University, UnVersity, and Place

The UnVersity – a lean approach to campus structure, a rich-picture.

From today, I am taking 3 months off before starting a new job. I am one of the Faré, and I have a Faculty position at a UK-based university where I teach & research Software Engineering (SE) and Human Computer Interaction (HCI). As we pass the first wave of the pandemic, and likely enter a second one, it is time for reflection and for a different kind of action, which, for me, is temporarily freed from external targets and job demands. I am thrilled.

The Officina, and its parent structure, lends itself to be re-imagined as a physical place where learning happens and new knowledge is made. A couple of years ago, in conversation with a group of students interested in sustainable university models, I drafted a concept for an UnVersity (captured by the ‘rich picture’ above), based on a lean approach to teaching, and a federated campus structure – see the Cooperative University as an example of the latter. There, knowledge would flow in many directions, and change (e.g. expanding and contracting demand) would be met with and adaptive space structuring, to include a mix of temporary and fixed built elements sustainably built, relatively low-cost and low maintenance.

Today, with some time at hand, I have gone fishing for more ideas.

“… Give the university a PROMENADE ( 3 I) at its central crossroads; and around the crossroads cluster the buildings along streets…. Give this central area access to quiet greens…; and a normal distribution of housing.” Alexander, C., 1977. A Pattern Language. Oxford university press. – pg 279

For inspiration,  Christopher Alexander‘s Pattern Language is one of my first ports of call. Alexander’s work is mainly about the built environment – architecture, buildings, and planning – but it has also fundamentally shaped our digital space, with software engineers (e.g. Martin Fowler) adapting Alexander’s notion of patterns to software systems design. in Alexander’s book, the University, is Pattern 43 and it is described as a ‘marketplace’:

“...The original universities in the middle ages were simply collections of teachers who attracted students because they had something to offer. They were marketplaces of ideas, located all over the town, where people could shop around for the kinds of ideas and learning which made sense to them. By contrast, the over-administered university of today kills the variety and intensity of the different ideas at the university and also limits the
student’s opportunity to shop for ideas.

I do relate to a number of concepts here: the notion of ‘learning that makes sense’, the frustration with managerialism and over-administration, and the view of a university as part of the civic fabric of a diverse community. However, I’d argue that a departure is needed from the idea of a University that is primarly a marketplace. The university is more translation than transaction, more knowledge creation than quest for novelty, more flow than place. The philosopher, novelist, and cultural critic Umberto Eco in his work ‘Perche’ le Universita’? reminds us that the University “e’ uno fra i pochi luoghi in cui le persone si incontrano ancora faccia a faccia, in cui i giovani e studiosi possono capire quanto il progresso del sapere abbia bisogn di identita’ umane e reali, e non virtuali”.

Having worked in the field of digital for many years, I have no doubt that digital is a powerful enabler for learning, but it is not sufficient. Learning is in-formed by the place that it inhabits and a human-kind of knowledge is created through dialogue and in presence. In summary, my perspective values “a knowledge space, where learning flows – more than a marketplace, where ideas and skills are bought and sold“. Similarly to the Agile Manifesto, I see value in both aspects but “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more”.