Look inside the University of Edinburgh’s new innovation hub and home of Edinburgh International Book Festival

The grand old Royal Infirmary building in Edinburgh has been under wraps – and scaffolding – for the best part of a decade, but now its new reincarnation is set to be revealed

The grand ‘new’ Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh opened in the capital city’s Lauriston Place in 1879, with funders including reigning monarch Queen Victoria.

The imposing building – a six-wing Nightingale-style hospital, designed to separate wards in order to minimise the risk of spreading infections – was described as “the best-planned hospital” in Britain at the time and one of the largest charitable institutions of its kind across the empire.

People from Edinburgh and beyond were treated there for the next 124 years, until the current modern complex opened at Little France in 2003.

Since then the old site has been divided up and redeveloped for a variety of uses, including housing and retail units.

But the main building has spent most of the intervening time as a construction site.

Now, after a multi-million-pound refurbishment project which has taken nine years to complete, the structure has been transformed into a state-of-the-art new addition to the University of Edinburgh campus – Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI).

And it is hoped the building in its current reincarnation will continue to hold a position of cultural and historical importance to the city of Edinburgh and its people.

The vision behind EFI is to be a place where the “big” challenges facing the world going forward can be tackled, whether that’s climate change, food, health problems or how artificial intelligence can be harnessed for the benefit of humanity.

The hub will bring together researchers, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, businesses and members of the wider public in a space where collaboration and engagement across multiple disciplines is encouraged.

It will also host a varied programme of events, including becoming the permanent home of Edinburgh International Book Festival each August.

Doors will officially open on Monday, when people will be able to take tours of the new facility, although the building and its cafe will be accessible this weekend during the annual Meadows Fair.

The EFI team is keen to stress that the historical motto engraved in stone above the doorway of the old hospital – patet omnibus, Latin for ‘open to all’ – still holds true today.

Professor Kev Dhaliwal, interim director for EFI, is excited about the hub, which he describes as a place where “data meets society” and where the top talent can help solve societal problems.

“I like to think of it as Innovation Alley,” he said, “a place where we can help heal the world through education, teaching and research.

“Just as the old infirmary did for healthcare, we want to bring together wards of expertise to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the future.”

The refurbishment could also be described as the ultimate recycling project, bringing a Victorian building into the 21st century to be eco-friendly, energy-efficient and practical – and beautiful.

But it wasn’t easy. The building was largely derelict when the university took it over, requiring to be stripped back to basics before the new additions were constructed.

The architects, Bennetts Associates, are pleased with what has been achieved.

Associate Iain Tinsdale says its environmental credentials compare well against modern new-builds – in fact it’s greener than most.

He said: “With six separate wings, designed to keep disease from spreading, the old hospital was all about isolation.

“Our mission has been to flip that, bringing people together to collaborate and foster connections.”

Patricia Erskine, EFI director for culture and community, is enthusiastic about the centre’s place in the hearts as well as the minds of people in Edinburgh and its multi-disciplinary crossover – encompassing everything from science to technology, medicine and the arts.

“EFI will bring together students, researchers and innovators to tackle the big challenges,” she said.

“But it’s also for the people of Edinburgh, Scotland and the world.

“The public have a place here.

“Patet omnibus, open to all, is the motto and EFI is committed to that.”

EFI sits within the University of Edinburgh’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and is one of six innovation hubs supported by the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal’s Data-Driven Innovation programme.

The project received £56 million in capital funding from the UK government and more than £2 million from the Scottish Government through the scheme.

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