Universities are transforming their campuses to maximise the student experience. Their built-form strategy needs to integrate cutting-edge technology with human-centric focus, says Turner & Townsend director Robin Sweasey.
A dazzling spectacle confronts visitors stepping into the atrium at Queensland University of Technology’s 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,” says Sweasey, Turner & Townsend’s director of project management and national education sector lead.
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,” he says.
The traditional lecture theatre is evolving into an interactive learning space. Campuses are introducing smart cameras that follow lecturers around, livestreaming their presentations to national and international audiences.
There’s a downside, though, as “universities are being confronted by a general deteriorating state of mental health of this digitally-driven and social media-consumed generation,” Sweasey explains.”
In response, campus masterplans are seeking to create urban precincts that enable a fully human-centric experience. Campuses are becoming destinations with retail outlets, heritage precincts, coffee shops, theatres and restaurants opening up to the broader community as well as students and staff.
But transforming universities into ‘cities within cities’ is a complex undertaking.
“Ambitious transformation projects can risk spiralling out of control if not matched with an agile and proactive project management approach,” Sweasey explains.
“The complexity and duration of the undertaking inherently involves uncertainty: not everything can be known at the outset, particularly when redevelopment programs can require more than four years to deliver. A program 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, 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, Sweasey says.
“This approach puts clients in the driving seat. They have increased ability to control the scope and quality of the program, with a better understanding of real-time market pricing and within a collaborative program framework. The benefits can be felt from the beginning as subcontractors and suppliers are involved in the earlier design phases.”
An important factor in successful project delivery is in holding and managing stakeholder expectations.
“Program and project managers need 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.
“A collaborative mindset across the project team allowed us to do this with minimal complication and ultimately no impact on the construction critical path.”
The result of this approach and mindset speaks for itself at QUTs Kelvin Grove Campus – a state-of-the-art learning facility for the educators of the future that will adapt and change as learning trends evolve.