BBC BLOGS - Gregory's First Law

Archives for November 2012

A brief history of science parks

David Gregory | 17:07 UK time, Wednesday, 21 November 2012

This week is the 30th anniversary of Birmingham (formerly Aston) Science Park. So since the raison d'etre of this blog is "science is the answer" can science tell us if science parks are actually a good idea or not?

They've certainly proved popular. Aston was only the third science park in this country but in the three decades that followed they've spread right across the Midlands.

Like all ideas they've fallen out of favour and then made a comeback. In China, India and Singapore they are now seen as essential to progress.

But do the actually work? Especially as many are directly or indirectly funded by us.

I spent an enjoyable time talking to Shirley Hamilton of Techniplant. They were one of the earliest companies to set up on Birmingham Science Park. With support and help they've gone from little more than two people and a desk to a thriving company that's still looking to expand. There's no doubt too that the high-tech processes they create have been very beneficial to Midlands manufacturing as a whole. There are plenty of other similar success stories from science parks all over the region too.

In the 80s it was hoped a science park in a city like Birmingham could bring forward a who new sector of industry to replace declining manufacturing. But that didn't happen. So just what impact have our science parks actually had in the wider economy?

Well actually it's hard to say because there's not a lot of data about although I'd hesitate to suggest that's because Universities don't want to do the research because they're worried what they will discover about the science park that bears their name.

It is slightly easier to find those who criticise the whole concept though. Prof Stuart Macdonald of Aalto University in Helsinki was happy to chat with me over the internet. In the past he's studied Aston and Warwick business parks. He says the highest priority of companies isn't access to academics or the latest research, it's good parking.

Prof Macdonald also says people fixate on the wrong things when it comes to the science park concept. He says the aim for many is to replicate the success of places like Silicon Valley in California but that people grab on to all sorts of odd ideas about what that might involve. Including he says usually having an "inspirational" duck pond on the park. In fact you can trace the duck pond from Silicon Valley to Warwick to brand new parks in Shanghai.

Sadly that's about the most concrete piece of evidence I've really been able to find about the wider impact of these parks. For Birmingham Science Park they can point to the creation of 130 jobs and sixty new companies in the last three years alone and a new £35 million expansion coming soon. But might that have happened on an ordinary industrial estate? Providing there was plenty of parking it's certainly possible. Duck pond or no duck pond.

My morning with Dora the robotic explorer

Post categories:

David Gregory | 16:42 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2012

Dora the robot

I'll tell you a little truth about robots and television. They really don't mix. Especially robots and live television.

So sometimes in the name of getting a shot you ask if the robot you are filming could be made a little bit more cooperative. Which usually means turning off the robot's brain and putting it in "joystick mode" where it becomes a really expensive remote controlled toy.

But my morning with Dora was mostly spent with her thinking for herself. She really is a remarkable achievement even if not the prettiest of robots I've filmed.

The researchers from the University of Birmingham have spent four years on Dora. As they freely admit for them it's less about how a robot looks and more about how smart they can make it.

So Dora can map a room and look for objects or people. She's been programmed to be curious and to recognise what sort of room she's in. So if asked to find a magazine she'll start searching the living room first rather than the kitchen.

The aim is to produce robots that can cope in normal, chaotic human environments like our homes or offices. The project with Dora has now finished. But new research proposals are in and if successful the team want to build robots that can function for weeks and months at a time rather than hours.

You may one day find a daughter or Dora in a nursing home or working as a security guard in your office.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.