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Catalyzing a New Era for Chicago’s Higher-Ed Community

Image © Gensler

America’s Urban Campus emerged as a seminal idea at a Dialogues panel discussion out of Gensler’s Chicago office last June. The term has since gained momentum among the city’s government leaders and its higher-ed institutions to re-envision Chicago as the next-generation college town. Coined by panelist Mark Kelly, Vice President of Student Affairs at Columbia College Chicago, the term characterizes Chicago’s institutional network as a hotbed of intellectual and inventive capital with the potential to drive the city economically, culturally, and urbanistically. With 65,000 students in the downtown Loop alone and 210,000 students throughout the city, Chicago is among the largest college towns in the United States, and the city is poised to become the leading destination for the collegiate experience and a thriving center of ideas, innovation, and talent.

At a broader level, America’s Urban Campus exemplifies the idea of a Knowledge City –- a term that describes the inevitable partnership that cities and their industries and institutions must form in order to survive. Higher-education cannot proceed with business as usual, and cities are at a similar inflection point. Chicago Forum48: Knowledge Cities, a workshop held in conjunction with the ULI Fall Meeting in Chicago gathered thought leaders from government, higher education, business, and real estate across the U.S. and beyond, to get at the crux of what drives a Knowledge City today. Gensler’s Education and Culture Practice Area Leader, David Broz was among those invited to contribute to the discussion.

Outsourcing the discussion to experts from around the globe brought a transformative approach –- both strategic and tactical –- to this developing idea. Cliff Allan, the Vice Chancellor of Birmingham City University, purports that cities must move from being drivers of the economic revolution to drivers of the invention revolution, and in order to do so must be powered by knowledge-generators –- their higher-education partners. Broz adds that ‘the conversation of innovation needs to start at the school level’ and that ‘institutions need to serve as portals and connectors’ for the city and industry. Forum48 panelists and participants identified several key strategies for a successful partnership, all of which Chicago has implemented at various stages:

  • Define elements that create value. And discriminate against those that don’t. Steve Koch, the Deputy Mayor of Chicago, suggests that rather than relying on venture capital –- 66 percent of which is devoted to Boston, New York, and San Francisco –- city growth depends largely on whether people of talent choose to base themselves in a particular city. Critical to entrepreneurial culture is the talent and research output from surrounding institutions, increasingly funded by local business industry. Universities serve as a hiring ground for local businesses and offer a safe setting for risk-taking and to test innovation. 1871, a co-working and incubator space for small businesses and entrepreneurs housed in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, has generated more than 300 new businesses since it’s opening in the last year alone. Many of Chicago’s major institutions, including University of Chicago, Northwestern, University of Illinois, and Illinois Institute of Technology, contribute to the operation as major partners.

  • Provide a continuous support structure. Catalyzing a culture of entrepreneurship also depends largely on a city’s leadership –- an entity that is inherently inconstant. Koch speculates that the role of the city is to act as a convener for its institutions –- the real drivers of the Knowledge City. Allan adds that because city leadership cycles constantly, cities must give up their centralizing powers and encourage decentralized, local strategy on the part of the institutions and business community. Over the past year, a quorum of Chicago’s higher education institutions has developed a roundtable around the idea of America’s Urban Campus to incite a collaborative institutional network across the city’s metropolitan area.

  • Re-engage a sense of place. Can place-making drive innovation? If university campuses are nodes where people of multiple disciplines come together, the built environment between these campuses can become a place for a new set of collisions –- the underground start-up community, commercialized research mechanisms, and cross-disciplinary initiatives. John Tolva, the former Chief Technology Officer for the City of Chicago, characterizes Chicago as a network of these third (or fourth) spaces in which the serendipity of interests come together, activating community spaces where people can learn, think, and thrive.

  • Draw on the strength of universities. At least in the near term, institutions are here to stay, and for investors and developers, they offer longevity, accountability, and a safe return on investment. Given the current economic environment of state funding cuts that institutions face, these sources of private funding offer a significant incentive to enter into long-term partnerships that in turn sustain a community, shape the built environment, and foster innovation. This year, World Business Chicago launched its Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs, in which connections between academia and private industry serve as a key strategy for promoting innovation through industry-driven research, development, and commercialization at universities.

Chicago possesses all of the elements of a great city, so where do we go from here?

Thus far, the conversation has largely been policy-driven, but what is the role of design in realizing these initiatives? What does the urban fabric of the city look like as a site for collaboration between its institutions? What makes the design of business incubators like 1871 so successful, and how do we design the next entrepreneurial educational environment that is equally formative? What impact will the partnerships that codify Knowledge Cities in general and America’s Urban Campus in particular have on the built environment? We’re interested in your thoughts: how can the city and its institutions and businesses come together to leverage Chicago as a brand?

Meghan is a senior associate in Gensler's Chicago office. She has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at meghan_webster@gensler.com.

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