Digital and the human: remodelling universities for the future

Robin Sweasey

Director, Brisbane

Australia and New Zealand

Universities are transforming their campuses to maximise the student experience. Their built-form strategy needs to integrate cutting-edge technology with human-centric focus.

A dazzling spectacle confronts visitors stepping into the atrium at Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) brand new Peter Coaldrake Education Precinct at its Kelvin Grove campus: a five-metre diameter digital sphere, suspended from the ceiling and displaying fully digital content that interacts with a large digital HD screen on the adjacent stairwell wall.

The sphere is symbolic of the transformation that many universities are undergoing in Australia as they seek to attract students and prestigious research grants, as well as increase their rankings in global tertiary tables. Universities are no longer just centres of teaching and research, but public campuses, with a diverse mix of facilities in constant dialogue with industry and the broader community.

New generation learning

“Tertiary institutions are remodelling themselves for the new generation of digital adults.”

It is now common that students will work from at least three devices: a mobile phone, a tablet and a laptop. This is giving rise to new methods of flexible learning and collaboration, replacing traditional lecturer-centric teaching methods.

The traditional lecture theatre, while not completely disappearing, is becoming far less common. In its place, flat interactive learning spaces with multiple projection screens are becoming the norm. Students are able to participate by “throwing” digital content from their devices onto mobile screens. Campuses are also introducing smart cameras that follow lecturers around, livestreaming their presentations to national and international audiences.

Universities are also being confronted by the deteriorating state of mental health of this digitally-driven and social media-consumed generation. Recent years have seen a marked rise in stress and anxiety levels of young people, with the isolating effect of technology impacting increasing numbers of students in negative ways.

Human-centric design

To combat this, campus masterplans are seeking to create urban precincts that enable a fully human-centric experience, by creating spaces that maximise social interaction and a sense of overall physical and mental well-being. Campuses are becoming destinations in their own right, with retail outlets, heritage precincts, coffee shops, theatres and restaurants opening up to the broader community as well as students and staff. They are simply enjoyable places at which to spend time.

Transforming universities into ‘cities within cities’ is a complex undertaking. Live campuses are restrictive environments in which to undertake major redevelopments, with more stakeholders and industry partners to consult with than ever before.

“Ambitious transformation projects can risk spiralling out of control if not matched with an agile and proactive project management approach.”

This is because the complexity and duration of the undertaking inherently involves uncertainty: not everything can be known at the outset, particularly when redevelopment programmes can require more than four years to deliver. A programme needs rigorous governance, but should be given the breathing space to flex and shift as circumstances change.

Traditional procurement models are often not sufficiently flexible to adequately absorb this uncertainty. This is because they tend not to allow the input at an early enough stage of all the parties that are best placed to accommodate or mitigate risks.

Sophisticated risk-sharing and an agile approach

By contrast, non-traditional procurement methods that allow the early involvement of experienced contractors, managed within a collaborative and high-performing project culture, allow more sophisticated risk-sharing between clients, suppliers, consultants and contractors.

“This approach puts clients in the driving seat.”

They have increased ability to control the scope and quality of the programme, with a better understanding of real-time market pricing and within a collaborative programme framework. The benefits can be felt from the beginning as subcontractors and suppliers are involved in the earlier design phases.

Involving the construction supply chain early can mitigate against costly errors and quality issues that may have to be rectified later. This is particularly important when deciding on the technical infrastructure: technology evolves so fast that in four to five years – the not-uncommon length of a complex transformation project – the technological solution achieved at the end of a project may not even have existed at the start.

“Balancing fluidity with the demands of the delivery schedule and budget is essential to a sophisticated and agile management approach.”

Indeed, a key aspect of managing stakeholder expectations is in ensuring that the project governance body understands from the outset that time and cost contingency provisions should be adjustable as the risk profile of the project evolves, and successfully delivered against these moving targets.

This is not an easy task: at the early stages of a large programme there is a risk that expectations are somewhat ‘black and white’. This is because, owing to the unpredictable nature of the work, the complexity and challenges are not immediately apparent. Indeed, problems don’t often emerge until some way into the programme, after considerable time has elapsed.

“An important factor in successful project delivery is in holding and managing stakeholder expectations.”

To do this, programme managers need to have highly developed and subtle communications skills, continuing the dialogue with the governance body so that significant changes and impacts can be absorbed without negatively impacting their perception of the project’s success.

Take the stunning sphere that hangs in the atrium at QUT. The university knew that it wanted a signature digital visualisation installation from the outset, but did not fully resolve the solution until after the project started construction on site.

The programme, combined with a collaborative mindset across the project team allowed it to do this with minimal complication and ultimately no impact on the construction critical path. Although funds were sourced to accommodate additional service-related elements necessary to accommodate the sphere in the base building, which had been designed well before the ultimate form of the visualisation was known.

Embracing technology

As the education sector continues to implement increasingly complex projects, it should also be mirroring other sectors in embedding the use of building information modelling (BIM), not only into managing projects from the initial briefing stages, but also in managing the maintenance of its buildings.

BIM can be instrumental in unlocking a host of efficiencies in project management and construction delivery, and also in developing a sophisticated understanding of how campus building portfolios are performing operationally.

Tertiary education clients understand very well how they must adapt their academic environments to be more flexible, agile and responsive to technology. Their campus strategies must be the same.

For further information contact:

Robin Sweasey
Director, Brisbane

t: +61 (0) 404 876 437
e: