Universities are sometimes compared to mythological places: ivory towers. While beautiful from the outside, the inhabitants usually shut themselves off from the external world and generally keep themselves to themselves. Or, in the case of universities, academics are said to stay within their specific disciplines. Of course, providing education at an excellent level is an outstanding achievement. However, students, businesses as well as academia itself demand change and have turned the term "inter-disciplinarity" into a winged word. While a discipline can find its own answer to complex problems but often, a more diverse perspective, involving different academic views, can lead to better responses to new challenges.
The Institut d'Arquitectura Avançada de Catalunya (IAAC) faced a similar situation. Architecture students worked on projects to combine digital fabrication and nature-based solutions to make modern cities and surroundings more sustainable. Urban Planning can be tackled from an exclusively architectural perspective. However, the Knowledge Alliance (KA) BUILDs – Building Urban Innovative Living Design Solutions – under the lead of IAAC, decided to take a big step forward. Project coordinator Chiara Farinea described the initial momentum as follows: "How can students design and develop ground-breaking Nature-Based Solutions, using the latest technologies, that are also biologically feasible and ecologically efficient, and even more, marketable?"
The answer to this question was conceived in a newly conceptualised one-year programme. Students, teachers and researchers from different countries and different academic backgrounds – architecture and design, biotechnology and business – joined forces to find solutions for our cities' ecological challenges. The alliance with partners from Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, France and Denmark achieved even more. Apart from transdisciplinary education, BUILDs strengthened the collaboration between Institutions of Higher Education and enterprises, ensured access to excellence and helped put the sustainable projects of its students into practice.
BUILDs matched students with different backgrounds and interests to create five start-up projects. A good example is the project Epiclay, which assembled five students with backgrounds ranging from tax advice to art galleries, from agriculture to architecture, from graphic design to logistics. Together, they designed an innovative modular tile system. These tiles carry plants and can be easily attached to walls to cover facades with vegetation. Furthermore, through the different experiences of the team members, they managed to include many other features, such as low maintenance costs or a fully nature-based design making the tiles bio-receptive. Once they are no longer needed, they can be disposed of without leaving hard to recycle residues. This helps cities reduce air pollution and heat and improve their inhabitants' physical health and mental well-being.
The alliance delivers practical solutions through a holistic approach that can be easily applied in reality. This was also ensured by connecting the academic world with entrepreneurship and related skills and access to a new accelerator. During the course, the KA paired students with experts from academia and SMEs and helped them present their ideas to investors and business experts to ensure their ideas get a chance to change our cities.
BUILDs more than successfully showed the benefits of inter-disciplinarity. However, what does this mean for the beautiful ivory towers? Well, we would not go so far as to demolish them. But to install some bridges in between them would certainly be a beneficial idea. This KA played its part in achieving this.
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