“It was designed,” said Lesley McAra, “to limit infection. We are going to transform it, so that it will have contagion; to bring the outside world into the university and the university into the outside world, for a common purpose and for common benefit.”

McAra was speaking of the Old Royal Infirmary which has been bought by Edinburgh University to be the permanent home of the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI). The development, which will include a significant amount of new-build, will create a “highly connected range of diverse accommodation”; teaching and event spaces, major lecture halls, meeting rooms, and IT hubs.

The project will restore and connect six historically significant Nightingale wards and make use of the building’s unusually wide corridors to create space for informal encounters and break-out areas. Below the new public piazza, the development will create a multi-functional space for events and major lectures. “The building will live up to the motto inscribed on its wall; Patet Omnibus,” said McAra, the EFI’s Director, “open to all.”

Read about the EFI in FutureScot Magazine in The Times Scotland: Download PDF.

McAra said: “The world is always changing. However, many signs suggest that we are entering into a new era. Old certainties in societies, democracies and the economy are being disrupted. Inequality is rising. Mass displacement of people is at its highest level in decades. The rise of artificial intelligence and big data both threatens job security and promises huge opportunities. The climate is changing. No one is immune.

“These challenges stretch across the traditional boundaries of national borders, institutional walls and areas of expertise. We need a response that does likewise; the Edinburgh Futures Institute is our answer.”

The EFI heralds a radical reengineering of the way the university – any university – works: “The Institute brings together people from across the university and beyond to grapple with some of the world’s most pressing questions,” said McAra.

“The institute will spark new connections, internally and externally, to bring together people and organisations from across the university and beyond. It will be where our world-class interdisciplinary expertise in social and data science, the arts, and humanities meets the external organisations that are tackling society’s most pressing needs.”

The EFI is one of the five hubs that form the Data-Driven Innovation initiative – part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal – which aims to help organisations and all citizens benefit from the data revolution. The initiative will increase the contribution of university research and in-demand graduate skills to the region’s economy, launching more spinout companies, attracting start-ups and established businesses, and driving public and private sector investment. Edinburgh University hosts the Bayes Centre, the EFI, Easter Bush campus, and Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics. The National Robotarium is a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh University. Supporting the work of the hubs, is a new super-computing facility for the secure and trustworthy analysis of datasets, which will be unique within Europe. The inclusion of Data-Driven Innovation with the City Region Deal reflects the growing importance of data in economic growth, social change, and public services.

McAra added: “By harnessing the revolution in data and artificial intelligence (AI), by bringing together different disciplines, we can take on real-world challenges in the cause of the public good and in support of inclusive economic growth. We believe that by forging collaborations, we can produce practical solutions for the common good. My role is to translate that ambition into action.”

The so-called fourth industrial revolution – the fusion of the digital world with the physical one, brought about by breakthroughs in areas such as AI, robotics, virtual reality, 3-D printing, and energy storage – is, said McAra, “forcing us to think differently about everything and about its consequences for the economy, society, politics, culture and the environment.”

It is, added McAra, also forcing the university to think differently about how it operates: “Universities have traditionally hierarchical and used to work in departmental silos. We will be radically multi-disciplinary and work in a much more ‘porous’ way with the outside world, working in collaboration with government, industry, and the wider community. We will also deliver a radical programme of genuinely life-long learning, using education as a means for social transformation.”

The EFI’s Professor Chris Speed will be speaking at FutureScot’s Digital Scotland Conference in Glasgow on 30 May.