The Edinburgh Futures Institute brings together people, data and disciplines in the creative exploration of ideas and live issues. Our first programmes launched in September 2022 and our building, which is converting part of the former Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, is due to open in Spring 2023. My contribution to this work has included co designing one of the new Masters programmes (MSc in Education Futures), sitting on advisory groups around learning and technology, and being part of an end-user group with a remit for creating fusion teaching spaces. These different strands of activity came together in May when I took part in a ‘placemaking’ field trip to London, alongside a group of Edinburgh Futures Institute colleagues.
Across two days we visited a range of organisations (education, research, commercial) and spoke with different people as we considered ideas, environments and practices that could shape our own work and surroundings within EFI. As a varied group of academic and professional services staff we brought a range of interests to each visit, for instance around teaching, buildings, facilities, partnerships and beyond. I learned a good deal from each visit, but also from being alongside a more varied group of colleagues than I would normal work alongside.
Among other stops on our fast-paced placemaking tour, we took in the British Library, Alan Turing Institute, Central St Martins College, Digital Catapult, Francis Crick Institute, Gate One, Plexal East and UCL Business School. We also wandered through the public realm spaces of Coal Drops Yard and Granary Square, and paused to catch our breath and collect our thoughts in Spiritland. As I went along I recorded the sights and sounds of these different settings and brought them together in a short video as a kind of visual-and-aural reminder of each place.
Here are some of the ideas and questions that I took away from the placemaking field trip. I’m sharing these as a note-to-self, but also because I think these could be talking points on the Learning Spaces and Digital Technologies course I’m teaching this semester.
One setting, many spaces This was something that we already had in mind for our new building the EFI, but there was a clear recognition that the design of a single building (or floor) could usefully support a range of different activities, working practices and personal preferences. And so staff or students can move between open plan areas, quiet corners, meeting pods, lounge areas, kitchens and so on, depending on their mood or the task in hand. Whereas in the past the design and layout of a building might have been used to hierarchically tell individuals where they would work, there seemed to be considerably more freedom of choice and movement in these emergent environments (which isn’t to say that workplace power dynamics are necessarily waived away through comfy bench seating or a coffee machine).
…but no offices Looking across my photographs from the visit provides a clear indication that that the individual office has been squeezed out in the design of these new working and studying environments. Again in line with what will happen in our own EFI space, the traditional idea of the academic having their own office is seemingly out of step with contemporary expectations or working practices.
Keeping things simple? For all that we visited a number of sophisticated and hip working environments (ping pong tables, bowls of fruit, baristas) it was at the British Library where we saw a clamour for space. Well before the doors opened, there was a long line of students queuing to guarantee a seat and desk for their writing, reading or reflection. It wouldn’t be sensible to conclude anything on this snapshot (and it doesn’t make much sense to compare a commercial start-up with a study setting), but I still wonder if there’s something in here about not over-complicating things.
Making the workplace attractive after Covid It might have been the timing of our visit (towards the end of the week, reasonably soon after Covid had dissipated) however several of the spaces we visited felt very quiet for a working day. This was despite having what looked to have really pleasant working environments. Again, it is isn’t possible to draw assumptions based upon a few quick glimpses, but - and this is relevant to the building we are creating at EFI - how do we incentivise being physically present on campus when staff and students know from the experience of lockdown that it might be cheaper and more convenient to work from home. Will the promise of nice surroundings trump the time and cost of travelling to the city centre? And what happens to workplace synergies when nobody else is around?
Access and security How we do strike the balance between making our physical spaces open to different publics, while at the same time ensuring the safety of students and staff who work there? Based upon our placemaking visit, there’s much to be said for having security staff who are visible but also friendly. It’s possible be exacting and welcoming (and a particular nod to the member of staff at Central St Martin’s College who patiently and good humouredly helped a long line of visiting staff to negotiate the security turnstiles).
Finally, how does 'place' work in fusion? Our programmes in EFI are distinct for being designed as fusion-first. That is, a single course can be simultaneously studied on site and online. This calls on us to think really careful about how the built environment can structure in equity of experience for those students who are situated in a location away from the University. Are there ways that online students can experience and feel actively present in the physical buildings? How do we nurture natural connections between students attending in different modes? What do our classrooms (and corridors and cafes?) need to do in order that we can equally see and hear students who are attending the University online? Difficult questions, but crucial points to consider when placemaking for an institute that advocates fusion teaching and learning.
I am a Lecturer in Digital Education (Education Futures), within the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.