Empty spaces: Cracking open our campuses for innovation

16 April 2019
5 min read

In 1804, the world's population stood at one billion. Just over 200 years later, that number had multiplied sevenfold. One billion: a number that, at the turn of the 19th century, had taken all of human history to accrue, is now tipping over in a matter of 12 years. From six billion in 1999, we have quickly reached the seven billion mark in 2011. Humans, we have a problem.

It's not even the sheer number of people joining planet earth, as David Satterthwaite, senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, points out. It's the way we mishandle our consumption. In the words of Gandhi: The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.

With global warming doubling down on populations doubling up, we simply can't pave a sustainable future with traditional thinking in the foundations. The rules have changed; our resources are running dry, and our world is becoming even more congested and suffocating. So: Why do we keep building more buildings when much of what we have is empty?

Universities, school halls, church buildings, research labs, even hospitals and clinics over weekends – all these spaces sit idle and packed with latent potential during the week or parts of the calendar year. But what if we repurposed these elite spaces to benefit the wider community, governments and institutions; imagine if we learned to share our existing spaces, rather than always breaking new ground and perpetuating the same inimical cycle of consumption?

Specifically, when it comes to research and development (R&D), what if we became clever enough to treat social infrastructure as the name suggests, and started opening doors to facilitate critical collaborations and discoveries that wouldn't otherwise be possible?

After all, we have decided that it is okay to welcome strangers into our homes (and vice versa); so, why not Airbnb for R&D?

Schools are learning – and leading the way

According to the South Australia Government's plan for social infrastructure: "to make the best use of limited resources, and ensure that facilities are utilised as much as possible (including at night and at weekends), community buildings need to provide for multiple uses and serve a range of population groups, as well as being capable of adapting as needs change over time."

This has never been more relevant for the education sector. To adapt to the change, colleges and universities today are now investing in their buildings with science, flexibility and the future in mind, not only to foster a better learning experience, but also to attract students, professors, startups and the community.

Incubators and innovation centres have been designed to "spark strategic partnerships between academia and industry", allowing universities to open doors and provide spaces for workshops and prototyping, not only for students, but for startup companies as well. The Garage, Northwestern University's innovation incubator, which is located on the second floor of a parking garage, is offering startups a place to do their dirty work and let them experiment on things that they can't do at home. It is a playground for the curious and the innovative. It's a R&D haven.

On top of this, they are also investing in facilities and amenities, such as libraries, student centres and gymnasiums, that can be used to cater for public and community functions when they are not in use.

Science spells team

But cross-sectoral collaboration is not the only by-product benefit of sharing our social infrastructure. Most profound is the pioneering work that can arise from teams within the R&D industry working together.

And it makes complete sense, considering the complexity and scale required of today's scientists, engineers and designers to build solutions that are robust enough to ride the tsunami of digital disruption. In fact, team science – research done by multiple cross-disciplinary teams or experts within the same discipline - has cracked the code on some of our most significant discoveries such as the transistor effect and the structure of DNA.

While universities and industry have different approaches when it comes to R&D, they make 'perfect partners' for collaboration, according to University of California, Berkeley's Kelsey Chong. She says that while companies can benefit from universities to fill the gaps between basic and applied research; universities, in turn, "receive large amounts of research funding, insights on real market data, and unique opportunities to apply scientific discoveries towards directly improving people's lives and implementing societal change."

Space for a catalyst for collaboration

Given this situation, and a real need to reimagine some of our dormant, historical spaces in order to host these kinds of pioneering collaborations, we have to create environments where sharing our physical and intellectual assets is quantifiable and financially advantageous to its stakeholders. This means, we not only need a shift in public-private tenancy models; we need a culture change within team science that will champion collaboration as the catalyst for breakthrough work.

With 'shareability' as an all-the-more critical attribute for the future, we can start now to design environments that are agile and adaptable, able to modify and move as tenancy contracts and market shifts demand. The bonus from this kind of investment is that: By planning now for true social infrastructure, we inadvertently future-proof our cities.

Rather than pulling from our depleting resources, and accruing spectacular debt to build from scratch, the answer could be right in front of us – in all our forgotten halls. Sharing rights could become the new holy grail of industry, offering governments and business the promise of groundbreaking innovation, economic growth and true impact within a world rocked by constant, remarkable change.

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Susie Pearn
Written by
Susie Pearn

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