11 Jun 2015   |   Viewpoint

Distance no object: creating an edgy research agenda will get you noticed

At two hours from Lisbon by plane, Madeira is looked upon as something of an innovation backwater. We’re gathering a team of researchers that will challenge the perception, says Nuno Nunes, a researcher with a penchant for subversive and surprising technology

The subtropical island of Madeira has long held sway with tourists, but it would take a lot to convince researchers to pack in their jobs and move there.

Yet this is exactly what is happening. The young Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute, created in 2009, has lured renowned US technologist Chris Csikszentmihalyi to come and sign a life-long contract.

“We’re much cooler than other universities. We have a different research agenda here,” said Nuno Nunes, associate professor in informatics engineering at the institute. And because Nunes is drawn toward funny and surprising ideas, Csikszentmihalyi, former director of the Massachusettes Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Future Civic Media, is exactly the company he wants to keep.  

“Chris comes with a political vision and an interest in making ‘civic technologies’,” said Nunes.

For a start, there’s the Afghan Explorer project in which robots replace journalists in dangerous war zones. Then there is the robot disc jockey.

Nunes cites ‘Blendie’, an MIT project supervised by Csikszentmihalyi. Blendie is a blender that will only process food if a person speaks its language that is by imitating its whirring sound. “It’s a statement about language; and about being trapped by appliances you own,” Nunes said.

Joining Csikszentmihalyi in Madeira will be James Auger from the UK’s Royal College of Art. Perhaps Auger’s weirdest creation is “Afterlife” – a battery powered by the energy of decomposing bodies. When Nunes described the idea last week during a talk at the ‘WIRE 2015’ conference in Riga, the audience was shocked, but hailed the ingenuity of it anyway.

All this research has something in common: it is not likely to be in great demand. Rather, it is filed under what Numes calls “speculative design”. “The idea is not that it’s going to be useful,” he said. Science for science’s sake, in other words.

A little help from Brussels

Csikszentmihalyi’s salary will be covered by a €2.6 million EU European Research Area Chair grant. These chairs are funded by the EU for those parts of Europe that have not done as well as they could in research and innovation. Member states that are eligible include all those that joined the EU after 2004, Portugal and Luxembourg, and eight of the non-EU countries associated to the EU Horizon 2020 research programme.

The university will spend the money on Csikszentmihalyi, Auger, another researcher and three support staff.

Nunes was delighted to get his man, because it is not always easy for smaller universities to stand out. “You have to be aggressive. You need to invite him. You need to invite his wife!” he said.

It has been a tough few years for researchers in one of the continent’s most indebted countries. Although Carlos Moedas is now the EU’s champion for research, in his former role as secretary of state for Portugal he was forced to implement harsh cuts on universities. “We lost people because of cuts. Salaries have dropped 20 per cent,” says Nunes. But now, with more money, there is scope for more risk, he adds.

Winning some EU money in 2013 was the culmination of long planning that suddenly bore fruit, Nunes adds. Back in 2007, the burgeoning institute, then just a research group, announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University – a big deal at the time. “We were able to attract a few more people after that; we got on the map. It allowed us to be one-step ahead when it came to applying for EU money,” says Nunes. 

Fast forward several years and the once-impossible is materialising before Nunes’ eyes: “People are quitting their jobs to come to Madeira.”

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