Connection, co-design, communities and computing have defined Professor Chris Speed’s career. “I came out of the fine art school in Brighton in 1992, pre-internet. So, much of my work involved using fax machines and phone lines to share interactive media, connect people around the world, and ask questions about how networking technology was changing how we experience the world,” he explains. “This interest has never left me. Whether examining how we digitally share qualitative sensor data on temperature and humidity, to how physical communities interact, networks help us understand how we see ourselves and others in the world.”
Having joined Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) as a Reader in Digital Architecture in 2008, just before the College merged with the University of Edinburgh, Professor Speed worked closely with the late Professor Jon Oberlander to found the Centre for Design Informatics, which has now grown into an Institute. Dedicated to designing products and solutions that benefit society, the Institute is a collaboration between the Schools of Design and Informatics.
Today, the Chair of Design Informatics continues his commitment to connection and collaboration as the Director of the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI). This ambitious University project aims to tackle today’s increasingly complex issues, from the climate crisis to the ethics of data and Artificial Intelligence and shape a better tomorrow through education and research with a difference.
“So much of what universities do concerns looking at and examining the world as if we have a separate existence. But this new vision turns that on its head by re-situating the university as being highly relevant in the world,” he explains. “What makes EFI so exciting is its desire to act at the intersection of physical and digital networks to be part of the University that’s public, policy and industry facing.”
The Edinburgh of the future
For Professor Speed, harnessing and combining the ancient University’s strength in these networks is essential to guarantee its position in the world.
“We’re a 400-year-old institution exposed to vast amounts of change in how people learn, at what time and age, so we must adapt to uphold our values of accessibility and openness in this modern context. That means rethinking our teaching model,” he explains. “The traditional university model, structured around large, time-based qualifications – as brilliant as they are – doesn’t necessarily fit into many people’s lives anymore. There are only so many opportunities where people can put everything on hold and adapt to let Edinburgh into their lives for a two-year master’s or four-year undergraduate degree.
“Network technologies are enabling us to reimage how to build relationships, transform learning, invite more diverse voices into the Edinburgh community and give them agency to co-design a more inclusive future, guaranteeing the University’s resilience for the next 10, 20 and 50 years.”
Evolution not revolution
Professor Speed believes reimagining the University’s place in the world also means thinking differently about academic structures. However, the designer doesn’t believe that equates to going back to the drawing board.
“Our individual schools are brilliant and successful units, so it would be unwise and counterproductive to attempt to rebuild these fundamentals from the ground up. But we also know that a seat of academic excellence as Edinburgh has a moral obligation to collectively bring its knowledge and expertise to bear on societal challenges. It’s about evolution, not revolution,” he says. “EFI is not an island alongside the University’s schools. Instead, it is a space where academics from diverse fields such as law, data science and art can unite with students, communities, charities, companies and policymakers to co-create solutions to shared problems in ways they otherwise couldn’t.”
More like a membership
EFI’s vision to unite people is evident in its interconnected portfolio of postgraduate study, focused on interdisciplinary teaching, learning and research that addresses complex global and social challenges. Taught by academic experts from different subject areas, they offer EFI students an opportunity to develop creative, critical and data-informed thinking that cuts across traditional disciplinary boundaries.
“We’re breaking learning into smaller parts that may more likely fit into people’s lives. Delivered over five weeks and combining online pre-intensive learning with two-day intensive on-campus and simultaneous online courses, students can take these programmes full time, part time, or one at a time, plugging them into their lives as life-long learning,” Professor Speed explains.
“This life-long path is more like a membership than a traditional postgraduate degree. As well as taking as many or as few courses as they want to each year, students have access to a hot desk and study facilities. While talks, meet-ups, and social and cultural events allow them to build long-term relationships with our academic and business community, develop vital career skills and grapple with some of the world’s most complex challenges.”
We think of EFI as software
Students arrived in September 2022 for the first tranche of programmes just as the restoration work on the EFI building, the much-loved former Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh on Lauriston Place, draws to a close. When completed, the Category-A Listed site will boast 21,300 m² of highly connected diverse spaces for teaching and events, major lecture halls, meeting rooms, and work hubs. It will also host commercial companies, civic organisations, and spaces for start-ups to contribute to the challenge-led culture.
“These students entering EFI without the building will make this year challenging but fascinating as we introduce them to the site and experiment with and learn from our first year of fusion teaching, to refine and develop both the physical and virtual experience.”
“We think of EFI as software, always listening, learning and adapting, to the community, the students and the space. So, with each new cohort of students, we’ll iteratively build, measure and learn from what we’re doing, understanding what works and what doesn’t to drive innovation and improvement.”
While a buzzword for progress, Professor Speed acknowledges that interdisciplinarity, by its nature, involves differences in opinion. Still, as a leader and a designer, he believes the frank exchange of ideas between people with diverse professional and personal perspectives is critical to innovation.
“As a designer, I’ve always been fascinated by how we create value. Whether that’s social, cultural, environmental or economic value, I believe making things, intervening, inventing and producing are some of the most important things that make life worth living. So, I feel blessed to lead an institute pursuing questions of value in the relationships between sectors that play such a significant role in our lives, the public sector, financial services, tourism, festivals and creative industries.
“Innovation typically happens through two cooperative models – continuous, within established organisations and institutions and disruptive, outside them. EFI enjoys the best of both. It’s a bit of a disruptive innovator, working under the University’s licence to rethink its models from the outside and then apply them inside.
“Of course, this means it’s challenging. We don’t always agree. But I believe we’re lucky enough to have some of the most extraordinary academics, students and partners who believe in change and who are willing to embrace the healthy, positive tension necessary to innovate.
“I bring this tension into the classroom as course leader for a new elective delivered in partnership with Edinburgh-based Codebase – the fastest growing incubator in Europe – where we’ll be offering students an insight into the playbook for innovation. We’ll learn from the people who’ve succeeded and failed. It’s an extraordinary privilege and pleasure to collaborate with academics, students and partners from the EFI community, to upturn the ordinarily flat structure of a studio and play with one of my great loves, co-creation.”
All images: Sam Sills Whitedog Photography