Space for innovation: Getting a competitive edge from campus facilities

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A growing number of universities are redesigning their learning spaces to attract inventors and innovators to their campuses

This article is adapted and reprinted with permission from the 2016 edition of ICEF Insights magazine. The complete issue is available to download now.

The first sentence of the US Chamber of Commerce’s “Enterprising States” whitepaper is simply, “Innovation drives economic growth.” This statement is powerful precisely because it is so true. Over the past two decades in the US, young start-up companies have been responsible for the bulk of job creation. And today, roughly one-third of American workers are employed in freelance, or project-based, work. In Europe, many countries now have visa classes and extended work permits on offer to attract foreign investment and entrepreneurs and to stimulate start-up businesses in priority sectors.

But in North America and Europe, some economists are concerned that their countries are falling behind on measurable indicators of innovation. And they are looking to higher education as part of the solution, encouraging universities to increase their capacity to inspire and commercialise research (i.e., transfer the monetary value of research to the overall economy).

This year, for example, the Conference Board of Canada said that because of insufficient knowledge transfer between research universities and industries, “Canadian companies are rarely at the leading edge of new technology and too often find themselves a generation or more behind the productivity growth achieved by global industry leaders.” The assessment came in a year in which Canada ranked 13th among 16 peer countries on measures of innovation – behind competitors such as Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, and Ireland.

The growing move towards interdisciplinary studies is one reflection of how universities are responding to the need to supply entrepreneurial, project-minded students to their economies. Another is the growing number of innovation hubs – facilities designed to reinvigorate the idea of learning and creating.

These facilities can increase a university’s ability to attract high-performing prospective students and talented faculty.

Space matters to top university prospects

Increasingly, some universities are realising that innovation-branded facilities can be competitive strengths in a landscape where many schools still struggle to break out of traditional learning models. For example, the University of Waterloo’s CDN$88 million investment (US$67 million) in an engineering building boasting state-of-the-art study and community spaces is explicitly intended to attract students. Feridun Hamdullahpur, the president and vice-chancellor of the university, notes that “Continuing to transform our campus with first-class facilities like this will allow us to attract top talent to Waterloo.”

And in 2015, when Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) director Erin Driver-Linn spoke with the university’s administrators and support staff, improving learning spaces emerged as the top priority for enhancing the quality of instruction at Harvard.

If Harvard is on board, you can guess that innovation spaces are an idea whose time has come – and that students will be paying attention.

What does innovation look like?

Innovation hubs are designed to encourage students to be comfortable:

  • Experimenting and “breaking things” as part of the creation process;
  • Working on multi-contributor projects;
  • Shifting gears and developing new skills as the need arises.

The University of Calgary has just launched its new Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning; an article in the university’s online newspaper describes what the new space is meant to foster:

“It looks like a group of students participating in a thought-provoking discussion using instant messaging with their collective thoughts being projected onto a large screen. It looks like learning spaces that are fully flexible: tables, chairs, screens, whiteboards and instructors’ stations that can be arranged in any configuration…The transparent design of the learning spaces allows others to observe teaching in action and brings teaching into the open.”

space-calgary
Hanging pods at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Institute offer informal meeting and study spaces forstudents and faculty.

Innovation also often looks brand new, since many campus innovation hubs have been built so recently. Ultramodern spaces – almost always portrayed through sophisticated promotional photography – work to connote prestige and a cutting-edge approach to education.

Times Higher Education reported last year on a British survey of over 2,000 students that found that more students (67%) were influenced by a university’s facilities than by its reputation (47%) when deciding where to study. Only the university’s course offerings (79%) were significantly more important to students than facilities; location was important to 69%, just two percentage points above facilities.

Beyond dollar signs and square inches

Of course not every school can sink millions into an innovation hub. But most can allocate time and resources to making their spaces feel more inviting and inspiring. For example, schools could:

1. Change classroom configurations and introduce creative, though affordable, “makerspaces.” A makerspace has been defined as “a place where students can gather to create, invent, tinker, explore and discover using a variety of tools and materials.”

2. Integrate more collaborative projects into their courses.

3. Make an effort to create more inclusive and energised events, online networks, community spaces, and extra-curricular opportunities. Innovation depends as much on students feeling comfortable speaking up, joining discussions, and brainstorming as it does on state-of-the-art technology.

4. Strengthen relationships with industry leaders and ask successful entrepreneurs to speak in classrooms. Schools could develop exciting internship opportunities for more students.

5. Improve the welcoming space prospective students encounter when coming to explore the campus to decide whether they want to attend, and have engaging current students on hand to talk about the amazing projects and research they’re involved in.

These options represent a move towards the dynamic, experimental, and collaboratively minded spirit students are beginning to expect from universities as they consider how best to prepare themselves for today’s more entrepreneurial work culture.



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