Building the universities of the future

Taking a technology-led approach will be the future for designing assets for university estates

Following the thought-provoking AUDE annual conference this year, it’s clear that while there is much debate over what the university of the future looks like, the emerging consensus is that estates need to be agile enough to accommodate the changing demands from both students and industry. At the same time, they need to be far more efficient and designed with differing revenue streams in mind, as sustainable financial planning takes on an even greater impetus. Commercialising assets when they are out of season, or creating dedicated corporate facilities, has reinvented a core business for many universities, with mixed use development helping leverage space for flexible learning and additional revenue, offering a different approach to traditional models.

To deliver this new environment we need to radically change how we think about both new build construction and refurbishing university estates. Technology is driving this change and rather than being a bolt on at the end of a project, it needs to be the starting point of the process.

Education will be delivered in a variety of ways to multiple audiences in the future, embracing virtual reality and artificial intelligence. A robust, future-proofed university will have a diverse product range, from STEM courses for college leavers to high value, highly specified short courses for corporates, as well as lifelong learning options. To meet this brief, the entire university estate needs to be technology enabled.

The UK’s university estate includes valuable heritage assets such as the Oxbridge colleges as well as newer facilities. To ensure they continue to thrive, it’s essential to apply the correct approach when upgrading. This shouldn’t be done in a siloed way, but by considering broader connectivity with the entire estate.

It’s not about throwing more tech into the pot, in fact it’s the opposite – we should aim to make buildings simpler by standardising systems

Using data-driven technology, existing facilities can be made to work far more efficiently, although this blurring of the lines between traditional IT responsibility and that of facilities management requires new skills throughout the chain of command. Estate teams wouldn’t necessarily understand the IT requirements and vice versa, so it’s clear that we need an evolution of talent with new roles and departments.

The design of new facilities should be approached in the same way, by looking at what students and staff need from their learning environments, now and in the future, and developing flexible solutions to encompass this.

It’s not about throwing more tech into the pot, in fact it’s the opposite – we should aim to make buildings simpler by standardising systems so we can get meaningful data to continually improve operations. Why do we need a BMS if we have light fittings that also include sensors for air quality and temperature control? This immediately makes several systems redundant and simplifies the operation of the building. Less is always more in this context.

What seems radical now will soon become commonplace. The overriding factor is our need to get behind the brief, to understand what a building is being used for now and into the future. We then adopt a technology-led approach to design the assets that work harmoniously with the wider estate – that is the future.

Matt Roche is managing director, technology solutions for ISG

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