Organisation - May 16, 2013

The smartest campus

The campus is bursting with information. But what do we do with it all? Not nearly enough, says Matthijs Danes. He dreams of a Smart Campus: Wageningen's shop window and a testing ground for public innovation.

Matthijs Danes (Alterra, Spatial Knowledge Systems team) specializes in geographical information and communication. In itself, the subject is not difficult to explain to potential clients. But how do you make it really interesting? In other words, without using the same old PowerPoints and bullets points? His answer to this question is the Smart Campus. But the answer goes beyond an appealing acquisition idea. 'There is more to communication than just imparting information. You need to interest and entertain your audience. And with a bit of luck that starts up a discussion that takes on a life of its own in the crowd. Letting the crowd be part of the process,' explains Danes. 'Let people find out the value of your information for themselves and even enhance it by contributing to it. A sort of public innovation. In the Geo club we are trying to provide the infrastructure for that. We make data available and provide instructions for adding data yourself and interpreting it.'
It all sounds a bit vague still. A nice example of combining information with entertainment - 'experience communication' or immersion in information - is 'augmented reality'.  Two years ago, before the foundation stone of the now completed building Orion had been laid, a gadget from the Geolab enabled you to experience the building virtually. An app on your smartphone enables you to walk around the building and even go inside it, for all the world as if it already existed. A touch of magic.
Dynamic information
But even this was not yet really 'smart'. It was actually just static information packaged in an appealing format. Nice, but not smart enough, says head of Education Facilities Joris Fortuin. 'In my view, smart means delivering dynamic information: what I see today is different again tomorrow, because the information has changed.' Together with Danes and Marc Lamers (director of Corporate Communication and Marketing), Fortuin is in a working party being formed to work out the details of the smart campus.
'We take a lot of measurements on the campus,' explains Fortuin. 'The number of people in buildings, the energy and water consumption et cetera. But could we pass on that dynamic information to particular target groups? We are now developing an app which will help you find your way around the campus. That is static information. By linking it to we@wur, you could make it possible to find people of campus too. That is still not truly 'smart'. But if you extended the app with the menu of the restaurants on campus, it would become quite a bit more dynamic. And that is when the fun starts. That is when it gets really smart. Combining information smartly, that is what a Smart Campus means to me.'
Fortuin looks at the concept from the operational angle. How do I make the new technique useful and usable in daily life on campus? 'I am regularly asked by students whether it is possible to get an idea of the number of available work stations. In theory it's possible. Through our network we can see which computers are available. Students can also work in the computer rooms when they are free. That is dynamic information that you can turn into usable information for students using an app.' The question is of course, who is going to pay for this? It costs money to creating an app.
Open house
'The Smart Campus is a concept designed to make what goes on at the campus visible,' says Lamers from his perspective. 'Visibility is what it's all about. The Smart Campus is a way of presenting yourself. We have here a very extraordinary organization and you can show that in innovative and surprising ways using the Smart Campus concept.' The question is of course, how? Lamers admits that he does not have a ready answer to that. 'I do not yet have a full picture of the possibilities. But with the Smart Campus you can make every day an open day, for example. Now we do that twice a year for prospective students. But we could do it 365 days a year.'
'We recently had the 'drop in on the neighbours' project. That is something you could do virtually of course. Hang up a couple of webcams in the greenhouses, for instance. The aim is to get in touch with each other. It's all about interconnection, a sense of community, and of taking a pride in that. You could make Impulse an international center of debate, so that you don't have to be physically present on the campus to join in the debate. The 'smart' part of it is the interaction with people: with colleagues, students and external parties. If you enter into exchange of ideas and opinions, you show your social engagement. You become an open house instead of an ivory tower.'
Ideas
For initiator Danes the main aim is experimentation. 'There is a gold mine of data available on campus. In our buildings we have about 1800 sensors that provide information about our environment every few minutes. What can we do with it? We want to open up the information to students. Show things that usually stay invisible, using apps, routes or interactive maps. Go on, get started. We also want to make a simple kit for this with its own sensor for measuring time, movement, images and other things. For no more than 50 euros' worth of material, and just start measuring. Perfect for giving you the scope to come up with all sorts of crazy ideas.'
The point is that for Danes the real innovation does not lie in the hardware. 'It's about the creativity, the cross-connections you can make between disciplines. My big dream is to organize a big event for students on campus. They would create a working app in one day. An event with prizes and everything. The stimulus of the interaction between them will boost innovation.' 

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