The power of creative spaces: Gehry and UTS integrate business thought in Sydney

Dr Chau Chak Wing

UTS Business School is taking the initiative to become the home for the most creative, innovative, responsible and integrative thinking minds in business through a collision of progressive curriculum and the architecture of world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. The revamped Business School, to be housed in the new Dr Chau Chak Wing in Ultimo, will focus on developing integrated entrepreneurial minds to meet  future productivity challenges.

Professor Roy Green, Dean of the Business School has worked on innovation policy with governments and business around the world has led Australian participation in a global study of management practice and productivity and identified the need for improved management in business. He has identified that the success of primary industry has resulted in a decline in workforce investment and productivity making us dependent on an industry that will fluctuate with overseas economies. Even though the economy has been buoyant through the Global Financial Crisis, we have overlooked the ramifications of a future slowing in global economies that will leave us vulnerable to a downturn. Our skilled workforce is on the decline and our business leaders are unprepared to take risk at a time when innovation is needed. Australia desperately needs to sure up it’s National Innovation System to face changes in global economies. It’s now time to stop thinking of lucrative short term schemes and to invest in management that is willing to work outside of the box. UTS is doing exactly this through a revamped curriculum and cutting-edge building.

Dr Chau Chak Wing model

Dr Chau Chak Wing model

Integral to developing this new breed of integrated thinker is the architecture of Frank Gehry that will inspire and provide a creative work environment for future students. Gehry describes his project:

“It’ a gnarly project a business school, not sexy like a museum or a concert hall. We love the prospects.  Thinking of it as a tree house came tripping out of my head on the spur of the moment and was not contrived. But on reflection the metaphor may be apt. A growing learning organism with many branched of thought some robust and some ephermeral and delicate.”

And indeed this is a very different project for Gehry. It lacks the scale and monumentality of many of his other projects like the Guggenheim Bilbao and the proposed towers in Toronto designed to transform the city, but it does face its challenges. In their Buisness School brochure, UTS describe the building as ‘…an evolving, growing organism that fosters collaboration and the cross-pollination of ideas’. Some of the important features include flexible seating arrangements in lecture halls and interconnected discipline and research areas to promote teamwork, something Gehry calls ‘porosity’.

Roy Green Dean of the Business School says, ‘we really have an opportunity to shape the kinds of learning opportunities that students have through the design of the building. You walk off the street and are immediately in a social space with a lot of buzz and a lot of human activity like coffee cups clinking. You don’t get to the lifts without passing a lot of people you might want to chat with and getting a bit of work done on the way.’

The new building, designed by Gehry Partners LLP, will enable the faculty to better integrate practical, collaborative and innovative teaching, learning and research into the curriculum.

Proposed Towers for Toronto, Frank Gehry

Proposed Towers for Toronto, Frank Gehry

I have recently interviewed Professor Roy Green about the project and his views on business thinking.

What challenges are business leaders facing in the future and where has business education in Australia fallen behind? How is the UTS Business school addressing this problem?

Business leaders’ greatest challenge today is to understand and apply innovative processes in a high cost economy and to position themselves for competitiveness in global markets and supply chains.

Business schools need to prepare graduates for this fast changing environment not just through grounding in specialist domain knowledge but also boundary crossing skills such as team work, problem solving and integrative thinking.  The emphasis on integrative and design thinking is essential as it provides a broader framework for understanding the direction of firms and organisations in this new environment, particularly the quality of decision making and judgment as well as more quantitative analytical approaches.

For a range of reasons, Australian business schools mostly lag those in Europe and North America when it comes to integrative and design thinking, though some are now taking an active interest and even launching new and revised programs which take account of these ideas. Certainly we are doing so at UTS Business School, where we are developing a new vision of business education, which we believe is crucial to Australia’s future as a creative knowledge based economy.

UTS Designing the Future

UTS Designing the Future

Are institutions elsewhere doing business education better and hence is their business sector equipped and prepared to cope with risk? How is it built into their business practice and training?

In responding to the fallout of the global financial crisis, business schools globally have begun to recognise the importance of preparing not only technically competent but also responsible, engaged leaders. They are moving to a more integrated approach to learning and teaching which enables students to experiment with creativity in classes and workshops often in conjunction with businesses and with non profit organisations in solving real world problems. Sometimes this new approach to learning is taking place in ‘living labs’ with multidisciplinary teams of students not only from business but other areas like design, engineering and the humanities.

These students will be better prepared to cope with the challenges of the future as they will have more relevant employability skills and experience in applying conceptual knowledge in real life situations. We do this at our u.lab which is modelled on a number of examples from around the world such as Stanford’s, DesignWorks at the University of Toronto, MIT’s Design Lab and Aalto University’s Design Factory.

How does Gehry’s architectural design for the school contribute to this?

The point of Gehry’s design is that it starts not from the architecture but the functionality of the spaces and the needs of students and other users of the building. Gehry’s method is to ‘design from the inside out’.  His design is ‘porous’ in that it promotes a new kind of learning based on interaction and design thinking within the building and deep engagement with stakeholders and partners outside the building.

Gehry’s design approach reflects and reinforces our own vision of the future of business education. The important thing is that the vision came before the architecture and as a result of strategic conversations facilitated by 2nd Road consultants who understand the potential impact of design thinking in business education and applied it to this process at the UTS Business School.

Out of the process came an interest in a more innovative approach to our promised new building and we were fortunate to attract Gehry’s attention. He requested a statement of our vision and his visit was facilitated by a key principal at 2nd Road who had worked with him in the past.  The discussions with Gehry not only met our expectations but inevitably drove them to a high level and led to a distinctive approach to the architecture which has drawn much attention.

Each of Gehry’s buildings is different and meets the different requirements of their stakeholders. The metaphor for our building, expressed in sketches, is a ‘tree-house’. It will have a trunk of interactive, open spaces with branches and connections between our discipline groups and research centres. Three main features of the building are natural light, private study and work areas as well as open, interactive spaces to encourage clusters of activity around research and teaching.

How much of your plan depends on leadership, who will be your leaders and what roles will they play?

We are fortunate at UTS in having a strong commitment to relevance and impact as well as quality in our research and teaching. This is led by our Vice Chancellor and the senior team. While my role as Dean was to make the case for change within the Business School and build momentum at that level, the Vice Chancellor gained buy-in to the vision with the University Council and stakeholders. Vision cannot be imposed and has to come from the organisation to be authentic.

Essentially the project is about preparing the next generation of leaders who can apply integrative thinking and work across boundaries. So we must provide the example by doing so ourselves as leaders within the University. Sometimes this means taking measured and justifiable risks and that is what we are doing given the immensity and importance of the opportunity.


How will the profile of the Gehry building integrate with the Ultimo precinct and how does that contribute to the vision of the project?

There is an emerging creative precinct that stretches from Pyrmont to Surry Hills covering digital media, film and television, fashion and design, software services in large firms like IBM and Google and myriad entrepreneurial start-ups. It’s a very exciting and creative community of which the building will become a focus.

Gehry enjoys referencing, shaping and adapting to the urban environment. His buildings reach out and touch surrounding streetscapes and engaging with communities. That’s the really interesting element of the site. The building itself adds to the creative precinct partly through its iconic value but also because it will be a great attractor of students along with the programs we offer.

Even before the doors open in 2014, there will be benefits for staff and students. In the short-term, we will be developing our curriculum both at undergraduate and postgraduate level to trial more integrated approaches. Our Bachelor of Business now commences with a new module called Integrating Business Perspectives and capstone subjects, to better synthesise graduate capabilities and employability skills.

I would like students to really look forward to coming to UTS because the face-to-face experience is such a positive one, even with increasing integration of online elements. There is just no substitute for personal interactions as part of the learning experience. Our students will have the opportunity to develop into the kind of person they want to be, both personally and professionally, through the programs we design for them and with them.