U.Va Launches OpenGrounds Initiative to Connect, Collaborate, Create

March 19, 2012

The 21st century's complex, ill-defined problems – "wicked problems," as they're known – require complex, interdependent solutions. How should a university break the bonds of 20th-century, and even 19th-century, thinking to find answers?

The University of Virginia is embracing the challenge with the creation of OpenGrounds, which launches today in the new OpenGrounds Studio, located in the Corner Building on West Main Street.

The initiative's founding director, Bill Sherman, an award-winning architect, academic leader and associate vice president for research, describes OpenGrounds as a way for U.Va. to tackle big ideas by connecting, collaborating and creating new modes of interdisciplinary alliances and external partnerships to advance not only research, but also teaching and learning.

"The University is a very rich ecosystem of people with ideas," he said. "The goal of OpenGrounds is to connect people both across and beyond the University in a richer way, to develop new solutions."

McIntire School of Commerce professor Mark White knows the value of interdisciplinary collaboration. He started an interdisciplinary University Seminar on global sustainability in 2009 that he led with professors from the Engineering and Architecture schools. Today, that effort has grown into an interdisciplinary global sustainability minor for undergraduate students from all across the University.

"Cross-disciplinary collaboration isn't all that hard at the University – we're blessed with amazingly collegial and gifted colleagues – but generating that first spark can be difficult," White said. "The incorporation of multiple perspectives and transdisciplinary thinking, which the OpenGrounds initiative facilitates, is practically a 'must' for gaining any sort of traction with these endeavors."

New Fields of Knowledge, New Solutions

OpenGrounds, Sherman explained, "involves a set of programs, a set of spaces, a set of events that encourage collaborations, that cause people to encounter each other in new ways. It leads to the kinds of innovation that opens up the University and creates totally new fields of knowledge and solutions to societal challenges."

The initiative's inherent openness will encourage many forms of experimentation at the boundaries between the basic and applied sciences, the arts, humanities and the professional schools, Sherman said.

As an initiative of the Office of the Vice President for Research, it also will serve as a gateway for partners outside the University to tap the energy and expertise of faculty, staff and students.

Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research, believes that OpenGrounds will "inspire those who take risks at the frontiers of their fields and collaborate across boundaries, to create new, disruptive ideas that make a real impact in the world." U.Va.'s executive vice president and provost, John Simon, said it has "great potential in bringing people together to think about things and do things they wouldn't do on their own." U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan is a major supporter. She links the effort to Jefferson's design of the Academical Village. with its second-story walk that connected the living spaces in the pavilions and facilitated conversation between neighboring professors who taught different fields of study.

The Office of the Vice President for Research provided seed funding to renovate the OpenGrounds Studio space and launch initial activities. As projects and initiatives develop, additional external funding will be sought for collaborative challenges, Skalak said.

OpenGrounds Studio to Debut

With a number of programs already under way, including student initiatives, faculty forums and partnerships with organizations as diverse as the Phillips Collection and Hearst Business Media, OpenGrounds exists in both the physical and virtual worlds.

The OpenGrounds Studio, at 1400 W. Main St., will host gatherings around cross-cutting urgent issues, challenges, competitions, exhibitions and performances. The space itself, designed by Sherman with input from music and drama professors, is intended to be a catalyst for collaboration.

Sherman left intact the exterior envelope of the building, which boasts windows to the north and south that fill the space with light. Everything in the interior is new – concrete, steel and translucent eco-resin panels. Six digital projectors can display images across a long wall above computer docking stations. Unique tables designed in collaboration with, and fabricated by architecture faculty colleague Alexander Kitchin, can be pushed together for large groups, or pulled apart for more intimate collaborations.

Brainstorming visitors can jot ideas on walls covered in writeable paint. Three large, flat-screen monitors fill the corners of the space, one of which will display the name, expertise and project a visitor is working on so others who drop in can join if they have like interests. A concierge will assist users during normal working hours.

Sherman said the Corner location was chosen for its visibility and location, bridging the University and the community.

He's also networking with others at the University to identify nodes or hubs on Grounds that would physically extend OpenGrounds. A hotspot in the OpenGrounds Network is being developed for the lobby outside the Darden School of Business' new i.Lab, which opened last year and is designed to support the teaching of "design thinking."

Darden students have collaborated with students at the School of Engineering and Applied Science for an i.Lab project to design new products. Engineering students made 3-D prototypes of the products.

Michael Lenox, associate dean and executive director of Darden's Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said he is excited about OpenGrounds. "The hope is that with the OpenGrounds initiative, we will have more opportunities to increase that interaction with others across Grounds. We want our students to have the richest experience around entrepreneurship and innovation."

Enhancing the Student Experience

OpenGrounds is also a "virtual network." Fifth-year McIntire student Danielle Barnes participated in numerous brainstorming sessions and is helping put new media in place. The OpenGrounds Studio will be linked through Twitter [@OpenGrounds], Facebook and a blog, where participants can "continue to network, share ideas and collaborate outside the space," she said. "These tools are a baseline for any organization and platform. They are a means to promote what's going on and engage people who are involved to post questions on ideas."

Students are acting as consultants and planners in other ways. OpenGrounds builds on the passion for action that has inspired student initiatives such as "flash seminars," "Talk is Cheap" and SEED, or Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development. The Jefferson Round is a series of student-led weekly seminars that launched this spring. Each seminar leader invites students with different perspectives to come together around a broad topic, Second-year College of Arts & Sciences student Leah Coates, an Echols Scholar who is designing her own major in social enterprise, worked with first-year students Alexander Lichtenstein and Kate Travis to create The Jefferson Round.

Jefferson Round seminars on topics ranging from, "Modern Slavery: Sex Trafficking in Today's World" to "Reading in an Age of Distraction," will be taking place this spring in the OpenGrounds Corner Studio.

"OpenGrounds is really a dream come true," Coates said. "The purpose of OpenGrounds works really well with the intention of the Jefferson Round. It will put the Jefferson Round in the public eye."

Coates is also working on scheduling a series of brainstorming workshops focused on big ideas. The group gathered would throw out a "big idea and think critically and creatively for 20 minutes," writing their thoughts on the whiteboard walls, she said. "We can think about how we would actually attack these ideas."

Making Unexpected Connections

OpenGrounds will highlight collaborations through special events. One in May will focus on a project to bring clean water to developing countries that involves the Center for Global Health and the Architecture and Engineering schools, along with the College of Arts & Sciences' new Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.

In 2013, a set of events is being planned that will highlight U.Va. Art Museum's exhibit of the work of photographer Ansel Adams. Sherman said they hope to have an interactive program in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy and other events that will extend the museum. "We can do things in OpenGrounds that engage in many ways," he said.

OpenGrounds Fellows will bring their expertise and network of relationships to help catalyze new perspectives, Sherman said. They're already lending their expertise.

Through Azure Worldwide, the environmental education organization he co-founded with U.Va. alumnus Andrew Snowhite, Philippe Cousteau partnered with the University on the successful Bay Game. Chic Thompson is an internationally renowned speaker and author of "What a Great Idea!" Jeffrey Woodruff, CEO of Quantities Investment Management, is an entrepreneur and innovator with a passion for algorithms and modeling to study data that could have a huge research impact on social issues, biomedical research and business. Boston Scientific Corp. founder John Abele is committed to promoting collaboration to unlock the potential of new ideas.

"All will help OpenGrounds break out of the traditional academic model and add the next step to engage the world in new ways," Sherman said. "We have a history of public engagement and commitment here at U.Va. It's part of the University's core identity that we will build on with OpenGrounds."

– by Jane Ford