New OpenGrounds studio, a location for interdisciplinary collaboration, is now open for business


OpenGrounds is more than a building. The students and faculty who designed this network model hope to connect differing University departments in new ways. (UVA Center for Collaboration and Innovation)

“How can we move beyond protecting what we ‘know’ to embrace what we don’t even know we don’t know?”

Among some two dozen other inquiries scribbled on the whiteboards at the new OpenGrounds studio, this question encompasses the spirit of UVA’s new initiative, challenging the boundaries of disciplines and proposing collaboration across borders.

The space at 1400 W. Main St., originally the first University Bookstore, is now brightly lit with both north- and south-facing windows, and the locally crafted concrete and steel tables make it easy for groups large and small to gather. Whiteboard material and eco-resin panels, both of which visitors can write on while brainstorming, cover the length of the walls, with blank space above for large video projections.

John Abele, retired founding chairman of Boston Scientific Corporation, spoke at the launch event on Monday, March 19. He noted that scholars have traditionally been rewarded for individual gain, for building silos with thick walls to keep others out.

“Real innovation comes when silos collide,” Abele said. Rather than claiming ownership of knowledge and ideas, OpenGrounds encourages students, faculty, and community members to share knowledge and tackle challenging problems by merging disciplines.

Bill Sherman, associate professor of architecture and founding director of OpenGrounds, hopes that groups will use the space to tackle a myriad of “wicked problems,” including sustainability, new energy, health, and political demands.

OpenGrounds officials have invited the Center for Global Health at UVA to the studio to exhibit their Water and Health in Limpopo project in early May. Since 2008, the Center has been in partnership with the University of Venda in South Africa to develop model systems for the delivery and purification of water in small rural communities.

Dr. Rebecca Dillingham, associate director of the Center, said that the project is a collaboration of faculty members specializing in fields including medicine, nursing, engineering, architecture, anthropology and microbiology, and participating faculty from the University of Venda include mining engineers, urban and community planners, and lawyers. As an associate professor of infectious disease, Dillingham “came at this from the diarrhea perspective,” and noted the vast number of perspectives needed for the success of the project.

Dillingham said she is particularly excited about the technology the studio offers, especially its teleconferencing capabilities, which will allow her team to meet face-to-face with their colleagues in South Africa.

“It will be extremely helpful, particularly as we move into more complex design work and diversify our collaboration, to have the video conferencing opportunities,” she said.

OpenGrounds provides “neutral space” for multidisciplinary collaboration, which Dillingham said can be helpful when so many differing disciplines and opinions are involved.

“We’re excited about having that really welcoming and stimulating space to work in,” she said.

Daily “open hours” will allow groups to use the studio, and interested people can grab a sandwich across the street and participate in OpenTable lunch discussions. The studio will also host frequent exhibitions, events, and workshops, which Sherman hopes will attract new curious minds and encourage “connecting, collaborating, and creating.”

Sherman noted that the studio is open to everybody, and that community members not affiliated with UVA are encouraged to utilize the space. “If you’re here to work with, collaborate and meet new people,” he said, “you’re welcome.”

The studio is in a prime location, nestled between the University and the city, and Sherman said that when the idea of OpenGrounds was first proposed, the architecture students, naturally, wanted to construct a building.

“Physical space makes a big difference,” said Marilyn Moedinger, a Boston architect with a master’s degree from UVA, whose involvement with the innovation began in 2009.

But OpenGrounds is more than a physical space; Sherman said that the studio is the “first of many places, physical and virtual,” to bring everyone together.

Thomas Jefferson built the University with innovation and progress in mind, after all, and Moedinger noted that forward thinking is not new to UVA.

“It’s very natural for us to be thinking about this kind of thing,” she said.