Designing Partnerships for Innovation + Creativity

by Robert McClure,

April 27, 2023

People standing outside of a business office with big glass windows that allow you to see inside where people are working.

Aligning values and vision yields outstanding spaces for innovation

Makerspaces hum with robotics, 3D printers, and engineering projects. Seattle University students bounce ideas off each other while waiting in line for lattes. They’re going to join their mentors in state-of-the-art teaching labs and meet with representatives from PACCAR or Microsoft in high-tech conference rooms. Page Academic Planning Director Charles Kirby, FAIA, and Design Director Robert  McClure, AIA, share insights into the power of these partnerships.

Designing the future of STEM for Seattle University

Together with renovations of the university’s Bannan Center for Science and Engineering, the new Center for Science & Innovation (CSI) creates a 275,000-GSF STEM complex. Designed by Page in partnership with Mithun, the local associated architect, the CSI celebrates science and engineering and connects Seattle University’s brightest with local industry and entrepreneurship.

Home to PACCAR Engineering Innovation Center, Amazon Computer Science Project Center, and the Microsoft Café, this STEM complex offers a gateway between university talent, resources, and the private sector — but courting these industry partners was no small task.

Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering Dean Michael J. Quinn explains developing partnerships relies on strong relationships, but “it’s so much more than networking.” So, what were the keys to success for Seattle University and the CSI?

Aligning values and vision

Industry partners support colleges and universities for a host of reasons, but successful relationships begin with aligning values, visions, and goals.

Seattle University is committed to achieving and engaging diversity among students, faculty, and staff in its STEM program. In 2019, its College of Science and Engineering reported that 40 percent of its full-time faculty and 43.5 percent of its students were women. To Amazon, which donated $3 million to the new CSI, representation matters. Their diversity policy reinforces this position: “We track the representation of women and underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities because we know that diversity helps us build better teams that are obsessed over our global customer base.”

Likewise, Seattle University’s Jesuit values emphasize critical thinking and their ethics align with Microsoft. According to Quinn, “Microsoft’s President Brad Smith has a strong interest in ethics. That helps us because we require ethics courses as an integral part of our Jesuit education.”

Showcasing students' work for future employers

Experiencing students’ work firsthand creates a tangible connection between potential partners and programs. Dean Quinn found, “An essential early step was bringing executives to campus and having them meet our faculty and students. Often students were the most compelling part of the engagement.”

Until recently, the culture of undergraduate research did not exist. “Now, students are manipulating genes, which would have been science fiction 40 years ago,” says Quinn. “For a 60-year-old executive, seeing firsthand what 20-year-old students are doing with science is compelling.”

Differentiating through design

Does industry partnership impact design choices, or does design enhance ability to attract local industry? It’s a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ question, but Dean’s Quinn’s answer is “it’s both.”

The Page and Seattle University team wanted experience to inform design, so the stakeholders visited universities, corporate offices, and industry facilities like Microsoft’s Innovation Lab. With an eye toward meeting future partners’ needs, the group assessed layouts, evaluated materials, and most importantly, had meaningful conversations. Page’s Design Director Rob McClure found this process invaluable in “helping faculty understand what industry is doing and helping to inform space planning.”

These interactions led to design elements like open spaces and windows that put science on display and illuminated study spaces jutting out on the north side of the CSI, visibly communicating a students-and- studying-first mentality. The design offers insight into the quality of students that local corporations might recruit.

For Page Academic Planning Director Charles Kirby, “One of the most exciting things was to design a space that represents the intellectual strength of the students’ research work.”

Mentoring spaces help facilitate research

Dean Quinn also found he could “clearly see how corporate connections would influence design. The way we are creating the computer science space on the first floor – it’s one big room. That’s how programming gets done in startup companies. It’s a corporate-style space where teams take a hoteling approach, using available tables for workspace and lockers for storage.”

“We want it to be easy for Microsoft or Amazon executives to come into the main street, walk a few steps, and have a really nice space to engage with a computer science project team,” said Quinn.

Collaboration spaces outside of the classroom encourage students to engage with each other, and amenities like the café or coffee shop promote real-world intellectual collisions. PACCAR Chief Executive Officer Ronald E. Armstrong told Dean Quinn, “You’ll get so many innovative ideas out of the people engaging each other in that space.”

But it’s not just about attracting big industry. The CSI embraces the city through the Center for Community Engagement – the home of the Seattle University Youth Initiative that provides a pathway of support for local children and their families. The Center is located prominently on the first-floor entry terrace and connects to the building’s café, creating a dynamic public concourse.

Telling a great story

Multiple campus visits and workshops led to a focus on spaces where students make connections and ideas are turned into solutions — project space, makerspaces, meeting areas, and coffee shops — but the location of those spaces is part of a larger story. Everything about the CSI was purposed, programmed, and designed to bring the city of Seattle into the building.

“Seattle University directed the design team to animate the connection between the university and the city. Community engagement elements are located on the city-side of the building, academic spaces face the campus, and shared areas like the café, radio station, and huddle spaces purposely blur boundaries between town and university. It’s a melting pot,” said Kirby.

Sharing this narrative became an essential tool when attracting potential partners and donors. According to McClure, “We developed collateral to help explain and excite people about this project — physical models, prototyping, animations, website content — but more importantly, we hosted interactive storytelling sessions to help the university share CSI’s impact on potential partners.”

Committing for the long haul

Dean Quinn’s best advice? “Be patient.” Establishing relationships with industry partners is not an overnight process. It takes time and a team. He explained, “We worked with Microsoft for years. They have to get to know you and gain confidence in you. With Amazon, over 50 people on campus had some role — communication, contributing to presentation, or meeting with Amazon personnel.”

Ultimately, both industry and academia stand to benefit from reciprocal, long-term relationships and cooperation. Students gain access to real-world scenarios and mentorship; companies gain access to research and talent, while universities garner financial support and projects that can make a difference to the community. These relationships begin by getting out of the lab and in front of potential partners. Where do values and goals align, how will innovative design contribute to your success, and what story will you share that highlights the potential value of a future partnership?

About Charles Kirby, FAIA, and Rob McClure, AIA

Charles is a nationally recognized expert on designing innovative academic environments that enhance the quality of STEM education and collaborative learning. His focus reflects a deep passion for creating inviting spaces that encourage interdisciplinary dialogue.

Promoting a design process that encourages exploration without consequences is what drives Rob. Coming from a perspective that ideas can come from anywhere, Rob believes that creating an atmosphere that allows for this freedom of thought and investigation ultimately makes Page’s work more compelling and provides a more rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Robert McClure

Design Director