The University of the Future (UoF) Future Meets Symposium took place on 4 December. The event, which had both an in-person and online component, was focused on finding strategies for spatial and functional transformation within the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) new UoF framework.
Future Meets works “with hope as a constituent for design and radical transformation and looks at the material ways in which people are thinking about spaces on their campuses they wish to inhabit”.
According to Sarah de Villiers, who organised and chaired the symposium, the event gave stakeholders a chance to think about spatial and practical transformation of the UCT campus as a broader team.
“We wanted to think about strategies which are bold and acknowledge urgent requirements for change, but also start to take on much longer-term thinking strategies. Our aim was to foster transdisciplinary thinking and discussion, and allow for cross-networking, while also thinking through synergies in some of the proposals where areas for intervention or approaches might sometimes align,” she said.
“We wanted to walk away with participants having a hopeful and optimistic outlook on the opportunities in the next 10 years, to enable imaginative thinking. We wanted to create a relaxed but thoughtful space to develop a community of future thinkers.”
Shaping the future with transformative conversations
The symposium included attendees from various stakeholder groups who had submitted ideas for Future Meets, colleagues from the wider UoF committee, as well as individuals who have worked in the UCT community on other development projects.
By inviting such a broad range of participants, Future Meets hoped to be able to help shape strategic thinking and find opportunities and learnings for future projects.
The programme spoke to this with its unique structure. Symposium standards like roundtable discussions were supplemented by PechaKucha-style presentations and ‘speed dating’ idea-sharing sessions, which were designed to encourage attendees and stakeholders to participate fully in reimagining UCT as an institution of the future.
“We worked to change the setting of how we normally might experience symposia and offer a greater moment for conversation, co-drawing and co-creation.”
“We wanted to reflect on and open up possibilities [of] how we gather to come up with ideas and strategies, in so much as reflecting on the ideas themselves. We wanted to forefront cross-engagement, work in space for listening, and elevate all to be contributors and useful critics and contributors to shaping new ideas,” De Villiers explained.
“To achieve this, we worked to change the setting of how we normally might experience symposia and offer a greater moment for conversation, co-drawing and co-creation. This was worked in by having different kinds of spaces and gathering modes worked into the schedule.
“For example, the first [PechaKucha presentations] were really meant to allow the participants’ own voices and contributions to come through. We hope that this would allow a calm, safe space for others to listen and access ideas deeply for reflection and conversation later in the symposium.”
A blueprint for success
Following the first day of idea-generation and investigation, attendees were engaged in a roundtable where they were encouraged to start thinking practically about how UCT could become a UoF. A multitude of insightful themes and ideas came to the fore during this session.
“We took time to start considering factors such as space, people, time and scale. To start prying out some of the practical elements towards envisioning how proposals may play out in terms of potential realisations,” De Villiers noted.
“We then revisited some of the emerging themes, which included thinking around:
“We also touched on other sustainable practices and discussed a potentially more appropriate shaping of experiences on campus that acknowledge previously subjugated communities and their histories and cultures,” she said.
“Over the course of the two-day event, it became evident that UCT is strongly positioned to transform into a UoF. We have extraordinary resources in people and transformative thinking on campus. Transdisciplinary action and work – across faculties and events to partners outside of UCT – makes for radical, well thought-out ideation, which has really reckonable potential for scaling and impactful change.”
Inclusivity and the democratisation of spaces, ideas and knowledge were two big focuses of the symposium. The motivation behind this, De Villiers explained, was to ensure that all voices were heard and fit-for-purpose solutions could be ideated.
“The aim of the symposium was not really to produce new hierarchies as yet of initiatives which were to be forerunners or not. It was really a moment for communication of ideas, but also of expertise and creative thinking between each other, on a shared platform.
“The solutions we devise can be altered slightly to be more supportive to exciting transformative processes in research and co-production happening on campus.”
“Some wider shared strategies included a sharp awareness of inclusiveness in all projects (eg, of disabled people access), critical thinking about circular economies that limit impact on our environment, and consideration of smarter, more responsible use of space on campus.
“At times, these might not be fore fronting current or changing needs, but the solutions we devise can be altered slightly to be more supportive to exciting transformative processes in research and co-production happening on campus,” she said.
Obstacles and opportunities for a future-ready UCT
While the symposium was a success, there are challenges that arise during the work of radically transforming spaces at an institution like UCT with its complex history and physical layout.
“As in any development project, resources to fund and propel ambitious works need to always be carefully considered in a wider climate of constrained economies,” explained De Villiers.
“Additionally, access to resources and impact of campus development to reach and be accessible to those that need it most is often challenging, as we work through undoing the dark legacies of apartheid and its spatial planning.”
Fortunately, according to the symposium organiser, there were plenty of bright ideas from UCT stakeholders aimed at overcoming these challenges.
“One suggested strategy was to partner with diversified stakeholders and looks to access and partner with elements which promote their resiliency and continuous transformation.
“Another was to consider scaling proposals so that more immediate, smaller prototypes might be considered. This would hopefully encourage stronger buy-in, but also offer immediate moments for transformation and impact.
“Finally, most of the projects also centred on inclusivity. There were a variety of smart suggestions as to how this can be achieved in ways that don’t produce a separateness, but rather create places for students to gather and learn or for staff to teach in impactful ways.”
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