The past two decades have marked the most frenzied period of innovation and creativity in history.

Connectivity has exponentially hastened human progress. Examples abound: from super-conductive materials to squeezable metal and advances in quantum computing and astrophysics.

In just the past few years, we’ve seen breakthroughs in gene editing and in human tissue regeneration. In the foreseeable future, it will be possible to repair nerve damage and to artificially grow entire limbs and organs. SpaceX proved that recycled rockets and boosters are practical and possible and, importantly, result in a saving of $18 million per launch. Recently, scientists were able to measure, via gravitational waves, the violent death of two neutron stars 130 million light years from Earth. We’ve made gargantuan strides in almost every field in just a few short years.

I mention connectivity, because it is connectivity, the crux of research-led innovation that has given birth to Swinburne’s research and innovation ecosystem. It is the foundation for our approach to creating social and economic impact through collaboration at the intersection of disciplines, cultures, backgrounds and approaches.

The Medici Effect

The Swinburne story began more than 100 years ago, with a technical college committed to innovative education, strong industry engagement and social inclusion.

Our story moves forward to 27 years ago, when we became a university, and the world was on the cusp of the current creativity explosion. From the beginning, the vision of our founder, George Swinburne, was that the institution would be defined by who we included, not by whom we excluded.

Inclusion and diversity: these two essential values go right to the heart of who we are as a university. And this brings us back to connectivity. Some years ago, a Harvard researcher and author on diversity, innovation, and creativity, Frans Johansson, provided a significant insight into how breakthrough creativity occurs.

He dubbed it the ‘Medici Effect’, evoking the flourishing of ideas and creativity in Florence under the Medici family from the 15th century onwards.

Johansson was referring to the discovery that many of the world’s most innovative ideas occur at the intersection of different disciplines, different cultures and different fields. In other words, breakthrough ideas rely on a diversity of perspectives: they rely on inclusion and diversity.

We have the best chance of coming up with great new ideas when we mix diverse approaches, fields, cultures and backgrounds — something we have always instinctively known at Swinburne.


Three recent breakthroughs and co-creations help illustrate these points.

The first is a hand-held pen - 3D printer filled with stem cell ink that can be used to ‘draw’ new cartilage into damaged knees.

The BioPen has been jointly developed by the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery, University of Wollongong, University of Melbourne and importantly incorporating BioSphere, a novel stem cell technology developed by Swinburne and St Vincent’s Hospital to refine the cell numbers for tissue regeneration.

The BioPen paves the way for the team to eventually repair damaged bones, muscles, tendons, and reduce the need for joint replacements.

This truly game changing innovation represents the convergence of science, engineering and medicine to deliver a breakthrough technology for repairing cartilage damage using the latest discoveries in stem cell science, tissue engineering and 3D printing.

Blockchain for healthcare

The second example is the use of revolutionary blockchain technology in the healthcare industry.

Swinburne researchers are actively developing a blockchain platform solution for healthcare services focused on the complex area of healthcare billing and payment reconciliation.
This multi-disciplinary project aims to ensure the accuracy and provenance of all healthcare delivery activities that are required for complete and transparent healthcare bill submissions to private health insurers and government.

This innovation is another Swinburne breakthrough driving transformations in Health 4.0 that will serve to improve the healthcare industry and support greater efficiencies and trust around healthcare delivery for all.

To put it classically, together we are driving our own Medici Effect.


Our third example is a less widely known (but equally inspirational) co-creation and its impact for society and industry is immediately apparent.

Last year, a new hearing aid, known as Facett was launched in Melbourne. It is a low-cost, beautifully designed product that incorporates easy, magnetically-attached battery modules and can be tuned by users through an app.

It is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration, led by Melbourne-based scientists Professor Peter Blamey, and Dr Elaine Saunders, involving industry partner Extel Technologies, RMIT designers, and researchers from the ARC Training Centre in Biodevices here at Swinburne, and Swinburne’s Factory of the Future.

Facett also came about because of a Medici occurrence, and is the product of decades of work and many scientific advances. Its creation has been a true collaboration between diverse perspectives, between science and design, between research and industry. Trailblazing notions sometimes steer circuitous routes, but they most often occur at novel intersections.

Global connections and collaborations

Our research-led innovation strategy is designed to foster many more of these sorts of successes. As Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favours only the prepared mind.” So our strategy builds capabilities, establishes partnerships, supports deep research and solves industry problems through collaboration.

Our research institutes enable and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration across the university. The institutes are focused on five key areas: Data Science, Health Innovation, Smart Cities, Social Innovation, and Manufacturing Futures.

These drive multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, creating teams to tackle big challenges. Our goal is transformative economic and social impact. And so our research takes on national and global priorities for industry growth and for society’s betterment.

Then there is the Swinburne Innovation Precinct. It is not just a place, but an organising concept, encompassing these research institutes and much more. It is also a mindset. It is where individuals are given the freedom to step back from their habitual way of viewing concepts and problems. At the precinct they are able to create intersections with other fields, other cultures and ideas.

We are making history in other ways too. For example, about two years ago, Swinburne established a presence in Silicon Valley, becoming the first Australian university to partner with CSIRO in the most mature innovation ecosystem in the world, a vital component in our strategy.

The CSIRO–Swinburne partnership is seeing Swinburne PhD students and early-career researchers, who are co-funded by industry, working on projects with leading Silicon Valley-based organisations. California is the sixth largest economy in the world, and arguably the most disruptive. This is about immersion, about working with like-minded disruptors, and about enabling our researchers to transform industries with work that is profound and lasting.

Swinburne’s Factory of the Future, part of our precinct too, is creating Australia’s first fully immersed Industry 4.0 facility. It is funded by a $135 million grant from Siemens, one of the largest-ever industrial digitalisation grants in Australia’s history which is enabling us to also establish the world’s first Industry 4.0 Testlab for 3D printing of carbon fibre composite industrial parts. The Victorian Government is also investing in Swinburne, with a $2 million grant to establish the Advanced Manufacturing Industry 4.0 SME Hub. But this is not only about technology disruption; it’s about the future of work and the future of our society. It’s about real-life innovation.

We’re immersed in the fourth Industrial Revolution and we want to make sure that students and researchers are equipped with the advanced capabilities and tools to support Australian industry and to move our companies up the global value chain.

Through investment in partnerships and immersion in the world’s most mature innovation ecosystems, we are learning a great deal and fast-tracking our development.

Innovation as a social process

We are a comparatively young university. But in the world of innovation, that’s not a bad thing. In just a few short years, Swinburne has fostered a number of powerful and potentially world changing collaborations.

We have built these from a commanding legacy of entrepreneurship and innovation, and we have focused unashamedly on industry, on science and on technology. Having a youthful openness has given us a significant advantage.

Innovation is essentially a social process. It involves relationships, and the coordination and cooperation of people. In the newly-evolving global innovation ecosystem, we have been able to build teams that are rich in diverse backgrounds and thought-processes.

One can get hold of the best players from within and outside our organisations. But getting the players to work together and play as a team is what makes the extraordinary out of the ordinary.

Our network group at Swinburne — the Networked Innovation Group within the Centre for Transformative Innovation — is combining the soft and hard sciences in order to analyse the social networks that drive innovation. Not social media, but the real-life networks that produce outcomes.

Because we are taking the time to understand innovation, and what ignites and sustains it, we are changing the way we work and engage, moving Swinburne to the very forefront of research-led innovation.

Ecosystem edge

A vast amount of study has shown that diverse teams harness the power of convergence. But coming up with an idea is one thing. After they develop the breakthrough idea, the team must also execute it. The research is clear on this too: diverse and inclusive teams, cutting across functions and identity, are also more successful in execution. This may be because they have wider experience and wider networks, and are willing to use non-traditional channels to get things done.

One cannot inject an ability to innovate or be creative. You can, however, provide the right environment: a favourable ecosystem, an enabler of ideas and capabilities and a place where ideas will turn into novel products and services.

This is what our strategy is about. Our research and innovation vision is to create real impact that transforms industries, shapes lives and contributes to communities.

Innovation needs a conscious purpose: it must drive impact and positive change. But it comes from all quarters. At Swinburne, we look for it. We build bridges to encourage it.

Professor Aleksandar Subic
Deputy Vice-Chancellor
(Research and Enterprise)

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