The Campus of the Future

Architect, Ben Ashton, introduces the university campus of the future in the United Arab Emirates.

In the UAE the concept of the university campus is relatively new. Designers are rising to the challenge of attracting students and staff, providing the facilities to develop skills and encourage learning and enquiry, all within a resilient, flexible and cost-effective campus.

We recognise that the relationship between virtual learning and the physical campus environment will continue to evolve. Both have their own advantages and the expectation is for a future blended style of learning. In a multicultural country like the UAE where many students are expats, remote working is expected, along with structures that promote worldwide connections. The Scottish Heriot-Watt University campus in Dubai hosts a cohort of nearly 4,000 students from more than 105 countries so flexibility and variety is a necessity.

More spaces
for more work


better results.

In order to compete with virtual learning, the physical learning environment needs to represent diverse cultures and provide benefits that go beyond purely face-to-face interaction. They must be places where staff and students genuinely want to spend time. Heriot-Watt’s new campus in Dubai Media City harnesses biophilic design and offers high-quality formal learning spaces, varied and stimulating informal areas to encourage social interaction, together with leisure and recreational facilities and convenient access to healthy and affordable food and good coffee – a must for any student.

The innovation on show at Heriot-Watt is enhanced by the design. The campus is split in half – a rational orthagonal half inspired by Edinburgh’s new town and an organic half representing the complexity and vibrancy of Edinburgh’s old town. And the education spaces are also split: formal academic spaces for scheduled classes and laboratories, and informal, in-between spaces for fortuitous encounter and peer to peer learning.

In urban design there is a concept, adopted by Starbucks in the early 21st century, called the ‘third place’: an area between a place of work or study and the home. The third place is a relaxed territory where people spend their time in an enjoyable, unscheduled, casual way. We applied this idea to circulation space within the building, often seen as redundant in real estate terms, driving the design of a vertical campus. By utilising these areas as third space, the entire building is used, driving up efficiency – of the building and of the people who use it. 

More spaces for more work = better results.

Higher education campuses in the UAE will continue to evolve and adapt to support online learning and offer benefits that go beyond the virtual to encourage closer collaboration, chance encounter, serendipitous conversation and recreation, building important interpersonal skills, social bonds and friendships.