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Academic Incubators: The New Student Union

The Garage at Northwestern. Image: Garrett Rowland.

This post is part of the Academic Incubators series. Gensler designers explain what academic incubators and accelerators are, and they explore why universities build them, students gravitate to them and private industry funds them.

Millennials are Looking to Gather for Meaning

The student union has always been a college campus’s shared environment. It’s where students gather and a sense of community is fostered. Student unions historically offered leisure activities like bowling, movie night or student government offices, but today’s students are looking for more. They want to unite for something meaningful – not just for themselves, but for the benefit of their communities. Universities are filling this void with innovation centers and academic incubators.

Academic Incubators in many ways are just like student unions, only they offer meaningful support to kick off business ideas and connect students to the world outside of the campus. This is perfect for a college environment, which nurtures curiosity and the drive to make a difference – characteristics that shouldn’t idle by until after graduation. This collegiate passion is best put to use where students have a safety net and the support of camaraderie. Academic Incubators are safe environments, fertilizer environments, where business ideas can germinate.

The Garage

Northwestern University opened The Garage in October of 2015. They already had a successful entrepreneurship and innovation program, but it was in a formal academic environment. They wanted a raw space where students have the freedom to make it their own. They wanted to make this a campus hub – a vibrant, stimulating space where students want to spend their free time.

The design of the Garage aimed to simulate the same environments that nurtured the beginnings of Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon, all of which started in a garage. The Garage at Northwestern is indeed in a parking garage, and it’s open to students of all interests to collaborate on business ideas. And just like any parking garage, this space has no set structure or hierarchy. It’s a space that invites experimentation. The furniture is moveable and the walls are dry-erase. This space can be as customizable as the apps on your smartphone. It might be a focus space at 8 a.m. and then transform to host hundreds for a lecture at 5 p.m. But most importantly, it’s an open space for all Northwestern students to gather. It’s like a student union designed for the interests of today’s students.

Building a Bridge to the Real World

The opportunity to innovate shouldn’t be limited to college students. Academic Incubators and innovation centers like The Garage bridge the gap between school and the real world. Alumni, community members and local businesses both contribute and benefit from these spaces. It’s a place for alumni to flesh out business ideas, and it gives students the opportunity to rub shoulders with professionals in their field. It’s also a place where businesses look to invest.

Image © Gensler

The Garage is buzzing with excitement and opportunity. There are students of all disciplines collaborating on projects that improve on old inventions and provide for those in need. TRAC, a track and field running timer, is an idea from a student runner who always forgot his watch. He saw a need for simple, affordable timing technology that synced with his smartphone. Technology, finance and marketing students collaborated on SharED, which uses the sharing economy to provide educational materials to young children in developing countries.

Already, Academic Incubators like The Garage have shown a huge potential for community growth and business development. But these environments require unique attention to keep them effective. These spaces are different than other spaces on campus—they need to adjust and adapt on a more rapid pace than other learning environments to continue attracting students and fostering creativity. With regular student feedback and continued collaboration between the design team and core stakeholder group, important factors like operating procedures and furniture preferences can be updated. Keeping Academic Incubators at peek performance yields amazing results for universities and their communities.

By combining the social integration of the original Student Union with the meaningful mission-driven environment of the Academic Incubator, Northwestern is poised to become a leader in grassroots innovation at the university level. It all begins with a student union, but the possibilities are endless.

David Broz is very involved in his community, sitting on nearly a dozen not-for-profit boards and committees, ranging from "Placemaking in the Loop" to "Multicultural Scholars Program at the University of Kansas." A common thread runs through his work and his volunteer efforts: the desire to create great spaces to live, work, and play that respond to today's social and economic realities. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.

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