Best practices on cross-sectoral collaboration in clean shipping

Teemu Itälinna,
Project Researcher,
CSHIPP, Pan-European Institute,
University of Turku, Finland

The Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme connects partners around the Baltic Sea to work together in transnational projects. The Clean Shipping Project Platform (CSHIPP), which brings together several projects and organisations, is a great example of a collaborative venture where organisations do valuable cross-sectoral work on common challenges. One of the tasks in the CSHIPP is to find out best practices of industry-academia collaboration. The research is still ongoing, but based on extensive interview material some conclusions can be drawn.

Universities and private companies are of course completely different types of organisations. So what exactly are they expecting to gain by joining in a collaborative project together? For academics, the reasons resembled much of the traditional roles associated with universities, namely research, education and societal discussion. Researchers noted that collaboration with industry enabled universities to do applied research based on ‘real life’ settings and have access to data and resources, which they otherwise would not have. As importantly, academics pursued dissemination of knowledge and contributed to science through reports and journal articles, but also increased the understanding of the wider public. From an educational point of view, the project gave students an opportunity to participate in project activities and gain practical knowledge about the industry.

Industry partners valued the possibility of product and service development, process optimisation and learning via knowledge transfer. Some partners saw the project as a promotion platform, which they could utilize to show the governments and the public that the maritime industry has addressed the current environmental challenges. For smaller companies the project gave an opportunity to develop prototypes together with qualified partners with financing included, larger companies appreciated an opportunity to develop demo cases before scaling them up. Business partners were eager to cooperate with other companies and learn from each other. Although some of them were competitors, they were generally willing to share information with each other even if it was not entirely in their immediate interest.

Project partners from both domains saw the cross-sectoral work as rewarding, though challenging at times. Academics were mostly satisfied with the engagement of the industry even though many of the companies were new to this kind of collaboration. The level of trust and openness between the partners was regarded as high and the companies were keen to explore new solutions. Companies valued the access to universities and many interviewees mentioned that they had learned new things from the academic partners, particularly because universities also possess a wide range of information about other industries, such as the automotive industry. Furthermore, company representatives noted that academics were able to examine industry processes with fresh eyes and new methods.

Nevertheless, industry partners were not completely without reservations. Many interviewees had concerns that the work would get ‘too academic’—that is focusing too much on the theoretical side to the detriment of actual issues. Some were worried that the project might turn out to be a mere theoretical exercise, not something that could be put into practice. In addition, many felt that the ‘clock speed’ is often different in business and research domains. One interviewee thus reminded that when stirring people in the industry, they also expect at least some quick preliminary results, therefore academic papers to be published in the future are not enough.

Many of the business representatives saw some of the project related responsibilities as frustrating, at least occasionally. The project involves a lot of administrative burden, especially if the partners do not have previous EU project experience. Some smaller companies lacked both the experience and skills to manage the sometimes-complicated reporting procedures. As one interviewee noted, technical issues are their home field, with reporting they are less confident.

That said, companies acknowledged the important advisory role that the academics had. Universities generally have more experience of project reporting and they can ease the bureaucratic burden for the companies. One academic was particularly praised for having earlier experience from the industry and thus understanding how things work on both sides. Although every partner should make sure they have enough time and resources not only for project activities but also for reporting, skilful coordinators can ensure that everybody can focus on what they do best.

Ideally, the cross-sectoral collaboration creates synergies and pushes the partners to better performance. A project consortium, with the combination of practical and research-oriented people, creates a good platform for sharing ideas and expertise. But the more partners involved, the more complicated it will be to coordinate the consortium. It is important to cross the project work packages and technology cases in order to generate synergies—not just pursue isolated efforts but to create and learn together. It helps if the project partners have experience from other sectors; this kind of boundary spanning roles can be crucial to ensure the success of cooperation. Let it further be noted that time used in planning definitely pays back later. Finding content alignment between sectors requires recurrent talks, face to face if possible, and also informal meetings since collaboration of any kind can be broken down to a personal level.

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