The Future Science Workplace Is Here Today (Part 2)

A Conversation with Professor Philip Withers, Chief Scientist of the Henry Royce Institute

December 9, 2020

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ

Editor’s note: From research to discovery, science buildings can be designed to encourage talent attraction, community and future flexibility. In the second of a three-part series, we speak to Professor Philip Withers, Chief Scientist of the Henry Royce Institute to gather insights about what it means for the future science workplace.


NBBJ: What do you consider to be emerging best practices in designing new workplace research facilities of the future?

Philip Withers: Science workplaces need on one hand to bring people together to share ideas and spark new ones, but on the other provide contemplative spaces to enable these ideas to be worked through in detail. They should reflect the aspirations of the company and provide a convergence point bringing together people from industry and academia and to enable serendipitous encounters between those visiting for meetings and those who are permanently resident.

The new science workplace must support the four key activities taking place within:

  • Engage: To draw in visitors and inform them about the science and to provide an informal meeting space/display area.
  • Collaborate: Where people can converge to discuss ideas formally in meeting rooms or in small groups, or perch for a short period to send emails etc., between meetings in the building.
  • Concentrate: To think, concentrate and contemplate – an aspect often overlooked in modern workplace design and critical to scientific discovery and learning.
  • Experiment: Fully serviced with state of the art facilities for cutting edge research with access electronically enabled.

Key to all of these areas is flexibility to adapt to the constantly evolving needs and opportunities for science and research.

NBBJ: Many research facilities are built with flexibility in mind, but how flexible have they proved to be in practice? What flexibility and longer term adaptability strategies need to be rethought, and how do they need to change?

Philip Withers: Scientific challenges of research institutes evolve quickly; indeed the challenges of Covid-19 and the subsequent recovery of our economic base are reminders of the pace at which the UK’s science and engineering challenges can change. Equally, there will be no such thing as a standard day in the life of a research building, with different types of activities, meetings and events taking place simultaneously.

Flexibility, agility and configurability are therefore key to long term strategies and may include placing meeting and engagement spaces at the front of the building to encourage and enable engagement; large windows into laboratory spaces to demonstrate ‘science on show,’ and creating visual connections between research groups to encourage collaboration.

New state of the art equipment will be acquired, groups will grow and move, and exciting, novel activities and interdisciplinary links will be forged. The ‘engine room’ spaces in a research building should be zoned according to different activities (bio, chemical, engineering, etc.) with the appropriate services/environments to accommodate and run different types of complex equipment supplied from the ceiling so they can be reconfigured to meet future needs.

NBBJ: Were there any other sectors — corporate workplaces, commercial development, healthcare, retail, process engineering/production – you looked to for inspiration when briefing a new space?

Philip Withers: Research spaces are often multidisciplinary, so ideas from diverse sectors can be helpful for developing the design brief. For example, large commercial developments may influence the way we incorporate open spaces, such as mezzanine levels with ‘mini atria’ interlinked by open staircases, to facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration between inhabitants on different floors.

At the opposite end of the scale, the way small companies use multipurpose reception spaces inspires ground floor presentation/immersion spaces. Small companies don’t have space for a dedicated large lecture hall to promote their company but we were inspired by a company in Delft which set up an immersive area for presentations and introductions. This is a fantastic way of enabling interactions between the scientists that work in the building and members of the public who are interested in what we do, as well as providing a great space for ‘Café Scientifique’ style meetings.

When designing the laboratory areas of a building, we look to hospitals for the most effective way of segmenting research space according to biological complexity to allow for different levels of work to be done in different areas. Similarly, we learn from process engineering labs that micro-scaling facilities would allow access to have a wider range of processes and more flexibility in the additive manufacturing and 3D printing spaces.

NBBJ: How do you see the development of technology and automation impacting facilities, workplace and general operations? As we move into the era of robotics, how will this define the new workplace and how do we safeguard a human-centric approach?

Philip Withers: In materials science, our field of expertise, there has been a move towards additive manufacturing, reconfigurable manufacturing and Industry 4.0. This looks at how we can use large numbers of sensors and information to increase the efficiency of industrial processes. Merging sensors and digital precision with computation and machine learning will accelerate the development of new materials.

In effect we have tried to build on the concept of the ’96 well plate’ used for high throughput screening to create prototype manufacturing systems which allow us to systematically make, test and characterise large permutations of advanced materials on a small scale.

Quickly iterating materials design through a combination of modelling, experimentation and machine learning will vastly accelerate the development of new materials systems. Further, we’ve been learning from our partners at Liverpool Materials Innovation Factory and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy how robotics can rapidly generate reliable and repeatable research data and handle hazardous materials, enabling scientists to efficiently and safely tackle the complex problems that challenge our society.

NBBJ: How do you see the Covid-19 pandemic affecting your working practices? How do you think the Institute will need to change in the future to support these changes?

Philip Withers: Covid- 19 reminds us how quickly priorities and working practices can change and the importance of the design of research spaces to keep up. Flexible design means we have the option to reconfigure laboratory space to ensure people can work together safely as required.

Here at the Henry Royce Institute, we have core capabilities at partner spokes across the UK and are open to all UK academics and industry. In fact, bringing together separate groups to collaborate is at the heart of what we do. Consequently, we were already practised at connecting numerous people at disparate locations using online meetings and providing remote access to equipment, but certainly the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this process.

The response to Covid-19 also raises expectations about the degree to which working together in science and engineering can bring about rapid change and accelerate the rate of discovery. This must not be forgotten once the initial concern over infection has eased; rebuilding our economy will need the same adventurous and collaborative spirit.

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