Creative Learning Environments as Microcosms of Cities
by Joel Luna
An on-going university campus masterplanning of JLPD presented an opportunity to investigate the circumstances that foster creativity, innovation and learning through social interaction. Located in a new town north of Metro Manila, the campus is intended as an anchor at the fringe of a planned business district that will attract and support the future residential and commercial areas of the township. Key questions that drove the planning effort include: “Under what circumstances do we learn best? Are there experiential environments that tend to foster curiosity, creativity, insight and ultimately, excellence?” Without attempting to oversimplify the answer to a very complex question that has been extensively studied by experts, nor to unduly over-emphasize the role of physical environment as stimulus for learning, the relationship between the built environment and creativity was the basis for the campus planning of the new university.
Learning is essentially about absorbing information and finding meaning and insight from such information. At its most basic, schools should inspire learning—they should be places that trigger the motivation and enthusiasm to learn. Apart from the standards of education and learning philosophy espoused by the school, campuses house the social culture of university life and are the physical environment that nourishes such culture that are essential to creative learning.
The campus environment should allow for both formal study and spaces for relaxed concentration: creating the context for learning subconsciously, getting triggers of insight from unexpected locations, random experiences, novel settings and casual conversations. The psychologist Matthew Edlund, M.D. who has extensively studied the impact of rest on health and performance noted that we learn better when moving between different contexts and environments. It is also said that while the nature of learning is fundamentally personal, it is also a social activity--learning through interaction with teachers, other students, with the subject being studied, in situations that simulate real-life experiences. Engagement of all senses is also crucial for cognitive learning. Essentially, the quality of the study environment can be helpful OR harmful to learning.
This correlation between quality of environment and creativity/innovation has been exploited in recent past by several tech companies and startups. Large investments in indoor and outdoor amenities, open spaces, recreational features, daytime and night time activities have been made by several technology companies in the United States to attract and retain creative talent. Implicitly, such environments are also designed to foster collaboration and innovation with numerous opportunities for serendipitous meetings and the free exchange of ideas, creating the setting to allow employees to do incredible work. This attribute has since been expanded to larger contexts: from individual office spaces, to entire corporate campuses to innovation districts in urban areas. Places such as Seattle, Boston, Barcelona have invested heavily in creating people places and vibrant downtown settings to attract tech companies, startups, universities and creative talent. The basic principles have been retained regardless of scale: create vibrant settings where people can freely interact, allow for a diversity of experience, access to natural environment and culture, a focus on software rather than on the hardware. These are the things that set the creative milieu for innovation and improved quality of life. These same principles were adopted for the planning of the new campus.
The exploration on the context of learning has led to a broader analogy of a creative campus as a city (or a city as a learning environment). There is a symbiosis between universities and cities. In recent decades, and particularly for developed countries, universities are often the incubators for start-up firms, where special research is conducted, where new knowledge is formed, where the academe and industry work together on inventing and commercializing new products. Even in developing countries, universities are the source of skilled labor and are magnets that attract population from the hinterlands and are thereby among the catalysts of urbanization. Thus, a new in-city campus can serve as a base for creative knowledge that can fuel the adjacent industrial/technology estates and commercial uses. It has the potential of being a creative cluster and a magnet for attracting talent and firms, fostering a culture of innovation which can permeate to the larger township and will have a longer-term positive impact on the region.