In the next 10 years, the joint digitalization initiative by Zurich’s higher education institutions aims to explore the effects and opportunities of digitalization and develop innovative technologies. The initiative is now gradually taking shape, and the first round of calls for research and innovation projects has been launched.
Digitalization is increasingly changing our daily lives, and the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the rate at which this is happening. The Digitalization Initiative of the Zurich Higher Education Institutions (DIZH) aims to explore how digitalization is affecting our society. Interdisciplinary in nature, its research will focus on conveying digital skills and developing innovative solutions in collaboration with partners from local industry. In addition to UZH, this large-scale science project will involve the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and the Zurich University of Teacher Education (PHZH). Last January, the Parliament of the Canton of Zurich unanimously approved funding for the DIZH of CHF 108 million over the next 10 years – which is about one-third of the CHF 300 million budgeted for the initiative.
The DIZH is thus now picking up steam. “After an intensive phase setting up the initiative, we’re now entering the operational phase,” says Lesley Spiegel, who has headed the DIZH since the end of April. The first round of calls for postdoc positions, three bridge professorships as well as for infrastructure and lab projects has now been launched. “The DIZH is a tremendous opportunity for the University of Zurich to cooperate in new ways with other local universities and partners from industry and government. It is an important addition the Digital Society Initiative (DSI), which has already made a name for itself at UZH,” says Abraham Bernstein, professor of informatics and co-director of the DSI.
The calls are interdisciplinary and inter-departmental in nature. The three bridge professorships will be run under the helm of UZH and another partner university. As the name suggests, the aim is to build bridges between the participating institutions and pool different skills for everyone’s benefit. “The links to art and design, which are explored and practiced at the ZHdK, are very important for me as a computer scientist,” says Abraham Bernstein. “There is a lot of potential for mutual benefit, for example when it comes to the interaction between humans and computers.”
The same goes for cross-university collaboration in medical technology, for example, believes Lesley Spiegel. Here methodological approaches from the field of game design can be combined with novel forms of rehabilitation therapy. “And developing new AI-based adaptive learning tools also requires expertise from diverse fields such as IT, pedagogy, psychology and interactive systems,” says Spiegel. “The DIZH is the perfect vessel for interdisciplinary and applied projects that are headed in this direction.” Over the next few years, the digitalization initiative is expected to create an ecosystem for research and innovation in Zurich that will be more than the sum of its individual parts, says Spiegel.
Finding the best ideas
The content and subject matter of the current calls were kept deliberately vague. “We don’t want to prescribe how research and teaching should be done under the DIZH,” says Abraham Bernstein. “Some of the best ideas are bottom-up, and we want to encourage this.” This also applies to DIZH’s CHF 80 million innovation program, to which the initiative and the universities are each contributing half. “Innovation is a highly topical subject in today’s society,” says Lesley Spiegel. It’s important to have an exchange of ideas between science and society, and the innovation program provides the perfect setting for this. An innovation panel featuring representatives from all participating higher education institutions will determine which projects will be tackled next year.