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Local tech culture inspires future changes at George Mason University

George Mason University recently announced its Institute for Digital InnovAtion and new developments for its Arlington campus.

George Mason University’s Arlington Campus (Photo by Creative Services – George Mason University)

It’s hard not to see the changes the local tech industry is making on the Northern Virginia region.

The upcoming arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 has led to the first of many “Amazon Career Days”, gathering thousands of local applicants; Virginia Tech has announced a new $1 billion “innovation” campus just two miles from Amazon’s future location; and a 2017 piece in The Washington Post made a  strong case that the Dulles tech corridor is a strong Silicon Valley alternative in coming years.

To further ride the wave of tech-inspired changes in the region, George Mason University has announced its own changes and upgrades.

The changes include a plan for an addition to the school’s Virginia Square campus in Arlington, where the university has its sights set on creating a home for the Institute of Digital InnovAtion (IDIA), an extension of Mason’s School of Computing, as well as a home for the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, a statewide program meant to promote the collaboration of Virginia’s cybersecurity researchers. It is also moving forward on offering a new cloud computing degree for future students.

Co-working spaces for small and large companies, of which George Mason is calling “corporate innovation labs,” are part of the property’s plan to mimic other innovation districts across the United States, as well as the destruction of the 66-year-old Kann’s Department Store structure that will be replaced by a 400,000-square-foot building for students and local professionals to share.

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George Mason University is the second school to receive cash from Virginia’s Tech Talent Pipeline, an earmarking sum of money meant for schools looking to educate a new generation in hopes they will be hired by tech companies after graduation, such as Amazon. The $125 million in funding George Mason is receiving from the state will be bolstered further by private funding.

In order to better understand what developments are being solidified by the university, we spoke with Deborah Crawford, vice president for Research, Innovation and Economic Impact, about what these changes mean for future university students and tech-inspired education in the region. Highlights from our conversation are below.

Can you explain what steps GMU is currently taking to develop the tech-inspired campus in Arlington?
We will add new mixed-use facilities to our Arlington campus to enhance innovation capacity on the R-B corridor. Our work is inspired by the concept of innovation districts–geographic locations that nurture and support the growth of advanced industries through the co-location of key assets such as world-class R&D portfolios, a rich mix of corporate and public sector entities, including start-ups that might become the Amazons of the future and, most importantly, world-class talent. And Mason is in the business of producing world-class talent and R&D.

We’re working now on finalizing our plans for these new facilities to begin construction in the next few years. We’re engaged in this planning with not only our own academic stakeholders, but also some of our partners in the region because innovation place-making is a team sport. We want our corporate and public sector partners to co-locate with us, allowing innovators and creatives in those organizations to interact on a daily basis with our faculty and students.

With the development of the Institute of Digital InnovAtion as an extension of Mason’s School of computing, is the goal to have all of the tech and computer-focused students only on the Arlington campus?
No. The development of digital competencies and know-how essential to success in our increasingly digital world is a commitment we make to all of our students. And they wouldn’t all fit on our Arlington campus! In fact, the majority of our undergraduate students will remain on our Fairfax and SciTech campuses, including students majoring in tech fields like computer science, computer game design, cloud computing and so on.

Our Arlington campus innovation initiative will largely house graduate programs—M.S. and Ph.D. programs, including our tech programs, but also complementary programs already housed there such as our law, public policy, M.F.A. and M.B.A. programs.

Co-working spaces and mixed-use spaces have been mentioned for the campus’ improvements. Can you explain specifically what types of spaces you’re looking to develop in Arlington?
We know that innovation place-making requires the creation of lively pedestrian and streetscapes; we know that convening and collaboration spaces and programs are essential to bring people and organizations together to create new innovation opportunities; we know that the spaces we create should support the residents in our local communities. So maker-spaces and a variety of co-working spaces are important. Incubator and accelerator programs for small high-growth businesses are also key.

What other ideas are you taking from innovation districts across the country in order to set this campus apart?
We are thinking about the differentiated strengths we bring to the table, and how they align with those of our partners. This is a digital economy initiative, and so we know that the facilities we create will need to provide our stakeholders with access to state-of-the-art digital infrastructure, like advanced networks, shared digital test beds and direct access to both R&D and talent.

Can you talk a bit about the cloud computing degree and how the development is coming along on that?
We have been working with regional employers, including Amazon Web Services, to define our cloud computing degree requirements just as we did for our cybersecurity degree program. Both of these programs are ADVANCE pathways. They are designed specifically to articulate with programs at NOVA and other community colleges so that students interested in tech careers who begin their higher education journey in community college can complete their four-year degrees at Mason.

Why is this tech-inspired development necessary for Northern Virginia? And why is George Mason University the school that needs to be a fellow driving force?
We need to both grow and diversify our digital economy, building on a very strong base of excellence in tech already developed to support a largely federal market.  Our Arlington initiative is designed to do just that.

And at George Mason University, we are Northern Virginia’s research university, and we’ve grown up with the region’s tech industry. We’re excellent, we’re innovative, we’re committed partners and we’re here to stay. What more can I say?

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