Chimay Anumba first visited the University of Florida in the fall of 2006 to undertake a nine-month sabbatical with the M.E. Rinker, Sr. School of Construction Management. Ten years later, the internationally recognized scholar is back at UF, this time to serve as dean of the College of Design, Construction and Planning. Having served for over eight years as professor and head of the department of architectural engineering at Penn State, he joined UF in August to assume his new role.
UF Provost Joe Glover has lauded Anumba for having an “international reputation combined with [a] highly regarded leadership ability,” along with expertise “in areas that involve some of the most pressing issues in both developed and developing nations today.” Indeed his collaborative approach to design and construction management for the built environment seems to inform his commitment to a style of leadership that possesses a broad, encompassing vision.
We sat down with Anumba as he was just settling back into UF during his first month as dean to learn more about his journey and his vision for the College of Design, Construction and Planning.
Can you tell us a little more about your scholarly background and expertise?
Most of my research has to do with the use of information and communication technologies in design and construction. I started research in what you would call computer-aided design and then moved on to include aspects of what you would typically find in an information systems or computer science department. I have done research on things like wireless communications, artificial intelligence and related fields and how they can be used to improve collaborative design and also improve the construction process.
How does something like artificial intelligence intersect with the design process?
Basically it’s encoding some of the design intelligence within the computer so you can automate certain design processes. So, for example, a major project we had was a collaborative design project where we used a ‘multi-agent system’ to capture the collaborative design process, with each ‘agent’ fulfilling the function of a human designer. The agents collaborated within the computer to design an industrial building and mimicked the human designers in arriving at a compromise.
What drew you to utilizing computers for design?
When I wanted to do my Ph.D. in the UK [at the University of Leeds], I knew that computers were the future. So I definitely wanted to do something in computer-aided design and I found a willing adviser who took me. At this point, I didn’t have any experience with computers, so it was quite a steep learning curve, but it was something I enjoyed. I enjoy programming and wrote over 200 pages of code as part of my Ph.D.
I did an undergraduate degree in what was called “Building” [at the University of Jos in Nigeria], which had a common first year with architecture, so I did a fair bit of design as part of that. Then, for my Ph.D., I wanted to do something that allowed me to get into the use of computers for design. So I liked design, but I also saw computers as something of the future [at that time] and I wanted to get into that space. Now computers are pretty much pervasive in all walks of life.
What prompted you to move from the U.K., where you were a highly successful research director at Loughborough University, to the United States?
Penn State had a position as the head of the architectural engineering department, and I saw within that a multidisciplinary unit, which was kind of reflective of the research I was doing in terms of collaborative design — and which I also saw as the future for the industry — of people working together. Within this department, they had the critical disciplines required to put a building together.
The students all had a good base of architectural design and they would then specialize in construction engineering and management, structural design, mechanical systems, and lighting and electrical systems design. So that was a really good fit because I could work with pretty much everybody in that unit. It was also a highly reputable program — widely acknowledged as one of the best in the world.
But even prior to that, you had visited Gainesville on a sabbatical. What ultimately attracted you back to UF?
We enjoyed our time here, and I think some people must have remembered me from that time, because I was nominated for the position. I thought, well, this looks like a great fit. DCP is also a comprehensive college in terms of having all the disciplines that are needed to impact the built environment. For me, there seemed a natural progression from looking at multi-disciplinary integration at the building scale to multi-disciplinary collaboration at a broader urban/built environment scale.
I think we are at a critical point where the importance of the built environment is becoming more widely recognized, because the built environment has the capacity to make a major impact on both sustainability and the quality of life. So there’s a great opportunity for the college to play a greater role in that. That’s something I’m here to try to grow.
I would say there are pockets of excellence within the college, but what I’m looking to do is to promote the college as a whole, to be recognized as a preeminent college. There are very few similar institutions in terms of having all of the disciplines together. We have urban and regional planning, landscape architecture, interior design, architecture, construction management, and college-wide programs in sustainability, and historic preservation. That presents a tremendous opportunity for ‘creative collisions,’ growth and major impact.
And I think there are a number of other elements — including being situated in a comprehensive research-intensive university like UF — that provide the opportunity to collaborate with other disciplines. This is part of how I would like to see the college moving forward — having a strong collaboration with other colleges, notably engineering, arts, IFAS, Business, CLAS and the healthcare disciplines. Increasingly, for example, we have our interior designers collaborating with the College of Medicine, looking at the impact of the interior design in healthcare facilities on patient recovery and well-being.
Are there any collaborative opportunities that have surprised you?
One that is interesting is an ongoing collaboration with the University Libraries, which is not one that I would thought of naturally. But we do have a historic preservation program and they are working with the University Libraries on digital archiving of some of the historic areas. I think that’s really neat. I wouldn’t have naturally made that connection with the libraries.
You’ve been complimented for your leadership, which seems to be informed by the same collaborative spirit that informs your research. How would you describe your leadership style?
I think that leadership is very important in academic units. Part of it is really being able to inspire people, to get them to understand the big picture rather than be focused on their little silos, and then working hard to generate the resources that then help people to do what they do best.
I’d like to create a greater sense of community within the College of Design, Construction and Planning. And that also will relate to how we interact with our alumni. Alumni engagement for me will be very strong, and I will set up a number of structures to improve the college’s interaction with our alumni, which I think will be highly beneficial for securing internships and job opportunities for our students And as we move into the new fundraising campaign, I think that it will be critical for meeting our goals.
The other thing I am very keen to push is research because if we’re going to be a preeminent college, we need to reflect the research intensity of UF as a preeminent university. I’ve already said to the faculty. I do want to reach out to other units, and have already started doing so. I’d also like to see the college play a much stronger role in the university’s future development. You can’t be a College of Design, Construction and Planning and not have a role in the university’s strategic development plan. We are beginning to have those conversations now, and I’d like to see our role grow.