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New initiative to build tomorrow’s society

Three people, Matilda Ernkrans, Karl Henrik Johansson and Erik Ekudden are standing next to an indus
Matilda Ernkrans, Minister of Research, tests an industrial robot during the inauguration of Digital Futures, together with Karl Henrik Johansson, professor (left) and Erik Ekudden, Chief Technology Officer at Ericsson . (Photo: Fredrik Persson)
Published Oct 02, 2020

Robot co-workers, self-driving cars and social carers – more and more smart solutions are becoming part of our lives. What do we want tomorrow’s society to look like? KTH has just inaugurated Digital Futures, a research environment with the aim of meeting major social challenges.

Digital Futures is an ambitious, multidisciplinary research programme that will look at all aspects of digitalisation, from basic science to social impact.

The research initiative has been enabled by an annual increase of SEK 78 million in government funding as part of the government’s investment in strategic research areas (SRA).

During the inauguration of Digital Futures, several of the speakers mentioned that the pandemic reminded us of the importance and need for digitization. Matilda Ernkrans, Minister of Higher Education and Research, pointed out science as crucial for coping with both ongoing and future societal crises.

Two people, Iréne Svenonius and Anna König Jerlmyr, look at a robot head.
Iréne Svenonius, County Major Ragion Stockholm, and Anna König Jerlmyr, Mayor City of Stockholm Stockholm during the Digital Futures tour.

“Digital Futures plays an important role in this, and I am glad the investment has now become a reality,” she said, pointing out that research collaboration will contribute to development in many areas, not least by making it easier to implement innovations in society.

Iréne Svenonius, County Major Stockholm Region, emphasized the importance of the collaboration between universities and health care system, which she hoped could contribute to both increased efficiency and user-friendly solutions.

KTH's President, Sigbritt Karlsson, took a broader perspective and referred to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, where digitization is an important tool for achieving the goals.

“Collaboration is a key factor, not only in the field of technology but also across subject boundaries and to involve both established and younger researchers. I look forward to Digital Futures contributing to sustainable development globally through outstanding research,” she said.

Broad spectrum

Digital Futures unofficially started just over a year ago with around ten projects ranging from digital carers within elderly care and the processing of sensitive personal data for smart water distribution and programmable robotics material. Today, some 40 projects are planned or already in progress involving around 100 researchers.

“We are recruiting researchers and stakeholders from a broad spectrum and combining scientific excellence and curiosity-driven research with concrete social challenges. Our sights are set on the needs of both today and tomorrow when it comes to technology for digitalisation,” says Karl Henrik Johansson , Director and Professor of Networked Control Systems.

His hope is that the initiative will continue to attract a mix of researchers that would not normally work together.

Sigbritt Karlsson stands next to a monitor and talks.
During the opening speech, KTH President Sigbritt Karlsson emphasized the importance of collaboration.

“Rather than taking the traditional path of defining our research area, we aim to embrace digitalisation in general and the question of how it can transform society. So it is a very broad grant, which is a crucial element if we are to be able to succeed.”

The research revolves around cooperation – across scientific subject areas, between pure and applied research and between researchers, industry and society.

“Meeting and working together in other than the traditional ways will play a key role in our quest to be successful. We want to create new contact interfaces, via virtual channels and physical meetings,” says Johansson.

Needs of society

The goal is an eco-system with cross border partnerships that can generate new ideas, smart solutions and be attentive to what society needs in terms of digital technology development.

The research projects are divided into different types, some with a basic scientific focus, and others that are open to attract young researchers from differing disciplines.

“The aim is to take the step from theory and lab to large scale projects and societal benefits with the help of testbeds and demonstrations, both virtual and physical. If this research is to solve important social problems, having the opportunity to perform tests early in the process is crucial,” Johansson stresses.

“For example, going from simulating a self-driving car to testing an actual vehicle on the road in traffic can be a big step for individual researchers. Here, we can provide support by offering to work closely with experienced researchers and partners that have access to test environments.”

How far will Digital Futures have come in the next five years?
“By then, we will have become established as one of the leading research environments in the world within digital transformation. We are under tremendous pressure from visiting researchers keen to come here, and we have become a natural, in-demand part of research and education at KTH with many contacts internally and externally. We also have strong relationships with first cycle and second cycle education where many are students involved,” says Johansson.

Text: Christer Gummeson

Digital Futures in brief

  • Digital Futures  is a partnership between KTH, Stockholm University and The Research Institute of Sweden (RISE). A large number of partners from the industrial sector and other organisations are also involved in the initiative.
  • Digital Futures is addressing three themes or social challenges: Rich and Healthy Life, Smart Society, and Digitalised Industry. These are crossed with the research tracks of Trust, Learn and Cooperate that together with Engineering Education, create space for multidisciplinary perspectives.
  • Smart Society can concern transport, urban development, segregation, smart homes and water distribution. Digitalised Industry addresses the vehicle industry, manufacturing processes and automation. Rich and Healthy Life revolves around health, care and quality of life.
  • Research tracks: Trust can concern trustworthiness, safety and integrity. Corporate investigates connected systems and cooperation. Learn concerns issues about AI and learning systems.
  • Digital Futures is also a place for smaller projects, networking, courses and inspiration. A meeting place has been created on level 2 in the School of Architecture building on the KTH Campus for researchers and other parties within the area and to present current projects in workshops and exhibitions.
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Last changed: Oct 02, 2020