At the University of Utopia should the grass be greener?

At September’s NESTA Crucible weekend (our development programme for researchers) participants were asked to plan and draw what their utopian University environment would be. This environment would give them the ideal space to work, think and innovate.

In the planning of this activity we supposed the groups would concentrate on aspects of their working environment such as transport links, childcare provision and organisation of departments. Particularly with a view to interdisciplinary research, the positioning of departments to break down rigid separations seems very important.

Whilst some of these issues did come up, the majority of groups concentrated heavily on creating a pleasant physical environment with nature walks, mountains and waterfalls. Several groups located their University by the sea and one even suggested that academics should be housed in rotating glass pods with a sea-view (the students they suggested should be housed underground!).

Obviously, there was a ton of artistic licence in this exercise, but it made me consider the importance of physical working environment to creativity and by extension to innovation. Is the relationship real or is this just an age old cliché? Do we actually need some blue-sky to do blue-skies thinking?

Having a quick look on Google, there does seem to be lots of references linking physical working environment to creativity but I can’t find a definitive study. (or any mention of the sea!) Everything else being equal, should we expect Sussex University to be more innovative than land-locked Leeds?

One suggestion is that rather than any particular environment we just sometimes need a different environment to allow us to think differently.


  1. Working in a central London institution, UCL, I can’t actually say that I find our location a limit to creativity, nor that it is evident from the output of our researchers.
    Whether there is a link or not may be illusory or it may be a case of horses for courses.
    After all, being near the creative-types in Soho is clearly not a limit and the delights of the West End have led to ‘creative’ moments for poets, philosophers and artists for hundreds of years.

  2. Issue 52 of the NESTA eNews came across the Highway of Light and as is customary was posted on the Big Board here at Camp One.
    NESTA ranks second to EPSRC as favored UK acronyms, and anything which comes in is closely studied.
    The Crucible working concept is, like the Sandpit at the EPSRC, and dare I include the whole Camp one structure is a way for minds and the humans attached to collaborate in positive and beneficial ways. However, a great discussion launched on reading a quote of Professor David Auckland on the Crucible site ‘Some of our best brains are locked away in career cul-de-sacs. The work they do is sometimes limiting in terms of ongoing career prospects. Crucible begins to attack the problem’.
    While Camp One is not ‘Utopia University’, it is an off ramp on the Highway of Light Pacific Gateway, a place of refuge for those finding there way back from the abyss that is Chrystal Meth addiction, and a Brains Trust to be sure.
    NESTA, as part of the perception of the sovereign necessity for the development of Science for the public good, need to remain cognizant of just how far their effect reaches. While it i true that we are not on your island, we are on an island and benefit from the work which you do.
    Thank You

  3. Why is physical space so important? Won’t the university of the future be in Second Life?! I think there’s some interesting questions to be asked about the pros and cons of physical versus virtual centres for research, after all, in a virtual network everyone can participate from their ideal physical environment, thereby maximising creativity perhaps?

  4. Good point Tamsin. I think my perfect physical environment would be near the sea. Surely it can’t be that hard to assess the intellectual output of institutions and plot that against the beauty of their physical surroundings. Too many other factors to take into account though I guess.
    Having said that, if the surroundings are too beautiful then that might still work against you. I often think that the creativity we have in the UK is partly down to the comparatively miserable weather, which forces us to make our own entertainment, rather than just soak in the sunshine/environment.

  5. I’m with you, Tamsin. What never ceases to amaze me though, is that folks who build things in SecondLife often re-create real-life environments. Why not take advantage of having no limits to create something truly different? I wonder if it’s because whether they like to admit it or not, people like to have familiarity & some boundaries.

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