Interview: Alan Dix, director of Swansea University Computational Foundry

From reaching new highs in the rankings to the opening of Bay Campus, Swansea University is going through something of a golden age.

But things are only just getting started for the university. The Computational Foundry will see it become a world-leading centre of technology research and development.

Tech Dragons recently caught up with Alan Dix, who runs the foundry. He speaks about how the multi-million pound development is progressing and its aims.

TD: What is the Swansea Uni Computational Foundry?

AD: The new £32.5 million world-class Computational Science facility will act as a beacon for research collaborations and will look to attract leading researchers to Wales, placing Swansea at the heart of a thriving regional ecosystem of digital companies and research.

TD: Why is it being set up?

AD: The ‌Computational Foundry ‌is backed by £17m from the European Regional Development Fund. It will drive research into computational and mathematical sciences and make Wales a global destination for computational scientists and industrial partners.

The university’s vision is to nurture and grow a dedicated community of computational and mathematical scientists who pursue transformative research and believe that better computational science is vital in building a progressive world: socially, economically, culturally, philosophically and intellectually.

TD: What is the Foundry looking to achieve?

AD: The Computational Foundry will provide state-of-the-art facilities for a computational science community, comprising the staff of Swansea University University’s Computer Science and Mathematics departments as its core team.

This facilitates cross-discipline research, working with a ‘wider’ computational science community – encompassing academics from other disciplines within the University where academic interests overlap.

The Foundry will be a place where industry partners can work with us, test new ideas, people from all disciplines can link up and research, and where the digital innovators of tomorrow are completing their studies.

TD: How is the project progressing, and how will it transform the tech scene in Wales?

AD: The project is on track for opening to coincide with the start of the academic year 2018/19, September 2018. The Foundry will be the crucible for innovation and business engagement in the ICT sector, creating an eco-system for meaningful career opportunities across all sectors.

EU funding supports us to drive forward cutting-edge research and innovation for Wales’ global success, which will have a positive impact on people, businesses and communities across Wales by helping build a thriving economy for all.

TD: There are three themes: Sustaining Life; Enhancing Life; and Securing Life. What are they all about?

AD: Cyber security (‘Securing Life’), health technologies (‘Sustaining Life’) and the increasing pervasiveness of digital in everyday life (‘Enhancing Life’) will be the three core research themes initially, but the Computational Foundry will adopt a flexible approach, responding to industry needs and emerging research priorities across computational science.

The themes reflect some of our existing strengths and foci, but are representative of a desire to address fundamental research questions that affirm human values and contribute to a more prosperous and sustainable world.

TD: What sort of innovations will the Foundry cover?

AD: The Foundry will enable researchers and collaborative partners to develop and pilot ideas. These will then lead to large scale research proposals funded both by private and public funders. As results emerge from these funded projects, we have a series of well-tested mechanisms that can translate the research towards impact for society and the economy.

The Computational Foundry will be a key dynamo to power the growth of the digital economy in South Wales, and to support the further development of the region’s technology cluster. It will draw in talented researchers, collaborations with industry and research users, and will generate significant research income. It will underpin job creation and economic opportunity.

As an example, the Computational Foundry is home to leading scientists that are working in innovative and game-changing Machine Learning and Data Analysis techniques, such as the recent collaboration with the University of Oxford and University of Liverpool on a £2.8million EPSRC project for innovative mathematical techniques in data analysis.

It is often the case that academic research proceeds following its own theoretical agenda, and practical user needs are poorly addressed by shoehorning existing technology.  In contrast to this, many Computational Foundry projects include aspects of co-design with end-user partners: communities, companies and civic organisations – this means that theoretical thinking is challenged by real needs benefiting both and leading to truly innovative theory and technology.

TD: How will it bring the Welsh tech industry together?

AD: The Computational Foundry is a real opportunity for anyone from any background who wants to change the world.

We will involve as many different perspectives in all that we do in the Foundry. So not just technologists or computer scientists, but people from the arts and social sciences, and critically people from our community as we build a future that involves everyone and is for everyone.

We will be partnering with a whole range of companies of all sizes and sectors to innovate with us.

For example, we are currently working with public sector organisations such as NHS and DVLA to provide innovations to address the urgent and complex data-based problems they have. We are on track in our goal of being seen as a centre for excellence in the innovation needed for governmental and public sector systems (or “Digital Civics”).

TD: Will it help to close the tech skills shortage in Wales? And, if so, how?

AD: The Computational Foundry has a number of existing relationships with key tech firms including Microsoft, IBM, Google, Intel as well as local tech start up companies. These links to industry are of great benefit to our students, who engage with industry in group projects, and are able to translate their theoretical knowledge to the workplace.

We have a very high employment rate –  91.9% of our Computer Science students are in graduate employment or further study within six months after leaving university.

In addition, as part of the Computational Foundry project, undergraduate student numbers in computing disciplines have more than doubled.  That is we are seeing an increase in both the quantity and quality of technology graduates in Wales due to the Computational Foundry.

TD: What’s next for the foundry?

AD: We see the Computational Foundry as a sustainable, world-class resource, which will continue to attract substantial research investment from private and public funders in its long term future.

The move into the new building in the Bay Campus is the end of a first phase of physical construction.  However, more critically it is the beginning of our shared endeavour, moving beyond the Computational Foundry as a simple building to using that building as a hub to create a community of those engaged in digital research, technology and applications across Wales, with a mission to ensure that computation changes the world for the better, so that together we can forge a digital future that benefits everyone.