Focus on research: Prof Siobhan Clarke, Connect
You have quite a varied academic CV at this stage. What brought you back to academia after your spell with IBM?
I loved my time at IBM. I think working on software development with them really brought home to me the extent (and cost) of the huge challenges of software development.
From my experience, I could see that software development projects tended to be over-budget, and it was very difficult to write bug-free software. From that experience, I decided to switch my efforts towards research into addressing these difficulties.
My PhD topic related to new ways to structure software designs with the goal to make those designs easier to model and change.
Originally, my plan was to return to IBM, but the problem with software engineering techniques turned out to be far bigger than I had realised.
I’m still working in Trinity College Dublin on better ways to build software, and don’t think I’ll make it back to industry before I retire.
Even though I’m not in industry full-time, I work a lot with companies – that is one of the great things about working in a Science Foundation Ireland research centre and, in particular, a research programme like Enable. There is really strong collaboration with industry.
Having worked with a number of SFI centres, do you think there is a change in academic culture where graduates are looking more towards projects with commercial potential over ‘pure research’?
We have seen a strong growth in the number of industry-informed research projects. Certainly, some of my PhD graduates have started companies, and a few more went to start-ups set up by other people, but I would say many of my graduates like the idea of continuing their research, and look for roles either in academia, or companies with a research division.
PhD training generally results in graduates who have been trained to think deeply about things, and are happy only when they are solving hard problems they are excited about. This tends to mean continuing in research.
We’re about a year and a half into the Enable smart cities programme. What initiatives have impressed you the most?
I really like the Smart Dublin initiative, which has engaged the four local authorities in Dublin to take a challenge-based approach to engaging with multiple stakeholders such as citizens, companies, and researchers, towards improving life in the city.
Solutions to numerous challenges such as flooding, dumping and mobility have been supported through the SBIR programme and an impressive ecosystem has been established across the city.
Through the Enable programme, which I lead, the academic research community across the Connect and Insight SFI research centres, has been particularly active in working with Smart Dublin to research next-generation technologies to address urban challenges.
Smart Dublin’s open, multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder ethos is sure to be a winner.
With the climate crisis upon us, where do you see Enable projects helping to protect critical infrastructure?
Sustainability is a core principle within Enable, and there is significant potential to use outputs from Enable’s research to optimise the use of constrained resources, such as energy, water, the road network, etc.
In particular, I have explored using learning techniques to facilitate sharing resources such as domestic electricity in a localised smart grid area, such as a housing estate.
When physical infrastructure is damaged as a result of significant weather events, there is certainly scope to supplement/maintain connectivity with drones, for instance, but I think it remains an open question to see how clean water or electricity could be distributed in a new/different way to current schemes – these are interesting challenges.
Working with communities is a key focus for Enable. What has been the reception to the centre’s work been like?
One of the most interesting projects has involved engaging with school students. We have held workshops with Transition Year students in schools in Dublin’s Docklands on questions relating to climate change.
The workshops have been great fun, and educational in the sense that the children have been shown the potential impact of flooding on the streets where they live, arising from global warming.
We also have a really interesting project called Smart Sandyford, with Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, which is bringing the business community together with academic researchers, the local authority and local residents to figure out what a smart community will look like. It’s early days, but very exciting.
Connect is the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for future networks and communications. It is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund.