TCD provost Dr Patrick Prendergast tells the Engineers Journal how E3 will transform research and education and play a part in helping to solve vital issues like climate change and sustainable manufacturing


Patrick Prendergast is the first engineer provost – even though Trinity has been teaching engineering since 1840. He was elected by academic staff and student representatives as the 44th provost of Trinity College Dublin (TCD), coming into office on August 1, 2011.

Prior to his appointment as provost, he was professor of bioengineering where he introduced the teaching of biomechanics into the engineering curriculum, founded the master’s programme in bioengineering, and published several hundred articles related to implant design and tissue mechanobiology. Dr Prendergast holds a BA, BAI, PhD, and ScD degrees, all from TCD.

Origins of E3 and what it stands for

In an exclusive interview with the Engineers Journal, Dr Prendergast explains why he is excited by the potential of E3 to transform research and education while playing its part in helping to solve vital issues like climate change, renewable energy and sustainable manufacturing.

“Every few decades Trinity College Dublin should take a chance on doing something different, something to inspire future generations,” he says. “With this project, E3 – which stands for energy, engineering and environment – we aim to do three things simultaneously: create new curricula in engineering and the sciences; enable new research around areas of global challenge; and build new infrastructure that attracts many more students to come to our university thereby making it all possible.

“It was over five years ago, back in the difficult, bleak days of austerity that we first conceived the idea of an institute which would educate engineers, technologists and scientists to address challenges of a liveable planet. Indeed, it’s our proud boast that our response to austerity was to scale up, not down, our ambition.”

E3 is being developed in two stages: the new infrastructure will take the form of the E3 Learning Foundry on the main campus (E3 Phase 1) and and E3 Research Institute on the campus at Grand Canal Quay (E3 Phase 2). The E3 Learning Foundry will be transformative both in terms of content – with more focus on the challenges of sustaining the earth’s resources – and in terms of methods and teaching techniques.

E3 aims to be:
• An institute to partner with industry and NGOs to help meet emerging opportunities in energy and engineering design, while sustaining our natural capital;
• An institute to harness new methods of learning and research at the frontiers of disciplines to educate new kinds of engineers and scientists prepared for the challenges of the 21st century workplace. It will be among the first centres internationally to integrate engineering, technology and scientific expertise at scale in addressing some of the biggest challenges facing ireland and the world: climate change, renewable energy, personalised data, water, connectivity, and sustainable manufacturing. The span of E3 research will focus on six key themes: Environment; Resources; Production; Data; Wellbeing; Cities.

“Overall, it will facilitate an increase of 1,800 students [which equates to a significant 50 per cent increase of STEM places in Trinity over 10 years] leading to a total of 4,800 in the three constituent schools of engineering, natural science and computer science and statistics,” says Dr Prendergast.

“With E3, students will develop transversal skills through working on multidisciplinary projects in collaborative student-managed learning spaces. Students of engineering, natural sciences and computer science will learn from each other to develop innovative solutions towards, for instance, climate change, renewable energy, personalised data, water, connectivity and sustainable manufacturing.

“For all these reasons and more, E3 is a ground-breaking initiative not just for Trinity but for Ireland, and we couldn’t be more excited. Universities must work at the frontier of discovery together with government, NGOs, industry and civil partners to address global challenges, and to educate the leaders of tomorrow. This is what E3 will do.”

Creating an Innovation District

The provost says the campus at Grand Canal Quay will be a very large development and will lead to the formation of an ‘Innovation District’. This is defined as “a dense, dynamic engine of economic activity  where research-oriented institutions, high-growth firms, and tech and creative start-ups are embedded within a growing, amenity-rich residential and commercial environment.

“Innovation districts [one of the best-known ones being Kendall Square near Boston] are effective because they bring together a critical mass of talent, finance, innovation and enterprise. They locate these assets in a dense urban environment, creating proximity and scale, and activate them through programming and the development of dedicated spaces, which enables the community to connect, ideate and act.

Provost of Trinity College Dublin Dr Patrick Prendergast

“These districts work best when effectively integrated with the local community, providing employment, education and opportunity. Unlike science parts, they don’t simply co-locate activity but they orchestrate, elevate and enable innovation ecosystems to thrive. They introduce a crucial cohesive social element through additional restaurants, bars, residential units and retail outlets.

“They connect innovation activities to local and cultural communities, enabling a new interdisciplinary conversation; and provide a well-connected ‘place’ that symbolises the ambition and energy of the host city. A characteristic shared by the most successful innovation districts is a world-class university as an anchor tenant. universities give stability to innovation districts, a connection to a talent pipeline of graduates, an innovation thought engine through faculty and researchers, and a social and cultural centre.

“An innovation district for Ireland is a generational opportunity. It is a vision of its time. Twenty years ago, we did not have the range of FDI innovation industry, the scale and track record of university research and innovation, or the depth and ambition of start-up companies that we have now. But we can’t keep still and continue to do things the same way. In 10 – or even five – years’ time, the opportunity to lead, or even be internationally competitive, will be gone. if we don’t change, the global innovation competition will have passed us by. we must see Dublin being ranked as one of the top 20 most innovative cities globally by 2030”.

Phase II, Grand Canal Quay and ‘our Kendall Square’

Dr Prendergast confirms that a space for industry-academic collaboration will be at the heart of E3 in Grand Canal Quay: “We’d like to see industry move research labs onto that site in collaboration with the university. And for that site to spur on the development of an Innovation District in Dublin city – one that will attract and develop innovation in Ireland and that wouldn’t be able to happen anywhere else other than in a large city like Dublin.

“The key lesson is that things need to be done at scale,” he says, “and this is a bit of an issue for Ireland as sometimes we don’t do things at scale. It necessitates the whole ecosystem working together including all the universities. We’re very pleased that the president of UCD, Professor Andrew Deeks, and DCU president, Professor Brian MacCraith, [both of whom recently became fellows of Engineers Ireland] attended with us when we visited Kendall Square in Boston – it shows the sense of common purpose that exists in the system to create an innovation district for Ireland here in the centre of Dublin city.

“Our campus at Grand Canal Quay can be the unifying agent for such an innovation district. We saw when we went to Boston that proximity is a very important factor – to have people close by each other; walking distance of each other, really. Again, it’s the kind of innovation culture that exits in places like Kendall Square, or other large cities. The exception to this is Silicon Valley, where they drive everywhere. But places like St Louis or Rotterdam: proximity, density and scale seem to be important drivers of success when it comes to innovation districts. We had a presentation given to us by MIT, and also from a group called CIC, who are the world leaders in providing co-working spaces for entrepreneurs – well, what would it take for to bring CIC and what they do here to Dublin? That would be one of our major discussion points when we were doing our visit to Boston.”

A collective effort and buy-in from all players

It has to be a collective effort when forming an innovation district, says the provost. There has to be buy-in from all players: “universities, large industry, venture capital, they must be enabled by government but also by the geography of the region and that it’s all sufficiently close by. Proximity is a key enabler of the networks that create new ideas – physical proximity, that is, and Dublin is good at this.

“There are five-and-a-half acres in Grand Canal Quay, so there is enough space; and, in that part of the city, we’ve seen many large multinationals locate their headquarters there. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb; Hubspot… all these companies are there, it’s about how do we get them to integrate in a way that creates an innovation ecosystem that can spur on spin-out companies and other companies growing from those industries – that’s an interesting question, and we fundamentally believe that it requires a top-tier university like Trinity.”

L-R: Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Dr Martin Naughten, Carmel Naughten, Dr Paddy Prendergast and Minister Richard Bruton

“And,” Dr Prendergast adds, “involvement from other universities on the E3 campus is absolutely a possibility and is up for discussion. We’re very much of the view that to get scale that is required for it to succeed, that that would be by far the best thing if other universities – and not just Irish universities but perhaps also universities from abroad – became involved. Because density and scale will require more than one university. Even in Kendall Square, it’s not just MIT – Harvard is in there, too. In other words, even MIT has to collaborate to create an innovation [ecosystem]. So it’s a real positive that we have that possibility here in Dublin as well.”

Engineering education and being in sync with industry

The provost elaborates on why education must evolve and keep in step with industry and society in general. “Education has to reflect what is happening with industry and evolve with it. That’s what this E3 will achieve: that’s the nature of interdisciplinarity.

“It’s interesting to think about how engineering has changed from since when I was a student. When I was a student, an engineering definition was something like ‘use the great resources of nature for the benefit of man’.

“But we don’t talk about the exploitation of the resources of nature in quite the same way now. We recognise that there are constraints, energy constraints, resource constraints, we recognise the impact of climate change. We recognise that human beings, through the use of technology, can permanently affect the planet and will want engineering to be part of the solution.

“I know that engineering can be part of the solution to the great challenges the planet faces and it’s through the education of engineers that human beings and society overall can address some of these great challenges. Sometimes people think engineers are just making problems, [but] engineers are the ones who are ready to solve problems – that’s the nature of the profession,” says Dr Prendergast.

The making of a new kind of graduate

According to the vision outlined by the institute: “The E3 Schools will develop their educational provision in such a way as their graduates will have a strong understanding of the various global challenges, as well as the disciplinary skills to address them. Students will have the experience of learning and working in a multidisciplinary environment, being educated by world-leading experts in areas of their specialisation and benefiting from best-in-class pedagogy. The resulting graduates will be flexible, adaptable and creative individuals who bring deep disciplinary knowledge and problem-solving expertise to any problem they are presented with.”

They will create graduates that:
1.) Have strong technical competence in their chosen discipline
2.) Be comfortable and experienced working in teams, including with specialists from other disciplines
3.) Be comfortable working on ill-defined and multidisciplinary challenges
4.) Be able to make informed and ethical decisions that balance technical, social and environmental considerations
5.) Be skilled communicators across a range of platforms and to varying audiences
6.) Have an ability to think at multiple levels of detail and abstraction
7.) Be comfortable in both practical and theoretical contexts
8.) Be able to confront the limitations of their own knowledge and to address these limitations through collaboration and lifelong learning

Philanthropy and ‘making a big difference’

Dr Prendergast explained how philanthrophy played a huge part in ensuring that E3 got off the ground. There are three facets to the project taking off: government funding, a major loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and philanthropic contributions. Engineers Ireland fellow Dr Martin Naughten made the biggest philanthropic contribution in the history of the state by contributing €25 million.

“The EIB loan will run to as much as 50 per cent of the total cost,” said the provost. “They are open to projects like this; it requires government funding to unlock the philanthropy to unlock the loans. A development like this cannot be done without public support.” And, he added, that the cost-benefit analysis carried out by Ernst & Young for the E3 Learning Foundry on the main campus (Phase 1) “has revealed that the project will be worth €262 million over the next 20 years”.

In praising Dr Naughten, the provost said: “Martin is a big supporter of Trinity and we’re very proud of that. Of course Martin supported the CRANN [Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices] in his early days as well. As an engineer himself by profession, engineers tend to understand engineering, obviously, and see the value that it brings to Irish society. Martin wants excellence in engineering and science to be the hallmark of Ireland’s education system. We’re proud to be one of the beneficiaries of his support.

“We are at the start of something remarkable. Our greatest thanks goes to Martin, Carmel and the Naughton family without whom E3 would not be happening. Trinity has benefited so much from your support through the years – for the Science Gallery, CRANN, the Seamus Heaney Professorship, the Naughton Scholars and so much more. His E3 donation is truly historic and it has enabled this great initiative.

The provost also payed tribute to the late Chris O’Dea of Techrete, who died earlier this year. “Philanthropists like Chris make all the difference, and I’d like to record my tribute to him as an example of a philanthropist that made a big difference in his lifetime,” said Dr Prendergast.

“Ministers Richard Bruton and Mary Mitchell-O’Connor met us when E3 was at an early stage. Together, they backed the project and they have found the additional €15 million necessary to build E3 at a time when budgets are still tight. I thank Ministers Bruton and Michell-O’Connor for their belief in this initiative.

Support and generosity that has been transformative

“And I wish to thank three other donors whose support and generosity have also been transformative. Dr Beate Schuler is a philanthropist dedicated to promoting education and an outstanding friend to Trinity. E3 has been a particular beneficiary of her substantive generosity.

“Paul and Theresa Johnson, and Mike Pierce: Paul and Mike are both graduates of Trinity’s Engineering School, who have built exceptional careers in the US and UK respectively. They have maintained warm connections with their alma mater as advisers to our Engineering School. Both are generous donors to E3, and as well as their financial support, we appreciate their advice and expertise.”

The provost also thanked John Macken, Tony Donnell and Eric Kinsella.

“We know that all our donors and supporters, private and state, were motivated in the first place to do something for Ireland and to invest in Ireland’s young people. Trinity is extremely honoured that you see this university and the E3 initiative as the best way to do this. We look forward to honouring your trust in us, to educating new kinds of engineers and scientists prepared for the challenges of the 21st century,” he said. O'RiordanCivilclimate change,MIT,STEM,TCD
Introduction Patrick Prendergast is the first engineer provost - even though Trinity has been teaching engineering since 1840. He was elected by academic staff and student representatives as the 44th provost of Trinity College Dublin (TCD), coming into office on August 1, 2011. Prior to his appointment as provost, he was...