Innovation Week: How we're tackling society's biggest challenges

24 October 2016

From using video games to battle diseases, to building robots to improve food security, at the University of Sydney we’ve always pushed the boundaries of research and education to take on some of society’s biggest challenges.

Get involved in Innovation Week from Monday 24 to Friday 28 October

From using video games to help in the battle against diabetes, to developing robots to improve the world’s food security, at the University of Sydney we’ve always pushed the boundaries of research and education to take on some of society’s biggest challenges.

We ‘ve partnered with Qantas to create a 4D flight planning system for cheaper, cleaner flights, we’re learning from the insatiable appetite of locusts to pioneer a new approach to human nutrition, and we’re working with industry to create the smart cities of the future.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Duncan Ivison said the University of Sydney believed that ground-breaking discoveries and transformative inventions depended on bringing the right people together in an environment that gave them room and support to discover and innovate.

“Every day, across the University, our outstanding teachers and researchers work together and with our community and industry partners to harness our collective expertise to address some of the biggest challenges our communities face today.”

The University has invested almost $1 billion in interdisciplinary research over the past six years in areas such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease; nanoscale science and technology; and mental health and brain science, as well as in a better understanding of China and Southeast Asia.

New initiatives include a transdisciplinary focus on infectious diseases, translational data science, climate change and the intersection between food, animals, soil, nutrition and global health.

“This places us among the leading institutions globally pursuing these grand challenges,” Professor Ivison said.

Dr Barbara Scherrer using an atom probe

Dr Barbara Scherrer using an atom probe at the Sydney Nanoscience Hub.

Faster flights

In June this year, our partnership with Qantas to develop new fuel-saving techniques and optimise flight paths saw the launch of a world-first 4D flight planning system.

The system, which the airline plans to implement in 2017, is the result of a four-year project conducted at the University’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) by a cross-disciplinary team that included four aeronautical research fellows, three PhD candidates and a team of software engineers.

Speaking to attendees at the launch of the plan, which included Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, Director of Research and Innovation at the ACFR and Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems Salah Sukkarieh said the system would deliver fuel benefits to Qantas by optimising the path, speed and altitude of its aircraft.

“Qantas has almost limitless ways to get between any two points on their flight network across the globe.

“The Qantas planning system is primarily responsible for finding the most operationally and fuel efficient routes for the airline’s flights,” Professor Sukkarieh said.

“This process starts with aeronautical information or data such as traffic flow and weather patterns being fed into the flight planning system. It produces flight plans for the dispatch team for analysis and flight watch, then feeds updates to the aircraft.”

Healthier and better diets

We’re also using the kind of user engagement and immediacy normally found in computer games to empower people with diabetes to stick to lifestyle and medication regimes.

Endocrinologist Professor Stephen Twigg and Associate Professor Rafael Calvo, a software engineer specialising in human-computer interaction, are working to battle diabetes.

Together they’ve created an avatar-based app, the Intelligent Diabetes Lifestyle Coach, which will help people with diabetes around the world stick to their treatment programs.

The interface has a human-like ‘personality’ which records and offers feedback on the user’s consistency in following their diabetes treatment, as well as providing goals and plans. It works towards ‘self-efficacy’ – where users no longer need it to coach them with their ongoing diabetes treatment.

A secure food source

An interdisciplinary research team led by the University of Sydney is at the forefront of the global effort to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals on hunger in Myanmar.

Associate Professor Ranjit Voola, a pioneer in the teaching of poverty alleviation and profitability, who was invited to participate in a UN-sponsored summit on sustainable development this year, has created a postgraduate unit of study titled ‘Poverty alleviation and profitability’.

“Our unit of study aims to encourage students to radically rethink the traditional business focus on prosperous middle class markets and engage with the world’s poor,” Dr Voola said.

“We are not talking about exploitation but rather a novel role for business in poverty alleviation.”

Dr Voola says the four billion people in the developing world who exist on less than five dollars a day present the private sector with an untapped market worth five trillion dollars, as well as an opportunity to make a profit while alleviating poverty.

Faster and smaller computers

Launched in April 2016, the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at the University of Sydney was specifically designed to meet the supremely exacting needs of nanoscience research. It is the most advanced facility for nanoscience in the region – where design, fabrication and testing of devices can occur under one roof.

Nanoscience is expected to be more impactful this century than the industrial revolution was in the 19th century.

Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence said the University-wide AINST reached across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

“The Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology continues the University of Sydney’s tradition in addressing multidisciplinary issues in a unique way to ensure that we are ready to solve the great challenges of science, engineering and beyond,” he said.

Building smarter cities

In August this year, in conjunction with partner Lend Lease, we were awarded a $3 million federal government grant to undertake a collaborative research project to develop prefabricated multi-storey housing solutions.

The five-year industry-led project received funding from the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science’s Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) program to develop and build prototype-housing solutions that use high-tech, renewable materials and advanced manufacturing processes.

Associate Professor Mathew Aitchison in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning said that the project presented an enormous opportunity to bring innovation to the residential construction market, which has remained largely unchanged in the last 100 years.

“Despite major advances in other manufacturing sectors, innovation in residential construction is lagging. This project seeks to drive efficiency and safety benefits and boost Australia’s competitiveness internationally, where we have seen a notable increase in advanced manufacturing in building over the past decade,” Associate Professor Aitchison said.

“The project will develop a range of solutions for the multi-storey housing market that address increasing urban density and residential market demands.”

University of Sydney Innovation Week takes place from Monday 24 to Friday 28 October 2016 across the University. Find out more at