Adding to Leeds’ Innovation Timeline

Nexus, has created a new focus for innovation in the city. A community that brings together entrepreneurs and start-ups, technologists, investors and regional stakeholders to develop ground-breaking ideas and build sustainable businesses. The brightest minds from business, technology and academia are collaborating openly to develop ideas that will impact positively on all our futures. Could this be a continuation of Leeds’ historic timeline of world-changing innovations?

History is being made in Leeds, today. But not for the first time. Looking back across at the city’s past, there’s a thread of breakthrough ideas reaching back across the decades – a timeline of innovations which have impacted on the city itself and in many cases, influenced the world beyond. You can view the whole timeline here. Below, we take a closer look at a few key innovations and their impact.


Red, amber, green

City centre traffic. Although it might be seen as a contemporary problem, even in the early 20th century, traffic management was a challenge for the city of Leeds. So, in 1928, in a bid to improve road safety and reduce the number of accidents, Leeds saw the introduction of the UK’s first fully automated traffic light system at the junction between Park Row and Bond Street. The now familiar red, amber, green system replaced a previous, rather unreliable gas-lit system. The arrival of these strange electric sentinels on the streets of Leeds was so startling that locals referred to them as ‘robots’. Nonetheless, the invasion brought about an immediate reduction in accidents, and the success of the system in Leeds quickly led other cities around the UK to install traffic lights of their own.


A true picture of climate change

It’s widely assumed that as the world’s rainforests decline in area, there’s a consequent reduction in their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. But a team from the University of Leeds Faculty of Environment found that the reality may be very different. In 1998, global research network RAINFOR, published a paper showing that 75% of plots sampled from mature Amazon forests had actually absorbed additional carbon from the atmosphere over recent decades; thereby reducing the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and helping to slow global climate change. In 2008, Dr Alan Grainger showed in his paper that despite frequent claims about rapid deforestation, there is no convincing evidence for a net decline in rainforest area over the last 30 years – because natural reforestation is offsetting deforestation more than previously assumed. These vital insights are helping the world to understand the true impact of deforestation and inform a more effective response to climate change.

Striking gold

In 2019, material scientists at the University of Leeds created a new form of gold just two atoms thick – the thinnest unsupported gold ever created. Researchers measured the thickness of the gold to be just 0.47 nanometres – that’s one million times thinner than a human fingernail! The material is regarded as 2D because it comprises just two layers of atoms sitting on top of one another. The remarkable properties of ultra-thin gold promise wide-scale applications in the medical device and electronics industries, and also as a catalyst to speed up chemical reactions in a range of industrial processes.


Meanwhile at Nexus, the question is, and continues to be, ‘What next?’ For all those in the University’s community of innovators, Leeds’ innovation timeline looks likely to continue well into the future.