The world’s first ‘social science research park’ nears completion

Cardiff University will next year launch sbarc/spark – the world’s first ‘social science research park’

Billed as the world’s first “social science research park” the near-completion sbarc/spark building will be the £60m flagship of Cardiff University’s £300m Innovations Campus.

Cardiff’s own research projects will coexist and collaborate alongside private and public institutions within the 12,000m² building to design, prototype and test solutions to society’s most pressing problems.

The ethos and emphasis behind the building is very much on disrupting the ‘pigeonhole’ disciplines of the social sciences and reinventing how they can collaborate and integrate.

“Being under the same roof, sharing the spaces, with our external partners,” says sbarc/spark director Professor Chris Taylor, “naturally brings us all together – and in a meaningful way. By its nature it will make the research much more accessible. We’ll be open for the public to engage with all our social science research in the university.”

(Left to right) Prof Chris Taylor, academic director and Sally O’Connor, operations director, both sbarc/spark, with Prof Damian Walford Davies, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor

 

Think tank

The genesis of sbarc/spark was first, well, sparked, back in 2011 when Cardiff announced the launch of five new research centres, each with a brief to become world leaders in investigating and tackling major global societal issues such as finding solutions for chronic diseases, water scarcity, new ways of interpreting ‘big data’, innovations in energy use and crime prevention.

The original vision, says Chris Taylor, was for sbarc/spark to be a little more in line, and design, with UK university-affiliated science parks; those shiny steel and glass ‘suburbs’ you see from the motorway – the ones without the TK Maxx – such as UWE’s Future Space campus and Exeter Science Park, with multiple academic and private sector residents carrying out their research in specially constructed buildings.

But the need for the land available for the sbarc/spark project to be financially viable – former railway goods yards in the heart of the city’s university and cultural districts – led to the idea of consolidating the entire concept in one building and, if you like, reimagining sbarc/spark as a huge, city-centre department store of innovations rather than a research-based version of an out-of-town mall.

The building is huge; a glass and steel-fronted multi-storey of offset rectangles, designed by architects Hawkins\Brown in collaboration with the university, and built by Bouygues UK. Eventually it will be buzzing with something like 400 social science researchers from over a dozen different Cardiff Uni, private- and public-sector organisations.

Cardiff Innovation Campus

 

There’s another way

Cardiff already has an enviable reputation in the social sciences, and a track record of influencing social and economic policy in Wales. So is the new building an attempt to showcase the university further afield, perhaps even corner the social science research market? Chris chuckles a “no”, but he’s deadly serious about the intent for sbarc/spark to revolutionise the disciplines.

“The social sciences have a really good understanding of the challenges facing society we need to urgently address – the environmental crisis, crime, inequality, social justice.”

But words don’t always translate into action. Historically, the social sciences haven’t been able to find the ‘magic bullets’ to remedy those issues, not in the way medical sciences have done to tackle diseases and come up with vaccines.

That’s because social ills are contextual and time-specific, reasons Chris. “There’s a struggle with scaling-up the impact of its research to have a broader impact. It’s very localised – it might influence a policy or a community, but that’s as far as it tends to go.”

“Social sciences have got to step up now and offer the support needed for a post-pandemic world. But past experience tells us that while we’re very good at generating knowledge, we’re not very successful at properly sharing it with others” – Professor Chris Taylor

Chris cites the aftermath of the pandemic as a prime example. “We brought scientific evidence to bear on the decisions about how to respond to Covid. Now, we’re in a position where the social sciences have got to step-up and offer the support needed for a post-pandemic world. But past experience tells us that while we’re very good at generating knowledge, we’re not very successful at properly sharing it with others.”

Taylor argues that the social sciences need to work in a more collaborative way by co-producing the research questions, the research designs and the research impact that comes from it.

“It’s always been a kind of translational activity where we do something, we then pass it to somebody else and then they do something with it, and that’s complex. You need bigger teams, you need more resource, and more expertise and then it becomes impossible to really deliver on because it’s not achievable.

“But the layout of the sbarc/spark building, the way its diverse occupants and disciplines can’t help but encounter one another, encourages cross-fertilisation of ideas and spurs the necessary collaborative connections for forming ideas, creating blueprints for actions that can be adapted to different contexts and circumstances and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring those ideas get as wide a take-up as possible.

“We’re creating an environment that brings everybody together, at all the stages of their development and research, throughout the building. You’re encountering other projects and research that might have connections and crossover to what you’re doing and the spirit of cooperation the building has means you can draw on their resources, their expertise, their findings.”

The Oculus staircase

 

Universal appeal

In additions to offices, conference rooms and teaching/research spaces, sbarc/spark will be brimming with resources and facilities, all of which Chris is clearly excited by: “Dedicated behavioural labs teeming with easy-to-access, state-of-the-art equipment such as eye tracking. Data hubs. Wet labs. Visualisation labs. Libraries. A TV studio. A TED-style auditorium with myriad seating arrangement possibilities for different public events.

“sbarc/spark will also be home to the Re-Maker Space, which will be open to the public, and really drive the urgent need for us to embrace the circular economy and learn the skills needed to repair and recycle, even remanufacture things.”

There will also, the Prof is at pains to point out, “great coffee, available throughout, too, from local, independent providers”.

Bright red, the Oculus staircase resembles a giant optic nerve, aptly feeding sbarc/spark’s brain

Linking all of that interior hubbub is the really quite breathtaking Oculus staircase, a weaving, open-plan staircase travelling through a slanting void towards a massive skylight that fills the building with light. Bright red, the Oculus resembles a giant optic nerve, aptly feeding sbarc/spark’s brain. Surreally sculptural and futuristic, Oculus features breakout zones at each level – encouraging sbarc/spark-ites from any level of the curated floors to meet, collaborate and socialise as they journey between floors and projects.

The Event Space

 

Some distance left to run

With that showpiece staircase now fully constructed, sbarc/spark certainly looks like it means business. But there’s still a fair old countdown until actual ignition – even after the builders leave and the university is handed the keys in October.

“We’ve got to kit the building out, first, all the furnishings and tech needs to be installed. We’re looking to move in our university staff in the weeks before the Christmas break, and that will be a good opportunity to root out any snags with the building, and then our externals will start to move in from late January, early February 2022.”

Taylor says that while the building will be open and inclusive to all, they’re being deliberately strategic about which external organisations set up shop first. “There are some organisations we’re really keen to work with and whom we think are essential to making the other connections and links that will work with other organisations so, yeah, there is some deliberate phasing going on with the externals rollout, but certainly within three years you’ll find a building full of businesses and activity.”

Mindful of the adage ‘If you want to make God laugh, reveal your brand-new social science park’s dream list of tenants’, Taylor is cautious about naming actual external organisations he wants to see in sbarc/spark, but he will confirm a range of tenants, including “private-sector and government organisations who have got key leadership roles”, and that “the post-pandemic landscape, how we shape it in commercially viable ways, will likely be the primary focus for many of them.

“Just as the scientists came forward and stepped up during the middle of the pandemic in terms of the medical needs and the transmission issues, the social sciences are now going to be central to that recovery stage. But”, he adds “we’re also very keen to have organisations that represent particular communities, or community groups themselves, coming into the mix. We want to find ways to support lots of new, not-for-profit social enterprise organisations, and charities – who, as you know, have been hardest hit during the pandemic.”

Sectional slice through sbarc/spark by Hawkins\Brown and Wigwam Architectural Visualisation

 

Fair wage for tomorrow

sbarc/spark will be able to make a valid claim to addressing a major societal issue – wages disparity – on the day it opens as the first ‘living wage’ building in Wales.

Fully accredited by the Living Wage Foundation, Cardiff will be the biggest institution in the UK to make the salary commitment – the only UK wage rate voluntarily paid by 7,000 UK businesses who say their staff deserve a salary which meets everyday needs. It ties in with the city of Cardiff’s own pledge to become a ‘living wage city’.

“The university’s been an active champion of the living wage movements,” says Chris, “not just in the higher ed sector but throughout Cardiff and Wales since 2014.”

The official accreditation for the building puts a cherry on top of that ambition.

“I’m proud of it, it means that every tenant or every member who comes into the building now will also have to be a living wage employer, so anybody, everybody, who’s working in there is guaranteed fair pay.”

As Chris acknowledges, university staff are, “y’know, paid a good living, but now it means that contractors and externals have to follow suit. They may not currently be living wage employers themselves but this will give them an insight as to what it means and, it’s important to let them know, the status it brings to them. And then, it may hopefully raise the income of some people who work in the building, but it’ll certainly raise the profile of the living wage movement by all these organisations suddenly becoming living wage employers themselves at the same point.”


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