The University of Arizona is embarking on a multidisciplinary, university-wide research initiative as part of its new strategic plan. The journey around Building a Changing World began just over a year ago when the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture (CAPLA) initiated its strategic planning exercise.

In describing the initiative, Dean Nancy Pollock-Ellwand stressed the central importance of the built environment to our economy, environment and culture. She explained that the first step is to sensitize people, organizations, other disciplines and institutions to the fact that their cities are designed, that their health and wellbeing is intimately connected to the environments that they live within, and that new technologies will be rapidly altering the way we build and inhabit our world in the coming decade.

DesignIntelligence talked with University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins and Dean Pollock-Ellwand about Building a Changing World.

DI: Dr. Robbins, we understand that the Building a Changing World research initiative is a major effort for the University of Arizona. What originally inspired it?

RCR: Building a Changing World is a university-wide multidisciplinary research initiative that emerged from the University of Arizona strategic planning process this past year. The strategic plan articulates the UA’s collective ambition to embrace the central challenges and opportunities facing our society from the seismic technological shifts that are at our doorstep. With that future-oriented perspective on our mission and goals as an institution, it became clear that the built environment must be an area of critical focus due to the impact on the world’s resources, health, and wellbeing. University-wide multidisciplinary research in the built environment will also be a great differentiator for UA. It is one that we deliberately seek because it will combine our great strengths in design and planning with public policy, environmental sciences, energy, water, engineering, transportation, optical sciences, business, medicine, data sciences, public health, geography, building science, and materials.

DI: We understand that the initiative has a connection to the ideas Klaus Schwab developed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. How does Building a Changing World overlap with the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

RCR: It is natural that the built environment would be one of our pan-university focuses because so many of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s technological shifts will happen within and around our buildings, our cities, our work places and homes. Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, responsive design, and automated construction sites, to name a few, will have multifaceted effects on the built environment. This includes the way we design, the way we build, the way we respond to crises, and even the way we make decisions about health, planning, and policy. Building a Changing World requires a fully integrated approach to these complex research problems; and we are committed to that as an institution. We are excited to know that the University of Arizona will be the first university in the United States to develop a robust university-wide ecosystem supporting research, teaching, and service for the built environment.

DI: Dr. Pollock-Ellwand, how does the Building a Changing World research initiative fit into the strategy for the College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture (CAPLA)?

NPE: The College is, like the University of Arizona, bringing its strategic planning process to an end with a launch of the CAPLA Plan set for the first of 2019. The driving vision for CAPLA is Building a Changing World, aligning perfectly with the University in its declaration that Building a Changing World will also be one of its Grand Challenge research initiatives. In fact, it was the college’s research task force that first recognized the huge void in foundational knowledge in the built environment and articulated the need for a robust multi-disciplinary approach to building that knowledge.

Therefore, the College, like the University, is embracing the same powerful principle to approach complex issues of the built environment in an integrated and highly collaborative manner. This alignment of purpose will help fuel the work of the College and the University in its objective to seek curricular, research and service innovations in the built environment.

DI: What role will CAPLA play in the Building a Changing World research?

NPE: We provide an important design and planning perspective in the research collaboratives that will be forming in the University around key built environment issues in a changing world. We already have strengths in transportation, sustainable markets, responsive design, policy, health and wellbeing, design-build, and performance design research, among others, and plans to build more focus areas. The research areas across campus for the built environment will include pressing issues in the coming years around livable cities, the trillion-sensor future, crisis response, evolving design processes, effective decision-making policy, and environmental performance and lifecycles. We know this integrated, pan-university approach will bring currency and applicability to some of the most pressing issues for the design and planning professions but also to the world at large. Complex issues in the built environment require this kind of commitment from educational institutions, and we know that our college and university will be at the foreground in North America, providing new knowledge and perspectives.

DI: How does the Building a Changing World research initiative align with the broader strategic goals of the university?

RCR: The second pillar of the strategic plan is named “Grand Challenges: Tackling the Critical Problems at the Edges of Human Endeavor.” This research-focused pillar reminds us that we are a public land-grant institution with a dual mission that brings together education and the need to address important societal challenges. Considering the built environment in the U.S. that consumes and wastes enormous amounts of resources, negatively impacts health and wellbeing, and impacts the environment and crisis response, there may be no more important grand challenges related to human endeavor than those related to Building a Changing World.

We proudly serve the residents of the state of Arizona as educators and researchers and through our outreach. Being located in the U.S. Southwest, within the Sonoran Desert and close to an international border, we are also well-situated to consider a much broader world community that must become more resilient to climate change, adaptable to cultural movements, and responsive to new perspectives that will bring innovation.

Our first strategic pillar is all about “driving student success for a changing world.” The University of Arizona would not exist without its students, and our research enterprise fuels the quality educational experience that allows our students to build their capacity as change agents and disruptive thinkers. These are the kind of people that will drive positive impact in the world. Students who graduate to do the work of Building a Changing World will have to be more flexible of mind; well-versed in working in multidisciplinary teams on complex problems; and so comfortable with uncertainties that they will not only flourish but also become leaders in the future. We will prepare them for this future through the integration of student success and research initiatives like Building a Changing World.

DI: How will this initiative help shape the way you educate architects, planners, and designers at the university?

NPE: The College’s vision of Building a Changing World is embodied in all aspects of its new Plan. There are many innovations now being charted. These include new interdisciplinary course offerings; a relaunch of its community-based scholarship center, fueled with a new commitment for collaborative projects; curricular shifts that will embed research into the professional curriculum; and venues to share integrated built environment opportunities across the full range of University of Arizona disciplines—from medicine and business to fine arts and data science. Creating a built environment ecosystem across the University of Arizona will be the concern of all fields. We know this will make for very fertile ground in the College as well as for the professions it serves in architecture, planning and landscape architecture; in addition to the fields of heritage conservation, real estate and sustainable development that the College also contributes. Students coming to our College can look forward to gaining the knowledge, skills and values that will assist them in Building a Changing World.

DI: How might this initiative change the way that different areas of the university work together?

RCR: Building a Changing World will demand a highly integrated approach to research, an approach which the University of Arizona has already established and distinguished itself as a world leader. For instance, since 2001 our BIO5 Institute has been doing the work of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, well before Klaus Schwab coined the term. Its success is an example of what we can accomplish by bringing together researchers from different disciplines of agriculture, medicine, engineering, pharmacy and science, taking on challenges that transcend one area of inquiry. The Building a Changing World research initiative will follow this robust tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration. It will also necessarily amplify the number of perspectives assembled because the built environment demands a very broad collaboration that spans the environmental, economic, cultural and societal realms of inquiry.

DI: What benefits and opportunities do you expect the Building a Changing World research initiative will create for the university? Beyond the university?

RCR: This initiative has the potential to create new integrated ways of thinking about design and planning that negotiates the introduction and amplification of technology into the physical and biological realms of built environment. This has global potential. Our plan has identified key areas of collaborative investigation that includes livable cities, the trillion-sensor future, crisis response, technology and changing design processes, decision policy, and built environment performance and lifecycles. Aligned with the fourth pillar of the Plan, “UA Global: Engaging the World,” here at the University of Arizona, this research initiative will create new opportunities for our students, faculty, and staff, to leverage their expertise in addressing the global challenges of Building a Changing World.

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Dr. Robert C. Robbins is president of the University of Arizona.

Dr. Nancy Pollock-Ellwand is dean of the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Arizona.

This article is excerpted from the 4Q 2018 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly. Read more here.