From campus to conversation

Atkins’ Alida Bata discusses how the knowledge economy is impacting on the use of space on campus

How we move knowledge from person to person, business to business and machine to machine is revolutionising not only our economy, but our universities and how we design them. Knowledge can no longer be created and kept in a single faculty. Sharing, translating and combining that knowledge with other disciplines and businesses is what adds ‘exchange value’, a concept driving today’s knowledge economy.

This knowledge economy is changing the old hierarchy of faculty over campus. Where previously space was divided and distinguished between faculties, it is now often organised into formal and informal spaces. Mixed use, informal and collaborative spaces create hotbeds for efficient knowledge exchange and innovation.

And it’s not just physical spaces that are changing. We’re also facing a virtual revolution where knowledge can be shared through any number of platforms, with multiple interactions occurring simultaneously. Is physical space still relevant in our virtual world? Why should a student go to their campus if they can access almost all of their learning online? Students have more choice now than ever before when it comes to their working habits and methods of communication. In turn, they demand more from their environments and expect them to accommodate both physical and virtual interactions. Physical spaces must now provide the same ease of exchange, ability to switch between work/live/play, and high levels of engagement as their virtual counterparts.

With monumental changes like these afoot, we as designers face five key challenges when creating the universities of the future.

1.       Knowledge is exchanged both inside and outside buildings

The traditional division between building and masterplan are no longer sufficient. Informal spaces thrive between these and are inherently public, inclusive and inviting through their design; they are best placed at junctions, outward facing and mixed-use. Urban scale spaces now perform functions once held in a single building, so to create truly interactive spaces we have to look at what’s outside a building as much as what’s in it. As we bounce between scales, the process of masterplanning and then designing discrete buildings must be rethought so our design responses match the complexity of interactions we now see on campus.

2.       A journey is no longer just a means to an end

As working methods become more agile, we can’t always assume a student’s destination on campus is his or her lecture theatre. Whereas previously your destination on campus was defined by your schedule, you now choose where you go based on accessibility, convenience, location of your peers and access to ancillary services. We need to design the public realm and exterior of university buildings so they facilitate and guide this journey, creating welcoming and enticing spaces across the campus.

3.       Proximity without interaction is ineffective

Although agile, informal spaces are cost-efficient, it sometimes dilutes the valuable engagement we get when working face to face. When working virtually with your peers on the other side of the world, why bother looking up and engaging with those around you? Informal mixed-use spaces are designed for ‘brushing shoulders’ and ‘chance encounters’, but we can’t expect adjacency alone to provide successful collaboration. We need to design spaces so that they encourage people to work together in pairs or groups, stimulating the kind of high quality interactions that make for real innovation.

4.       Visibility is central to exchange

What kinds of engagement then can proximity provide? The tacit knowledge we gain through physical interaction and experience can’t be replicated virtually. Understanding other people, organisations and cultures is primarily a visual experience. We need to design spaces so that people can see each other and are encouraged to interact, with open space, central foyers, landings, atriums and walkways guiding people towards a more shared experience.

5.       Places need multiple identities 

As campuses become diverse districts, they will accommodate a wider range of activities and people. People naturally want to be in spaces they are connected to; a preference towards university owned facilities is often expressed. However, in shared spaces, ownership, belonging and responsibility to your environment is often reduced. We need to create spaces which can speak to a diverse group of users, rather than a single faculty or student group. 

By: Alida Bata 

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