Introducing the Research, Innovation and Partnerships Team

Posted on: 2020-04-28

UCEM’s Research, Innovation and Partnerships Team is small in number but broad in terms of the diverse range of work it undertakes.

Aled Williams, UCEM’s Director of Research, Innovation and Partnerships, leads the team which comprises Research Assistants (Education & Sustainability), Dr Renuka Thakore and Antonia Lindsay, and Programme Manager, Rebecca Lovelace, who also is the Founder and Chief Dot-joiner of Building People – a technology platform that connects people to opportunities across the Built Environment.

Here, the team discuss their roles, their career backgrounds and what they enjoy about what they do…


‘Driving forward sustainability, research and scholarship within UCEM’

AW: This team came about in order to focus driving forward sustainability, research and scholarship within UCEM. A recent publication we worked on was The Value of Community in partnership with The Prince’s Foundation which revealed a direct link between housing type and social benefits – so-called ‘social capital’. Allied to that, a constant theme with the team is operating at the interface of education, business and the wider community via collaborating with Built Environment, professional statutory and regulatory bodies.

Aled Williams

Aled Williams

We regularly get involved in thought leadership with the aim of influencing policy. I have a number of external roles including CIC Champion (Education) and Chair for the Council of Heads of the Built Environment (CHOBE). I sit on CIC’s Climate Change Panel leading a strand on education and qualifications in light of the climate emergency. This is a key strand within research and sustainability for our team.

RT: As part of my role, I have been engaging with UCEM sustainability work externally and internally with the Sustainability Working Group [SWG]. My role is to emphasise sustainability in education and the Built Environment. I took the role because of my passion for sustainability and the Built Environment so it was an attractive role for me.

I engage with international forums on the topics of societal resilience and sustainability, for example, my presentations ‘Identifying and leveraging the capacity to exploit small and medium-sized cities’ internal resources for financing and the creation of a resilient development network of tri-border region in Latin America’ and ‘Investigating urgent energy efficiency and sustainability challenges in housing sector of Jordan’. UCEM has been doing a lot of work on institution-wide sustainability. I try to influence this work in education in the Built Environment, especially showcasing sustainability credentials and increasing UCEM’s profile as a global leader on sustainability.

AL: Most of the work I have done so far has been for our NUS [National Union of Students] Responsible Futures reaccreditation effort. I have been working in partnership with NUS and other institutions to further sustainability in education but also wider in terms of the institutional and operational approaches to make everything about higher education and further education more sustainable.

Now we’ve had our successful Responsible Futures audit, I will be looking to continue to change behaviours in UCEM and bring together lots of different teams so sustainability is embedded in everything we do. This involves looking at the institutional approach to sustainability.

Everybody’s working towards the same goals and trying to encourage widening participation and getting out into the community, bringing in as many people as possible for an all-round approach.

RL: I am in an incredible position. I put my consultancy on hold in 2017 and started conversations with many people in industry, saying: ‘wouldn’t it be a great to create one place that aggregates the multitude of careers information across the Built Environment?’ By the end of 2017, I was getting a considerable amount of support but that hadn’t yet converted to financial support.

I was doing a presentation about Building People and this charming chap called Aled Williams came up to me and said: ‘you should speak to our Principal’ so I did!

UCEM has demonstrated such leadership in its holistic approach to widening participation, diversity, skills and social value. My role is to deliver Building People, but I also provide support to the team, for example, on the recent BuildForce research project.

In leading Building People, I gave myself the title of Chief Dot-joiner – a slightly tongue-in-cheek description of what I do, which is joining the dots rather than reinventing anything new. I am incredibly fortunate to do that within the security of UCEM and for that, I have to thank Ashley Wheaton for his support and leadership – and Aled for spotting a great dot-joining opportunity.

Career backgrounds

AW: My passion for the Built Environment came from my family of farmers. From a very young age, I have had a hands-on approach with the Built Environment.

In terms of my professional career, I practised as a Building Surveyor working both for the NHS and private practices. I taught at John Moores University for 10 years in charge of various activities where I engaged with employers on programmes and cross-disciplinary projects. At Salford University, I worked as an academic and engaged with industry

I was partially seconded working for the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on innovation and best practice in education. I led on construction, property and surveying within the UK Centre for Education in the Built Environment where I was Deputy Director and subsequently HEA Discipline Lead.

I moved to UCEM five-and-a-half years ago.

RT: I have worked in the construction industry for 20 years in India. Construction has always been my passion. Buildings are so exciting for me.

Dr Renuka Thakore

Dr Renuka Thakore

I moved to the UK to start a new career and went back to education. I trained myself as an Environmental Manager and because of my past experience and knowledge in the Built Environment, I combined these two fields of expertise through my Masters in Sustainability in Built Environment Practice. My dissertation focused on the financial benefits of environment management and was very exciting which motivated me to get a PhD and become an academic.

My PhD was on a strategic engagement model for delivering energy efficiency initiatives in the English housing sector. I did a case study on English housing and led a discussion on the strategic capabilities, such as leadership and regulations, that would increase overall capacity to achieve English housing low carbon targets. I really enjoyed researching English housing.

When I completed my PhD, I got a job as an Associate Tutor at UCEM, three years ago now. The module I lead on is Sustainable and Innovative Construction. Following a discussion with Janet Hontoir [UCEM Tutor], she introduced me to Aled and I found out there was a Sustainability Working Group which I decided to join. I then saw the Research Assistant role which I fortunately got.

AL: I went to Glasgow University and did Geography and Sociology, focusing on sustainability and applied research skills. My dissertation used specific research skills which is where my passion for that side of things came from. When I left university, I did a lot of voluntary work. I helped with research at a charity tutoring organisation which was a good way for me to put my learning into practice.

My interest in sustainability deepened when I was in Bangladesh and I saw the need for sustainability on a day-to-day level. It was a really interesting experience and made me think more about how everything is interconnected. While in Bangladesh, I saw how they implement the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals which was really interesting.

I stumbled upon the advert for the Research Assistant role which summed up everything I am interested in and, luckily, I got it!

RL: I started my professional career in the homelessness sector and then in international humanitarian aid, moving into construction 20 years ago and spending seven years working with Lendlease. My role progressed from managing its European community day project to running a London project connecting diverse and disadvantaged people with opportunities within the supply chain. I did an MSc in Urban Regeneration and then set up my consultancy working within the Built Environment alongside businesses and charities to boost diversity and community engagement in the sector.

‘Sustainability is my passion’

RT: I enjoy my work as sustainability is my passion. Sustainability and the Built Environment are two fields I love working in. My role provides me with the opportunity to put my experience into practice.

AL: I like being part of UCEM at a time when things are changing so rapidly. Sustainability has really taken off in the last couple of months. It’s great to see more people around the institution engaged in sustainability.

Antonia Lindsay

Antonia Lindsay

The collaborative, interdisciplinary part of my job is really interesting as it’s great to share ideas with other people. Everybody is now fighting to achieve the same goal. At other institutions, you might find pushback from the powers above but that isn’t the case at UCEM. It’s great to be working somewhere where everybody wants the same thing. It makes my job easier and more fun. A lot of people have a passion for the subject, and everyone is very supportive of what we do.

AW: The passion, engagement and commitment of the staff within UCEM is what makes my role so enjoyable. Allied to that is the opportunity to make a tangible difference to the Built Environment community and to wider society in terms of research, education and sustainability.

RL: I’m incredibly fortunate in that I love what I do. It is difficult. We are trying to change how the fragmented industry engages with people. It isn’t easy, however, people are welcoming the challenge with open arms. I really respect the freedom UCEM has given for me to work on this and the support I have had from so many people within the business.

What I love about Building People is it brings all the different facets of my career together, whether it’s being creative on social media or presenting to chief executives at construction companies, for example. Fundamentally it is all about creating connections to address the skills challenge and lack of diversity that is stifling our industry.

I work very closely with Terry Watts [Chartered Surveyors Training Trust CEO and Building People Executive Director] and Josh Young [Programme Assistant at Building People and CSTT]. We are a small start-up trying to change the industry. It keeps me on my toes! We can effect real change in an area which I really enjoy working in.

Rebecca Lovelace

Rebecca Lovelace

What next?

AW: My ambition is to create a model to improve and demonstrate that UCEM is the world’s most sustainable university. We are developing this in the team at the moment for implementation in the near future. Allied to that, we are looking, over the longer term, to develop research degree awarding powers. It’s a long journey we are starting on now which is important for the progression of our students and creating another offer in terms of the wider industry.

RL: We are going out to crowdfunding as we develop the full prototype of our aggregator and integrator model. We are adding new functionality to the CSTT site, connecting users to mentors, work experience, learning and events in surveying, and developing a website that can be ‘reskinned’ for others within the ‘network of networks’ that is Building People.

It’s a big challenge in the next few months to create this prototype. We want to enable a more diverse workforce (e.g. young people, women, ex-military, BAME, ex-offenders and LGBTQ+) into the industry and will present our integrated model at UK Construction Week in October. We have significant support already and now need to convert this into active engagement and funding.

Head to the Sustainability webpage to find out more about the work the team undertakes to embed sustainability within UCEM. Visit the Building People website to discover how it connects people to opportunities within the Built Environment.