Director's blog

Ups and downs - September 2020

What a rollercoaster of a year this is turning out to be. Just when we thought we could dare to breathe a collective sigh of relief, it is all change yet again. Whilst inevitable and largely predicted, it is nevertheless going to require even greater resolve than we have showed so far to get through this next uncertain period. Needs must, so we continue to adapt, create and innovate.

Let’s face it, we have already achieved things we couldn’t have imagined, in timescales we would have thought impossible. With the exception of our younger generations, many of us are digital migrants. Yet, we have totally embraced new platforms and are now working and communicating almost entirely remotely. From online teaching in schools and universities to phone and video consultations for a plethora of health conditions, Teams and Zoom now perforate our psyche daily. Behavioural changes abound – where before one made sure one had one’s wallet/purse before stepping out, now that same importance is given to the face mask. We no longer bat an eyelid at having to socially distance or sit in a restaurant surrounded by screens! Hand sanitisation has become second nature for most of us. Difficult as it may be, we should focus on how well we are coping on the whole, think about those less fortunate and appreciate the efforts of all those around us who are doing their part in helping society get through (the alternative is too depressing).

Closer to home, our new building – Health Innovation One – has been partially retrofitted to create teaching areas to accommodate socially-distanced small group teaching for our medical students. We also have a number of co-locating businesses raring to move into their new offices on site.

Our new ‘Leading Health Innovation’ Programme launched online in September with the first cohort of businesses. Designed with Lancaster University Management School, the programme supports businesses to develop their capacity to innovate and lead change and equips them with design thinking tools and approaches to idea generation in response to market needs. An added bonus is the establishment of a supportive peer network, something we cannot underestimate during these difficult times.

We also attended our first post-lockdown event, the Lancaster Health Festival, where – by the power of Zoom - we provided a virtual tour of the new building and allowed a glimpse of the collaborative spaces and opportunities the HIC embodies.

I have even been back on the radio, (grimacing emoji at the thought of listening to my own voice over the airwaves), having given BBC Lancashire a tour of the new facilities and spoken to them about our ambitions to work with a wide mix of stakeholders on making our region a healthier place.

Talking of healthy places, the HIC is embarking on an exciting collaboration with the Institute of Social Futures on the new Future Places Centre (FPC). The FPC will focus on the impact of how technology will allow us to reimagine our spaces and places. An ambitious programme, it will explore three domains of impact: the natural environment, the built environment and changing health outcomes.

We are already working with Lancaster City Council, in collaboration with Healthier Lancashire and South Cumbria ICS and Lancaster and District Community Voluntary Services, to capture the volunteer response to Covid-19 and how lessons learnt may inform future pandemic planning. Discussions are underway with other local authorities who are also keen to evaluate the ‘lessons learnt’ from the last six months and how these might help deliver future best practice.

In the meantime - as we face a second Covid spike, further restrictions and more uncertainty - let’s hunker down as the Scandinavians do and embrace Hygge moments. I, for one, have been desperately trying to spot the aurora these least few evenings as my phone keeps pinging with amber alerts for geomagnetic activity. Simple pleasures!

The Northern Lights

Opening up - August 2020

Today, we throw open our doors for a new academic year, a new season, new students, new tenants - and herald a new phase in the development of the strategically-important project that is the Health Innovation Campus.

The HIC’s mission is to take a solution-led, place-based approach to addressing the significant health and social inequalities which impact on wellbeing, with an emphasis on innovative thinking, disruption, co-design and co-production. 

As Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "a building is not just a place to be, but a way to be". And so I hope the culture we create at the HIC will embody collaboration and inspire innovation. Although we have had to delay our planned opening due to Covid-19, it is fortuitous that in these times of viral strife the building ideally lends itself to social distancing and is therefore a space we can optimise and continue to use.

And that particular challenge provides a great segue to one of our first showcase opportunities - a unique, automated, social distancing and way-finding model for businesses preparing to re-open safely during the post-pandemic recovery.

The new model, devised by colleagues in the School of Architecture, uses algorithms, special design exploration processes, generative software, sympathetic signage, electronically-created floorplans and heat tracking and mapping to inspire a safe environment for people.

This is a great, solution-led example of innovation and a scale-up opportunity. With social distancing here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, the project is based on the premise that changing public perception from immediate ‘danger’ to a more permanent ‘wellbeing’ lifestyle could be a positive evolution of social distancing wayfinding, as well as paving the way for responding rapidly to similar scenarios in the future.

Although our doors are open, our priority remains to provide a welcoming and safe environment for our occupants – students, staff and tenants – whilst maintaining social distancing guidelines. While some teaching is now being delivered in our Health Innovation One building, other activities will come on-line as circumstances allow.

Where possible, we continue to work from home and unfortunately those Teams and Zoom calls still dominate the day. All the more reason to remember that the primary objective of all those meetings is to have an engaged conversation and not just simply fill up one’s Outlook calendar! It is essential we find time to look after ourselves and each other – good mental and physical health is our collective responsibility – and there has never been a more critical or opportune moment to focus on this.

Our new campus will live by its values and is an entirely smoke-free zone - which I hope will be respected by all. Green spaces abound for those moments where one just needs to ‘switch off’, stare into the distance, get some fresh air or simply be at one with nature. Plenty of shrubs and trees provide a wildlife haven and offer cooling shade, on the odd occasion the sun decides to shine. We have also planted a line of Silver Birch around the Health Innovation Campus - which Lancaster academic Professor Barbara Maher has identified as the optimal tree for cleaning particulate pollutants from the air.

The HIVE, our new on-site café, offers a menu focussed on fresh food and healthier options. But should one feel the desperate need for a Greggs or chocolate fix, the cycle path and walkways around the site offer an opportunity for a brisk cycle or walk to the main campus and back, to burn off those calories.

Let’s start as we mean to go on! I leave you with a quote by Seth Godin, "Change almost never fails because it's too early. It almost always fails because it's too late".

The new Health Innovation One building at the Health Innovation Campus

Moving in and moving forward - July 2020

Last week, I finally ‘moved in’ to my new office at the Health Innovation Campus. That is, I unpacked my crates and managed to personalise my space. However, the instruction is still to work from home where possible, so it will be a while before I am actually completely in. It was nevertheless an exciting moment - having watched it taking shape from drawings - to be in the finished building is a landmark moment indeed!

And what a stunning building it is - airy, light, spacious, surrounded by lovely green spaces – it certainly has the wow factor! I even had the odd curious sheep looking through my window while I was unpacking, as if to say, ‘what are you doing here on my patch?’

The building is designed as a truly collaborative space, where people from different sectors and academic disciplines can come together to work on some of the most challenging health issues we face, now and in the future. Collaboration is important to the spirit and ethos of the HIC, especially since disease does not discriminate and good health is our collective responsibility, applying equally to all sectors, communities and disciplines.

As the current pandemic has highlighted, we are all in this together and I believe the HIC - with its mission to create an effective ecosystem - has a responsibility to bring together people with complementary and diverse backgrounds to co-design solutions - be they a product, service or process. Unfortunately, our post Covid-19 world does not encourage physical collaborations so it may be some time before we are comfortable sitting in a room together to brainstorm ideas.

But we are not going to let that stop us. And whilst Coronavirus has forced us to do things differently, we have stepped up and shown tremendous resilience and endurance as a society, so let’s ensure we continue to do so towards a ‘better normal’.

There is already evidence of how we are starting to re-think societal challenges. From arid soils spring the green shoots of possibility and in fact, there has never been a more pertinent time for innovation – now is the time to challenge the status quo, to be bold.

We have started the discourse and debate around whether we will ever get back to the conventional ‘office’ as we know it. Many organisations have mandated working from home as an employee choice, here to stay. But, there will still be a need for physical office spaces, albeit not necessarily in central business districts. More people will be looking for a base nearer to home - reducing travel - with personal, environmental and societal benefits.

You know where I am going with this … the HIC ticks all these boxes. I am delighted to say that we are in the process of welcoming our first resident organisations who are keen to move in and join the HIC community. Apart from the stated obvious benefits, co-location on site is an opportunity to engage with a vibrant University community and leverage on academic expertise across different disciplines. With your involvement, we want to make a difference at scale and across boundaries.

And as we prepare to open up, we hope to be able to showcase a first example of multidisciplinary collaboration with Professor Des Fagan, from Lancaster University's Architecture department. He has developed an innovative tool to design generative distancing in response to social distancing guidelines, providing businesses with the ability to respond swiftly to changes in layout, use of space and signage. Watch this space…literally!

The atrium of the new Health Innovation One building at the Health Innovation Campus

The Covid-19 Manufacturing Cluster - June 2020

As we enter what we hope is the Recovery Phase in the coronavirus crisis, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the last three months – what an extraordinary time it has been. New words and phrases have crept into our daily vocabulary: ‘relentless’ was my word of the day until I was banned from using it! Others on the same trajectory are ‘never-ending’ (I had to find a substitute for relentless!!), ‘new normal’ and teams/zoom fatigue, and yet, they so aptly describe the sentiment and mood of the moment.

But, these are nevertheless first world problems and faced with the stark choice between a pandemic and its consequences or a little bit of hardship (which it really isn’t), I know which one I would rather choose.

Crisis situations usually bring out the best in us, restoring our faith in humanity. This was evident in the way this region pulled together to support our frontline and key workers – everything from small acts of kindness and generosity to companies helping to supply/make critical equipment and PPE.

The HIC team found ourselves galvanised into action, as a conduit between our NHS / Lancashire Resilience Forum (LRF) partners and SMEs, fielding requests to join these up with offers of help. So overwhelming was the response from local companies, that it necessitated the creation of a web platform, almost overnight. Thus, was born the Covid-19 Manufacturing Cluster for Lancashire and South Cumbria. A huge thanks to Annette Weekes (PDS Engineering), who has been instrumental in setting this up.

We now have more than 80 companies registered as part of this cluster, with diverse capabilities across a range of sectors. So what next? Reminds me of a scene from the original animated version of Jungle Book - one of my favourite films as a child - where the three vultures perched on a tree are posing that exact question. I am keen to work with our NHS/LRF partners to harness this tremendous resource as a catalyst for change – an opportunity to kick-start regional manufacturing to secure more robust and reliable supply lines for critical equipment – and better prepare the region against further outbreaks and future pandemics.

For those of you who have been following the progress of the HIC, our new building is now complete, the landscaping almost finished. We wait with anticipation as the University edges towards a phased re-opening against a backdrop of uncertainty. Whilst we are keen to move in asap, this cannot be done at the expense of safety. So, whilst we wait patiently for the green light, we are busy planning the next series of events /workshops. The aim, as always, will be to bring together our various stakeholders to help navigate our way through unchartered territory, in the pursuit of innovation, with the continuing aim of addressing health and social parity to improve life outcomes in the region.

I would like to sign off with my personal thanks to colleagues across the University, SMEs in the Covid-19 Cluster, our NHS/LRF partners and, of course, to all our key workers for their tireless and selfless efforts to keep to the region safe. Lastly but not least, my gratitude to the HIC team, who have all stepped up and been brilliant during this time.

HIC Director, Dr Sherry Kothari