How a university tech incubator is preparing students for an automated future

If the future of jobs trends toward automation, should education follow suit? The Kaplan Institute is creating a program that's both a tech incubator and design hub.

tech incubator Kaplan Institute

Jeff Link

June 19, 2019

min read
tech incubator kaplan institute workstations
A row of workstations inside the Kaplan Institute. Image courtesy of Jeff Link.

Standing with three classmates at a podium in the newly opened Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Kislay Bhagat, a fourth-year engineering student, gestures to the windows while tapping on his Android phone. Seconds later, an omnidirectional hovercraft—one that looks like a child’s disc sled—lifts off the ground and glides smoothly along, floating inches above a pedestrian sidewalk.

Bhagat’s team built the machine for an Interprofessional Project (IPRO) robotics class that meets in a new, 72,000-square-foot, cloud-like building designed by John Ronan Architects. A lightweight, interstellar take on the architecture characterizing the Mies van der Rohe–designed campus that surrounds it, the Kaplan Institute is the school’s first new classroom building erected in 40 years.

Kaplan Institute is like an incubator, one that prepares students for future jobs driven by accelerating innovation, increased automation, and the new-collar skills needed for multidisciplinary collaboration. It stands as a litmus test for what John Ronan, principal of the eponymous firm, calls a vision of “the future of higher education.”

The IPRO program, newly housed in the Kaplan Institute, offers undergraduates a collaborative design experience that university professor and KI Executive Director Howard Tullman says could set them apart as job candidates. This thinking anticipates a world moving rapidly toward increased automation and digitization, eliminating other types of work. “Automation is frightening,” Tullman says. “If I can turn a task into a set of rules or instructions, those jobs are going away.”

A serial entrepreneur and former CEO of Chicago digital startup incubator 1871, Tullman is hardly a Luddite. In his office, two smoothly curved robots idle in the corner (they can identify Tullman by face and say hello), and David Bowie’s face swims in an expressionist pastiche behind his desk. During his tenure at 1871, Tullman helped woo hundreds of tech companies into Chicago’s business district, watching the city’s tech sector grow dramatically from 2012 to 2018. He also led 1871 to its current stature as the number one university-affiliated incubator in the world.

He says the economic and environmental gains touted by proponents of automation—from advancing telemedicine to realizing autonomous vehicles—require a shift in preparing students for workplace demands that US education has not yet addressed. “Starting in high school, there’s a failing of education; a huge reliance on quantitative, measurable skills,” he says. “Those aren’t the skills of the future. Why would you memorize anything when you can Google it?”

As digital startup incubators like 1871 have emerged to develop new products and services, the labor market has changed. Employers are no longer enticed by candidates with encyclopedic subject knowledge: They’re seeking students with real-world design experience and transferable soft skills. These could include the ethics and social etiquette of working in a team, the entrepreneurial mindset to sell an idea to stakeholders or funders, and the lab-based practice of designing prototypes and models. The Kaplan Institute seeks to cultivate these types of skills.

Tullman says the institute has attracted private sponsorships from a number of leading companies and is well positioned to connect with Chicago’s growing tech sector, which is hungry to diversify its talent pool. “We think there is a model where companies will come here and have teams of students work on projects and say, ‘these three hit it out of the park, we’ll give them offers,’” he says. “It’s absolutely a pipeline. We have people in the Loop saying we can’t get diverse technical talent. We say, ‘Here’s a dime, take a bus to the South Side, and go see it at IIT.’”

Architecturally, the Kaplan building is in many ways a physical embodiment of the institute’s mission to prepare students for the jobs of the future. Enveloped in partially obscured ETFE (ethylene tetrofluoroethylene) material and bearing a larger footprint than the first level, the building’s second floor appears to hover weightlessly above the earth. The interior is lightweight and airy with wide, all-white corridors that wend past lounges, conference rooms, presentation areas, design studios, crash pods, makers’ labs, a community kitchen, and a café.

“I would describe it as a descendant of what Mies called ‘skin and bones’ architecture,” Ronan says. “Some of the things from the Mies era we carried over—the use of steel, for example, and the 24-foot planning grid he designed the campus on. But I wanted the building to look to the future; a building that would be cloud-like and make [nearby campus landmark building] Crown Hall look heavy by comparison.”

The first floor is programmed for IIT undergraduates, who are all required to take six credit hours in the building. The second floor houses the Institute of Design, a post-graduate-level design school started by Laszlo Maholy-Nagy.

The Bauhaus-inspired vision Maholy-Nagy had for the school, one that would unify art and industrial design, is alive and well in the building. In a real sense, the physical structure is a canvas for creating and refining ideas: Equations, sketches, and workflows are scrawled on walls serving as large-scale dry-erase boards. Mobile whiteboards also allow work and ideas to move freely. In the Janet & Craig Duchossois Idea Shop and Grainger Maker Space, students design and create models with 3D printers, CNC routers and mills, laser cutters, bandsaws, electronics workbenches, oscilloscopes, and Autodesk Revit and Inventor software.

tech incubator students collaborate dry erase wall
KI students collaborate on dry-erase walls. Image courtesy of Jeff Link.

Kaplan Institute opened in late October 2018; it remains to be seen how students will fare within the institute’s walls—and post-graduation. Tullman acknowledges that other university tech incubators, while well-intentioned, have not always lived up to their promises. “Most have not been particularly successful because there is not a lot of tension,” he says. “Professors work with a safety net, and universities are risk averse and don’t have well-developed processes for the monetization, or commercialization, of ideas,” he says.

Tullman is hopeful the Kaplan Institute will be different, just as automation will make future jobs look very different than those today. “Look, this country for twenty years has looked down on vocational skills, but the auto mechanic, who, in the future, will not have greasy fingers but be working on a computer diagnostic machine, is going to make more than the liberal arts undergraduate who will be virtually unemployable.”

Jeff Link

About Jeff Link

Jeff Link is an award-winning journalist covering design, technology and the environment. His work has appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Architect and Dwell.

Recommended for you