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Understanding the smart campus revolution

11 April 2024

The UK’s Higher Education sector occupies a unique space in today’s digital revolution, representing a dynamic driver of cutting-edge innovation while also being a bastion of our national heritage.

This is illustrated by the many labs and R&D hubs on campuses working on state-of-the-art scientific breakthroughs and advanced digital technologies, which sit next to centuries old buildings and outdated facilities unable to keep pace with digitally native student populations and modern expectations.

That’s not to say historic buildings are inherently the problem, as many are a core aspect of the cultural fabric of universities, beloved by students, staff, local communities and even the country. But it underlines the need for universities to create smart campuses with new facilities able to make tomorrow’s discoveries while upgrading existing ones to meet a higher standard of teaching, wellbeing, and sustainability.

Changing behaviours

The archetype of a student no longer resembles someone who’s walked off the set of ‘The Young Ones’. Digitally savvy, an informed consumer with multiple choices, motivated by social awareness and basing decisions on purpose, value and experience, students have high expectations for their surroundings that university estate directors need to account for.

Innovative institutions are therefore looking for technologies that enable touchless, intuitive and streamlined experiences which facilitate a digitally connected community. This can take many forms, such as our recent work with the University of Manchester to digitally upgrade their lecture theatres with podcasting capabilities.

And it’s not just undergrads and postgrads that need to be accounted for, numerous other stakeholders including faculty, staff, onsite businesses and more also expect a digitally enabled workplace.

At Drees & Sommer UK, we’ve helped universities futureproof their sites and ensure they’re up to the demands of 21st Century studying. The University of Manchester’s Alan Gilbert Learning Commons exemplifies this, as the intention was to create a ‘social information hub’ to accommodate flexible learning styles and provide an area for advanced technologies and learning spaces. This led to a design which would meet the needs of modern students through a variety of technology rich tools, resources and services as well as providing facilities for undergraduates to collaborate, both physically and virtually, including retrieving, editing, and presenting any type of media.

With the University of Leeds, we worked on a refurbishment at their Grade II listed Edward Boyle Library to digitally improve study areas and book storage spaces. Extensive stakeholder engagement was undertaken to create a brief that defines a 21st century library space which would enhance the student experience, while respecting the heritage of the building.

This project also highlighted another important aspect of how smart campuses can align with the behaviours of its users, which is to utilise data to improve the usage and performance of the sites. In this case obsolete heating and ventilation units were replaced with a cooling system that would adjust according to the library’s occupancy, especially during peak exam times when it is open 24/7.

The ability to gain insights from students and staff which can be fed into facilities management processes is a key aspect of smart campuses. Understanding when and how a building is being used means they can be better tailored to users, but it can also empower estate teams to tackle crucial challenges.

Digitally decarbonising

One of the most significant questions for university estate directors is how they can decarbonise campuses and meet looming net zero deadlines. While there is no silver bullet here, moving to smarter buildings is a fundamental part of the solution.

The ways in which new technologies and data led approaches can improve sustainability performance are highly varied. For example, Internet of Things (IoT) based sensors can react to changes in occupancy and usage throughout the day to optimise lighting as well as heating, ventilation, air conditioning, air quality and even waste bin collections. This responsiveness reduces energy consumption and ensures buildings are running as efficiently as possible. At the other end of the technology spectrum, movement across campus and natural light can be harnessed and turned into sources of kinetic and solar energy to power campuses or the surrounding community.

These capabilities can be extended to how we move around sites, with connected active travel facilities and low emission vehicles supported by charging infrastructure. These also have the added benefit of cleaner air and encouraging healthier travel options.

Even without sensors or new equipment, increasing the amount of data about a university’s physical estate can be invaluable. Advances in machine learning mean that all the information on energy, usage, conditions, emissions, water usage and more can be analysed to inform future facilities management as well as the design and operation of new spaces.

Data powered twins

Digital Twin technology is revolutionising data management and insights across many sectors within the built environment, including Higher Education. Whether the resulting models and dashboards are developed from Building Information Modelling (BIM) data, Nvidia Omniverse or Matterport scanning, the fundamentals are in capturing valuable data with clear objectives from the outset.

From comprehensive static models to real-time IoT fed digital twins, the use cases for digital solutions are expanding exponentially. Through clear strategic digitalisation and data capture across campus’, directors and operational teams can gain a comprehensive, real-time understanding of their estate.

Using a virtual environment to analyse, simulate and redesign the built environment based on reliable data sources enables and informs real-world decision making, while driving down emissions and energy consumption

Digitalisation of university facilities and services equally enhances the student experience from understanding their own energy consumption habits to automated services seamlessly integrated into everyday life on campus. This provides the opportunity to elevate the academic offering through pioneering learning and living environments.

Combining the old with the new

While the benefits of digitisation seem abundant, it’s important to recognise why each lecture hall, lab and library isn’t already a hyper-connected model of advanced tech. There are numerous obstacles that need to be overcome first, such as having access to the necessary skills and funding to implement large-scale digital and technological changes.

One of the other key challenges is that many university estates were built decades if not centuries ago, at a time when acronyms such as Wi-Fi, IoT and 5G were a long way from being common parlance. Retrofitting existing facilities is no easy feat, as each building must be taken on its own unique characteristics and its issues need to be understood before it can be effectively upgraded.

This is a challenge we’ve worked through with several universities, including the University of Oxford, which we collaborated with on a comprehensive project to review the energy performance and condition of existing technologies within all buildings on the University Functional Estate, approximately 170 buildings with 600,000 m2 floor space. This focussed on lab spaces, fume cupboards and Passivhaus solutions and saw innovative technologies deployed across live and operational buildings.

Similarly, at the University of Liverpool we’ve undertaken many schemes which involved the design and implementation of works to historic and listed properties, with parts of the campus situated within conservation areas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Through this we established strong relationships with the city council’s conservation officers and helped align the strategic goals of the university with the local authority.

Central to this was helping the University decarbonise its estate, which involved obtaining funding and exploring the use of new technologies such as wind turbines, anaerobic digestion plants and photovoltaic installations. Our Energy and Sustainability team are currently working alongside the Facilities, Residential and Commercial Services team to commission an estate wide, all-encompassing energy survey. This data will inform the investment into sustainable and energy efficient projects so that the university can achieve Net Zero Carbon status.

Our collaboration with UoL is also a great example of utilising digital twins to enhance an estate strategy. We supported the university in delivering a digital twin pilot scheme from conception through to operational implementation, leading the programme and collaborating with a number of project partners.

Innovation through collaboration

Achieving a smart campus is inherently a mission of collaboration, as institutions must have access to all the skills, disciplines and knowledge required for effective digitalisation, while also understanding the needs of their student populations and staff as well as wider stakeholders invested in protecting a university’s past as well as its future.

To get to this point, universities need to reflect on their objectives and rethink how they move forward as well as how emerging technologies can be leveraged to meet these goals. If you’d like to discuss the issues raised in this blog and how to create a detailed digitalisation strategy, then our Higher Education team is on hand to help create a smarter, more sustainable campus. The team will be attending AUDE this year and will be available on stand 30 to discuss any Higher Education concerns, queries or questions you may have.