An Engine of Innovation: Swansea University's Bay Campus

by Professor Iwan Davies


At 4 a.m on Friday 18th September 2015, the last road was completed on the Bay Campus in time to greet the Freshers for Welcome Weekend. There was a collective sigh of relief at the successful completion of Phase One of this £450m project and that it had been delivered on time and to budget.

This essay sets out some of the strategic thinking behind Phase One of what was initially referred to as ‘The Science and Innovation Campus’. In time however, through natural abbreviation of Swansea University as mainly a two Campus University, it was easier to refer to Singleton as the Park Campus and the new site as the Bay Campus – after all this reflected the geographical reality of Swansea University as being located in a Park and on a Beach[1].

The establishment of the Bay Campus refreshed the civic credentials of Swansea University by eschewing John Fulton’s experiment of the 49 acres of land allocated to the University at Singleton Park as being sufficient to host a comprehensive Campus University.[2] As a result, by September 2015 Swansea emerged as a multi-campus University with significant sites not only in Swansea, but also at Morriston Hospital with additional facilities in Carmarthen for health sciences with a particular focus on nursing. These campuses were in addition to the Hendrefoilan site acquired fifty years before and which served as a student village but had also housed the Departments of Education and Adult Continuing Education as well as the iconic South Wales Miners’ Library.[3]

The essential characteristic of Swansea University as a Civic University was promoted early on by industrial leaders in South West Wales, who in 1918 presented evidence to the Haldane Commission, set up by the Asquith Government to consider education in Wales. This vein was continued by the first Principal, Franklin Sibly, on the occasion of his inaugural lecture[4] when he invited local metallurgical heavy industries “to give special consideration to the difficulties of a University teacher in a technological subject; the difficulties of keeping up to date both in essential theory and vital practice.” He went on to refer to the importance of research-led teaching : “[I]t should be a special function of the University teacher to give an insight into methods of research and to instil the passion for discovery …” Perhaps more significantly, Sibly commented upon the fact that whilst universities have always engaged in knowledge dissemination this was not always predicated upon economic value. He was giving expression to the views of the industrial founders of the university who championed the role of the university in promoting regional competitive advantage through commercialising scientific research. This was colourfully expressed by Sibly, “Poets, Philosophers and Preachers who can express their ideals, their achievements, in a language intelligible to a great public, who can show them in obvious relationship to human affairs, human aspiration, are recognised as humanists. Not so the scientific worker … his work … is belittled mainly on the score of its commercial application …”

In a real sense then and from its inception, a major characteristic of Swansea University has been knowledge valorisation, turning knowledge into value and working alongside industry. The development of the Bay Campus must be seen within this historical context.

Phase I of the Bay Campus carried on this tradition – it represented an investment in the historic research strengths of the University. In physical terms it consisted of an extensive engineering quarter comprising of four new engineering buildings that provide world class facilities for industry and support impact research, a new Business School, a Great Hall with state of the art learning and teaching facilities, an auditorium capable of supporting conferences as well as a concert programme, a library and a striking new student residences courtyard development adjacent to retail provision for the campus.

The Bay Campus was quickly acknowledged as the leading knowledge economy project in Wales and one of the leading in the UK and is perceived as a striking example of a university–industry–government partnership. The strategic thinking behind the development was a key element in its success as the Bay Campus was not merely a building project but was driven to address the underlying needs and deal with some of the deficiencies in the emerging Higher Education landscape in a devolved Wales.[5]

The Context

In a research report[6] prepared by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) Swansea was described as a “lagging region” in innovation terms and on standard innovation measures within the bottom docile of the city regions in the UK. The productivity gap and the skills deficit in the region has been the object of a number of reports and this despite the provision of European Regional Development Assistance. In Cities Outlook 2011[7], published by the Centres for Cities, Swansea was identified as one of the five vulnerable locations (in an economic sense) due to its over reliance on public sector employment. The No City Left Behind report[8] prepared by the Work Foundation in July 2010, noted : “Growth over the next ten years will be driven by knowledge-based industries and jobs will increasingly demand high level skills. This means Universities and the further education sector will play a crucial role in the recovery” (p.12). In particular, this report highlighted that low carbon industries, and high tech and high value added networked services will be two of the sectors crucial for economic growth and it identified universities as “a valuable source of knowledge and innovation which can benefit start-ups and existing local businesses, whilst close linkages with businesses are also very valuable to Universities” (p.21).

By building upon its historic strengths in science and technology and the fact that, from its foundation, Swansea University enjoyed close collaboration with industry[9], Swansea University had a strong basis for developing its strategic thinking. To this end the university adopted a holistic approach to knowledge transfer activities by focusing upon three broad academic areas: Engineering, ICT and Life Science. These industrial sectors represented 75% of total industrial R&D and thereby offered the greatest potential for supporting the development of high technology companies. As such, they represented the ‘market standard’ in developing a modern knowledge economy and was an approach which found favour by the Welsh Government.

The Swansea University Knowledge Economy Strategy[10] was purposely developed to promote research excellence in the three major disciplines identified. The clash between these disciplines was also regarded as a source for innovation and growth as represented in Figure 1.

The approach revolved around the intersection of multiple networks which could provide the well spring for technology clusters. However, the dilemma for the University was that by 2008 it had reached a point where there was no more physical space on its Singleton Campus large enough to provide future knowledge transfer. A wholesale move of the University to a new site was dismissed and the University Council opted for a second campus to relieve the pressure on Singleton and to achieve a step-change in the University’s capacity and commitment as a powerhouse for the regional economy.[11] The challenge then became one of delivering the physical infrastructure and also the funding for a new Science and Innovation Campus, as a necessary accompaniment for supporting the university’s strategy.

The Establishment of a Creative Alliance

Knowledge is the most powerful single element in our culture and it is no coincidence that one of the first strategic acts of the Welsh Assembly Government in post-devolution Wales was to launch its vision for Wales as a “Learning Country”[12] which was itself an idea that had originated from the Department of Continuing Education in Swansea.[13] The core competency of a nation in what is now a hyper-competitive global knowledge-driven economy is its capacity for continuous innovation, which, in order to flourish, must be supported by world class education, infrastructure and an enabling policy development. The Council of the University grasped the significance of what this meant in the context of Wales, namely that the emphasis had to be on a learning economy which thrives because it uses the skills and expertise of the workforce and management to enable it to compete successfully in global markets.

From the perspective of local communities in Wales, the sense of vulnerability to the forces of globalisation is significant – communities have limited resources to cope with the impact of globalisation in what has now become a ‘borderless world’. This was very much the position in Swansea Bay following BP (the multi-national oil giant)’s decision to withdraw from a region where they had been established since 1919. As part of its planning for a strategic withdrawal, BP sought the galvanisation of the resources of the community, to meet the more acute challenges of globalisation arising from their withdrawal. The goal for BP was to strengthen the capability of the region to innovate: the indigenous capability to develop new products, services and processes and boosting the capacity of local firms to adapt to new technologies and market conditions.

It was within this context that BP worked with Swansea University to create the Bay Campus as a new Science and Innovation Campus. In so doing, BP was continuing a legacy of around eighty years of working with the university both in its current form and as its predecessor, the Anglo Persian Oil Company. The company’s contribution to the built environment on the original Singleton Campus can still be seen, as it was the principal benefactor for the 1937 library. It was also over the years a major sponsor of research conducted by the Engineering Department at the university and provided employment at its oil refineries to many of the university’s graduates.

On the basis of this historical legacy it was not surprising that the role of Swansea University as a research intensive university was considered by BP as critical to building up the innovation capacity of the Swansea Bay region. From the outset, the approach was to treat the University as the most valuable asset the region had in promoting the knowledge economy. As a source of highly educated people and ideas, it was perceived as the engine of innovation. The prospect of building a Science and Innovation Campus was seen as constituting a fitting legacy for BP, providing the infrastructure for Swansea University to fulfil its role as a local agent for regional regeneration. BP thereby played a key role in the organisation and planning for the new Campus.

In the first instance, a “think and do” network was established, consisting of BP, Swansea University, Neath Port Talbot and the City and County of Swansea local authorities and also the Welsh Government. The embedded partnership approach, which suggested the development and brought it to a successful conclusion, is a blueprint, providing an exemplar of the dynamic of a ‘triple helix’ consisting of private enterprise and the university working with the public sector, leveraging new economic and social value. The fundamental driver behind this partnership was the recognition that building global competitive advantage for Wales was not about building new law courts or government offices, but rather building new research laboratories, lecture theatres and innovation centres where big ideas can be hatched and then translated into reality.

At the same time, the careful planning behind the Bay Campus was developed in connection with industry needs which, following close discussion, were identified as follows. First, the need for co-location of industry and academics, not simply on the same site, but in the same building; secondly, access to specialist equipment; thirdly, the ability to access graduates and postgraduates; fourthly, the ability to input into the FE/HE curriculum. Inherent in this was the recognition of the artificial barriers being created between industry and university academics implied by the Science park model. As illustrated in Figure 2, this has proven to hinder and prevent collaboration due to the geographical boundaries created by separating the industry R&D from the university research.

The Science and Innovation Campus Model removes the geographical barriers to collaboration, co-locating industry and academics not only on the same site but in the same buildings.

The approach was supported by the City and County of Swansea which developed a 2020 vision of the city as a Wales-leading centre for the knowledge economy. Simultaneously, the spatial plans for the south-west Wales region specifically acknowledged that Swansea University would be developing an ambitious knowledge economy strategy designed to support the creation of high technology clusters in the areas of ICT, Life Sciences and Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. More recently, the successful working through of this strategy has been presented as evidence of the economic coherence of Swansea Bay as a developing City Region.

Implementation of the new strategy enabled Swansea University, during planning for the new Science and Innovation Campus, to transform itself by increasing the quality and scale of its research with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. In particular, the highly rated College of Engineering was tasked to double in size on condition that it would cherish and maintain the international quality of its provision. By 2012 this had been achieved. In tandem, Swansea University, in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008, delivered the largest growth in world-leading and internationally excellent research in the UK. It maintained this trajectory in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 and by 2016 had more than doubled its research income.

An essential accompaniment to this strategic approach was the intensification of Swansea University’s engagement with the ten biggest R&D companies in the UK as well as relevant SMEs. Significantly, based on the strength of Swansea University’s business links, the European Investment Bank concluded that the University’s Science and Innovation Campus was one of the best projects of its type they had appraised anywhere in Western Europe. There is no doubt that such engagement was facilitated by the financial support provided to Swansea University from the Welsh Government and also the European Regional Development Fund. Swansea University has effectively become a research arm for industry pioneering a physical co-location model merging academia, industry, research and students at one location.

Through building on the increasing scale of its internationally recognised excellent applied research Swansea University was able to deepen its long term collaboration with multinational companies that had the confidence to engage with it in problem-based innovation particularly in the transnational disciplines around the digital economy, life sciences and advanced engineering and manufacturing. This approach also had the advantage of leveraging economic impact because translational disciplines establish a culture of enterprise creation, with Engineering perhaps being one of the best examples of this phenomenon. Involvement with enterprises continues to be an essential element of high impact research in Engineering, where engineers turn new ideas into practical solutions and there is evidence worldwide that high quality engineering faculties and schools are catalysts for new enterprises.

Business represented another translational discipline which has a key role to play in enterprise creation. Building enterprises at that time was an important element of Swansea University’s Business School curriculum where skills including design, product development, marketing and finance were considered to be essential elements. For this reason, the focus of the Bay Campus was upon combining the forces of Engineering and Business as part of building and creating a culture of enterprise creation. Such a development was not surprising to a University like Swansea founded as it was on partnership with entrepreneurs who occupied the industrial landscape of South Wales in the early part of the last century.

The model for delivery of the knowledge economy outputs for the new Campus was established early on in the University’s planning process. Such an approach was essential in order to demonstrate the success of the model and set strategic direction. The US National Academy of Engineering Report of 2005[14](chaired by James Duderstadt) was particularly influential. The key recommendation in the report was the need to establish Innovation Institutes on the campuses of research-intensive universities conducting engineering research and innovation with direct linkages and responsibilities to industries. It was considered that such linkages provided continual guidance to use inspired research thereby driving a process of valorisation of knowledge and where appropriate, its commercialisation.

A research institute model reflecting the above was created by the Science and Innnovation Campus. The underlying rationale was to move research further down the innovation pathway so as to create opportunities to exploit and commercialise engineering research, deriving benefit to Swansea University and its industrial partners. The first business venture of the new Campus with Rolls Royce utilises this model in the context of advanced materials. The research institute contained the research activity (in the case of Rolls Royce, this was a University Technology Centre) and a spin-out company which provides commercial services based on the research output and takes responsibility for facilities management and service provision. The profits from the commercial activity are channelled back into the Institute to increase overall research capabilities. A fundamental feature of the model is that the research and commercial activities are co-located; the academic staff and commercial employees share the same physical space, facilities and equipment. This encourages and supports a two way flow of information and expertise. Academic input adds value to the commercial services and differentiates them in the market place whilst commercial overview of research findings provides early and valuable input on market potential and customer requirements.

Directly arising from the building of the new Campus, working with BP and other industrial sponsors, Swansea University developed an Energy Safety Research Institute at the new Campus. This was focused on long term strengths of the University in petroleum and chemical processing supplemented by more recent capabilities in marine energy, nuclear, tidal, advanced water treatment, materials, crisis management and more usual areas such as photo-voltaic and nanotechnology. By definition, the Energy Safety Research Institute adopted an international focus and became a constituent member of the Global Energy Safety Institute founded in Houston, Texas, in 2011, a sister Institute of the Energy and Environmental Systems Institute at Rice University in Houston and an associate of the National Corrosion Research Centre at Texas A&M (supported by BP in North America). This development leveraged significant support from the UK Government as part of a match funding programme of major industrial research sponsorship of universities announced by the UK Government in the March 2012 Budget. It was also a working through of the original vision that BP had as part of its exit strategy for the Swansea Bay Region – leaving a legacy to enable Swansea University to fulfil its role as a globally engaged university with international credentials in research promoting, thereby, further regional economic regeneration.

At the same time, a deliberate policy was developed to map the research expertise of the university onto the sectoral specialisms of local industry, thereby creating a powerful ‘hub’ for innovation activity. Going forward Swansea University with an enhanced capability for economic impact was able to use its research strength, employer collaborations and global partnerships to deliver increased employability rates across the whole of its student population. By 2019 Swansea University achieved the accolade of being within the top ten of all Universities in the UK for graduate employability.

Concluding Observations

The 21st Century intensively competitive global economy requires not only leadership in innovation but also educated citizens capable of applying deep analytical skills and having the ability to manage ambiguity. In promoting innovation as the ground of its thinking for the Bay Campus, the Council of Swansea University recognised the need to collaborate with industry and government in order to create a culture that enabled innovation to thrive. This was the rationale behind this University’s strategy linking the key drivers to economic growth in a twenty-first century knowledge economy that included research, skills development, commercialisation of research and partnerships with global companies.

The real contribution of the Bay Campus is that it is a visible and tangible gesture from the current members of the University to their intellectual trusteeship for posterity. This includes the essential need to promote discovery associated with impactful research whilst at the same time preserving a memory of the University.

The point is that Swansea University is not a search engine; the Bay Campus must be a scholarly community with a world leading professoriate introducing students to international networks including global companies.

The strategy of the University, embracing the Bay Campus, must reflect firm choices about what it will and will not attempt to do. It is not necessarily being the best at everything, but rather it is being true to what Swansea University is known for that is important. Ultimately this entails recognising and honouring the strengths of the University and continuing to innovate with optimism.  

Professor Iwan Davies is the Vice-Chancellor of Bangor University and was Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor International & Strategy at Swansea University - where he led the conception and delivery of the Science and Innovation Bay Campus. 

Professor Davies is a leading authority on International Commercial Law, held the Sir Julian Hodge Chair, and was Head of the Law School at Swansea University. He is a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales and a Visiting Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford.


[1] For general context, see Sam Blaxland, Swansea University: Campus and Community in a Post-War World, 1945-2020, University of Wales Press, 2020.

[2] ‘College in the Park Plans Shrine for Science’, Reynolds News, 22 February 1959; RBA, UNI/SU/AS/2/1/437, ‘Swansea University College’s Bright Future’, SWEP, 25 November 1950.

[3] See David Dykes, The University College of Swansea: An Illustrated History (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1992).

[4] Sibly, T. Franklin, and University College of Swansea, Inaugural Address Delivered by the Principal (Dr T. Franklin Sibly) on November 15th, 1920, Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University UNI/SU/PC/9/2

[5] Davies, Iwan, The Impact of a Research-led Entrepreneurial University on a Regional Economy: Swansea University’s Science and Innovation Campus in James, Judith; Preece, Jean and Cotera, Raúl. Entrepreneurial learning city regions : delivering on the UNESCO 2013, Beijing declaration on building learning cities. Cham: Springer, 2018. pp. 191-210

[6] NESTA 2008, History Matters: Path dependence and innovation in British City-Regions

[7] Centre for Cities, 2011, Cities Outlook 2011

[8] Lee, Neil; Morris, Katy; Wright, Jonathan; Clayton, Naomi; Brinkley, Ian & Jones, Alexandra. No city left behind? The geography of the recovery and the implications for the coalition. London: The Work Foundation, 2010

[9] See the Centenary Essay Frank Gilbertson (1873 – 1929): Founder of Swansea University - Part I

[10] James, Judith; Preece, Jean & Cotera, Raúl. Entrepreneurial learning city regions : delivering on the UNESCO 2013, Beijing declaration on building learning cities. Cham: Springer, 2018 p.194

[11] ‘Second campus ‘critical’ for uni to be top class research venue’, SWEP, 19 July 2010.

[12] The Learning Country: A Comprehensive Education and Lifelong Learning Programme to 2010 in Wales, National Assembly for Wales, 2001.

[13] See 'Lifelong Learning and the National Assembly: A Policy for the New Wales', NIACE Cymru, 1998; Hywel Francis and Rob Humphreys, 'The Learning Country: Citizenship and the New Democracy in Wales, a position paper from NIACE Cymru', NIACE Cymru, Cardiff, March 1999;  Hywel Francis, 'Wales: A Learning Country  The 1999 Handbook for Lifelong Learning', Wales Centre for Lifelong Learning, 1999.

[14] Committee to Assess the Capacity of the U.S. Engineering Research Enterprise. Engineering research and America: future: meeting the challenge of a global economy, committee to assess the capacity of the US Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington: The National Academies Press, 2005