Robert Hutchins, a former president of the University of Chicago, once described the university as “a collection of departments tied together by a common steam plant.” There’s some truth to this. Most academics will profess more loyalty to a discipline than an institution. Disciplines fight amongst each other for resources and the departmental structure they occupy has enormous possibilities for empire building. The only thing that really unites them is the heating plant (and perhaps the Finance and HR people that keep the paycheques coming).
The role of the university as a corporate entity, though, is not just to facilitate disciplines doing their own thing. Rather it is to tie them together by creating synergies between them; in particular by supporting research strengths in one area by building other strengths in allied departments. Got great legal scholars working on water rights? Make sure your next hires in engineering and geography are hydrologists. And so on.
Lots of universities are starting to do these kinds of things, but there’s a challenge: even if you have the potential for cross-disciplinary collaborations, how do you actually make collaboration happen? How do you increase the odds of serendipity?
The answer – well, one of the answers, anyway – is architecture.
Bell Labs had that figured out in the 1940s. When they built their new HQ at Murray Hill, it was designed so as to ensure that everyone was more or less in everyone’s way so that there would be enormous potential for individuals to run into one another and have fruitful conversations (if you’re an innovation buff and haven’t picked up Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation yet, do so: it’s a gas.).
Frank Gehry did something similar when designing the Ray and Mary Stata Center at MIT. He gave it glass-walled labs to encourage openness, allocated most of the lower floor space for collaborative purposes, and gave faculty members offices on the upper floors so they could – like orangutans (Gehry’s analogy, not mine) – retreat to higher spaces to think when collaboration was done, while still being able to monitor the social space below.
Canadian institutions, it seems to me, are a bit conservative about this. Not that the last decade of building hasn’t produced some spectacular buildings (I’m a huge fan of the U of T Pharmacy Building); but it doesn’t seem like a lot of it has been built with collaboration in mind. There are exceptions, of course – the Academic Health Sciences Centre at the University of Saskatchewan is an example. But they’re not as frequent as one would hope.
Architecture is a key ingredient in innovation. Ignore it at your cost.