Nicole Vaartjes

First Big Ideas Festival continues tradition of innovation

Minister for Higher Education and Skills Sharon Bird evoked the memory of 19th century aeronautical pioneer Lawrence Hargrave when she praised the University of Wollongong’s inaugural Big Ideas Festival at the Innovation Campus on Wednesday evening (8 May).

The Big Ideas Festival featured presentations by 12 of the University’s most recently-appointed professors, talking about the “big ideas” in their research while some of UOW’s key research centres also had booths at the festival in iC Central.

Presentation topics ranged from developing better batteries to power the electric cars of the future, the implications on sea level rise to national borders, unlocking the mysteries of quantum computing and helping police better manage psychiatric crisis incidents, to early intervention with pre-schoolers to prevent them developing sedentary habits that could lead to obesity and other physical issues, as well as affecting brain development.

Ms Bird, herself a UOW graduate, praised the University for the initiative which she said was “about showcasing the big ideas we need now in the future ... they are truly addressing some of the global challenges that affect us all.”

Ms Bird said the Illawarra region had a proud history of innovation and big ideas. She cited Hargrave, whose ground-breaking flight experiments using box kites at Stanwell Park in the 1890s strongly influenced the later work of US flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who successfully flew the first controlled aircraft in 1903.

“Lawrence Hargrave was a man with a big idea that had a strong influence on the Wright brothers in the United States,” Ms Bird said.

The Minister said UOW itself had grown from a big idea to a big contributor – in teaching, in research and in regional economic development. She said it was fitting that the festival was held at the Innovation Campus.

“The Innovation Campus itself was once just a big idea ... today it is an embodiment of an active, engaged university, she said.

Masters of Ceremonies Professor Chris Gibson, who is leading UOW’s Global Challenges Program, kept the four-hour festival moving along at a cracking pace, with the 12 presenters allotted 10 minutes each for the presentations.

Forensic mental health expert Professor Stuart Thomas started with a thought-provoking presentation on issues surrounding the policing of people with mental illness, followed by Creative Writing Professor Catherine Cole, who spoke about the 18th century French explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse, who arrived at Botany Bay just after the First Fleet. She pondered how Australia may have developed had it been settled by the French instead of the British.

Human geographer Professor Gordon Waitt spoke about what could be learned from studying humans’ “gut reactions”, which he said provided clues to our sense of belonging in a social context, while Professor Clive Schofield from the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) spoke about the potential impact of rising sea levels on Australian’s maritime territorial claims.

Social researcher Professor Ian Buchanan said the most important development in the 20th century was not technical, but political, with the development of the concept of equality between the sexes and women’s right to vote. He said equality needed to be taken into account in every aspect of a city’s governance.

Gender and sexuality researcher Professor Mark McLelland warned that legislation introduced in Australia designed to protect children from internet pornography actually risked criminalising them because of a lack of information and education about where the boundaries were. He said Australia had strict laws but “people simply don’t know how broad the legislation is, which is very problematic if we’re going to start prosecuting them”.

Mathematician Professor Aidan Sims spoke about how mathematics is guiding the development of the next generation of problem-solving computers (quantum computing), while Professor Stephen Blanksby spoke of his fascination for “free radicals”, the highly reactive molecules that make things (including humans) to age and deteriorate over time.

Professor Zaiping Guo spoke about her work developing better batteries for electric cars, to make them more viable by dramatically increasing energy storage, the vehicle’s range and the time it takes to recharge the battery.

Accounting Professor Ed Arrington talked about making accountants (and accountants) more accountable in a social sense, while Professor Karlheinz Kautz spoke about how digital systems combined with community engagement could improve Wollongong’s liveability.

Physical activity expert Professor Tony Okely was the final presenter. He spoke of the need to make pre-school students more active by having them spend more time standing, saying 46 percent of a pre-schooler’s day is spent sitting down. He said children who spent more time standing up or being otherwise active would learn more effectively, have better cognitive development and reduce the risk of developing obesity.

In a light-hearted finale, Professor Okely urged the audience (who had been sitting down for several hours) to give him a standing ovation. They willingly obliged.

Earlier, in his welcome to guests, Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings thanked Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Judy Raper and Research Service Office staff Sharon Martin, Vicky Wallace, Elise Pitt and Laura Hawes and their assistants for organising the event.

The Vice-Chancellor said the Big Ideas Festival was a “rare opportunity to hear from some of the brightest and best in Australia”.

“The 12 speakers have all taken up their professorial role in the past two years,” Professor Wellings said. “Their presentations (are) intended to be a glimpse behind the veil into a huge diversity of academic schools of thought and projects”.

He pointed out that UOW’s research was highly ranked on a variety of national and international measures, including the recent Leiden ranking of research quality that placed UOW in the top one percent of the world’s universities and fifth in Australia.

However, he warned that the Federal Government’s recent proposal to cut funding to universities to pay for the Gonski reforms to school education were the largest to higher education since 1996. “We should be clear that any further cuts in next week’s Budget will cause long-term problems for Australia’s innovative capacity and damage the hard won position of universities like Wollongong,” Professor Wellings said.

Download program | View the photo gallery | Watch videos of the presentations (coming soon).

See here for UOW-TV coverage -- 

Report: Nick Hartgerink
Images: Sean Maguire


  • The community flocked to the first UOW Big Ideas Festival last night.

  • Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings introduced speakers in the first session of talks.

  • Professor Gordon Waitt discussed how our ‘gut’ reactions give clues to our sense of belonging.

  • Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills The Hon Sharon Bird MP introduced speakers in the second session.

  • Professor Aidan Sims spoke about how his work on operator algebras is setting the groundwork for a whole new era of computing – quantum computing.

  • Professor Stephen Blanksby won the crowd over with Dr Seuss and free radicals.

  • Global Challenges Director Professor Chris Gibson told the audience of the exciting new research program he is spearheading.

  • Professor Catherine Cole pondered what would have happened if La Perouse landed in Australia before Capt. Cook.

  • Team UOW | Illawarra Flame were on site to discuss their Prime Minister- endorsed entry in the 2013 Solar Decathlon.

  • Researchers from the Centre for Health Initiatives, Joanne Telenta and Lance Barrie took, Polaroid headshots of audience members, which revealed sun damage.