University campuses need to be multidisciplinary environments, where academics can collaborate with entrepreneurs and industry in ‘hackspaces’ and labs, and start-ups and spin-outs can be incubated, says David Gann
As we compete in a global knowledge economy, universities are changing. Academic buildings must adapt to this transformation.
We need the highest-quality modern facilities to undertake cutting-edge research and teaching in new areas of science, engineering and medicine.
The emergence of fields such as synthetic biology and data science have become central to our mission, leading to innovation at Imperial College London.
A generation ago such pioneering fields, which have unravelled the human genome and made micro-payments a normal part of life, seemed like science fiction. As scientific change accelerates, we cannot predict where discoveries over the next 10 years will take us.
Flexibility has never been so pivotal to design of university buildings. We need openness and malleability in planning for Imperial’s new 10ha campus in White City, west London. We are deliberately leaving space in our masterplan so we can adapt to, accommodate and lead the science of tomorrow.
In this environment, where data underpins everything we do, architects need to be involved in designing digital, as well as physical infrastructure. The way we think about and deliver education has a big impact on building design. Students are not passive consumers of research or training for the traditional workplace – they are participants in entrepreneurial, creative learning communities.
Imperial students are especially likely to found start-ups and spin-outs, or to become innovators in global companies. Having access to creative ‘hackspaces’ – workshops, labs and meeting areas – helps teams to do proof of concepts, build prototypes, develop business models and create value from their ideas.
Innovation emerges from serendipitous interactions - creative abrasions in an environment teeming with great minds
There are exciting developments at the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. Students and scholars engage with global challenges, such as ending microbial infection, removing carbon dioxide from the environment and making sense of massive, complex, dynamic data-sets. These require multidisciplinary approaches and cannot be effectively tackled in traditional university buildings.
Working on these grand challenges is increasing international competition and collaboration between universities, with businesses and institutions. From Boston to Beijing, Imperial engages globally and locally with partners, entrepreneurs and industry – all at the same time. For example, Imperial engineers are working with NHS clinicians, Chinese computer scientists and US pharmaceutical firms to develop next-generation artificial limbs. We need spaces to co-locate these teams.
Sometimes innovation is planned, but often it emerges from serendipitous interactions – the creative abrasions that can only occur in an environment that is already teeming with great minds from a variety of backgrounds. Architects and designers can cultivate and encourage these interactions. They can help us to create multipurpose campuses where the density of occupation and interaction allows for ideas to collide.
Among the buildings under construction at White City is a Molecular Science Research Hub (pictured), with wet lab and specialised facilities for 1,000 scientists and engineers. It interconnects with a Translation and Innovation Hub housing co-located laboratories with technology partners, hackspaces, new start-ups and fast-growth technology companies.
Universities are increasingly defined by collaboration. Their buildings and data infrastructure matter more than ever.
David Gann is vice-president (development and innovation) at Imperial College London.
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