Designing from Inside Out: Lessons from Sydney

Strong client leadership, a clear and well articulated innovative vision for education, and iconic architect Frank Gehry promises to do more than just raise the profile of the business school at University of Technology, Sydney. There are lessons for all of us.

The scaffolding is coming off Frank Gehry's new building for the new business school at the University of Technology, Sydney. (c) Roy Green

The scaffolding is now coming off Frank Gehry’s new building for the new business school at the University of Technology, Sydney. (c) Roy Green

What is really important about this project is not just the architecture itself, but the deliberate strategy of rethinking the approach to business school education before getting started on the building design.

Professor Roy Green, Dean of the business school at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) first told me about their plans to construct a new building for the business school over three and a half years ago, and he said they were “designing it inside out”.

At that point they hadn’t even appointed an architect for what will be known as the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, named after the project’s largest donor. Now nearly four years later iconic architect Frank Gehry’s first building in Sydney is revealing itself.

The vision that Roy Green and his colleagues have developed, moves the school beyond merely teaching specialised business skills and looks to cover the broader skills of collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving. Green argues that they must incorporate both ‘integrative thinking’ and ‘design thinking’ into the world of business education. Indeed both ideas have been gaining currency in the business world over the last few years.

‘Integrative thinking’ is mostly about integrating imagination, intuition and reason, and ‘design thinking’, a term coined by David Kelley founder of the design firm IDEO, is about using design approaches to solving all sorts of real world problems. Design as a process is being seen as providing a model for developing more creative thinking in business – first understand the problem by talking to people, observe how people tackle the problem, visualise possible solutions, and prototype solutions which can be refined through iterations of development.

UTS has been reviewing and revising its undergraduate curriculum, and redesigning its MBA programmes to enable it to import these ideas.

Roy Green’s concern is that courses and departments in business schools work in silos, indeed this could be said of most departments in most universities. Yet in real life people have to collaborate with others from many disparate fields. So the idea behind the UTS project is to go beyond the ‘silos’ of disciplines and create a learning environment that fosters collaboration.

UTS business school already has its ‘u.lab’ which is modelled on Stanford’s ‘d.school’ set up by David Kelley who also set one up at Potsdam University. Then there is MIT’s ‘Design Lab’, Toronto’s ‘DesignWorks’, and Aalto University’s ‘Design Factory’ with more recently the ‘Urban Mill’ which is a partnership between Aalto University and the City of Espoo, Finland. The u.lab sees students tackle real industry problems through collaboration between business, design and engineering students collaborating thus bringing integrative thinking to the heart of higher education.

The brief for the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building at UTS was for a vision that would reinforce the school’s ideas on integrative thinking by creating interactive spaces and sightlines. The idea is that the building should be ‘porous’, connecting people internally and with the community outside.

Green is adamant that the: “real significance lies less in the architecture itself than what it says about our approach to learning.”

Green tells me that the “floor plans cannot fully represent what’s taking shape internally – an interactive flexible learning environment. In other words the fault is in our limited perception through 2 dimensional floor plans rather than the interior design which will be brilliant. However we did get some glimpses of it through Gehry’s 2D modelling software. ” The building will have oval-shaped classrooms to enable students and lecturers to face each other to challenge the traditional rectangular classroom model, tiered lecture theatres with swivel seats to enable students to turn and face the row behind, there will also be large informal areas for students. But they are fighting shy of putting the academics in open plan offices as there was significant resistance to the idea.

Critical to any project are leadership (this is being led by the Dean), a vision clearly articulated in a brief (a fundamental rethink of how students and departments interact).

I think that the completion of the building will mark an important milestone in this project, but it is not the conclusion. As with any building, they will need to learn how to use it to best effect. This will be a matter of continuous adjustment to meet the developing needs of higher education. One measure of success here will be the extent to which the building enables the users to do this.

Watch this time-lapse video of construction (UTS)

Some ideas to try  …

If you have a project, even one that is very small, perhaps to alter the arrangement of just one space, ask yourself (and others) the following:

  • How clear is the vision?
  • How could you sum that up in one sentence?
  • Is there clear leadership?

If you have some spaces you think might work better if they were changed, consider this:

  • First talk to students and teachers and ask them about how they work, interact or teach.
  • Then, observe what they do in the kind of spaces they use (you may need to go off campus for this one).
  • Try out some changes that can be reversed to see what works (perhaps it may be possible to construct a temporary partition or screening, if you think some sort of physical separation is a solution).
  • Ask the users what they feel about the changes you have made. What changes would help?
  • Adjust accordingly, and try again…

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