International research shortlisted in Times Higher Awards



Research from Heriot-Watt University has been shortlisted in the prestigious Times Higher Education Awards 2019, in recognition of its far-reaching international impact and ability to meet societal needs.

Built on the premise of community empowerment, the academic partnership led by Heriot-Watt and formed with universities, communities, government agencies and NGOs based in Scotland, Colombia and Brazil has developed a landslide mitigation model that transcended borders and traditional roles. It works with and brokers dialogue between local residents who become 'community researchers' and government officials.

This project has been an exemplar where transformational solutions have assisted specific communities but could have the potential to be applied across the world.

Professor Harry Smith

The projects, in Medellín, Colombia and São Paulo, Brazil are now safeguarding some of the world's most vulnerable populations by empowering them to mitigate against landslide threat – sustainably.

Funded by Global Challenges Research Funding through NERC and The British Academy, the projects are shortlisted in the International Collaboration of the Year category at this year's awards.

The multi-skilled team which included planners, engineers, geologists and architects, worked with local residents to monitor critical points in their neighbourhood, engineer emergency surface drainage solutions and identify early warning signs of a landslide. These are events that could devastate their community and similar neighbourhoods along their hillside.

Continual hillside monitoring was achieved by inspiring and training 'community researchers' to use WhatsApp on their own mobiles to gather data showing early signs of differential movement and water entry and exit points. Data analysis took place collaboratively with the community researchers and the university teams. The result was a suite of low-cost mitigation solutions for the communities to implement themselves and capacity in the community to negotiate appropriate government inputs.

Professor Harry Smith and Professor Gabriela Medero from Heriot-Watt University led the research, collaborating with researchers at the University of Edinburgh, the National University of Colombia and the University of São Paulo.

Professor Smith said: “As a global university that is committed to the advancement of society worldwide, our focus is on addressing global challenges. This project has been an exemplar where transformational solutions have assisted specific communities but could have the potential to be applied across the world. This work was only achievable by building up effective collaboration with other universities, community organisations and government agencies based on mutual and joint learning.”

Professor Medero said: “This project has empowered local communities to better understand their territory, the processes that could cause instability and potentially massively dangerous landslides. It has been incredibly valuable to be able to take the developed monitoring system to different communities in Medellín (Colombia) and in São Paulo (Brazil).” 

The winners of the Times Higher Awards will be announced on Thursday 28th November 2019 in London.