Each new building project brings an opportunity to move a campus community towards its envisioned future. The focused attention that accompanies a new building or major renovation can be an opportunity to reexamine current best practices and consider exciting new directions, particularly when it comes to technology. These projects often bring together faculty and staff, and they trigger conversations that elicit aspirational thinking. Campuses that properly prepare for these projects can harness the energy that they generate to propel the institution forward.
How Traditional Budgeting Planning Processes Impede Innovation
Too often, however, an institution sets out a vision for a new building or renovation only to learn during the detailed design process that the technology budget is inadequate to fulfill expectations. The building committee then typically directs the design team to provide “infrastructure for the future” so it can add equipment at some underdetermined date. It is unfortunately common that funding to fulfill the vision does not arrive any time soon—if at all.
This situation usually grows out of the way project budgets are formulated, well before the formal design begins. Traditional approaches to building planning and design simply are not able to accurately estimate the cost of technology using per-square-foot heuristics that are applied before a detailed list of system capabilities is established. Historically, such approaches were somewhat useful when most technology purchased for a building project focused on a projected display system and network electronics. Today there is simply too much variability in functionality and solution approaches to accurately create an estimate in this way for all but the most basic presentation systems.
An Updated Planning Approach Unlocks Future Possibilities
New approaches for technology planning can address this challenge. Campus communities need to develop their detailed vision for technology much earlier in the process. Ideally this would happen even before a building design team is selected. Because design requirements for technology systems are closely aligned to the activities that will happen in a building, discussions about this functionality can take place before the size of the building program has been determined. These technology requirements would then serve as a basis for design that can be more accurately applied to predict costs.
Traditionally a building’s technology program is developed alongside, or slightly delayed from, the space program. This is an artifact of the practice of thinking about technology as just another system that is part of a building whereas, in reality, technology is closely integrated with the work practices and learning activities that happen within the spaces. It is increasingly the case that technology decisions need to influence the organization and character of the physical environment and, thus, should help inform the physical programming effort. Because project budgets for a building are often set before the architectural design team is selected, too often technology designers are not able to provide timely input to help shape the project budget in alignment with institutional aspirations. As a result, the technology budget almost always is set too low by a cost estimator or an MEP, and from the outset the project is behind when it comes to the technology vision.
Opportunities to Think Creatively
Rather than developing a technology systems design in response to a space program, the system design should respond to scenarios that the campus community envisions. These scenarios should look ahead, anticipating the needs that institutions will have five or ten years in the future rather than just on opening day. This suggests the need for a strategic approach that uses foresight innovation techniques, prototyping methods, and scenario-based planning to set out an imagined future view to serve as a basis for design explorations.
Elements of a workshop process might include some or all of the following activities:
- Developing fictitious user profiles that represent different stakeholders at the institution in sufficient detail that the profiles represent realistic, diverse points of view
- Building multiple scenarios that might challenge the institution in the future, whether due to environmental pressures, emerging technologies, or unexpected events
- Identifying unaddressed needs that the fictitious users may have based on their unique profiles
- Creating prototypes that test design concepts, critical experiences, and critical functions
- Developing a strategic position by which the institution should be guided in its decision-making
- Setting priorities based on purpose, mission, and opportunities for the institution
- Exploring the range of possible solutions through divergent candidate design responses
- Building budget estimate that will serve as a basis for decision-making
- Creating a phased plan that optimizes impact and cost.
Addressing Major Issues Facing Higher Education
Taking a proactive, creative planning approach gives institutions time to wrestle with significant, complex issues that have the potential to transform academic institutions dramatically. Some of the most challenging issues currently include:
- Student, faculty, and parent expectations about how instruction can be delivered and about how circumstances can be accommodated through technology have changed dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Institutions face the prospect of an enrollment “cliff” wherein the number of traditional profile students available to enroll will fall by more than 15% after the year 2025.
- Tuition and fees have reached an unsustainable level, such that both students and parents are taking out loans to finance students’ education, to the detriment of their long-term financial stability.
- In the face of sophisticated AI systems such as ChatGPT, how should institutions adapt their teaching and assessment methods? What “manual” skills do students still need to learn to prepare for successful careers and fulfilling lives?
- How might “Smart Campus” technologies help drive campuses to their decarbonization and clean energy goals?
Technology, as a tool for digital transformation, is uniquely positioned to help address these and other issues. Every building project brings with it an opportunity to move the institution forward in new ways. but to fully realize the potential, planning and design processes need to provide resources—in terms of time and budget—that allow ideas to develop.
Andrew J. Milne is managing principal with Kirkpoint in Palo Alto, CA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.