PhDs supported by the service sector are opportunities to drive research and development in built environment organisations operating outside the physical sciences.
By the end of the Second World War, the benefits of research collaboration and funding between university, industry and government within the UK had an established and valued position. This link between research expenditure and industrial growth remained a key indicator of ëprogressí until the rise of the service economy brought about by globalisation and technological advancement.
The UK had been a leader in the development of the service economy since the early 1900s; however, by the 1980s, the shift from manufacturing to services had had a disruptive, destructive and, ultimately, devastating effect on all developed economies, not just the UK. Furthermore, the social sciences were – like services in Adam Smith's terms – seen as economically non-productive, as opposed to the physical sciences that supported industry.
What tangible economic benefit did the social sciences bring to the economy or business? Why fund this research activity as part of the public good of government-sponsored research? What are the social sciences’ value-for-money propositions? These were all questions that university faculties like The Bartlett had to answer in order to develop ‘scientific knowledge’ within the built environment discipline.
One solution to this knowledge creation problem within The Bartlett has been to collaborate directly with industry in developing new knowledge through co-operative research. One example is Professor Michael Pitt’s long-standing relationship with Modus Services and HCP Social Infrastructure (winners of the UCL SME Partner of the Year Award 2013), service companies that provide operations management support for buildings in occupation under Private Finance Initiative contracts. But, like most service organisations, they lack a research and development capability that would enable innovation within their organisations. So instead theyíve developed this capability over the past seven years through doctoral sponsorship.
Modus and HCP have collaborated on a number of projects that can best be described as ‘participatory action research’. Unlike a traditional doctoral research approach, the sponsored research students are embedded within the organisation. This has a number of advantages, such as enhanced problem formulation, engagement with local knowledge – in this instance, other employees within the organisation – and improved quality of data acquisition, synthesis, and application.
The projects to date include: using vibration analysis to shift from planned preventive maintenance to condition-based maintenance; capturing failure data visually to establish asset funding risks and requirements; identifying electronic component obsolescence profiles; and exploring visual techniques to improve healthy eating within Barts Hospital in London. These projects were all based on problems identified and refined through dialogue with the senior management team at Modus and HCP. In one case, an additional £350,000 was committed to further the project through an equipment grant.
What of the benefits of this collaboration between all parties – university, organisation and student? Do they show that knowledge of the social sciences is of equal value to that of the physical sciences? The results in all cases to date have shown material benefits for all parties. The organisation gains clear financial benefits, but also enhanced management process capabilities. In a number of instances, local staff morale has been positively affected. The university gains through an improved understanding of the problems the service sector faces in terms of operational challenges. The student is the final beneficiary: conducting systematic research in a competitive environment provides a broader understanding of how it can positively impact an organisation.
“We need to look again at the economic benefits of established research paradigms that favour physical sciences
As 85% of the economy consists of service activities, we need to look again at the economic benefits of established research paradigms that favour physical sciences. At The Bartlett, this construct is already being reconsidered through the sponsored doctoral work being undertaken by Professor Pitt and a number of staff across the faculty. Innovation in the service sector is by its nature untidy, unpredictable, and non-predetermined (to use Karl Polanyi's broader conception of research) – the sponsored PhD approach provides tangible capabilities to all parties, generates financial benefits and, as with all services, creates unexpected areas of innovation as new processes are put in place.
Peter McLennan is a Senior Lecturer at The Bartlett School of Planning and a founding fellow of The Bartlett Real Estate Institute.