Last week I attended the 2021 Class Conference in Amsterdam organised by The Class Foundation. Numerous topics were discussed around the evolution of shared living spaces, the communities that these developments create, and how they can affect young generations that approach university and their professional careers right now.
There were a few topics that caught my interest more than others, and the first one was certainly around the evolution of University Cities.
The vision for University Cities
As we discussed previously, this time too the overall accepted idea was that a joint vision for the future of university cities is necessary to direct new developments and new shared living schemes in the right direction. One that can benefit students as they enter University, throughout their study, but also after it.
So, looking for guidelines shared with all the stakeholders involved will be key. Meaning that not just private developers should be involved, but also students, both local and international, institutions, universities, and potentially even commercial exercises and other marketing organisation.
The communication between these parties should be encouraged and become almost constant in order to provide better services. Especially after the pandemic, as student and other serviced building residents were forced to spend long periods of time within their rooms, the need for a better private environment has become even more apparent.
The panel introduced an approach that differs significantly from the current practice right from the early stages of a project. While (most of the time) serviced buildings are realised starting from land on which something is subsequently built and then sold, what was proposed here was somewhat the opposite. Developers should start first by looking at the long-term effects in terms of climate and social impact and work their way back from there.
Another forward-looking point of view expressed by Urban Designer Adam Glaser is the idea that the industry as a whole is likely going to move past the more basic concept of PBSA. Several players, in fact, are already looking at a much more diversified product. Something that can suit the needs of different generations, and people in different phases of their professional careers.
Particularly interesting was to note how in this spirit of communication and sharing of know-how many different points of view came from Mr Glaser himself, bringing his experience from the US market, as opposed to other representatives from Europe where there is a model that is already established with certain ‘rules’. This was an interesting representation of how the discussion can help improve the whole sector at a global level.
Last but not least, there is the important issue of accountability. In particular, in some instances where there is a lack of residences for students or there is a problem with affordability. The right strategy, involving different stakeholders, both at a private and public level, can help determine which institutions have to ensure that every student has the right opportunities. And in turn, this cooperation can, through regulations and incentives and more, improve the condition of students from different backgrounds.
About Generation Z
This second panel revolved around the experience accumulated in the sector so far to ‘codify’ the values, preferences, expectations and values of this generation that in these years is approaching university and early career stages.
The discussion started from the misconceptions and myths about Gen Z, as a way to determine what has been lacking so far in the sector, and where are the gaps that can be closed to better cater to this audience’s needs.
So, initially was pointed out that the result of several focus groups showed how the perception of this new generation as transgressive and somewhat superficial is quite wrong. Being born with the internet and the wealth of information it provides, this generation is much more aware and conscious (probably more than any other) about social and environmental issues. At the same time, they are generally really discerning when it comes to analysing, seeing through all the noise that is on the internet, and going straight to the point.
For these reasons, a similar level of commitment and authenticity are expected by them, when it comes to sustainability and other major challenges facing humanity.
Also, and this is something that is true for any kind of project, the audience should be actively involved in the decision-making process and not just an afterthought that comes up by the end of the development. Additionally, sometimes these discussions seem to not take into account that there can still be huge variation within one generation. Modern society is changing faster than ever and what is true today might be significantly different in 5 years’ time. It is somewhat restrictive to just want to define strict rules to define this fast-changing consumer base so finding a middle-ground is extremely important.
The next two important factors discussed are naturally accessibility and privacy protection. Both are strictly correlated with digitalisation. Today, everyone expects to be more and more able to manage pretty much everything digitally through a phone. Serviced buildings have to provide this possibility while also protecting the residents’ sensible data.
Connecting to the value of authenticity mentioned initially, there is a third important factor to set a company and a brand apart from the rest. It is the commitment to specific causes, in particular when it comes to social justice. Social media can have a huge impact on a single organisation with news that can be amplified or even go viral. So, a claim should always be followed by facts.
The future of Student Experience
The third and last panel I want to discuss looked into how design, tech, and digitisation can and will shape the future of the student experience and well-being.
Starting from the approach to problem-solving and development, expert Christine Boland claims that younger generations show a tendency to see relationships as less hierarchical, and have also a more circular ecosystemic way of thinking. Differently older generations see it in a more linear way, so this mindset difference should be taken into account when defining the student experience.
The right student experience passes through constant communication with the students themselves, with student unions, or similar groups. Secondly, there is a massive use of data that can inform property managers and developers about residents’ habits and spaces use-cases.
Ultimately, it is difficult to predict how the use-case for every space and every new facility will develop as society and PBSA residents change, so once again, communication and flexibility have to be at the core of a project. This kind of approach helps also with the potential for experience’s personalisation which is an increasingly important factor in pretty much every market nowadays.
*conference photo by The Class Foundation
Talking about improving user experience, the conference by The Class Foundation itself offered lots of interesting inputs beyond the discussions. This was the first live conference after a long time, and some great tools and features I definitely did not expect were implemented.
The event was held in a space with two halls. While one was for the conference, the other was available for those who needed to work, or just wanted to eat or drink or network with other attendants. However (and here comes the best part), it was still possible to follow the conference even in the "secondary" room thanks to screens and silent-disco headphones made available for everyone who needed them. So, for a small business owner like me that has to work pretty much constantly, this was a game-changer. This is one brilliant example of how technology and creativity can be used to address the needs of different people, and I am on the constant lookout for innovative solutions that can improve the student experience in a similar way.
If you'd like to know more about the event and read another interesting point of view on the Conference make sure to check out Conscious Coliving's 5 Key takeaways from Europe's largest student housing conference