the development of universities as organisations. Academic leadership is therefore a question that concerns many people and that needs to be discussed in both collegiate, management and other contexts. What/who do you think of when you hear the words academic leadership?

Horizon Europe offers big opportunities for researchers

KTH has been and continues to be successful within the EU research and innovation framework programme. For example, we have participated in more projects than any other Swedish university or college. The EU is an important organisation in all KTH’s research areas.

We are currently looking to recruit cutting edge know-how via the EU framework programme, where KTH has proved to be an attractive workplace for incoming researchers. In addition, we are involved in many cooperative projects, where there are numerous consortia at the leading edge of research today.

The coming EU research and innovation framework programme, Horizon Europe (2021-2027), has just been adopted and is expected to start in 2021. The framework budget is € 75.9 billion.

As a university of technology, KTH occupies a unique position among the other organisations thanks to its broad-ranging partnerships with municipalities, regions and the enterprise sector. KTH intends to further strengthen this role and is in the process of developing an updated EU strategy ahead of Horizon Europe. The strategy should highlight opportunities and provide KTH researchers with the tools to successfully compete for financing from the programme.

To support this, we are now looking at how participation in the EU framework programme can be stimulated and what form of support researchers most need. As part of this, we are also evaluating how as a new instrument, the European Innovation Council (EIC) can be utilised. The process for creating participation is key and we are creating this strategy via a sense of togetherness through extensive dialogues with stakeholders and workshops with internal and external stakeholders.

To structure strong applications, we are also drawing on the benefits of KTH alliances such as Nordic5tech, UNITE!, the Crowdhelix network and obviously our strategic partnerships.

As one part of this increased support, we, together with our Stockholm Trio partners, the Karolinska Institute and Stockholm University, are going to establish a joint representation office in Brussels. This means that one person will be based in Brussels and work closely with the Trio partners to achieve greater participation.

As part of this strategy work, I am looking forward to the KTH Horizon Europe week that runs from 12-16 October. It is being organised by the Research Support Office and also involves other expertise from KTH such as KTH Innovation, the KTH Equality Office, Näringlivssamverkan (Enterprise Sector Partnership), the Sustainability Office and researchers with experience from large EU projects. We have also invited many guests including Vinnova, VR, other universities in Europe, our strategic partners and an experienced evaluator of EU projects. The primary target groups are KTH researchers, employees and management, plus strategic partners.

We will hear the very latest news about the new framework programme. There will be sessions on how to write good project applications, what aspects are applicable and crucial for successful applications, along with research Q&A sessions on cross-cutting issues and non-scientific activities. We will also be networking with KTH strategic partners that are looking to work more closely with KTH at EU level.

Also very important is the online consultation that is being launched during KTH Horizon Europe week and oriented to KTH researchers who would like to help create KTH’s strategy for participating in Horizon Europe.

I would like to take this opportunity to encourage anyone with experience of what kind of support would be most important to target in the future, to share this and so enable us to have the best possible decision-making platform.

Horizon Europe will offer tremendous opportunities for researchers to gain external research financing, the opportunity to be able to influence the content of EU research and at the same time contribute to greater penetration within many different areas in the future.




What have we learnt from Covid-19?

Suddenly overnight in March, KTH switched to online teaching, our campues were closed to students, there was an explosive increase in the number of Zoom meetings and thesis defences went digital. This autumn, our campuses have reopened with a mixed form of learning activities. It’s still not over, but we have gained a great deal of experience.

First and foremost, we showed that KTH was able to switch to online learning, teaching and examination, very largely thanks to good understanding, cooperation and the tremendous efforts of teachers, students and support personnel. According to the questionnaire that KTH sent out, the end results were clearly supported by both students and teachers. What’s more, both these groups at KTH are keen to continue working with the digitalisation of education.

The focus will now shift from replacing campus-based teaching and examination to digital solutions, such as Zoom lectures in 45-minute sessions and Zoom monitored written exams, and to more digital development that further strengthens student learning support where the full potential of digitalisation can be even better utilised. This direction is also supported by the responses to the questionnaire that was sent to the students where, for example, alternative examination was promoted as the best form of examination as opposed to Zoom supervised written exams that are clearly considered to be the worst option.

The conclusion is that KTH should continue to develop alternative forms of examination this autumn and beyond. A series of Lunch’n’Learn seminars will be given on this theme, featuring successful solutions and good experiences from teachers that have also worked with alternative examination for major courses. Methods that new research into didactic theory and practice in engineering courses has shown to be successful, will also be presented.

We are also going to start a collegial group (a so-called PriU group) within alternative examination that is open to all employees at KTH. The questionnaire answers also show that campuses play a very important role for students, not least from the socialisation angle and in reducing the risk of mental health issues.

I am convinced that our campuses will continue to be important from a longer 5-15-year perspective but that they are not really optimally configured for this. We are going to start looking at how we can address this from today onwards.

Tip of the week: We would love to see you join us at The Lunch’n’Learn seminars about alternative examination that are open to all employees and students at KTH.

An accessible website – a human right

According to new legislation, effective from 23 September, all public services (i.e. public sector organisation websites) must be fully accessible. It can seem self-evident that everyone, irrespective of their specific requirements, should be able to enjoy equal access to digital information and services, however, there is no magic wand to achieve this. Even though digitalisation makes for greater accessibility in many cases.

For example, we need to be aware that we must use format templates for visually-impaired users that enable them to understand different heading levels, that we should insert descriptive text with images to explain the image content for anyone who cannot view this visually, and offer easy to read versions of text in languages the target group can understand.

This has been known for quite some time and we already knew a year ago that we needed to live up to these requirements for new websites. Now existing websites also need to meet these requirements. This means that information and services provided via websites must be in formats that enable all users to access and understand the content. They should be user-friendly, understandable and robust. KTH has hundreds of thousands of web pages, created by thousands of people. How can we be able to ensure that all these pages will be accessible by the time the legislation comes into force?

Even though we have allocated substantial resources for this, we will not have enough time or be able to adapt them all by 23 September. Should whatever we do not have enough time or capacity to adapt be closed down or moved outside the organisation, or should we simply accept that it is perhaps not possible to live up to the legally specified benchmarks in full?

If there is not enough time to develop automatic systems to create captions for video material, should we then avoid sharing recorded material in general, to the disadvantage of everyone who is able to, to simplify obtaining knowledge by having access to a recorded lecture?

KTH has high aims when it comes to accessibility. This is specified as an important value in our recently adopted digitalisation policy. Accessibility can also be seen as a form of social sustainability and accordingly, addresses yet another of KTH’s core areas. My hope is that it should be natural in the future to ensure accessibility in all digital development and that we see the value in making things accessible to people with specific needs that often also means increased usability for everyone.