UNITE! alliance map
3 June 2020
UNITE! & Covid-19: united universities for a united solution
Technological universities have been key to face the Covid-19 crisis and provide solutions for the new challenges that have emerged. The University Network for Innovation, Technology and Engineering (UNITE!), which gathers 7 prestigious European universities, allows direct knowledge and technology transfer in order to face the challenges more efficiently and with long-lasting effects. From setting up digital platforms to ensure the continuation of quality higher education, to the design of diagnostic or communication tools, the contribution of UNITE! universities has been invaluable in this global challenge.

The European Universities Initiative is a strategy of the European Commission that promotes the creation of university alliances in order to develop innovative projects, connected with research and knowledge transfer, capable of generating graduates with an extra value. European Universities will become inter-university campuses around which students, doctoral candidates, staff and researchers can move seamlessly. They will pool their expertise, platforms and resources to deliver joint curricula or modules covering various disciplines.

The University Network for Innovation, Technology and Engineering (UNITE!) is one of the 17 alliances that constitute the European Universities Initiative. Gathering 7 prestigious European universities, UNITE! is a bottom-up network that is setting up a new model for a virtual and physical inter-university campus, the first focused of engineering, science and technology. UNITE! is transforming European higher education through multidisciplinary, multicultural and multilingual education, research and entrepreneurship, providing skills for a new generation of European and global citizens.

The UNITE! alliance is based on their long-standing successful collaboration. It generates new technological solutions and implement them to shape the future of science, economy and society. Notably, it hosts some of the most active entrepreneurial ecosystems, generating start-up activities and innovations with a marked societal impact across Europe and the world. We are thus ideally equipped to address major global challenges.

The arrival of Covid-19 has shaken the status quo across continents, overpowering health systems and shutting down economies, thus affecting millions of people. In this situation, we have witnessed an unprecedented collective response to alleviate the crisis and face new challenges. And the UNITE! alliance had an essential role to play in it.

 

The evolution of higher education

Being a network of higher education institutions, one of the pressing needs was to ensure the continuity of their education programmes.

One of the main initiatives was the set-up of online platforms that supported teachers and students in remote teaching and learning. For example,  Grenoble INP, the institute of engineering and management of University Grenoble Alpes (UGA), in France, has asked its service PerFORM, a support team dedicated to teaching innovation, to create a multidisciplinary learning website to provide tools and advice for remote teaching and learning. Similarly, the Politecnico di Torino (PoliTO), in Italy, adapted an open-source software, Big Blue Button to the needs for live and video-recorded lectures, as well as providing an integrated platform for remote control for oral and written exams.

Universities like the Technical University of Darmstadt (TU Darmstadt), in Germany, also expanded their digital offer to the summer by creating the “Digital summer semester”, with a focus on curiosity, delight in experimentation, as well as pragmatism, which is required more than ever during this coronavirus crisis.

But the efforts were not only dedicated to teaching and learning, as the digitisation of lessons and contents presented a challenge for those students who didn’t have access to computers at home. This is why we find initiatives like “Un Ordi pour Bibi” (A Computer for Me), a coordinated charitable initiative to bring a computer to all the homes, where the Grenoble INP is collaborating.

 

Bottom-up initiatives: when students take the lead

UNITE! is defined as a bottom-up network because students are a key agent of the European Universities Initiative. This is evidenced by the involvement of students in many Covid-19 related projects that are helping us face the pandemic.

From the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC), in Spain, we can find collaborative projects like “TelecomuniCAT”, which aims at developing an app to connect Covid-19 patients with their families and friends, or Design2Fight Covid-19, a virtual platform that gathers students, teachers and professionals from multiple disciplines to collaboratively use state-of-the-art knowledge in design and engineering to provide solutions as fast and efficiently as possible.

Students were also key agents in the development of reports that have been essential to understand the situation and determine the best solutions. For example, at the end of March, exchange students from Aalto University, in Finland, published an analysis of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the cash position of the catering and accommodation sector in Finland.

Other initiatives include social campaigns online. For example, PoliTO launched a campaign aimed at sharing personal experiences of working/studying from home, #CasaPOLITO, in order to refresh the spirits of students and staff and to foster our sense of community.

 

UNITE! universities at the service of the government and health organisations

UNITE! universities have been assisting governments and healthcare systems in a variety of ways. From coordinating relief efforts, to coordinating logistics, the universities have offered their resources and knowledge to the organisms and institutions that constitute the front line of the pandemic.

On the one hand, we can find initiatives that stimulate knowledge transfer and facilitate decision-making. For example, in Portugal, a model developed by Tecnico’s Research Centre of the University of Lisboa (ULisboa), CERENA, provides daily infection risk maps of Covid-19 for the whole Portugal geographical area.

In Finland, the Helsinki Graduate School of Economics of Aalto University established a situation room to support ministries and other public authorities in economic policy-making during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as providing rapidly produced reports for specific issues, like examining the capacity of restaurant and accommodation sectors to evaluate their ability to withstand the crisis.

On the other hand, we find practical solutions to different challenges. For example, the set-up of field hospitals to make up for the lack of space, like the one installed at the University Stadium of Lisbon (Portugal), with capacity for 500 beds, a coordinated effort between ULisboa and Lisbon’s City Council in association with other entities.


 

Research: a detour towards solving the pandemic

When facing a novel virus, if there is something that can impact its development and outcome, it is science. Millions of euros have been dedicated to research in Europe, both to redirect existing lines of research and the allocation of budget to new projects specifically dedicated to facing this new crisis.

In Sweden, the labs of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) switched gears to fast-track open-source home tests, as well as leading the development of antibody tests. In parallel, many projects try to detect and manage the virus in different mediums. KTH is sampling of sewage water to measure infections in six European countries, and a project lead by TU Darmstadt focuses on a similar approach, by aiming at filtering the coronavirus out of wastewaterin order to determine the local dissemination of a virus and thus deriving appropriate lockdown strategies. In Aalto University, Finnish researchers joined forces to investigate the airborne transmission of the virus.

 

Applied science: a fast response to the lack of sanitary and protective material

In order to address the shortage of materials identified by several healthcare units, UNITE! universities have been collaborating by developing and donating equipment.

PoliTO is cooperating with Piedmont Region to certificate masks and gowns, so they can be made available to medical staff faster. Other initiatives include the donation of material to healthcare facilities. For example, TU Darmstadt donated protective equipment, including 24.800 disposable gloves and 290 protective masks. Similarly, KTH coordinated initiatives to donate different items in need, from visors and sanitizer, to fruit and transparency film.

3D printing has been one of the most efficient tools when addressing the lack of materials. We see multiple initiatives across all partner universities to take advantage of this versatile tool. To name a few, the design update of face shields by ULisboa, making them more adaptable, ergonomic and lightweight, or the 3D printing of emergency breathing machines and other material by the UPC.

 

Strong connections, strong solutions

As evidenced in this summary, technological universities have been, and will be, invaluable when facing global challenges. Networks like UNITE! allow the reinforcement of connections between European universities, stimulating knowledge and technology transfer, and taking advantage of the strengths of each university in a highly innovative environment.

Because it is only united that we will be able to overcome this crisis, alleviate its impact, and face any future challenges.



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