Quick guide

Benefits and considerations of smart campuses

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Educational institutions’ premises used to consist of just bricks and mortar. Now, most also include sensors and data - the 'smart campus'.

The issue

All four components (bricks, mortar, sensors and data) require thoughtful design and maintenance to ensure they deliver benefits, rather than risks, to those who use our spaces.

The benefits

A 2012 paper identified six areas where data about a campus might provide benefits:

  • Learning
  • Management of infrastructure and operations
  • Social, facilitating internal and external collaboration
  • Governance, providing institutional accountability
  • Environmental, including use of resources
  • Health

Some of these are obvious, such as monitoring energy use has clear environmental and governance benefits. Others are less so, such as measuring and controlling CO2 levels in classrooms has been used to improve both learning and – as we have discovered during the pandemic – health.

What you can do

Each smart campus application involves two main choices: why (the purpose) and how (the data sources).

Most campuses are places where people work, study, socialise and live; many are also used, formally and informally, as part of their local community. The effect of a smart campus proposal on all these groups – both in fact and in perception – should be considered. Many high-profile smart city projects have failed, even been perceived as creating hostile surveillance infrastructures, through a lack of such consideration.

At an early stage of a proposal, four questions should be discussed:

  • Will it help? Does the proposal address a recognised problem?
  • Will it work? Will the proposal actually improve things?
  • Will it comfort? Will it contribute to the sort of place people want to work/study/live/be?
  • Will it fly? Are there challenges, for example, accessibility, discrimination, perverse incentives, legal or communication?

This approach is explored in the paper Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (of Data).

A successful proposal can then consider data sources. Usually, there will be several options: to assess the number of people in a space, we might

  • Use operational data from a thermostat
  • Sense sound level or passage through doors
  • Count the devices emitting radio signals 

Estimates are often sufficient, cheap to gather and avoid problems – both legal and social – with data linked to individuals.

Particular care is needed with sensors and secondary uses of existing data. These can be an efficient way to obtain information, but they may be perceived as intrusive. This can provoke resistance: individuals may change behaviour to avoid or disrupt data collection. If reusing swipe card data increases the number of students who swap cards or hold doors open, then it will undermine that system’s main purpose of keeping the campus and its occupants safe.

Jisc’s intelligent campus impact assessment toolkit (pdf) can help to assess these risks and suggest how they might be mitigated.

Finally, it shouldn’t be hard to sell the benefits of a smart campus to its occupants. But a key lesson from smart city projects is that including citizens in decisions about their spaces is critical. The process by which decisions are reached and communicated is at least as important as the decisions themselves.

Further reading

Case studies and examples

This guide is made available under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND).