CRUNCH and Small Businesses – collaborative research beyond business and management

It’s not just business schools that can benefit from a university’s engagement with the Small Business Charter. Likewise it is not only research focused on small businesses, enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation that can come out of this process of engagement. What if small businesses were active collaborators in a wide range of research and innovation taking place across all university disciplines?

The University of Portsmouth is the lead on an EU funded research project, Climate Resistant Urban Nexus CHoices (CRUNCH) where our 18 research partners include six universities, seven city councils, and five industry partners. Small businesses are playing an active role in our research, and informing the way that the project develops. The project is working with Urban Living Labs in six cities around the world, looking at how the links between food, water and energy can be exploited to make urban environments more sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change. Working with a cross-faculty team in Portsmouth, our small business partners are sharing their expertise on using sensors and other hardware; developing software to support the hardware; collecting data that is fit for purpose; making use of data standards and open data initiatives; and building complex decision support platforms.

The involvement of small businesses right from the initial kick off meeting has been vital to the project’s success to date. By participating in the design of our Urban Living Labs, our small business partners have been able to advise on the areas where they are the true experts, sharing their knowledge and experience and providing solutions that are at the very forefront of innovation in the fields of smart cities and sustainable technology. Without their input at this early stage of the project, the plan for the next phase of the project, involving the data collection and manipulation process, would have been less well informed and far less robust.

Our small business partners also represent CRUNCH in the wider world. Whether it is by being the face of the project at meetings and conferences, or through helping to develop links with other public and privately funded projects, the networking and knowledge sharing experience that our  small business partners bring to the project not only helps to spread the word about our work, but also helps to put us in touch with researchers and businesses working in the same field.

CRUNCH is a three year project, and its funds are finite. By the end of the project in 2021 we aim to have delivered a functional and freely available Integrated Decision Support System to allow urban planners to make rational decisions about climate change interventions in their own cities. We see this as just the beginning. CRUNCH sits within the Cluster for Sustainable Cities at the University of Portsmouth, an interdisciplinary research hub with active industry partnerships. Based on our experiences of working with small businesses as part of CRUNCH, we are now looking to develop future research proposals, not only to extend the findings from CRUNCH but also to explore other topics that have emerged during our collaboration. Through conversations with our small business partners we have how academia can provide a theoretical framework for testing industry initiatives, and how industry can provide support for drawing out and developing concepts based in academic research.

Without the active engagement of our SME partners this level of co-development and co-creation would not be possible. By involving SMEs at every stage of our projects, our joint research not only has impact, but remains up to date and relevant in an ever changing world. By collaborating with small businesses at every stage of the project, our research not only makes a lasting impact but can remain innovative and relevant as the economy and society develops.