• Transforming Higher Ed

Transforming Higher Ed

By Dan Amsden, MIG Principal and Northern California Director of Planning and Design Services

Today’s economy, technology and industries are constantly evolving. It’s clear that traditional academic and career pathways simply don’t yield the same results now that they did even a generation ago; there’s often a disconnect between education and the marketplace. The World Economic Forum has estimated that 65% of children currently enrolled in primary school will ultimately hold jobs that do not even exist today. Yet the competitiveness for industries to be innovative and attract talented people now, has never been higher. 

Mold-breaking campus planning can eliminate traditional silos by combining community colleges, state colleges, universities, and even high schools, all on one campus, along with independent private research and manufacturing. Basically, layer an innovation district on top of a campus, allowing students to study towards real-world skills training rather than just degrees. 

The wide range of educational opportunities help students more clearly see a path forward in a chosen field, the type of classes they need and how those classes fit into the real world. It helps researchers know what manufacturers need, manufacturers understand how to apply research, and educational institutions better design course work. Plus the campuses can strategically support regional economies through public/private partnerships and innovative technologies that create jobs at all levels, from welders and mechanics to PhD scientists. 

Let’s take a closer look at two campuses in the making: “The Hub: Sacramento State Research Park” and the “Concord Campus District,” both in Northern California. 

California has world-class academic institutions, headlined by 10 University of California campuses, 23 California State Universities, and 115 community colleges. It’s an education and cutting-edge research and technology hotspot. But, California will have a deficit of one million college-educated workers by 2025—which means that its higher education system is not keeping pace with the changing needs and priorities of its economy. Yet, the cost of getting a degree has never been higher. These two campuses are trying to change that equation.

The Hub: Sacramento State Research Park

The Hub is the first public-private partnership to create an off-campus innovation district on land owned by California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State). The world-class research, technology, forensic science and academic facility is incubating new forms of mobility, promoting scientific discoveries, spurring economic growth and new jobs, and anchoring a larger Innovation District in the City of Sacramento.

The 25-acre site is just south of Sacramento State, in the heart (dark purple) of the Sacramento Center for Innovation neighborhood. The surrounding area is transitioning to a walkable neighborhood focused on innovative industries.


The Hub includes three core uses:

  • California Mobility Center. The CMC provide future mobility innovators and industry incumbents with access to programs and resources that will accelerate the pace of future mobility commercialization in California (which has banned sales of new gas-fueled cars by 2035) and worldwide. Students from Sacramento State, Los Rios Community College District, the University of California, Davis, and local high schools can work directly on designing, prototyping and testing innovative mobility technology. Students in the College of Engineering and Computer Science will link university research with private enterprise. The CMC works in partnership with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, Toyota Research Institute, General Motors, Microsoft, EnerTech Capital, PEM Motion and others. The facility includes a test track for everything from electric heavy-duty utility trucks to transit vehicles to electric tractors—and rooftop track viewing for the community. 
  • California Department of Justice. The state-of-the-art facility includes a statewide DNA Laboratory, the Sacramento Regional Crime Laboratory, the California Criminalistics Institute and the Bureau of Forensic Science’s headquarters. The College of Criminal Justice offers a minor in forensics, and the partnership will increase academic and research synergies, while the University gains modern instructional space and research labs. 
  • Mixed-Use Development. Two additional buildings include a blend of office, research and development, academic and retail, left flexible for future uses.  

The HUB includes green space and flexible future use space. 


All kinds of futuristic vehicles will run around the track, such as (left) an autonomous semi-tractor and (right) autonomous transit vehicle.


The Hub is creating a future model for an integrated, sustainable, inclusive and equitable research facility focused on innovation and technology.

Concord Campus District

The City of Concord is transforming the former Concord Naval Weapons Station (a World War II ammunition port) into a new, dynamic mixed-use neighborhood supported by a full complement of essential services and public open spaces. 

And right next to it, is a 120-acre higher education campus, designed to be a world-class, inclusive hybrid Campus District with a diverse range of academic programs, degrees and training opportunities for students of all ages. It is envisioned to include a "hybrid" campus with space for Contra Costa Community College, California State University, University of California, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in one location. Plus, private industry partnerships are helping to bolster unique research and employment opportunities that support Concord and the Northern California Megaregion.

To frame a vision for the campus, Concord formed a Blue Ribbon Committee (BRC) of education leaders, business and industry representatives, community representatives and regional stakeholders. Their process even included input from local high school students. The BRC developed a shared vision and set of guiding principles for the new campus that supports existing and emerging industry sectors in the region:

  • Agriscience and food
  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Banking and finance
  • Construction and building materials
  • Healthcare and biotech
  • Transportation technology

The result is a campus innovation district, where academic and leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. It’s physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired—and offers near-by mixed-use housing, office and retail. And the focus is on hiring workers, students, apprentices, and residents from the Concord region in all aspects of the campus.

Innovation Everywhere

Of course, this type of campus planning is not only happening in California. For example:

  • Clemson University includes the International Center for Automotive Research, an applied automotive research campus and innovation hub. 
  • The Spokane University District is a multi-institutional academic and applied research campus specializing in health science innovations. 
  • Colorado’s Auraria Campus includes all levels of public higher education, with shared-use facilities. 
  • CSU San Marcos/University District is a creative public-private partnership campus closely aligned with the development of a new downtown neighborhood.
  • STAR Campus at the University of Delaware is a hybrid innovation district with a creative public-private partnership approach that allows the University to retain ownership of land while industry partners develop highly customized buildings that serve their specific needs.
  • Illinois’ University Center of Lake County is an integrated campus that includes high school, community college, and four-year education on a campus with nearly two dozen academic partners.

Regions that are embracing this new way of campus planning, learning and innovating are reaping benefits for both their economy and their communities.

Dan went off to college with an unusual idea: help organize the built world. Which led him to study a mix of geography, city and regional planning, and planning law. Dan (AICP) is passionate about developing strategies and designs that foster positive change and respond to each community’s unique vision and needs. He’s an award-winning planner, urban designer and community engagement specialist with over 20 years of experience leading inclusive, community-based planning projects throughout the United States. He is a board member of the Sacramento Valley Section of the American Planning Association and active in the Urban Land Institute and the Society for College and University Planning. Contact Dan anytime for a short—or long—chat.