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Incubating connections at the University of East London

Incubating connections at
the University of East London


This article is the second in series on Academic Incubators from Gensler's Design Thinking blog. To read the previous entry, click here.

Einstein once said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This line of reasoning is especially relevant in the redevelopment of University of East London’s Knowledge Dock space. College and universities have begun to realize that solving the problems inherent to their current on-campus spaces will require seeking inspiration from non-educational environments. [So] they are eschewing the type of reasoning which they’ve used in the past in favour of ideas embraced by other successful industries. 


What’s behind this shift in thinking?

Students today are becoming savvier and more demanding of the experiences available to them on campus. A recent survey conducted by Protein Magazine found that 84% of Millennials would rather have 10 jobs that last two years than one job that lasts 20 years. Of the group they surveyed, 26% are running their own business and a staggering 62% said they would quit their job tomorrow for a life-changing adventure. So the question facing campuses today is how can they support and educate a group of students whose need for dynamic and atypical experiences is ingrained in their DNA? 

The University of East London (UEL). Image © Morley von Sternberg

The University of East London (UEL). Image © Morley von Sternberg

This was a question our design team faced when the University of East London (UEL) asked Gensler to transform its Knowledge Dock space into a center for entrepreneurship and innovation using the tech company model as precedent. At the onset of the project, we knew we needed to implement a new form of cross-practice thinking if we were going to create a space capable of meeting the needs of entrepreneurial, next-gen students.

The tech space has long been considered the ideal template for fostering innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. But what’s so great about tech spaces anyway?

It’s not the foosball tables, the slides, or the in-house open bars, but rather the way they are all designed for specific activities of collaboration, sharing, learning, and focusing. The concepts of co-working and co-learning have driven the design of tech spaces for years, and educational institutions can take a cue from this. Taking students, teachers, and business users out of the box (e.g. the classroom or office) and putting them into an agile, collaborative environment will allow multiple activities to take place at once.

The University of East London (UEL). Image © Morley von Sternberg

The University of East London (UEL). Image © Morley von Sternberg

It was also paramount for us to effectively communicate how the Knowledge Dock’s new design would function to the end users. In the professional world, workspaces have become more and more user-defined and this has forced brands to do the same. The Knowledge Dock’s new brand identity now engages with students in a fresh, more supportive way. Following the template set by the tech sector, the space now combines brand, education, and campus life into one experience. By connecting the different floors through wayfinding, bold colors and super graphics, the center offers cross-collaboration and flexibility, whether a student wants to just grab a coffee or brainstorm with a team.

The University of East London (UEL). Image © Thomas Oesterhus

The University of East London (UEL). Image © Thomas Oesterhus

Our design work on the Knowledge Dock also bridged a gap between workplace, education, and co-working, illustrating how the next generation of students will work every day in an agile and flexible way, with options on the types of settings they need. One of the big trends we have seen in industry is companies offering incubator spaces to startup firms that need support at the embryonic stage of their business. We have seen firms such as Google and GSK start new initiatives within their campuses to support this.

As an education facility at UEL, the Knowledge Dock sees an agile co-working space for students that invites the corporate industry into the heart of education. This partnership helps to propel ideas forward and ultimately to help sponsors find successful future ideas. Students find sponsors to make the ideas and initiatives happen and develop forward, as well. It’s a win-win situation for all.

The refreshed Knowledge Dock offers a wide range of settings for collaboration, sharing, and focus. It reflects what most next generation workspaces strive for – ultimate choice and flexibility.

Maria Nesdale is the Firmwide Practice Area Leader for education and culture. At Gensler London she is deeply involved in designing enhanced learning environments that deliver a vastly enhanced learning experience for all levels of student. Maria has extensive experience working with diverse clients and delivering successful projects of various scales across sectors. Contact her at


Thomas Oesterhus is a Norwegian graphic designer, with a Bachelor degree in visual communication from Denmark. He brings a unique spectrum of expertise from design studios in Norway, Copenhagen and NYC. As a key member of the branding practice area, Thomas works with branding, environmental graphics and signage design for a variety of clients. Contact him at


Matt Jackson is a Workplace Design Director and has worked within the creative design of the workplace for 20 years. He has been a part of many significant milestone projects including key step changes for large retailers, top legal firms and financial service providers. The exposure to a broad selection of project types and industry sectors has served him well. Contact him at

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