Futures of Wichita State, region are intertwined

John Bardo, Wichita State University president
John Bardo, Wichita State University president Courtesy photo

This is the year that Wichita State’s Innovation Campus is transforming architectural renderings to occupied buildings. The roads and major pedestrian walkway are open, the utilities installed and five buildings completed or under construction, all within 30 months since the first public announcement.

Land that was a golf course for 93 years is well on its way to helping renew Wichita’s promise as a global center of innovation and entrepreneurship.

It is the historical role of public higher education to lift up the fortunes of entire communities. At no time in history has that mission been more important than it is today.

Drivers of success

We know that innovation and entrepreneurship are going to be two of the key drivers of the future. And if you want to have a viable community, if you want to have wealth in the community, it’s important that you continue to innovate and be entrepreneurial.

At Wichita State we are strategically focused on our mission as an essential educational, cultural and economic driver for Kansas and the greater public good.

Our highest profile initiatives – Innovation Campus, affiliation with WATC, the I-35 enrollment strategy, the Shock the World fundraising campaign, even reconsidering our athletics program – are all part of elevating the university to enlarge the potential of our students and our state.

Applied learning and research are central to our vision of the university and its role in economic development. We believe there is tremendous benefit in deeply connecting our students with research-oriented faculty and with professionals in the fields that students plan to enter.

Airbus, Dassault Systemes and Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence are in the first wave of companies that have committed to the Innovation Campus to gain access to our students, researchers and facilities. The companies, in turn, are stationing researchers and equipment here and have agreed to work with our students and faculty.

Airbus has its own building, known as Partnership One, with 300 full-time employees plus part-time student workers. Dassault and Hexagon have laboratories in the Experiential Engineering Building, known as EEB.

The Innovation Campus isn’t just about engineering and technology. The Wichita Police Department and Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office will be conducting training in the new Law Enforcement Training Center, a second partnership building, opening in 2018. Our Criminal Justice program students and faculty will learn and teach and conduct research alongside the law enforcement professionals.

These buildings – EEB, Airbus and Law Enforcement – along with the apartments under construction and the nearly complete Starbucks, are the first of what we expect could eventually become 20 or more buildings in an innovation district.

Private financing

Most of these buildings will be partnership buildings, built with private money, not state funds or student tuition. That means the campus will be built at the pace that potential corporate tenants and private developers come forward.

We’ve seen throughout the world that talented people want to be around other talented people and have the opportunities to learn, live, work and play without ever getting in a car. We want Wichita State and the neighborhoods around it to form the heart of such a district.

We believe there is a virtuous cycle in moving knowledge from classroom and laboratory to industry use and then back again. Students, businesses, government and nonprofit organizations all gain in the process.

That’s why we’re working with the Greater Wichita Partnership, the e2e Accelerator and the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth. They’re all part of building capacity for innovation and economic growth.

It’s clear that the university is both a driver and a beneficiary of the south-central Kansas economy.

As a high-research university, WSU is of the type and mission class that nationally is driving economic development in many cities. And, because of WSU’s links to this region, its long-standing programs in critical technical areas, and its commitment to serving the people of the state, WSU is positioned to benefit the local community.

So what’s happening today on Innovation Campus?

Those who remember Braeburn Golf Course hole No. 4 that ran along 17th Street will now find the Experiential Engineering Building. The other major academic building planned for campus is a new home for the Barton School of Business. Fundraising for that is a top priority of the WSU Foundation.

A national model

There are about 170 university research/technology parks in the country, and we’ve adapted good ideas from several of them. But I don’t believe there’s another building quite like EEB because of the way it brings together engineering education, a public maker space, private company laboratories, a technology transfer resource office and the headquarters of an organization to encourage high school entrepreneurs.

EEB opened in mid-January, with many of its 25 laboratories already serving students and industry. The vast sunny lobby is fully furnished, including with a couple of spinning top chairs for the adventurous.

On the west side of EEB, the 18,000-square-foot GoCreate makerspace is opening in April with high-end industrial equipment available to everyone. Koch has provided scholarships so that affordability won’t be a barrier to community users.

The Kansas Board of Regents’ strategic plan specifically highlights the importance of alignment of higher education with the economy, and WSU is dedicated to expanding this commitment, drawing on local knowledge and practices that have been found to be effective elsewhere.

The Regents’ plan as the enabling document for WSU’s work is consistent with similar efforts in most states that are pushing their universities in this direction.

While a number of research parks have focused on new enterprises, some of them, including WSU, have been aggressively building a more complete integration of existing technology-based enterprises along with startups and young firms.

For example, the University of Missouri research parks house corporate headquarters, bank operations, federal agencies and technology-based businesses, in addition to incubators and startups.

It is clear that the nature of these parks is changing to meet the broad needs of the communities they serve, exemplifying economic development at its best. WSU’s model of enhancing economic development involves more than creation of the Innovation Campus, however.

The university’s focus is wide-ranging and includes efforts to increase the number of college graduates and the quality of their education; finding new approaches to education and skills enhancement that support well-paying jobs in the local workforce; expanding focus on “quality of life” elements of the educational mission; and expanding and supporting applied research and development that are so crucial to technology-based economic development.

An intertwined future

The bottom line is that the future of this region and this university are intertwined. One cannot prosper without the other. The work in which we are mutually engaged will, in great measure, set the trajectory for our city, region and state.

WSU’s innovation initiative involves both revolutionizing its education products and developing the Innovation Campus as the hub of an innovation district. If these efforts are successful, they will create commercial spillovers that increase demand in other parts of the metropolitan area and region while massively enhancing the reputation of south-central Kansas as a key location for high-technology businesses that can compete on a global marketplace level.

Far from being a competitor for a limited economic pie, the Innovation Campus and innovation district will grow Wichita’s economic pie, setting the stage for more rapid growth in regional output and employment, industry diversification, and regional wealth generation.

John Bardo became president of Wichita State University in 2012.