The British Conservative MEP was addressing a conference on digital innovation, sponsored by Huawei Technologies, earlier this week in Brussels.
The event, which brought together leading academics, scientists and EU officials, focused on how Europe’s cities and regions are at the forefront of the so-called “digital revolution.”
Ford, one of the keynote speakers, cited work being done in her home constituency Cambridge as an example of “multi-disciplinary clusters.”
She said, “Many studies tell us that innovation is most dynamic when two or more disciplines interface. In Cambridge this happens all the time. It is a multi-disciplinary cluster where the different spheres of science collide and generate solutions.”
Ford, who chairs the European Parliament’s internal market committee, told the packed audience, “The astronomy department adapted their algorithms for watching the night sky to help oncologists map out how different breast cancers grow.”
She added, “This has led to developments in new personalised treatments and improved cure rates - literally, using star gazing to cure cancer.
The event, “10 tech enablers: Europe’s rising university-industry clusters”, was organised by the Brussels-based Science|Business organisation which specialises in EU innovation policy.
Opening the day-long debate, Chen Lifang, corporate senior vice president of Chinese technology giant Huawei said information and communication technologies had become “deeply integrated” into society.
The challenge now, she argued, was to make the “digital transformation” a success.
Her company had already invested some $38bn in R&D, 30 per cent of which, she noted, had been spent on “cutting edge” ICT technologies.
Huawei are working with universities in various European cities, including Manchester, Munich and Stockholm, said Lifang, who added, “We are fully committed to helping to build an ICT eco system in Europe and doing this through partnerships.”
She added, “We continuously value customers and invest heavily in innovation to develop the best technologies. We will continue investing more and exploring more.”
Another keynote speaker, Tibor Navracsics, EU commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, emphasised the role of university-industry partnerships.
He said, “Innovation happens where ideas and experience collide and where entrepreneurial skills work side by side with those who have frontier knowledge.”
Navracsics said he was pleased that the conference focus was on local level and cities, saying that some regions had been particularly successful in developing so-called “innovation clusters.”
But he added, “We need to know why some cities are lagging behind in their approaches to driving innovation.”
The commissioner told the audience, “We have to support universities to transform themselves from being Ivory Towers of theoretical knowledge to more practical innovation hubs.
“There is a need for higher education institutions to be more useful in practical terms in generating economic growth for our regions. The task is to bring universities into the economic life of our regions.”
He argued that there is a need to “transform our investment environment” to allow businesses to fund education systems.
Addressing a session on “the role of university-industry partnerships in regional innovation”, the commissioner cited several EU initiatives designed to help with this, including the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).
Maryline Flaschi, managing director of Science|Business, who moderated the debate, reminded Navracsics that a recent European Court of auditors report had highlighted “severe weaknesses” in the functioning of the EIT.
On this, he conceded, “There was a difficult start for the EIT but I hope we can close that difficult period. A new advisory board has been set up and we are launching a new organisational structure with new management.”
He went on to say that the EIT had created more than 300 “spin off companies, adding, “We already see that EIT graduates find jobs more quickly, earn more and create start-ups more often than their peers,” he said.
Speaking in a panel discussion, Dutch EPP MEP Lambert Van Nistelrooij stressed the importance of universities in concentrating on what he called “smart specialisation”.
This is the best way for these further education establishments, he said, "to fulfil their ICT potential for jobs and growth”.
“Take what is happening in Toulouse, for example, where 40,000 people are working on aviation." Van Nistelrooij explained that the Region and research organisations have come together to work in specialised avionics groups. "You have to specialise otherwise globally, you won't go far.”
Jaak Aaviskoo, rector of Tallin University of Technology and a former Estonian education minister, said it wasn’t just universities such as Cambridge that were contributing to more “digitalisation” but “thousands of others academic centres” throughout Europe.
Another speaker, Michael Hill-King, collaboration director at Huawei’s UK R&D centre, admitted there was a current shortage of technical digital skills but that the work being done by his company and university-industry clusters was designed to address this.
The event also showcased a report produced by Science|Business featuring 10 European clusters where academia, industry and government are working together to make digital innovation “a reality” in a range of fields from healthcare to energy.
These innovative city clusters include Copenhagen which aims to become the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025 and Rotterdam which is at the vanguard of the push to harness the “internet of things.”
The Dutch port, according to the report, has been transformed with automated fork lift trucks, crewless ships and underwater and airborne drones.
The debate also touched on the possible impact of Brexit on future collaboration between universities in the UK and the rest of Europe.
Turning to a “post Brexit world,” Vicky Ford warned, “Many of those in the Cambridge cluster do have strong links to Europe but they have links to the US and China too. If we don’t get future collaboration right it won’t be a case of those individuals relocating to Germany or France. The choice is between Cambridge, England or Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
She concluded, “Europe as a whole will miss out. This is not in the interest of science or innovation and I hope that all of us who care about innovation will help find a way for the collaboration between the UK and EU to continue.