Almost every week brings news of another campus opening an innovation center. Community colleges, liberal arts schools and research universities are all carving out intentional spaces for creativity and collaboration. Driven in part by the rapidly changing needs of employers, higher education is seeking to make its spaces more reflective of a work environment that places a premium on entrepreneurship. Most of these centers feature modern furniture, whiteboards and prototyping equipment like 3D printers. But architects and designers suggest university leaders ask themselves several key questions before getting too far into the process.
Jill Goebel, design director and the Southeast region education and culture practice area leader for Gensler, an architecture, design, planning and consulting firm, thinks that there may be some confusion around the lexicon. "There are innovation centers, makerspaces, accelerators and incubators," she noted. "Sometimes the language is muddied because people use the terms interchangeably."
But just because you create something that looks hip and cool does not mean that innovation happens there, Goebel warned. "There has to be a driving mission and vision behind it. We work with campuses on visioning sessions and interviews to unpack their culture and discover who is ready for it — what programs and leaders within the university have a willingness to be adaptive and go in and try things. You can't just plunk this in the middle of campus and think something is going to happen. It takes leadership."
Brad Lukanic, executive director of CannonDesign's education practice, also starts his work with universities with a visioning exercise. Among the questions he asks is: As an institution, how interdisciplinary do you want to be? "Depending on what programs are involved or if the provost or deans are in the room, you get very different answers," he said. Other questions he asks include how the new center aligns with the strategic mission of the institution and who will be responsible for the curation of content. "One of the potential pitfalls is you make these spaces but there is no ownership in terms of who manages and operates it," he explained. "You have to look beyond day one."
Lukanic said questions about the look and feel start with: Is it in a new facility or in a renovated facility? What do you want the front door and image to say? Is it about boundary crossing between departmental silos and interconnectedness?
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