Building the future

Last month I had some interesting conversations with Michael Burns at Glasgow on the subject of the Intelligent Campus (or the Smart Campus). We discussed many of the issues that we have been looking at as part of the #codesgin16 challenge and what is happening in Glasgow.

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The first question I asked Michael was, what do you understand by the concept of the smart campus?

The university has committed to spend around £1Bn on the creation of a new consolidated campus on its Gilmorehill site in the west of the city. Many other universities are also committing similar amounts to their own projects. This huge investment in educational  infrastructure comes at a time where there is enormous Government and industry interest in the development of ‘smart’  urban solutions. It makes sense for us to identify where the opportunities for collaboration lie within this.

Student satisfaction underpins the university’s business case in the creation of the new campus  – and ‘smart’ technology has the potential to strengthen this – whether it in the management of a built environment designed for an end-user experience which is accessible, comfortable, connected, convenient, secure and welcoming through to the interests of a research community and the engagement of new industry partners. In this sense ‘smart’ campus becomes more than an efficient estate  – it also provides a strong digital experience where the University is more aware of , and sensitive to, the needs of its stakeholders – students, faculty, support staff, suppliers and the host community with whom it shares the city.

Our early approach to smart campus is weighted towards energy, construction innovation and sensors, however these are not an end in themselves. They are part of a larger, more complex, conversation about we use these technologies to design, develop and deliver a campus attuned to the needs of its users.

Do you think that there are realistic opportunities to enhance learning and research by using artificial intelligence and the internet of things?

These are already established parts of research in many institutions worldwide. Overall, it seems unlikely that automation of core cognitive processes is a viable route. Instead, using AI and the like to augment human activity is the way to go.

With regard to learning, more work has to be done with staff and students, to establish solid guidelines and infrastructures for system design—but again there are people exploring research possibilities already, including groups in U. Glasgow. We are exploring infrastructures, such as digital ledgers, that can support a range of apps, analyses and decision-making processes.

We’re looking at IoT as it can help shape the creation of a larger digital district around the new campus — enhancing the student experience further by facilitating greater access to a range of complementary city services e.g. leisure, transport, social activities. This is looking as it could be delivered as a partnership with the City Council, Scottish government and the private sector.

It is easy to imagine using this data to ensure our rooms and facilities are managed effectively, but could we go further and monitor environmental conditions in learning spaces or even, using facial recognition software, student reactions during learning so that we can continually refine the learning experience?

Clearly, basic management of the built environment is easier to do if the data collected is inherently anonymous, e.g. environmental conditions or overall numbers of people, and in that case we are likely to benefit from the application of existing industry solutions – ours is a live project. Many powerful (but often indirect) benefits can be gained this way, e.g. allowing the university to spend the money it would have used on wasted energy on services for staff and students.

When one goes beyond that, then such systems have to be designed in ways that involve the people who would be sharing such data with the university. Perhaps the starting point should not then be that the university monitors staff and students, but that staff and students share data with the university if they wish. Allied with this, a simplistic yes/no agreement is inadequate. We see the need for controls as well as individual benefits for the people (staff and students) who choose to share such information, e.g. personalised apps and services, to support campus life. People may share such data from altruism or campus community spirit, but direct benefit can take us further.

What constraints, if any, should institutions have placed on them when it comes to tracking data?

Constraints already exist, and should exist, based on a body of law and established procedures—ethical and technical. This is only one part of the high-trust relationship between the university and staff/students. Another is its maintenance and development, through appropriate forms of procedural and operational transparency, and engagement of the campus community in design processes. 

As we continue to look into this area, we are interested in seeing what other people are working on.

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