Old School Meets New Trends: Grappling with Innovation’s Institutional Tension

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My first boss drove an elegant midnight blue Jaguar. He would occasionally “let” me take it for a spin (to the car wash or mechanic for him, but still). On those short drives, I admired the craftsmanship, raw power and luxurious leather interior.

The gap between his financial position and mine was not lost on me. He owned this magnificent ride, yet I could barely afford car payments on my $17,500 per year salary. He was on the edge of transportation luxury while I was on the edge of personal insolvency. This juxtaposition made me laugh (and cry). I wonder if he ever discovered I actually hugged the driver’s seat.

While preparing for an upcoming presentation, I realized the people in my audience are suffering from a similar challenge. They are members of APPA, the leaders at our colleges and universities who handle all things facility related.

As I dug into their reality, I was struck by two incongruous facts:

Fact #1: These diligent men and women groan under the weight of shrinking budgets and reduced fiscal support for infrastructure improvements and maintenance
Fact #2: Yet, these same individuals work in cutting edge environments where the world’s smartest people push the envelope of technological advancement

They find themselves in the seat of a luxury car without the financial wherewithal to pay their own electricity bill (metaphorically speaking, usually). They are like paupers in the king’s court. They watch as some soldiers get shiny new swords while they are pushed into energy efficiency and sustainability battles with the equivalent of a paper towel tube and a garbage can lid as their only weapons.

This fiscal tension is clearly outlined in Bain & Company’s report The Financially Sustainable University, in which they document the growing fiscal instability of our colleges and universities:

“The numbers are very familiar by now: Annual tuition increases several times the rate of inflation have become commonplace. The volume of student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion and is now greater than credit card debt. A growing percentage of our colleges and universities are in real financial trouble. And if the current trends continue, we will see a higher education system that will no longer be able to meet the diverse needs of the US student population in 20 years.”

In dated conference rooms (with poor lighting) all across this country, our battered facilities leaders listen to their provosts and presidents insist they find a way to build and maintain a growing and more tech-ready campus infrastructure with fewer and fewer resources each year. It’s confounding.

They must make a campus more mobile-ready without sacrificing cyber security; find ways to conserve energy, yet with insufficient visibility into real-time consumption data; or, process larger streams of data with increasingly outdated server technology.

It must be odd walking around a campus with a handful of Nobel Laureates to its credit, all the while nursing a forty-plus year old mechanical system that is routinely pushed past its operational limits.

Some believe technology will solve all our problems. As soon as we invent the next amazing widget that harvests infinite energy from a single grain of sand, we will be saved. In a recent report by the New Media Consortium, they identified 60 technologies that may change the future of education, including 3D printing, augmented reality and learning analytics. Technology based solutions abound.

And, to be sure, some futuristic technological advances are propelling us into more efficient territory. We will discuss some of those – from “powerless wi-fi” to robotic libraries to Google glasses that help you navigate the campus to bathrooms that tell you when a specific stall is empty. Eh-hem.

Even so, we will also discuss the clever people who have leveraged these technological advancements to create amazing returns on their investment. For example, facility leaders at Cornell University were able to keep energy costs flat over a seven year period. As if that is not amazing enough, they did this as the campus footprint grew by 1.2 million square feet! By decoupling their growth from their energy spend, they “found their own budget” to fuel additional innovation.

I plan to explore this institutional innovation tension with the APPA leaders this August in Chicago. If you are coming to this event, join us the morning of Thursday August 6th for the “Big Trends, Practical Implications” session.

As a bonus, all attendees at this session will be entered in a drawing to win my former boss’s Jaguar. But, don’t tell him, it’s a surprise.

What type of technological advances is your university using today?  How are they improving your universities facilities?  Let us know in the comments section below.

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