HKS’ Upali Nanda Charts a Collective Course for Research and Innovation

Upali Nanda had an important realization when she was a first-year student at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. She was confident she had found the proper course of study — she felt architecture was the perfect blend of art and science — but something was amiss.  

The floor plans and renderings Nanda completed didn’t do enough to convey what it would be like for a person to exist in the spaces she conceived. She preferred drawing sections to illustrate the human scale of her projects, and she often presented her designs with physical materials to communicate how they would appeal to the senses. 

It was then Nanda discovered that, for her, architecture was about much more than visual representation and individual buildings. It was about human experiences. 

Recently named Global Director of HKS’ Innovation Sector — a unique collection of practice areas spanning research, consulting, urban planning and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs — Nanda believes in teams that innovate within, through and beyond the built environment. 

Nanda, who serves on HKS’ Board of Directors, is a globally recognized thought leader and undoubtedly an accomplished polymath. Her practice-based research career has given her a unique ability to contribute to an evolving industry. But her capacity to affect change doesn’t come from her professional experience alone.  

Throughout her life, Nanda has been shaped by many intersecting identities and roles as a daughter, artist, dancer, student, researcher, teacher, immigrant, wife and mother of two. She has traveled the world and lived in India, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States. Her family, her colleagues — and the twists and turns of her life— have helped her become a highly curious, adaptive and empathetic person capable of tackling big challenges. 

Nanda said that through it all, her guiding star is still the same as it was during her days in architecture school. 

“The root of almost everything I’ve done has been the art and science of the human experience and linking design to outcomes,” she said.  

Nanda grew up studying classical Indian dance. She learned to value experiences and their temporal nature performing on stages across Delhi. 

Rooted in Experience

As a child, Nanda studied and performed classical Indian dance. Though she didn’t realize it then, she learned to value experiences during those years dancing on stages across Delhi. 

“As a performer, you create an experience and then you see the experience go away. You see places transforming and then becoming ordinary again,” Nanda said. “You see that the transformation was a part of what you created, and that transformation can be transient.” 

When choosing what to study in college, Nanda looked to her parents. Her father was an “absent-minded but brilliant” engineering professor and her mother, an artist and homemaker Nanda affectionately refers to as the “home CEO.” Architecture appealed to the scientific and creative sensibilities she acquired from each of them. She decided to take the entrance exam because she was excited by its diverse components including sketching, creative writing, and math and science questions. 

Nanda qualified for the program at the School of Planning and Architecture and immediately knew it was a good fit. 

“It was the most beautiful discovery,” she said. “It was a discovery not just of the profession, but also of the kind of people I collided with. Everybody had such a strange medley of talents. I had found my people.” 

After graduating in 1999, she followed research and scholarship opportunities and earned two advanced degrees in architecture. She completed a Master of Arts at the National University of Singapore and then moved to the United States where she met her husband, Veerabhadran Baladandayuthapani while pursuing her PhD. Her doctoral research was on “sensthetics” — working at the intersection of neuroscience and architecture to go beyond the aesthetics of appearance. 

Throughout her studies, Nanda assumed she would follow in her father’s footsteps to a career as an academic. But unique prospects kept coming her way and opening new doors. 

While she was living in Houston, American Art Resources hired Nanda to develop a research program focused on art and healing in health care environments. She published in medical journals about outcomes including reduced medication needs for psychiatric patients who viewed biophilic art. She then started her own consultancy and worked with the non-profit Center for Health Design, collaborating with employees and volunteers on a portfolio of published research. She said these experiences led her to understand the “power of partnerships” between non-profits, businesses and academia. 

Nanda has three degrees in architecture, a field she said appeals to the creative and scientific sensibilities she acquired from her mother Alka and her late father Jarnathan. 

An Unexpected Path

Nanda’s expertise led to an unexpected offer in 2013 to join HKS as Director of Research after architect and retired Principal Tom Harvey saw her give a talk. She was drawn to become a researcher in architectural practice, fascinated with the ways that “knowledge can unlock new ways of thinking” in the industry. 

“When I started, I think there were three positions across the country that were research-based practitioners,” said Nanda. “I was constantly getting surprised with what I was finding, and I was surprising people (and myself) in very interesting ways.” 

In 2018 Nanda, Baladandayuthapani and their young sons, Aarith and Aayush, moved from Houston to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Both parents began positions at the University of Michigan (UM) — Baladandayuthapani as a Professor and Associate Director of the Center for Cancer Biostatistics and Nanda as a part-time Associate Professor of Practice at Taubman College of Architecture and Planning. Nanda’s desire to teach in a university setting had stuck with her over the years. 

Working full time at HKS and teaching a health design seminar at UM, Nanda calls herself a “pracademic” — one who straddles the two worlds of practice and academia. She said keeping a foot in both realms reflects her devotion to linking research and design and a duality that has always been a part of her. 

“We can neither assume to know too much, nor afford to share too little, in a time when the world is moving so quickly,” said Nanda, noting that translating, applying, and sharing research and ideas is necessary to make progress in design fields. “Our times demand both intellectual humility and intellectual sustainability.” 

Nanda has taken her translational mindset to serve leadership roles with several organizations that connect research and practice including the Center for Health Design, the Environmental Design Research Association, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, and the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation, where she served as Executive Director for 10 years. 

She is also a frequent public speaker and has earned research awards and professional honors including a place on Healthcare Design Magazine’s 2015 list of Top 10 Most Influential People in Healthcare Design, an Architectural Record 2018 Women in Architecture Innovator Award, and a featured profile in the 2022 book The Women Who Changed Architecture

Nanda frequently leads symposia and workshops to facilitate connections between research and design practice.  

Elevating Research in Practice

Despite these broad platforms and accolades, Nanda is perhaps best known at HKS for being a positive, insightful collaborator. 

“Every time you get the opportunity to sit down and talk with Upali or to work through a problem with her, she provides a new way of thinking,” said HKS Principal and Health Studio Practice Leader Kate Renner. “She takes some of the most difficult challenges and provides a framework to solve them.” 

Renner and Nanda first worked together nearly a decade ago when Renner was creating guidelines for HKS’ Functional Performance Evaluations in clinical environments. Renner sought guidance from Nanda, who “transformed” Renner’s approach and helped set the firm’s health practice on a trajectory to develop new industry-leading research methods. 

Renner said that Nanda holds a belief that every designer can incorporate thoughtful, rigorous research into their work. 

“Upali is very good at both inspiring and providing a judgement free basis for us to start doing research,” Renner said. “She makes research approachable and achievable for everyone.” 

“She makes research approachable and achievable for everyone.”

Nanda went on to advise Renner and others as they launched the HKS Ideas Fellowship, a program intended to give staff, especially younger designers, opportunities to learn about the research process and develop original projects. 

Eventually, the Ideas Fellowship became the firm’s Research Incubator/Accelerator program under Nanda’s leadership and has funded more than two dozen grants within the firm. In 2022, the program was cited as a primary reason HKS was named to Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list

During her tenure as Global Practice Director of Research, Nanda led the expansion of HKS’ research enterprise — growing the firm’s capabilities and talent pool, starting the HKS Lab and Living Lab programs, and embedding research into design practices other than health including, education, commercial office and senior living, among others. 

“The way we have been able to leverage research, take it beyond the health practice, and move it into many sectors has been remarkable,” Renner said. “Upali has used the research platform to help us build our mission at HKS, which is to be limitless thinkers.” 

Nanda spearheaded HKS’ industry-leading Brain Health research program in partnership with the HKS research team and the Center for BrainHealth® at the University of Texas at Dallas. 

Many Ways to Make Impact

When offered the role of Global Sector Director of Innovation last year, Nanda admits she faced a difficult choice between maintaining the position she loved with the HKS research team or entering new territory to work with the entire Innovation Sector. She sought counsel from friends, colleagues and family members. 

The best advice came from her teenage son Aarith, who said to her, “Mama, the decision you have to make is whether you want to make a smaller direct impact or a larger indirect impact in the next five years.” 

Nanda contemplated her son’s words and encouraging ones from her teammates, and pursued the path she felt would lead to larger impact. And impact, as it turns out, is a key ingredient in her definition of innovation, the title of the sector she now leads. 

“My personal definition of innovation is simple. It is ‘the shortest — and most beautiful — distance to impact,’” she said. “You want to make a difference, you want to make it while it counts, and you want to do it in the best and most beautiful way.” 

“My personal definition of innovation is simple. It is ‘the shortest — and most beautiful — distance to impact.'”

Nanda is actively channeling personal experiences to make a difference in her new role. As an Indian woman and immigrant serving in an executive leadership position, she brings a unique perspective and ability to support Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) initiatives within Innovation Sector and across the design industry.  

A member of a large, intergenerational and multi-continental family, Nanda manages cultural and professional expectations daily and is open about the challenges she faces navigating her personal and professional roles. She said she finds that the burden of care is often not equal for women and men, and that there are many responsibilities people with diverse cultural backgrounds must balance.  

“We need to find balance through the uniqueness of who we are,” she said. “And perhaps our lives are actually less of a balance and more of a fascinating dance, hopefully with the right dance partners.” 

Nanda said she feels lucky to have a supportive husband and empathetic colleagues. She believes people are the “true instruments of change” and that pathways to equity in the workplace must include increased advocacy for modifying social contracts. She said she is grateful to work with team members who look out for one another, especially when personal challenges arise. 

“In the hectic life we lead today, the most beautiful three words are “we got you,’” she said. She added that she feels especially thankful for the talented and diverse women leaders who have supported her throughout her time at HKS. 

“I get to work with some incredibly funny, smart, strong and vulnerable women at HKS that make me feel a bone-deep strength and sense of community,” she said.  

It is the passion she has for HKS’ global community that makes Nanda a role model and champion among her colleagues. 

“Upali is many things, but most importantly, she is conscious of our people,” said HKS President & CFO, Sam Mudro

Mudro highlighted HKS’ pioneering brain health research as an example of how Nanda’s contributions have benefitted the firm’s staff directly. When she spearheaded HKS’ partnership with the Center for BrainHealth® at the University of Texas at Dallas, she did so with a vision to improve employee experience and expand the firm’s scholarship about well-being and design. HKS published findings from employee and workplace studies and is using them to enhance policies and design projects. 

Mudro said that Nanda’s brain health research efforts, including her involvement in United Nations Science Summit on Brain Capital last fall, are among the ways HKS is shaping design innovation. 

“We are on a global stage, helping define what brain health means to the world, and that wouldn’t be possible without Upali,” Mudro said. “The impact and influence that she has created for us through her voice and the work that her and her team have done is immeasurable.” 

Collective Transformation 

Looking back on her early days at HKS, Nanda fondly remembers being inspired by Chairman & CEO Dan Noble who told her that “research is the lifeblood of innovation.” She said she has carried that mindset into her work ever since and now takes it with her into the role of Global Sector Director of Innovation. As she embarks upon this new journey, she is similarly galvanized by the people around her. 

“I am humbled by the level of support I have received to be able to hold this position today,” Nanda said. “It is not something I take lightly, especially in a firm of brilliant and accomplished minds.” 

With its diverse professionals including designers, researchers, scientists, strategists, economists, engineers, and technologists — the Innovation Sector is infusing HKS with agency to make a bigger amount of difference in a society facing climate change, social and environmental injustices, and rapid changes in technology. 

“Innovation is not the mandate of any one entity but rather the ability to leverage diverse perspectives to solve wicked problems together,” Nanda said. “The power is in the collective.” 

Noble said the Innovation Sector, and Nanda, are contributing to a brighter future for design.  

“As the design industries face rapid changes, HKS is transforming our industry and the way we work to better serve our clients and communities. The Innovation Sector is a vital part of that transformation, Noble said. “Upali is an inspirational leader who will help us take on the challenges of today and tomorrow.” 

As the firm looks toward a future with her at the helm of the sector, Noble and Mudro are confident Nanda is the right person for the job. 

“The Innovation Sector is a collective group of thought leaders about what’s going to happen, the predictors,” Mudro said. “With Upali’s background in research, she has the foundation to help us be informed on where the puck’s going to go. If we lean into those insights, we can transform the way we work.” 

Transformation is exactly what Nanda wants to inspire — at HKS, in the industry, and in communities around the world. To do so, she encourages others to see design and buildings as part of a system of change, as opposed to outcomes unto themselves. 

“Design matters and what we design may be anchored in the built environment but is by no means limited to it,” she said. “Our environments make meaningful impact on our lives and on our fiscal, planetary, and human future. It is only by committing to designing a better future that we get to the future of design.” 

Nanda, her husband Veera, and their teenage sons Aayush and Aarith live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They enjoy traveling as a family when they’re not juggling work, school and many high school activities.