Innovation spaces: Three ideas shaping Campus 2.0

What types of innovation spaces should UNC-Chapel Hill create to help students and faculty spark ideas and design solutions to real-world challenges? And what role should these spaces play in building and connecting local and regional communities?

A group of university leaders gathered at the most recent Innovate Carolina Network Forum to explore these questions through the lens of Campus 2.0 – the concept of campuses as community builders. Conversations focused on the intersection of higher education, innovation, work and physical spaces.  

“We’re on the cusp of an extraordinary time when universities not only help to shape our educational and social lives, but really our communities,” said Adam Glaser, an architect, urban designer and design thinker, who led a discussion with the group based on his expertise working with top university communities across the country. “Taking design thinking and applying it to real estate would be a fundamental way to rethink the nature of communities and could be hugely important for funding education and allowing access to education.”

As noted by Michelle Bolas, director of Innovate Carolina, several key community-focused, innovation space initiatives are already underway at Carolina. They’re all part of the innovation space plan, which stems from the larger Campus Master Plan for the entire university and calls for three primary innovation spaces:

● The Institute for Convergent Science, which will be an interdisciplinary hub where scientists from different areas of expertise can collaborate and find solutions that they couldn’t create on their own.


● An “innovation alley” district that will border Franklin St. and create an even stronger entrepreneurial connection with the community, while integrating art, music and design programs.


● A wet lab incubator, where life science faculty will be able to establish and grow startup companies in the heart of Chapel Hill.

Even with such important plans in motion, leaders gathered at the network forum to think beyond today’s initiatives to tomorrow’s possibilities. Such thinking is fueled by the Blueprint for Next, which is the University’s strategic framework that “Innovation Made Fundamental” as one its two core pillars.

“As innovation continues to become more central to fulfilling the mission of a top university, having significant spaces that are dedicated and recognizable will make a statement about Carolina’s commitment,” said Bolas. “How we arrive at the kinds of people and activities those spaces support and how they can contribute to the local and regional innovation environment is very much on our minds.”

During the discussion, Glaser outlined three concepts that are fundamental to thinking about university innovation spaces and community building in the future.

1. Upward immobility: People stay, live and work in university communities after graduating

Glaser observes a shift in the way students view the relationship between the university they attend and the surrounding community. In the past, he notes, most students went to a university because they had a specific degree in mind and wanted to get the best education possible. Yet they had no intention of staying in the community after graduating. After students earned their degrees, they left the area – and in doing so, took their economic energy and ambitions to launch startup companies with them. 

“It used to be that when you went to school, you got a degree and you left,” noted Glaser. “I think we’re now seeing places where people are viewing education as a way of building their lives in a community. The jobs are coming to them.”

Today, many students have a different view of their education. They see their college years as a period for growing their network and investment potential – and also helping to grow a community that they don’t plan to leave. This is a different way of approaching the academic community, Glaser notes. Faculty become partners and investors. Students and alumni want to have a place to work or start a business in the community.

“When I was a kid, if you were doing well, people told you that you were going places. I think increasingly we’re going to be staying places,” quipped Glaser. “In the future, the most successful schools will be the ones who figure out how to embrace a life-long paradigm with their alumni, partners and folks who work at their companies.”

2. Talentshed: Measuring the total economic impact of a university’s talent network

When it comes to measuring the economic impact that they make, most universities aren’t thinking broadly enough – or considering the role that physical spaces can play. Although individual universities often have hundreds of thousands of people affiliated with them, they tend to focus more narrowly on current students or specific funding categories when trying to demonstrate their economic footprint. Glaser offers a more comprehensive perspective that’s tied to a concept he calls the talentshed – the cumulative economic impact of all students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners.

“When I typically work with universities, they look at their enrollment and talk a lot about their grant funding. But what they don’t often do is to try to quantify the broader community that they are building in the world,” said Glaser.

Glaser points to MIT as an example of how the talentshed can work. For instance, MIT has 11,000 students enrolled and brings in about $1 billion in funding. Yet, those standard numbers, while impressive, don’t tell the whole impact story. Glaser cited a 2014 study by MIT that took into account the wider network of people affiliated with the university, including the 104,000 living alumni of the school. Using extrapolation techniques, the study estimated the total economic impact of the university in terms of the number of people employed, revenue generated and companies created. He also recognized Innovate Carolina’s method of using its startups database and impact dashboard to measure and report the economic impact of UNC-Chapel Hill – which includes 454 active startup companies that earned $11.2 billion in annual revenue and employed 71,000 people in 2017.

Institutions that think with this kind of broad perspective will have an edge, Glaser notes. “I’d argue that schools need to begin thinking about ‘Where are my people going, what do they do and how can I align my physical environment to support more and more of those folks?’” he says. “One of the questions is: ‘Is there a way of allowing more of that network to connect back to the university?’”

3. Subscription real estate: A regional, open network of co-working spaces

What if universities could band together to help a region attract the real-estate equivalent of numerous Amazon HQs, Sears Towers or Apple office parks? That kind of major economic impact on regional scale is possible, says Glaser, if universities within a region use inventive thinking to work together and offer shared co-working space to their networks of alumni, students and faculty. People could pay a subscription fee to be part of the network, which would offer them co-working space and other resources, like mentorship and business development services.

As an example of an area where this model might succeed, he cites Chicago, which anchors a Midwest region that includes 60 tier-one and tier-two institutions that span into states like Michigan and Indiana.   

“What would happen if all these schools got together and created shared real-estate assets and educational assets?” Glaser asks. His analysis indicates that if 10 percent of the 4 million students drawn to the wider Chicago region participated in a co-working space network, it could add up to a 60-million square real estate footprint and a minimum of $3.5 billion in revenue.

“When you think about economic development, you’re always thinking about how can you bring HQ2 to me. This is far more HQ2s and no one is asking for tax dollars,” Glaser notes.

For universities and their students, alumni and network of partners, the subscription real-estate model could offer flexibility in terms of work and economic engagement. “Going forward, universities are going to be saying, ‘Do you want to be self-employed? Do you want to be an entrepreneur? Do you want to be able to work with multiple companies?’” Glaser says. “You can see how suddenly you can begin to think regionally about real estate in a very fundamental way.”