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Campuses are getting smarter. But is your institution ready for a "smart campus"?

August 29, 2023 , By Dawn Ressel, Senior Director, Financial Sustainability Terrain Lead

There is no shortage of “smart” things in the market today. You can seemingly buy a smart version of anything—a toaster, a car, even a toilet. While some of these might seem unnecessary (or even a bit silly), they represent the massive spread of the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that enable devices to connect with each other. And while a smart toaster may not immediately appeal to everyone, the full vision of a smart kitchen—where all the appliances seamlessly interact and work with each other —is equal parts futurist and attainable today.

Smart spaces require more than gimmicks, and bringing together multiple tech spaces to create a truly smart campus is difficult. So, let’s start with the question of what is a smart campus?

  • What is a Smart Campus?

    Our research team defines a smart campus as a space where virtual and physical experiences can interact to serve a broad range of academic and operational priorities. Ultimately, it exists to provide a high-caliber service, driving positive outcomes for students, staff, faculty, and the larger community. In its true form, a smart campus is more than the sum of the smart things in the smart spaces. But achieving this is much easier said than done.

The Long and Winding Road to a Smarter Future

Institutions across the world have made significant investments in technologies and spaces to try and achieve their smart campus ambitions. But for most colleges and universities, those aspirations have come up short due to three persistent problems:


1. Short-term wins are prioritized over long-term needs

An over-focus on the need to achieve quick improvements with high ROI or bolster a particular metric leads to a series of sporadic and piecemeal campus innovations that don’t effectively interact or integrate. Additionally, this creates a lot of unusable institutional data and unscalable investments into campus-wide infrastructure.

2. Many institutions remain risk-averse to smart campus investments

Large, upfront costs with unfamiliar technology can be a hard bill to swallow in the tight financial environments many schools face today. Some technologies (like robotic delivery vehicles) quickly became specialized while others (like on-demand scooters) did not provide the expected levels of improvement. Today’s smart campus opportunities are simultaneously more comprehensive and capable than ever before, requiring evolving attitudes towards prototyping and project pilots.

3. Institutions struggle with the complexities of extensive and external vendor partnerships

Partners are essential to successful smart campus implementations, whether providing technology, training staff, supporting data analytics, or funding mechanisms. Yet many institutions are constrained by internal and external regulations around vendor selection, lock-in, and the sharing of resources.

Nevertheless, institutions worldwide are overcoming these hurdles to make meaningful changes on their campus.  For example, the University of Birmingham’s digital twin effort led to a five percent reduction in their carbon emissions almost overnight, while Miami University of Ohio’s real-time responsive dining facilities allowed leaders to modify menus and direct students to more convenient options. Colleges and universities are making strategic investments that help reduce costs, engage students, and progress mission critical goals. And across the board, coordinated leadership on campus remains the critical ingredient to success here.

The First Step: Bringing Together IT and Facilities

Every project needs a foundation. An intentional pairing of Facilities and IT enables prioritization of investments, transparent discussion of opportunities and limitations, and sharing of vendor knowledge to create harmonious smart campus teams.

Aside from a few limited instances, Facilities and IT are not used to working together. Historically, Facilities lives in an analog world of hands-on processes, and its work culture draws from construction and the trades. In contrast, IT lives mostly in a virtual space, and its work habits derive from software development and the hacker subculture.

This traditional separation of spheres is being eroded by the rapid introduction of IoT devices and other digital technologies. These digital capabilities provide our best opportunity to use space more efficiently, develop new immersive experiences, and meet sustainability goals. But they also will require us to:

  • Extend data management and advanced analytics to the facilities domain to take advantage of the vast quantities of data that embedded devices will produce.
  • Redesign customary partner interactions so that IT and Facilities approach their customers with common ideas and solutions.
  • Ensure strategic alignment between IT and Facilities so that unit activities don’t conflict or take incompatible directions.

What Comes Next?

With better-established processes for IT and facilities collaboration, institutions can turn to the next steps in deciding what kind of smart campus they want to pursue. These critical questions can help institutional leaders prioritize their time and efforts:

  • Setting Strategy: what are the goals the institution hopes to achieve with its smart campus investments, and what resources and oversight are required to achieve them?
  • Partnerships and Vendors: where does the institution have existing vendor relationships they can leverage, and where will they need to source new technologies and products to realize their smart campus vision?
  • Interoperability: how can the institution ensure all upcoming renovations and new construction projects include smart tech data integration and open architecture principles essential to smart campus efforts?
  • Scale: where can the institution invest in its data infrastructure now to ensure that new technologies and new data sources are optimized as smart campus facilities come online?

Over the next few months, EAB will be exploring how your institution can answer these questions and develop the capabilities a smart campus demands.

EAB partners are invited to explore our digital transformation resources here, and to join our upcoming Special Joint Session for CIOs and Facilities Leaders, to be held November 8-9 in Washington DC.

Dawn Ressel

Dawn Ressel

Dawn joined EAB in the summer of 2022. She has over twenty-five years of experience in institutional effectiveness and data analytics and will be leading the Financial Sustainability Terrain within the Research Advisory Services team of EAB. Working at both the campus level and the state board governing level, Dawn brings a deep understanding of the Institutional Effectiveness / Institutional Research profession. She has experience working on performance funding, state allocation models, campus allocation models, predictive analytics, implementing student success platforms, implementing data governance, developing and enriching data infrastructures, and completing compliance reporting and national benchmarking studies.

Dawn has worked with both 4-year and 2-year institutions and understands the needs and uniqueness of both sectors. When not helping institutions find efficiencies Dawn enjoys traveling, hiking, and camping with her family, that includes several 4 legged children.

Dawn earned a Master of Science degree in statistics from the University of Arkansas in 1991 and a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from the University of the Ozarks in Branson, Missouri in 1989.

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