Engine Shed Let’s Chat series: Interview with Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol

Our new Let’s Chat series shines the spotlight on our all-important stakeholders that form a vital part of Engine Shed. It’s not a kept secret that Engine Shed is an integral part of the University of Bristol and one that is now extended due to the recent go-ahead for Engine Shed 2. With the new academic year well under way, we took the opportunity to sit down and chat with Hugh Brady, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol to gain his thoughts and insight about Engine Shed and the new prospective campus in Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone.


Tell me about the University of Bristol, how big it is, what are your key academic strengths and what are your most notable recent successes?

Currently, we have approximately 23,000 students and 6,500 staff that are a mix of academic/professional services/operations employees. We attract students and staff from over 100 countries across the globe.

Oxford Economics recently produced an impact assessment about the University in the LEP region. It showed that the University of Bristol supports, both directly and indirectly, some 14,000 jobs (approximately 1 in every 50 jobs in the region) and contributes £3/4 billion annually to the region’s GDP. The University is a phenomenal economic engine that fuels the local businesses and is a magnet for foreign direct investment. But our impact goes beyond the economy. Our students and staff contribute in so many ways to the local arts, sport and cultural activities. They are an integral part of the city’s volunteering activities and they are involved in local charities, community groups, school boards and so many other civic functions.

In terms of our academic profile, the University of Bristol is a comprehensive university covering pretty much every discipline from archaeology to zoology. On the one hand this spread is costly. On the other hand, it fuels the collaboration and multi-disciplinarily that are a feature of so many of our educational and research programmes.


How would you describe Engine Shed?

Engine Shed can be somewhat difficult to capture in a few words. At its heart, Engine Shed is a buzzy, vibrant neutral space the serves the city region in a really interesting match making role. On the one side, there is the collaboration between the University and business sectors and equally, on the other side, there is the collaboration between the University, Bristol City Council and the LEP. Engine Shed provides a quiet, non-threatening space where the University can engage with citizens, communities, organisations and businesses, which may otherwise sit uneasily together. Engine Shed is a microcosm of what our new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus could be and is a wonderful community building and confidence-building space that brokers ambitious new relationships. When you go in to Engine Shed, you get a very real sense of Bristol’s energy and ambition.


How did Engine Shed begin and why was it important for the University?

Engine Shed’s inception preceded me becoming the Vice Chancellor but the establishment of it looked to both formalise and propel to a new level, the existing relationships between the University, the LEP, the City Council and the business community. Importantly at the time, our new independent Mayor understood the importance and complexity of innovation ecosystems and the multi faceted nature of a growing city region economy. George Ferguson provided the initial spark and Marvin Rees has taken the baton with gusto. This is important. I’m a recent blow-in but when I talk to the leaders of the local business community, many lament the failure of the local authorities to work together over the decades to support the local growth agenda. It is as if Bristol’s economy developed despite the local authorities. It is great to see that this is changing with the establishment of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA). Marvin Rees is an energetic new broom who is showing signs of banishing the older stereotypes and will have a key role to play to ensure that the City Council serves as a facilitator and catalyst for growth over the years ahead.


What is the role of the University with Engine Shed?

Firstly, we wouldn’t have Engine Shed without the University. We own it but more importantly we operate it in partnership with others. The University is a key driver of the initiative, sometimes in an overt way but more often through our students and staff, providing the fuel that quietly drives much of the activity. Looking at it another way, Engine Shed would be unlikely to succeed without the University’s involvement, the comprehensive nature of the University makes it special; we’re not just about engineering, science and economics but humanities, social sciences and law too. Engine Shed draws on this breadth of expertise.


How does the University support Engine Shed’s key values of partnership, collaboration, and innovation?

The two organisations share similar values and have innovation at their heart. We launched a new strategic plan last year which drew heavily on the ideas that surfaced as part of a university-wide and indeed city-wide conversation on the University’s future direction. Innovation emerged as an important central theme. At the University, we are taking a layered approach to innovation.

First, in 2017, all incoming students will have access to our Bristol Futures curriculum which seeks to balance the traditional educational depth of our research-rich curriculum with educational breadth that will be personally fulfilling but also add another string to our students’ employability bow. All students will have the opportunity to come out of their disciplinary environment to work in multidisciplinary teams on projects in three areas:

  1. Innovation and enterprise
  2. Sustainable futures
  3. Global citizenship

Second, some students want a deeper dive into innovation from the outset. To accommodate them, we’ve launched the Bristol Innovation Programmes – a suite of 4-year undergraduate degrees where students can combine one of 13 majors (degree disciplines) with innovation. In the first year, it is split roughly 20% innovation and 80% major and by the fourth year, we flip it. The students also have exposure to some of the UK’s most impressive entrepreneurs. For example, Will Dean, who started the Tough Mudder company, came down and challenged the team to design the next obstacle for his famous mud run while also giving the students important insights into how you start and run a successful business.

Third, our new campus will have innovation at the heart of its educational programmes, research and engagement activities.


What are the main challenges for the University?

Without doubt, it’s living with the uncertainty that dominates the external environments – Brexit, Trump, university funding, immigration policy etc. Having said that, we are confident that our new strategic plan with serve our students and staff well during this challenging period. The University is a high quality, ambitious and focused institution – it has weathered major storms before and will weather this one. We have an important role to play to ensure that the UK’s economy remains resilient during this period and Engine Shed will be a huge asset in this regard.


How does Engine Shed support you in overcoming these?

The success of Engine Shed has in many ways influenced our University-wide conversations on our future and has led to the mainstreaming of innovation in our strategy. We need to scale up Engine Shed and its values and ethos, especially for the new campus. Engine Shed acted as a sort of demonstration project and encapsulated the university’s appetite to do something new and innovative.


What do you think about Engine Shed’s role as a facilitator for the other regional incubators, accelerators and workspaces such as Unit DX, Future Space, and Network for Creative Enterprise etc.?

It’s fantastic that this is happening. Engine Shed is a welcoming space for an array of different stakeholders, communities and organisations. It regularly convenes the leaders of Bristol’s various incubator facilities and promotes collaboration and the sharing of ideas. Individually, all of these incubators are relatively small but together they add hugely to Bristol’s innovation ecosystem. Together, they give us the scale to compete with others in UK, Israel and North America and so on. Exciting things are happening in Bristol.


The Legatum prosperity index puts Bristol as the number 1 for business prosperity – what role do you think the University through Engine Shed has played in this?

The University was the major player in establishing Engine Shed. This, in turn, has laid foundations for our bigger plans and specifically for our new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus. We have a unique opportunity to provide the catalyst for the next phase of development of Bristol’s highly successful digital economy. This digital economy grew organically through a variety of reasons: BBC and its spinouts; the regional Aerospace, ICT, defence industry, and the strength of the University. Now the really interesting question for Engine Shed and University of Bristol is how do we spark the next wave of development? The new campus will be critical to this effort.


How do you feel Engine Shed supports graduates so they don’t leave the city region?

Some of them stay anyway because of the city’s excitement and creativity. Many initially hunt for opportunities elsewhere and then come back. Bristol is also a magnet for talent from across the globe. We need all three channels if we are to keep Bristol fresh and internationally competitive.


How do we tackle the issue of inclusive growth?

This is a priority for all of the City’s major stakeholders: the Mayor, the University, and the citizens of the city. We have some many of the ingredients in place – nearly 100 languages and nearly 200 countries represented in the city – the key question is how can we harness this talent. Diversity is a real strength – but how do we capture this? Engine Shed does that well but our new campus gives us a unique opportunity to re-imagine the civic university and to put into play new ways of harnessing the City’s diversity.


What does Engine Shed bring to the University in embedding the institution as a responsible contributor to the local economy?

In the past, many individual researchers built strong links with local businesses, multinational companies, cultural organisations etc. Engine Shed propelled this to a new level – serving as a match-maker; create a space for students (especially post graduates) to engage with citizens, business and organisations. Our new campus, offers us the opportunity to achieve another step-up in this collaborative.


The next ‘big thing’ for the University is the development of the new campus (which you have touched on) that is currently undergoing consultation, how does this fit in with Engine Shed?

Engine Shed is a trailblazer in a part of the city where the University lacked presence. It is a demonstration project that has established proof-of-principle for what we can achieve working with the City’s citizens, organisations and businesses. It has given us the confidence to go even further in this area through the establishment of our new campus.


What contribution can Engine Shed make to Bristol Futures and widening participation such as the Bristol Scholars programme?

Engine Shed is an important location for innovation and could host events and provide projects where students can work together in multi disciplinary themes with others from the city and located industries – a great opportunity for all parties.


What do you see Engine Shed doing in the future?

What’s exciting for me is the opportunity for Engine Shed to work with us to scale up our existing relationships and activities, and to build new ones. Engine Shed will be a central part of the new campus and will have the opportunity to broaden its spectrum of activity – for example, its engagement with social enterprises.


What are you most excited about for the University?

Clearly, the new campus! Can you imagine the success of Engine Shed scaled up 100 times? This represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a great civic university to re-calibrate the way it interacts with the City, its citizens, its organisations, and its businesses and to scale up its efforts to propel the city to a prosperous future.


What’s your favourite thing about Engine Shed?

The buzz and energy which you sense the minute you enter the space, and the ambition. Through its inclusiveness, you meet all sorts of people from all walks of life – creating together; supporting and challenging each other; sharing dreams and planning bold futures.