Calit2's Smarr on Institute and UCSD Role in Transforming San Diego's Economy

9.13.05 -- At a recent roundtable, Calit2 director Larry Smarr spoke with editors of the Voice of San Diego about the role of Calit2, UCSD and the tech sector in the future of San Diego's economy. In a subsequent article recapping Smarr's remarks, Voice senior editor Neil Morgan noted that "on university campuses and in our scientific laboratories, researchers routinely push out into new worlds of discovery. If these ideas could be harnessed into our community, a very different direction of vibrant growth could ensue." Morgan went on to note that Calit2 "is quickly becoming an influential world center of research," and he excerpted Smarr's remarks for the online publication's readers. With permission, the comments of Smarr, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering in the Jacobs School of Engineering, are excerpted below.

Larry Smarr
Calit2 director Larry Smarr (left) with School of Medicine professor Mark Ellisman in front of tiled display showing high-resolution detail from electron microscope image of brain tissue.

"What strikes me most in the five years I have lived in San Diego is the extraordinary contrast within San Diego between the optimism and growth of our local universities and technology industries, and the seemingly endless set of problems besetting our local government," said Smarr. "It isn't that the universities and companies don't have their own share of problems, but fundamentally we have a growth engine in our midst that is being overshadowed by the political and fiscal problems in the city government.

To put the potential gain for San Diego in perspective, let's compare our region with other areas we compete with in which top research universities are in the center of metropolitan areas, like the Bay Area or Boston. A decade from now, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT will all be about the same size as they are now.  However, ten years from now, UCSD will have 300 to 400 more faculty than now and about 50 percent more undergrads.  This is because the large cohort of the teenage kids of baby boomers are beginning to attend UC, and since so many UC campuses are landlocked and can't expand, something like 60 percent of the increase in students for the ten UC campuses will be at Irvine, Riverside, and San Diego. So if we are poised to translate that growth on the campus to growth in our economy, we can see this as one source of growth of tax revenue and job creation that can add fuel to the current rebound in the San Diego economy.  

But the relative lack of community/campus interaction may hinder San Diego from benefiting from the growth that UCSD will experience. At places like Stanford, which both my son and I attended, there is a cultural fabric that exists between the life of the university and of the economic community.  Entering undergraduates are already talking about entrepreneurial ideas.  They want to be part of the legends of startup-to-billion-dollar companies like Cisco, Intel, eBay, Amazon, and Google.  Venture capitalists and the 'rock stars' of the startup world are often on campus.  Excitement about taking university innovations from the campus to the market is in the air.  Except perhaps in the biotech arena, we don't have that culture in San Diego yet, although compared to the pre-QUALCOMM days, we have made a lot of progress.

My point is that the modern economy has one source of fuel, which is to take the incredible innovations occurring everyday in universities and translate them into new jobs, rising prosperity, and better quality of life for its citizens.  For this to occur in San Diego, for us to harness the increasing number of bright undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, we have to reach out more in both directions, from campus to community, and community to campus.

I have been leading one effort to help bridge this gap for the five years since I joined the UCSD faculty. Working with faculty, staff, students, and administrators on the UCSD and UCI campuses, together with California companies and groups in the community, we have developed a new kind of institute -- the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, Calit2 for short.  Calit2 is at its heart an experiment in institutional innovation, creating a persistent framework for collaboration across the campuses and between the two campuses and the community.

This new institute has just moved into its two new buildings, one on each campus, which will house more than 1,000 researchers, with three-quarters of them students working in these futuristic buildings. 'Living laboratories of the future' are built out across the campuses and out into the communities, providing opportunities for faculty, staff and students to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people from industry and the community.  For instance, Calit2 was able to win several federal grants that will let us test advanced technologies with local first responders in disaster response and public safety situations. Our colleagues at SDSU have been deeply involved with similar projects. Reciprocally, getting the feedback from the real world of police, fire, and medical front liners helps refine our research agenda at the university.  Many people from the community tell us that the campuses have rarely done this sort of partnering before.

There are some encouraging signs that the momentum is building for more types of campus/community partnering. For instance, two weeks from now, Sept 26-29, an international workshop called iGrid 2005 will be held at the new Calit2 building at UCSD. It will feature some of the most advanced applications of ultra-high bandwidth networking ever attempted. (Each demo will use roughly 10,000 times the Internet bandwidth into your home, assuming you have a cable modem or DSL connection!). Over 50 demonstrations will be seen by over 400 attendees representing 20 countries from Europe, North America, South America, and the Pacific Rim. This is the 'world series' of high-speed networks and gives a glimpse into the new markets of five to 10 years from now, including high-definition television and digital cinema streaming.

However, in business-as-usual mode, no one from the business community in San Diego was going to be attending iGrid, so there would be no value to the community by hosting it here, even though lots of research professors would benefit.  But because I am a volunteer advisor to the San Diego Telecom Council, I was able to bring the event to their attention. As a result, a CEO breakfast for local telecom companies is being organized during iGrid, so contacts can be established and our local companies will have the advantage of seeing the best ideas the world has to offer on the future of this key technology area. Again, this took a university person to make time to serve in the community and for busy local business leaders to make time to go to the campus for a special event."

"This is just one small step and there are a number of others underway more systematically, like CONNECT, a widely admired program that links university innovators with the entrepreneurial and investment community.  My hope is that many more such activities can be encouraged, with hands reaching in from both sides and building a new culture of partnership between the campuses and the community," concluded Calit2 director Smarr. "If we can do so, coupled to the growth that UCSD will be experiencing, then we could see the San Diego region over the next decade becoming one of the best examples of innovation-driven economic growth in the United States."

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